Professor Olabiyi Afonja is a renowned Professor of Statistics and former Commissioner for Education in the old Western Region. In this interview broadcast on Rock City FM radio, Abeokuta and monitored by Team Ogun Today, the former Pro-Chancellor of the Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago-Iwoye, spoke at length on the problems bedeviling the nation’s education sector. He described the powers wielded by those in executive offices especially state governors as too overbearing and unhealthy. Excerpts:
You had a memorable experience in the field of education. As it is today, from your experience, is Nigeria on its right path in its educational policy?
I gave a lecture some years back, I think it was 2011, the lecture was titled “Inflation in the philosophy and funding of tertiary institution in Nigeria”, I would have given a different title as ‘‘Education in Nigeria, a glorious past, a confused present and uncertain future’’. Because that is exactly what it was in 2011 and this looks as if, it is still so, by the time I gave that lecture, some people thought that we have no philosophy of education, because if we have a philosophy, we will not be going back and front with our policies.
I’ve tried to show that from Nigeria policy document as far back as 1972 or 1973, because when I was commissioner of education, we were doing these things, so we don’t have a policy for education but we have a policy in philosophy, but how much that philosophy has been practiced has been our problem because policy changes so often, so rapidly that what happens today seems to forget that there was something yesterday, so the mistakes of yesterday, are being made today. And that is precisely the situation of education in Nigeria today.
And I do not think that as much as government may be trying, they are still paying enough attention to education, which I regard as a basic human infrastructure, knowledge infrastructure, intellectual infrastructure and infrastructure of all infrastructure. Without education, without knowledge, you are not a living human being.
People blame so many things that are not going on right in the country on the military. It has been about 15- 16 years now that the military has handed off direct administration so to say. Do you think it is still proper to blame the military or we should look inward at the crop of leaders that has taken over since the exit of the military?
Well, that’s a very big question, if you know how much military influence has permeated the entire system, you would understand why people keep blaming the military. There is a famous expression “with immediate effect”, the military started it, they want to reappoint, it is “with immediate effect”, they want to remove, it is “with immediate effect”, not caring for any law or for the consequences, and the civilian inherited that, civilian governors do things with immediate effect whether it is against the law or not against the law. Finally, on the influence of the military, I may be wrong, but they’ve got so much into our economy that their control of it, is firm, the control of the erstwhile military people on the economy of this country is firm, it’s deep-rooted, I mean it was going to become the vogue for them to want to be governors, senators, they want to be this, It is only 2011 or so, that somehow, they were not too lucky, I was joking when I was in U.S.A, that these military people want to take over senate, there were about three or four generals from different states, that wanted to go to senate, what are they going to do there? So, when we say we should stop blaming them, if they started something, and the effect of that thing has become so deep-rooted, it is difficult not to put some blame on them, if not all the blame. Unfortunately, the civilian leaders that took over from them have now seen benefits in ruling like the military, they take that into their marrow and there was a time when the vogue was executive governor and when they say executive, it means I cannot be questioned and they borrow it from the military.
Are they really not executives with the constitutional power they have, the ego and the submission of the subject to that office, is it not really true that they are executive officers?
Their own interpretation of executive is that we are unquestionable. That, they as executives, are unquestionable.
That’s what I’m saying, in the real sense, are they questionable?
Well, as I said, his influence is great in that respect from the little I know because you can’t know too much about these things. You can’t know what is going on. So, the executive-mania that I am the executive, nobody can question me, luckily people are questioning governors now but you find out that, that questioning usually arises when we are near election, before election, nobody questions them, if you even question them, they won’t listen to you. When elections are near, people begin to question them, they listen and try to answer, so again the governors and the people who turn them into tin gods, a lot of blame is from us.
Some of those blames I’ve heard people mention sir, is to the older generation which you can appropriately be said to be one, those of you who had opportunity to serve in the old public offices a very long time ago. Apart from the futuristic development you handed over, some have said it is deliberate that the older ones we have now, did not invest in human capital then, and therefore the youths of today are not able to catch up with them or absorb the good aspect of leadership?
The question you raise now, will lead to my point about education, ideal infrastructure of all infrastructure. It is an intellectual infrastructure without which no infrastructure can exist. If any government recognizes that, we recognize in the whole West, then that, if you are dealing with a state, which is Awolowo state, you couldn’t but pay attention to education development in human capital as was being done definitely at that time. The attention we paid to education right from primary to university level, I can’t remember University of Ife then, being starved of fund neither can I remember Adeyemi College of Education being really starved of funds, so as far as our generation is concerned, we paid enough attention to education, I will give you example like that of paying attention to teachers, because we cannot have human development or capital development without teachers, it is not possible.
I know how much of running battle I had with officials while the question of teachers in non-government schools, non- public schools be able to attain as much height as those in the civil service like teachers in the government colleges and such institutions which are more highly rated and paid than teachers in private schools, like the mission schools, I know how much running battle I had and the classic example I always give under the chapter “teacher’s commissioner” because that’s what I call that chapter in my biography, because I care so much about them, and there is a particular instance which I must give, in my struggle to ensure that teachers were duly recognized and compensated, I made all efforts to make them appear with civil servants in particular. So, luckily for me I had the full confidence and they too have the full confidence, the NUT chaired by Canon Oluyomade now of blessed memory, that was a very good chairman of NUT, and also doubled as chairman, state wing of conference of principals, we took them into good confidence. And whenever I said this, government would do this, I always had the approval of my governor.
That was military government then?
