Prof. Ayodeji Olukoju, the Vice Chancellor of Caleb University, Imota, Lagos State, in this interview with ADEOLA BALOGUN, shares his experiences
Why did a young man choose to study History when everyone would like to study Medicine, Law and Engineering?
When I was a young man, my parents thought I was going to be an engineer because I tried to experiment with the expensive bicycle they bought for me and the thing got spoilt. My father said they should leave me alone; maybe I would grow up to be an engineer. But when I was growing up, I thought I was going to be a medical doctor. In fact, up to school certificate level, I studied physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics but unfortunately, my mathematics was always the problem because I never had a graduate teacher all through secondary school. At some point, we had a part time teacher at Form Four and therefore, my maths was poor. But what was most shocking even to my biology teacher was that I didn’t make credit pass in biology. He was confident that I was going to make A1 but I ended up with a P7. So, those circumstances conspired against me and therefore, I opted for my first love which is history.
I had always had a passion for history and the decision to go for history beyond Form Three was made by the man that taught me history in Form Three. He was by name Mr. Michael Ojo Fajugbagbe; I keep on mentioning his name because he really changed my life. He taught me literature as well and the way he taught history, he made it real; he made it life and lively. He didn’t dictate note; he would just walk into the class and talk and at the end, we would develop our notes, right from Form Three. Of course, the other thing was that I grew up with my grandparents who were wonderful story tellers. I was born and brought up in history and I also lived in a family where from Primary Four, I could read newspapers on my own. With my father’s deep involvement in politics, most people in my family were supposed to be sound in literature and English almost automatically because my father was an outstanding student of English at the St. Johns College, Owo. He was always correcting the spoken English of people during debating sessions. I always stole into my father’s study to read. I also grew up in an age where secondary school libraries were very well stocked and books were cheap. My past shaped me and took me away from science and from medicine which I desired into history where I had a natural sphere. I am glad that I made a mark as a historian even though I would have wanted to become a medical doctor somewhere.
Even as broad as history is, you still made a first class; was it that for you in school, it was books books and books?
I attended University of Nigeria and by the time I got there, I met one of my seniors, Mr. Clement Ilebani. This man told me that if I worked hard, I could make a first class but if I liked, I could make a third class. I took that to heart. I got to the department and lectures started immediately and within a month, we had been given seminar topics. And I stood in front of the class to defend my paper. So, from day one, we had access to the library and the library was well stocked. I think I had a lot of focus at the time and excellent teachers. And given the American background of the UNN, first class was not off limit. My department already had the tradition of awarding first class to people who deserved it. I was taught by Prof Henry Nwosu, when he was not a professor. UNN introduced the General Studies and those who taught me were excellent teachers. Of course, everything you needed to study hard was there and we had people coming to deliver lectures. People like Balarabe Musa, Abubakar Rimi, Aminu Kano, Waziri Ibrahim were coming to give talks. The late Chuka Okadigbo was one of the movers in the school then as a lecturer; others were Prof. Inyang Ikem and the late Prof Ikenna Nzemire. I had access to all these and I remained focussed.
As a relatively young man on campus in far away place, did you have a guardian on campus to guide you around?
No, not at all. As someone from Akoko which was hundreds of kilometres away from Nzukka, my father only gave me an instruction, he said, ‘no adventure,’ meaning that I should not try anything as a young man. Of course, I didn’t obey him once when I followed some people to the village to take palm wine and I fell off a Mobilet and I learnt my lesson. I would say 95 per cent of my time I lived on campus and I was not distracted. I didn’t have a girlfriend anywhere and I was used to reading books all the time, even as a young boy at home. I would go upstairs and read and sleep on top of my books. I didn’t have friends but I loved deriving knowledge from a broad spectrum of things. And for history, I loved biography and events. It was like transferring my home setting to the school setting and I read a lot on people like Hitler, Napoleon and I found it very interesting to know more about a lot of things.
As a graduate, what did you look forward to doing at graduation with a degree in history?
By the time I graduated in 1980, it wasn’t difficult for any graduate to get a job and that was what I did. But when my result came, I knew I had to go back for higher studies and that would lead me to academics but I didn’t see academics as hardship at that time. It was rather prestigious to be in academics and whatever you earned would still keep heart and soul together until SAP (Structural Adjustment Programme) came. When I was a lecturer at the Ogun State University, the staff loan of N6,000 could buy you a brand new Beetle car. Life wasn’t so hard at the time and I didn’t have any fear of unemployment at graduation. For example, a form I wanted to fill for a position in the Foreign Service, I still have it in this house as I didn’t complete it.
Would it be correct to say that your aim from day one in the university was to become a professor?
I never envisioned I was going to be a professor. When I started teaching, my goal at that time and up to 1991 was to have a PhD. To be a professor was not something I thought about; I didn’t even see it as an ambition. I used to tell my friends that my aim was to have two Ps; PhD and P.O.P.
What is P.O.P?
