[Interview]–What makes him a rare brand is not the fact that he became a professor of Linguistics and African Languages at the age of 37, but because it is excruciatingly difficult to fathom how someone can balance brilliance and humility in such equal measures. For the past seventeen years as a professor, his massive contributions to scholarship is only matched by his fierce advocacy for qualitative education in Nigerian schools.
He is a strong critic, who finds it unusually easy to speak truth to power. He is surprisingly a doer too and his reputation at the Distance Learning Centre, University of Ibadan where he served as Director was impeccable amongst many other places he had served. As a member of the prestigious Nigerian Academy of Letters, Fellow of the Institute Development Administration of Nigeria, Fellow of Alexander Von Humboldt-Stiftung, University of Hamburg, Germany, Professor Francis Oisaghaede Egbokhare has received accolades within and outside the country. The world renown consultant for Open Distance Learning is a man to listen to anytime.
In this exclusive interview with Oredola Ibrahim of THEPAGE, the professor dissects the education phenomenon in Nigeria, the issue of university funding, leadership integrity in academic institutions, responsible citizenship, preservation of indigenous knowledge and other similar issues. Below is the concluding part in the three-part series interview. Click to read the first and second parts.
Recently, the Federal Government – through the finance minister, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun – sought the prosecution of some 33 of its agencies, the list including many educational institutions, over non-remittance of N450 billion revenue generated between 2010 and 2015. They were also accused of corrupt practices relating to public procurement. Similarly, the University of Ibadan was also in the news over an audit report that revealed financially reckless activities among other administrative wrongs. The leaderships of Obafemi Awolowo University, FUNAAB, FUTA and others have also faced one or two allegations of corruption. Don’t you think academic institution officials are too free to have been able to be perpetrating these financial malpractices?
No, the system is stinking. There is no control. And just like the Michelin advert puts it, “Power is nothing without control”. The system is absolutely without control and part of the problem is the problem of the Councils. When you bring incompetent people to the University councils, there is no accountability in the system. We are now having CEO Vice Chancellors, Executive Vice Chancellors, you have dead Senate. We cannot talk about this in just one interview. See, in the past, Senate were to provide the necessary measures of control, but now, Senate is no longer capable of this because University Senates are basically assembled on political or ethnic grounds. When Universities began to lose their diversity, which would be hybrid vigour of any intellectual institution, they lost the power of control. So what we basically have is that you have situations where most Senates can be conducted in one ethnic language. If you go to any University now in the North, you can either conduct a Senate in Hausa. Most meetings are now held in local languages, in the past that would not be possible but now we have no diversity. Diversity brings perspectives, perspective brings dissent, dissent brings debates, debates bring logic and logic rules the game. But that is no longer the case now, so it is Kabiyesi mentality and where the Vice Chancellor has now evolved from being the VC to Olori Oko, in the western Nigeria here, Emir in the North and Igwe in the East. The cultural throat is everywhere now and has replaced intellectual throat and that is where we have a problem. And when there is absolute power, corruption will come in.
Under the Jonathan administration, there was a loss of total control. The Vice Chancellors were behaving recklessly and with the special intervention fund, it was an opportunity to make billionaire VCs. They went haywire, bribery and corruption became the order of the day and that also affected the leadership selection that was compromised with money and bribery. And then we ended up with politician Vice Chancellors. Basically, it is a whole matter that you can write a thousand pages on.
Your feats in the area of distance learning has been celebrated, most especially, in the University of Ibadan where you once served as a Director.Do you think the Distance Learning Centre in UI has been better off since your administration?
I don’t normally comment about things that happen in UI. You should remember that I competed for the office of the Vice Chancellor here and that I am also a past director of the Centre. My opinion here is surely subject to misinterpretation. I rather would express that I am doing a book and when my book comes out, I will share my opinion with Nigerians on what I feel about the way this work is done.
Something similar, it is about the National Open University which runs a model similar to the Distant Leaning Centre. There are ongoing agitations from their graduates that they are being deprived from going for NYSC, and that the Law graduates are deprived from going to Law school. What do you think about this dichotomy? Do you think it would help the DLC in the long run or it would later come to work against it?