Yes, that was Oluwole Rotimi. We came to an agreement on a number of issues with the NUT at the conference of principals and one was what we called harmonization of teachers’ conditions. I was to go to Kano for the national council of education meeting, and just before I left my office, my account secretary came with a memo, because at that time before a memo gets to the executive council, it must be signed by the commissioner from the originating ministry, so this was presented to me to sign, I’ve not read this, ‘but you have to trust me commissioner’, said the secretary, ‘you’re making me sign a blank cheque, I have to trust you’, so I signed the memo. I came back to be able to take the memo on a Wednesday, so I rushed back to be at Ikeja airport on Tuesday by 10pm and all my documents have been brought to me, at the airport so I could be reading in the car, lo and behold, when I saw that memo, the things I had agreed with the union, some of them have been changed, my head boiled, how can I face Oluyomade, how can I face Otunla that I have reneged on all the agreement? I thought I had no choice. The permanent secretary was on leave, I had no choice but to recall the permanent secretary that I’m afraid this memo is looking much more different from the one I signed, I’m therefore going to ask you to appear with me in cabinet meeting tomorrow, normally the permanent secretary doesn’t have to, so if I make any changes, you wouldn’t say I did it behind you.
So, the morning before we got to the cabinet, I called the governor, but it’s not usual to alter cabinet memo on the floor of cabinet, so I called the governor, ‘sir you know I ‘ve been away to Kano and I just got back, there’s a memo I’m presenting this morning, unfortunately for me I signed on trust, but there are one or two things there which will bring our government into ignominy if I don’t change them and then’, I gave him one or two instances, and he said go ahead. So, as soon as we got to the cabinet meeting before we took the memo, I said your excellency with your permission, may I go to make some changes, and he said go ahead, so I made the changes. My permanent secretary was mad, I wouldn’t blame the person, how can my commissioner come to ridicule me like this? That was what he came to realise. So, we made those changes, one of the very important changes there and that is where I’m going, that it became possible for a primary school headmaster to ride a car which never happened before. And I remember very well, a cousin of mine, one G.A Oladipo, was the principal of one school in Ayetoro, his car number was WG1N81, he is from Joga, he was proud to be riding it all over the whole place and saying it is Biyi Afonja that made this possible so, that shows you the importance that were tied to human capital and to the role of teachers.
Then, how do you feel, people of your age then, when you listen to the younger ones, say all they do is to recycle their generation for leadership?
Well, like in Ogun State, there’s no person being circulated for the past six years. There’s a lot of cake to share in Abuja, so everybody wants to be part of that cake sharing, young or old. So, all an old man or woman has to do, is to give support to whoever is in power in Abuja and, he’s in the cake sharing business. In fact, when the last conference was being held, people criticize the composition that they thought there were too many old people there, forgetting that the old man has his wisdom, the young man has his wisdom, when you mix both, you have a better situation, what would have been bad is to make sure that it will ignore the youth altogether but I think it was a reasonable blend, when they talk of the old generation being recycled, it’s because of what is in it, not many of these old people in their old 60 would love to . We have this old man who was able to ride a car, who was able to do this, or was able to do that now he can’t do anything, then one politician will just come to him and say Baba, what type of poverty are you living in, do ours and you shall become chairman of a committee, is it his fault? And his poverty disappears.
Are you happy or satisfied with the way the country is being governed right now?
Well I won’t say that is a political question, but not too many people are happy, I see it on the pages of newspapers, people complaining about leadership, and when you say leadership, not just Jonathan, but right down from Jonathan to the National Assembly even to the judiciary, those are leadership and back to the grassroots, the council level and back to you and I, because we are all to blame. In two of my writings I gave one good example, not an old man, a young boy of 32 or 33 just won an election in the House of Reps, as soon he won he says Ayemi dara ise bo, not an old man, a young boy because he is going to the National Assembly to steal money, and everybody clapped. So, when you talk of leadership, don’t think of the presidency alone, right down to the village, you will see a chairman who is a robber, who is a thief and you keep on hailing him. So, are we all not really to blame? We are to be blamed.
Do you think there is hope in sight or remedy in the future?
When we stop worshiping the wrong thing, when we stop worshiping money, when we give credit to labor, that somebody who sweats and earns income, from that sweat he became a millionaire, when you respect an intellectual, a person who impacts knowledge to the whole world not caring what he gets from it, just believing that propagation of knowledge is more important than anything else. So, when you begin to respect such people, then there is hope. Again on that, each time I arrive at Murtala Muhammed Airport, I thank God for one thing, once they see Professor, they just say go, at least some people still respect Professor more than money. Professor, you are free to go…..I mean that speaks a lot you know, so I must come back to the issue of teachers’ condition, I have always had that in mind and I forgot to mention it, that the things we are trying to practice then, to implement then, am happy that so many states are now doing it. Lagos has done it, Ogun is doing it, whereby we are now bringing teachers in public schools to make them almost at par with civil servants, now you can be a teacher and earn as much as a permanent secretary and they call them principal general who earn as much as permanent secretary, the same in Lagos. So, if you want to be a teacher, it should be possible for you to die as a teacher and be happy like my headmaster, G. Awoyemi of blessed memory, because he’s always an example that I give my people in the ministry that there is a man, who was meant to teach in his life, he was good, if he wants to die a teacher like any civil servant would do then he should enjoy the benefits.
One of the problems people have identified, in the present education system at all level now, not just at primary and secondary school is that teachers have thrown away professionalism, they are more of politicians, they are more of business and that passion has disappeared?
Awolowo’s first cabinet in the 1950s was made up of a good number of seasoned school principals, the Osuntokuns of this world, Odebiyis of this world, Ogedengbe also from Akoko, we have our own Awokoya here.