It means pile of papers. I said I wanted to get myself into real big time journals; I didn’t care about any other thing but I said I wanted to have a reputation in a particular field. I wanted to be known in a particular area as authority and expert; then if the professorship came, fine. For example when I got to the University of Lagos in 1987, I discovered that there were a lot of people who were not professors and these were people one had been hearing about for years. As a result of that, I didn’t have any incentive to want to dream of becoming a professor. But when I got the PhD which came barely six months before I became a senior lecturer, the possibility of becoming a professor then started emerging but I didn’t see it as my next target. After my PhD, my next project was to travel abroad and enjoy post-doctoral fellowships and that was how my career moved.
How did you get involved with Japan on which you wrote a book?
In 1993, usually here at UNILAG and elsewhere, foreign bodies would send application forms to institutions through the VC office which were sent to different faculties. I was selected to fill a form from Japan Foundation and got a fellowship there. That was how I got to Japan and I ended up with the Institute of Development Economy in Tokyo. I was there for about six months and during that period, I did research on Japan ports and maritime industry which I thought Nigeria could gain from. I ended up writing a 302-page report which was published in the visiting research fellowship monograph series in 1996. I left there in 1994 and it was published in 1996. Recently, I came across a Japanese expert copiously quoting from my report and I was happy that Japanese recognised that what I did in that country was a work of great authority.
Why was your interest in maritime industry?
When I did my Master’s at the University of Ibadan, I wrote on history of local government in Akoko. By the time I got to PhD, I decided to branch off to another challenging field. After experimenting with so many topics, I stumbled on maritime history later and that was how one thing led to another. I studied all the relating aspects of the maritime field and moved full time to maritime scholarship and eventually became the first African to serve on the International Maritime Economic History Association.
As a product of public university and part of the academia, where would you say the rain started beating us?
Until I left the university in 1980, the university system was still a force to reckon with. The person that taught me English was a native Canadian; he was here in Nigeria and so many others like that. Our campuses were international in nature but with the advent of President Shehu Shagari administration; things began to take a dip when they began to give to their friends and cronies import licences. But things became really bad with SAP when the currency was devalued. Once you devalue the currency, you devalue the education system. The long period of military rule led to a complete run down and our best brains began to go away in what is called brain drain. The allocation to the education sector was dwindling while they were imposing higher enrolment figures on the system. So the library that existed in the 60s, 70s, was now taking twice or thrice the number of students in the late 80s, 90s. I think that after 1980, there was a downward slide. We reached the lowest around 1986 and it remained like that for a very long time. The results are overcrowded classrooms, dilapidating structures. Even some lecturers who didn’t go abroad fled the classrooms to join the private sector. People voted with their feet and preferred to take up anything and this affected scholarship. The crisis in the tertiary institution sector didn’t start today; along the way, some amelioration took place but the damage had long been done. The government should go back and see what went wrong and start from there.
If you as a product of the public school can say wonderful things about the system then, why is it that every parent now wants their children to attend private schools?
Government’s neglect of education has been consistent and sustained and it is very unfortunate. But where we are missing it is the neglect of primary education. If a person did not have a sound primary education, he will never make it. He will be staggering; in my opinion, every state should start upgrading infrastructure at the primary school level. The idea of creating mega schools especially in Ondo State is not the best thing because each of the old schools being abolished has its own tradition. You can even do mega schools in places like Lagos because of land but not in Ondo State. It is fun to pupils to identify with their individual schools by wearing the uniform and trekking to schools in their backyard instead of riding in some buses. That is not what is needed at that level. Instead of spending millions on a so-called mega school, upgrade the schools block by block and in stages. All the schools in those days had their characteristics and traditions. The other important thing is the training of teachers. Teaching is a calling, let teachers have a sense of dedication by giving them incentives. Create teacher training colleges where teachers would like to go to update themselves. Government should understudy some of the things private schools are doing right. And interestingly, some of those things are not expensive. Government should make books available because the generation in the primary school will give birth to future generation and whatever is done to make them better educated is not too much. The teachers need to be retrained.
But with the number of colleges of education around, why are you advocating teacher training schools?
Nigerians love certificates too much. My father never went beyond Grade 2 and he is going to be 89 soon and he is as sound as ever. Some of them left Standard Six and when they talk, you respect them. But today, don’t we have students in the so -called colleges and universities who can not write anything? It is wrong to say the minimum qualification for teaching is NCE, what is the content of the NCE? There are so many people teaching who are not qualified to be teachers, even they need to be taught. And some of them who have NCE think they are too big to teach in primary school. That is the problem. Train the teachers and pay them well. What do they call them in private schools other than teachers? And by the way, not all private schools pay well but they do a lot of work. Government should ask how teachers are monitored in private schools; how they maintain discipline. Again, parents have a role to play; so also is the Parents Teachers Association. Teachers union too has to be effective. There should be a forum where teachers and parents meet because those children are the future of this nation.