I think we have too many parallel powers. If a law programme is approved, whether by Distant learning or not, I don’t think the law can deny anybody. I think they still have a problem with the approval of the law programme. Why the federal government cannot intervene is what beats me. Whether they took up legal council is now a nation on its own is something I don’t know. It is either they compel the Legal Council to recognize the law programme or they shut down the law programme. Now there are too many powers people generate as if this nation has no leadership. I don’t even know why distant learning student themselves want to go on youth service. The whole concept of Distant Learning for me, gives you that flexibility to be able to operate while you work. Why do you want to go on youth service? So I think basically the institutions themselves must educate the students in such a way to know that this is the different mode of study. When I was director at the University of Ibadan, what we did was to help them get the exemption from the National Youth Service Corps. But I think some were later demanding money to be able to get that exemption. You see, you cannot run anything in this country as an honest man. The corruption is so bad that if you want to do something honest – Like you want to run an honest business or an honest institution – you would just kill yourself because you would have bribery here and there, obstacles are placed at all gates to collect money. When you look hear about the National Assembly people saying they are going for an over sight functions, they are collecting money. When you hear about police collaborating with institutions on security, they are collecting money! Then you look at the annual balances of these universities, they call it PR, are they not part of corruption? When the ministers attend convocations, they collect money despite the fact that they are doing their jobs. So it is so difficult for us to do anything in this nation and my point basically is that until we are serious about running the country, nothing is going to happen. we are just going to be in this suspended animation. We are going to be in this vegetative state. What we need now is a kind of leader who will give us the kind of leadership that we need now to remove Nigeria from where it is.
This is not the way a country should run. If you are an honest journalist now, you would say you want to do something honest in this country, I can tell you that you will see so many obstacles that would make it impossible, even government will make it impossible for you to be honest. I am sure you are already familiar with what I am talking about. This is the problem. In fact, there is nobody who is going to make heaven in Nigeria. If not that God is gracious, nobody in Nigeria will make heaven, including me, Imams and pastors because they will be forced to compromise.
There are ongoing calls against handing over primary school administration to local governments as part of the call for local government autonomy. National Union of Teachers and other academic unions have been kicking against the move. What do you think of the agitation?
I can sympathize with them because these people don’t pay salaries. It would get to a point when people would be killing other people in this country because they are owed salaries. People are calling for restructuring, I just laugh. Without a federal government in this country, you know what is going to happen? People would soon discover that there is no place they can blame. And that people would come to your house in the morning and will use daggers on your own family. I don’t blame them because that is suicide for them, by the time you return them to local government again, it is suicide, so the unions will kick. And I think primary education is too important to leave in the hands of irresponsible local governments. And of course, the local governments themselves are undermined by the state governments, because state governments will take resources belonging to local governments. And the question I ask is how does a country that is so irresponsible, with all these irresponsible and uncontrollable governments ever hope to make it? So, I don’t support it at all, but I think we should allow the private sector to continue to participate in primary education. Government has not showed itself to be good with education, it cannot now monopolize education at that level. What we need basically is a measure of control, but the problem I am also having now is that a lot of state governments are seeing education as a fund raising opportunity, so they are taxing private primary and secondary schools so heavily, which I think is a wrong calculation. And because you are taxing them heavily, those people have to pay from somewhere else, and not only them, the government officials themselves take bribe every year from this private primary and secondary schools and then, they depend on them, accusing them of running substandard schools, whereas the government itself is the biggest culprit in terms of running substandard institutions. Go and look at government primary and secondary schools all over the place with leaky roofs. So people see government simply as an oppressive institution. In one of the states, I understand that there was threat to close down certain number of private institutions, and I tell myself why can’t the same government close down her institutions? Government should use its own institutions as a standard measure for regulating the private ones. So why will government in a country be so oppressive. Education is such that people are at different levels of poverty in this country. They cannot afford the so called standard that you are prescribing. Do you know that in Ibadan for instance, there are people who pay Àjọ every day to pay for education? We must find a way of regulating and ensuring that those children get similar levels of content and access and that those who teach them have a minimal level of qualification rather than them saying that you prescribe some fake and unfounded standards of environment which the government itself cannot provide for its citizens. In fact, the best way to regulate and control is to step up the quality of public institutions. So, the private ones that are below the standard will collapse, not by coercion or oppression.
