By Bola Bolawole
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Penultimate week I returned to my hometown, Owo; specifically for the 14th Foundation Day and 11th convocation ceremony of Achievers University, a private university founded and nurtured by Dr. Bode Ayorinde (Pro-chancellor and Chairman of the Governing Council) and an erstwhile member of the House of Representatives. My first trip to Achievers was last April at its 10th convocation ceremony. At a time when many universities merge streams of graduating students into one convocation ceremony for paucity of funds, pulling through two such ceremonies in a year is a feat. This year’s Achievers University convocation lecture was delivered by former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar who, together with two other eminent Nigerians, was conferred with honorary doctorate degree. The other two were emeritus chief judge of Oyo State, Hon. Justice Badejoko Olateju Adeniji (Nee Adesina), and Alhaji Olutokunbo Raheem Disu-Sule, retired Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information, Lagos state. Titled “Diversity, Education and Autonomy: Developing Nigeria in the Years Ahead”, Atiku’s lecture was topical, speaking to the vexed issue of restructuring, even though he carefully side-stepped the much-maligned, much-abused, much-confused, much-orchestrated and much-politicised word “restructuring” We shall soon return to that!
Private initiatives like Ayorinde’s have brought university education closer to the grassroots, unlike those days when going to the university was like going to the moon. No more! Except for those not willing to – or not capable of – there are few aspiring students today who do not know the route to the university or have an idea what the inside of a university looks like. At a university like the Achievers, offering free tuition or scholarship for a number of courses is icing on the cake.
Achievers University’s convocation ceremonies offer good ambience for much-deserved holidays. Apart from church and Jumat services, activities such as football matches, novelty lawn tennis competitions and cultural displays provide enough opportunity for exercise and relaxation. The lectures, compendium of speeches, citations and archives also provide enough engagement for an intellectual mind. Practically all the courses at Achievers had been fully accredited or were due for accreditation except, interestingly, Mass Communication that was denied accreditation. Why is this so and what can be done? As the university prepares to celebrate its 15th Foundation Anniversary next year, it will roll out a new Five-Year Development Plan that will encompass star projects such as the College of Medicine, College of Education and College of Aviation. Contrary to what the Minister of Labour, Dr. Chris Ngige (himself a medical doctor), once reportedly said, Nigeria’s doctor to patient ratio is pathetic, made worse still by the daily exodus of medical personnel from the country in search of greener pasture. So, the more medical schools, the merrier!
Two halls of residence for students were unveiled at the week-long convocation ceremony – Bode Olajumoke Hall and Lady Babade Adelami Hall – while the sod of a third – Atiku Abubakar Hall – was turned by the former vice-president himself. Atiku was accompanied to the event by a retinue of aides but the most prominent of them all was erstwhile Senator Dino Melaye. The Atiku hall is billed for commissioning in December 2023. I was envious seeing the wholesome environment in which students of Achievers University live and study. There is no comparing their hostel accommodation with the mangers that go for hostel accommodation elsewhere. Now back to Atiku’s lecture. He started by saying he wanted “to talk…about three interrelated things: Diversity, Education, and Autonomy and their connection to Nigeria’s development in the coming years”. He kicked off telling a personal story, which need not detain us here for space constraints. Suffice it to say, however, that the story of his life as told by Atiku himself emphasized the importance of education in the life of an individual and in the life of a nation.
Education afforded Atiku the opportunity to get to know, understand and appreciate Nigeria’s diversity as well as benefit immensely from it, so much so that he can beat his chest and say that “Diversity is not something to be afraid of. Diversity does not prevent a country from reaching its potentials. Rather, it should make a country reach its potentials faster, but only if that diversity is harnessed properly, if the diverse peoples and places are pulled together for a common purpose, drawing on the strengths of each. In the wrong hands, especially in the hands of opportunistic politicians and demagogues, diversity can become a problem, a tool of division, violence, and destruction” Certainly, Atiku is not one of such “opportunistic politicians and demagogues”! In emphasizing the importance and place of education, the former VP however made some sweeping generalizations. Education is not a cure-all. In fact, the problem with Nigeria is more of its educated elite than its army of illiterates. Or shall we just say both the educated and the illiterate could and have constituted problems in their own right!
Now, it is Atiku’s opinion on restructuring that interested me most – and this for obvious reasons. In one place, he said: The constituent parts of the country need a greater degree of autonomy to develop their local economies according to their endowments and priorities. The excessive centralization of power and concentration of resources in the federal government have not served us well. Instead, they have encouraged a domineering all-knowing federal government that stretches itself into every aspect of our lives with little positive results to show. Rather, we have had excessive corruption, mediocrity, generations of citizens who hope to become rich without work, emasculation of state and local initiatives and a lack of creative and healthy competition among states as they all look towards Abuja for handouts every month… We must change direction”.
Not done yet, he added: We must reverse the concentration of power and resources at the Centre. And we must make serious and conscious efforts to identify the potentials and strengths of each state and section of this country and work to maximize its contribution to the development of our country as it is supported to develop itself. That is how you allow greater autonomy while pulling together. Greater autonomy for states will allow ideas to germinate from anywhere and blossom…Reduction of federal powers and responsibilities and greater autonomy for states would, for instance, allow a state with very low demand for university spots to decide whether its priority is another federal university or investments in primary, secondary teacher education to ensure that its young population has basic education, preparatory for possible university or vocational education in the future” There is a disease that afflicts Nigeria’s men and women of power: When they are in office, they speak and act lunatic but once out of office, they speak with their head on their neck and act normal! I hope Atiku is not bitten by this same bug!
Atiku’s address to the graduating students was very inspiring and I quote: It is your day, your convocation, your chance to go forth and show the world what you can do. To show what you can become. To show that you can lead! To show what problems you can help the world to solve. Let your imagination run wild. Imagine where you would be in 10 or 20 years from now. Imagine where Nigeria would be. Would you be satisfied with it? If so, what role would you have played in getting it there? If not, what role would you play in helping to get it to where you would be satisfied with its progress? What would be Nigeria’s population then? How educated would that population be? What would be the place of crude oil in the world’s energy mix by then? What would that mean for Nigeria? Is there a role that you can play in positioning Nigeria for that trajectory? Or would you just be fighting the wars we fight today over the sharing of oil revenues? Would you rather be one of those who move Nigeria beyond oil and other fossil fuels not only to help the country’s economy thrive in a new post-oil world but to also reduce global warming and protect our ecosystem? Would you be the one who solves Nigeria’s perennial challenge of providing electricity? Could you be the one who transforms the Made-in-Aba brands into global icons? Would you be content with debating about which region or zone should produce the next President or governor or rather organize and work to ensure that the country has governance and accountability structures, rules and processes which would ensure that where the president or governor comes from becomes less important? Remember that Tesla and Amazon, which have made Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos the two richest men on the planet, were only founded in 2003 and 1994 respectively. They became what they are today because they solved problems for the world. Think of the problem you can solve for your community, your country and the world and, hey, you might become our own version of Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos”
Well said! My worry, however, is this: When rotational presidency is the turn of the North; Northerners are usually at daggers-drawn against anyone who preaches merit but once it is the turn of the South, the same Northerners become the apostles of merit or free-for-all! There is every possibility that Atiku means well but the North cannot continue to eat its cake and have it!
Bolawole is a respected columnist and former deputy editor in Chief of The Punch