Some people have argued that ASUU leaders should resolve their differences with authorities and go back to class; what is your take on this?
Even though I am a vice-chancellor of a private university, I am still a lecturer at UNILAG here. I have to be objective in this matter; in all the rigmarole, there is only one issue that is at stake and people are running away from it. It is the agreement that was signed. It was not signed under duress and you don’t sign an agreement that you don’t negotiate. We were all here in Nigeria in 2009 when the agreement was signed between ASUU and government. And on the basis of the agreement, ASUU went back to the classroom. Now, four years after, government is now saying something else. I think government lacks credibility in this country and it is very unfortunate. If government has been voting some funds towards fulfilling the agreement since 2009, even if ASUU wants to still insist that everything should be fulfilled before members can start work, then people will blame them for being unrealistic. But there is no evidence of fidelity on the part of government; sitting on its butt for more than four years and it is now accusing the lecturers. My only position on this issue is this; let us be honourable people for a change by fulfilling an agreement that was signed. I don’t sign papers for anybody but once I have appended my signature to any document, I will stand by it. That is how you know a gentleman and a person of integrity.
But a government minister has said that government may collapse if it goes ahead to meet the demands of ASUU.
I don’t know who made that statement, I want to say that such statement is an off the cuff remark. Otherwise, I would have said such a person doesn’t know how to run government. A government does not collapse on the basis of its ability to meet its legitimate obligation. Supposing they say the money should be paid to the IMF or World Bank, wouldn’t they find the money? Let them bring another excuse. What I see in Nigeria, in my own opinion, is dereliction of responsibility on the part of so many actors in government. When we get to a point where we are credible, Nigeria will change. When you look at Nigeria, you see a barren land of leadership.
So, you are in a way saying that the lecturers are not fighting a selfish fight?
Not at all. Not because I am a lecturer; whether they are fighting for their pocket or not, an agreement was signed. I don’t like people changing goal posts in the middle of a game; even in my own private life. Government saying they cannot pay is like changing the goal posts in the middle of the game.
What then can Nigerians do to compel their leaders to be reasonable?
It starts with the voting process. I vote for people with pedigree and for 2015, I know who I will vote for, nobody can ambush me. Our leaders don’t care and they don’t have a focus which is very unfortunate. We should be thinking of what will outlive us; that is why people are still talking about Obafemi Awolowo. He was a man like us; he put his thoughts down on paper and he followed them up in practical terms. Some of the roads he built are still there strong till date. Leadership is not so difficult that one will have to go to the moon or space. During Awolowo’s time, people were not looking for money. How many Nigerian leaders think today? Our leaders are not reading; that is the tragedy. They are impervious to correction and new ideas. They think they know it all. Their ego is too large and they want it enlarged by massaging. And because many of them are afraid of losing their jobs, they can tell any lie.
Is private university the future of Nigeria?
Because I work there now, as an insider, I will say yes. But as a pragmatic person, I will say no. You know why, everywhere in the world, even in America, we have private schools but they exist side by side with public schools. You never can have a system that solely relies on the private sector because the danger is there; you are making government to abandon its primary duty. The future of Nigeria’s higher education is when the private and public sectors complement one another . Let government on its own decide to create what I call centre for excellence; let the universities be graded and we have maybe the top four or five where by the time you provide every facility there, anybody coming from anywhere in the world will feel at home. We should create aristocracy of talent where someone is appointed on the basis of what he can deliver.
At a point in time, you thought about settling down with a woman, what influenced her choice?
I got married to a lady I would call my teenage friend and I got to know her in a funny way. My uncle knew her and the day he saw her, he exclaimed that she was my wife. I was in the university at that time while she too was still in secondary school. It was a joking relationship that turned out later to be a reality. I knew her through my uncle and she has been very wonderful since we got married. I actually wanted to get married to a teacher thinking that a teacher would have enough time to nurture my children. But as a lawyer, I will say she is an ideal wife.
How were you head-hunted to be VC at Caleb University?
I didn’t see the advert for the post and I never saw the advert till date but when I was approached, I was still interested in taking part in the interview. In fact, I had been involved in three processes of appointing a VC. I was head-hunted by Caleb when they started in 2007 but I turned it down because I was doing my second term as dean of my faculty. At UNILAG, I was involved with the late vice chancellor. So, I competed like others and the outcome was something else and I love the setting where the process was open. All of us were tested and graded and what was more amazing which I got to know later was that all the other candidates chose me as the next person suitable for the post in case they were not picked. And the owner of the school picked the candidate that was adjudged the best by the selecting team.
As a young man, what was your weakness?
I was never a smoker; I was a social drinker. I was a womaniser but as soon as I got to Lagos, I made a vow that I won’t do it again. There is nothing I can not give up and it has greatly made me to live a simple life. I thank God that I married a woman I love dearly; I have never doubted my wife and she has never given me any cause to do so. We are best of friends and I thank God that I have peace at home.
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