The next question is about tribalism in the ivory towers. There was an interview you granted sometimes ago where you said that you rejected the University of Benin because you didn’t belong to a particular sub-ethnic group. Then you spoke highly of UI that it accepted you…
UI gave me a job and I will ever remain grateful because at that point in time, UI will look for the best and will give the job to that person. But again, when it comes to the ultimate job, you know that tribalism has crept into this place as well. Basically, I think it is a national disease because the Universities are seen within the perspective of resource control, so any location where a University is, it sees such location as an asset to national resources. So the inflow of resources into the University is seen as the possession and right of the people of that place, and that’s basically the way it works now. Tribalism is used as a tool and instrument to gain access to national resources and take sharing opportunities. I don’t see it like the tribal environment love their people than other people but they are using it as a platform to gain advantage over other people, so that they can have access to the resources of the institution.
So your opinion about UI then has changed?
No, it is not that my opinion of UI has changed. It is that UI was in a better position at that point in time and did much better in having diversity, in focusing on competence and expert knowledge as a basis of recruitment, promotion and selection of leadership. But that has basically been turned on its head. I can understand why that is happening. If you look at the external society, the state of the nation, where people are calling for Oduduwa Republic and Biafra for instance, you can understand that the country is tearing apart and so anyone who is not a so called indigene is an enemy and must not be allowed to rule. Those are the notions driving all of these changes and I think some of us are victims not because people around here are wicked but because they don’t even know the forces that are working within them. And a few individuals who are so desperate for resources will manipulate every other person. So, it takes intellectuals who know what they are doing to resist the manipulation but unfortunately, intellectualism is gone. What we have now is academic institutions and not Universities – we have schools but no education.
About the preservation of indigenous knowledge and the role of Universities in ensuring that. I once read of a particular professor in UCH, who used traditional method in carrying out a research to cure HIV/AIDS. But I was surprised that it wasn’t given the desired national and media attention. So why do you think the University is not actually doing enough to preserve our indigenous knowledge and even propagate it?
Are the Universities Indigenous Universities? Are the products indigenous products? Are the students African students? These are all white men; we are producing white men. We are producing colonial mindsets for the environment. So, which indigenous knowledge are you talking about? Until the Universities become African Universities, until we have a leadership that understands the connection between development and culture; between education, learning and the worldview, that is what we are going to have. So people will just ignore it and the cultures will die away.
When a person is talking to you, you look at the person. It is not what the person says that matters. If the person is talking about African, look at what he is wearing. When he is talking African, look at his lifestyle, look at his mannerism, what is African about the person. There is a difference between mental knowledge or abstraction and behavior. Whatever does not affect your behaviour does not exist. If you say you are a Professor of linguistics, does it show in your behaviour? If you say you are a Professor of Medicine and then you are going about all over the place contaminating yourself and other people. You say you are a Professor of Hygiene and you are the dirtiest around, does it show that you are a Professor of Hygiene? You are schooled in Hygiene; you are not learned in Hygiene. That is part of the danger because we cannot connect our training with our experience, what we end up doing is that we have cerebral knowledge system without true learning. Don’t you marvel how our traditional people develop the recipe for Àbùlà. How do they know how to transform beans to Gbẹ̀gìrì and then add it to Ewédú to become Àbùlà? How did the Igbos research into Otowele? How do people from my place research into black soup…transforming yam into pounded yam and all the sorts? That is scientific knowledge. That is knowledge of chemistry, knowing that certain reactions will take place. They know how long to cook it for. They knew when there was fermentation. Now with all the education we have had since colonial days, how many recipes have we invented from Àkàrà? We are still eating Àkàrà like our ancestors did; we are still eating Moi Moi like our ancestors did. What have we turned beans into? That would give you evidence that nothing has happened since colonialism, we have remained where we were, since our ancestors handed over to us. Nothing has changed about us, we are fooling ourselves.
#SaveEducationInNigeria is a column on THE PAGE where we engage stakeholders in the educational sector. Here we interview edupreneurs, student leaders, professors, administrators and others who are actively involved in the sector. Our discussants examine the challenges facing the sector and proffer solutions.Please Follow Us @ThePageNg