Former vice-chancellor of the University of Ibadan, Prof Olufemi Bamiro, speaks to ALEXANDER OKERE about his academic journey and life after his tenure as VC of one Nigeria’s foremost universities
Academic activities in public universities have been grounded for months over the strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities following the refusal of the Federal Government to sign and implement the renegotiated 2009 agreement. What are your thoughts about the current situation?
It is very unfortunate because nothing destroys our system more than all these unstable (academic) calendars arising from these strikes by unions. Once upon a time, it used to be the students but now, it is the members of staff. Since 1993, the number of weeks of national strikes which I have been monitoring is close to 240, if not more. You can imagine the impact on individuals and the image of the universities. I am not apportioning blame; I am just trying to let us appreciate the impact of such things. From the name, university, we are supposed to be operating in a global environment. Nigerian universities used to be very attractive; students from far and near used to come here. But now, how can a Ghanaian or Kenyan come here when they are not sure of the number of years they would spend for a degree programme? The impact of the strike cannot be measured.
Isn’t there a way to negotiate and make sure whatever is signed is implementable?
A situation where one keeps signing things they cannot implement, to me, is rather unfortunate.
What were the challenges you grappled with during your tenure as the vice-chancellor of University of Ibadan?
I must say I thank God because, in my administration, we worked as a team. We had a governing council peopled by the likes of the late Gamaliel Onosode. They were fantastic people and we worked together. Onosode told us we had a fantastic vision but asked us about our strategic plan to implement our vision. So, we had to pocket our pride. A university cannot be run without a strategic plan. The moment we had a strategic plan, we worked towards it. That helped my administration. UI was a university managed based on data. In other words, I could tell you how much we were spending. We managed the resources. It was because of UI that the Tertiary Education Trust Fund insisted that every university must have a strategic plan.
There would always be challenges but when you have teamwork and a data management system that can give you all the information, the problems would be minimal. I would not say we did not have challenges but we were able to be on top. We had plans and we worked according to our plans.
What was your relationship with labour unions, especially ASUU, as VC?
Even with the union, I did not have any problems because I had information and we sat down and managed our resources.
You served as a deputy VC before you became the chief administrative officer. How did that prepare you for a higher level of responsibility?
It really prepared me because I was deputy VC to Prof Ayodele Falase, who also helped to transform the University of Ibadan. Under Falase, I gained a lot in terms of the challenges. Some people who want to be VC don’t know what it entails; it is when they get there that they realise that it is not a holiday. As a DVC, I worked with a VC that really exposed me. And after I took the job, the relationship continued.
Was leading university ever part of your plan?
No. It is just that things started coming. I joined UI as Lecturer I and responsibilities started coming. At the level of the faculty, I was a sub-dean helping to plan the timetable for examinations. At some point, I became the head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, which was a relatively young department at that time. From there, I became the dean of the faculty. When one gets to that level, one would be noticed at the level of the university and be given responsibilities outside the faculty. These were things we were able to do with our teaching and research. I gave lectures and did research. People were not promoted because they were heads of departments on held administration. No. It was based on research and publications. Before I became a DVC (administration), Prof Falase felt that with my engineering background, I had technical knowledge in project supervision.
The process of appointing a VC in Nigeria these days is rancorous. What did those who opposed you say?
During my time, there wasn’t any ethnic colouration, that the VC must come from Ibadan, and things like that. I think the university should be commended for that. UI always did things on merit. Although some people might have said I was not an alumnus but it was not a consideration. But what is going on now in the Nigerian university system is very sad. If a university gets the appointment of a VC wrong, that university is finished. But what is happening now is unfortunate, very embarrassing.
You graduated with first-class honours in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Nottingham, Nottingham, England. Was that feat intentional?
I studied in England and fortunately for me, I was a Shell scholar. Shell sponsored over 100 students and I was one of 22 students funded in my set. Shell took care of us and paid our allowances regularly. That really encouraged me. I was the only black man in my class.
Did that adversely affect you?
Of course, I couldn’t care less. I just did my work. The background I brought also helped because I had my HSC (Higher Secondary Certificate) in Nigeria. There was no distraction and because I was being sponsored, I did not want to blow my chance and be in trouble. I faced my studies and (University of) Nottingham had fantastic lecturers and that made things easy.
Let us talk about your family background. What role did your parents play and what values did you learn from them?
My father was a goldsmith and my mother sold pepper. They were hard-working. My honesty came from both of them. When other goldsmiths were dishonest, my father was noted for being sincere. He taught us about honesty through songs and anecdotes. I also had an uncle who was highly educated. He played a fantastic role.
Were they also involved in your choice of a wife?
No. I met my wife when I was in Lagos after my first degree. I was working with Shell. At that time, a number of us were in Lagos enjoying ourselves. My wife is a fantastic woman. We got married before I travelled abroad and she later joined me. I got married as a postgraduate student. I had Canadian Commonwealth Scholarship for my PhD. Her parents supported me.
Was she an academic?
No. she was in the administrative line as a departmental secretary.
Shortly after you completed your tenure as a VC, there were reports that you were attacked and shot in 2016. Can you tell me what happened?
It happened on a street very close to my house. We had been having cases of boys attacking people. But on that particular day, at about 7.30pm, I just got down from the car to pick up two bottles of wine from a store. My wife was also in the car. As I was returning, some boys just came and said I should not enter the car. They told me to bring the car key. But God intervened because they did not know that the car was on. They shot into the air and I told them, ”If you want to kill me, kill me but I’m going with you”. They also shot into the ground and I did not know that the bullet had already hit my leg. But thanks to my wife who showed boldness when people around had run for their lives. I don’t know how God put that boldness in her. She just took the key to the car, came down from the other side, and stood in front of me, facing the attackers. They were surprised and wondered where my wife came from. She told them they could not kill us because we were children of God.
In annoyance one of them tried to pull the trigger but the gun fell apart. It was a miracle, nothing more. As soon as that happened, they started panicking. The one who tried to shoot told the other ones to move away. It was later that I saw blood on my leg. The bullet hit me but did not touch my bone; it just entered and came out. By the time we got to the University College Hospital, Ibadan, the doctor said I was lucky. It was a real miracle. But of course, you can trust people. Some said, “Ah, he is an Ijebu man. He used juju.” Thanks to the boldness of my wife.
One would think that having served as a VC, you would slow down on the responsibilities you take but you have held several other academic and non-academic positions. How do you find time to rest?
I find the time. I do rest. For example, I still play squash and I am a member of the Ibadan Recreation Club. I am also planning to join the golf section. It is true that one has been involved in engagements here and there. But I thank God it shows one has continued to be relevant and still has something to offer. I also have a good wife taking care of me. Once one enjoys doing what one does, one won’t feel it. But of course, there should be a balance.
As an Ijebu man, what is your favourite meal?
Ah! I love garri and eba with stew and vegetables. When I was a VC, my people realised that if a meeting was taking too long, I just excused myself, asked my DVC to continue and I just go to the lodge, eat my eba and return, even if the meeting would last throughout the night.
Have some people persuaded you to join full-time politics?
Some people told me that they need people like me but I told them that for me, politics is a no-go area. I came from a background that exposed me to politics. My father and uncle, whom I lived with, were involved. But nothing can make me go into politics in Nigeria.
What opportunities do young Nigerians have in the 2023 general elections?
If our elections are driven by voting for the right people, one would have been happy that they would get the chance. But since things are monetised, where would they get the money. Politics in Nigeria has been so monetised that when people with brilliant ideas ask voters to support them, they ask them to go and bring the money. That is still the case now. So when would young men and women with brilliant ideas and a sense of commitment get the resources? Even if they get godfathers, those godfathers want power too. The electorate is not looking for people who will provide the right leadership. That is unfortunate.
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