A writer said the success of Afe Babalola University is hinged on his personal involvement. He is the de facto Chief Executive and also the Chief Marketer.
Wole Balogun, Ado-Ekiti
In a recent interview with the Management Team of The Sun newspapers, Aare Afe Babalola, SAN, Founder & Chancellor of Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti, discussed the dynamics of setting up and running a pace-setting university in Nigeria. His discourse showed the motivation that spurred the education entrepreneur and philanthropist in his self-assigned mission of founding a world-class university in Nigeria. The interview highlighted the pragmatic and innovative approaches being taken by the legal icon and business mogul in tackling the seemingly insurmountable challenges that stunt the country’s academic development. Excerpts:
We have moved around and discovered that what you have here is a conglomerate. How do you cope with this at about 90 years of age?
This is due mainly to the training I had when I was young. My father and we used to trek for seven miles to the farm and were staying there for three months before returning. We used to wake up as early as 6 am. I believe that the training which I had helped me to think about a greater future.
I plan my programmes and I carry out systematically my plan. A man must have a focus and plan, otherwise, you can’t succeed. I did all I did out of sheer gut. Like I often say, dreaming isn’t an offence, but not to dream is a crime. You dream about getting to the moon, if you don’t get to the moon, you’d get to the stars: if you hadn’t dreamt at all you wouldn’t get to the stars. We are beginning full operation in our Multisystem Hospital by last week of July. We have 37 floors and when we collect the blood of any patient and any other results and take them across, no hand touches it. We are the only hospital in this country with that equipment. We have five fully equipped theatres.
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The Chief Medical Doctor of the Premier Teaching Hospital, UCH Ibadan, Prof. Temitope Alonge, said he has been to many hospitals in the world and hasn’t seen one with our kind of medical equipment.
The whole idea of establishing a university came after I left the University of Lagos (UNILAG) as Pro-Chancellor. Before then, I had been appointed Attorney General of the Federation threes times by three Presidents but I turned them down because I was lucky with my practice. In life, it is not only hard work that is important, but also good luck.
I did all my degrees at home. I never went to Secondary School. In my Advanced Level in 1954, two Igbo men and myself had the luck of passing four subjects at once. In 1958, I was the only candidate to get B. Sc. degree in Economics from the University of London.
When I was in London to be called to the Bar, our lecturer told us a story at my graduation. He said a junior asked for tips for success in his practice so he could succeed like him, and he gave him those tips, but the junior turned back 10 years after to say he has not succeeded even after applying the tips. The senior told him that there was one thing more which is in addition to those tips he should ask from God: good luck.
I have had good luck in my practice, representing almost all the eminent people in corporate and government circles in the country.
I maintain my chambers in Lagos, Ibadan, Abuja and Port Harcourt. I have produced the highest number of Senior Advocates in this country, 19 senior lawyers and three Attorneys-General. I am fulfilled. When I was invited to be Pro-Chancellor of UNILAG, I saw it as an opportunity to make a difference. I told President Olusegun Obasanjo I would not take any allowance or salaries, and I never did.
I met a lot of rot there, like where you have certificates given out without the Senate’s approval.
The roads were bad. I had put a building there before I invited many of my clients, such as Julius Berger, that tarred all the roads and built a new Engineering building, and Shell, Mobil and others which did their best too. In three years, I was awarded the best Pro-Chancellor.
I come from a poor family and was reluctantly schooled to Primary Six; I earned a pound a month with which I sponsored myself at London University and later, Oxford. I am the third African to be honoured by the University of London, after Dr. Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. My dream is to build a university that will be an example of how a university should be run and how it ought not to be run.
The National Universities Commission (NUC) has described our university as ‘a model, benchmark and reference point’.
The current NUC Executive Secretary, Prof. Abubakar Rasheed, said we have become “a pride of university education in Africa”. Only last week, we have turned out the first set of Medical Doctors who scored 100% in their examination. That has made us the first university in Nigeria to graduate its first set of Medical Doctors within eight years of existence. Mark you, their colleagues that started with them still have several years to graduate in other universities. We have been able to turn out students who believe in my philosophy or life which is that it is the man who works hardest that prays most, not the one who prays most. They have imbibed also the watchword which I drafted personally; they are industry, determination and above all, character.
I tell my students that they will be greater than me. One of them wrote on graduation day that “when you told us that we will be greater than you, we always wondered how it would be possible, but now we know better because you have planted yourself in us.” And they are doing that now, because we are building a new generation of Nigerians who are imbued with honesty, and realize that earning from one’s own sweat gives greater joy than looting the treasury.
The system here works, like a normal society. What is your perception about Nigeria compared to what obtains here, and how can Nigeria work?
I grew up to know Nigeria as a country with lots of hope. I was influenced by the thoughts of one man, the great Zik of Africa, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obodo Dike, and the great African leader, Dr. Joseph Aggrey of Ghana whose histories influenced me. I believed that if they could make it regardless of the fact that they had no support, then I could too. I never gave up. Nigerians of my generations, especially in Ekiti, did the same thing. The first three graduates never went to the university. That is why I teach about big people at my university.
Education is pivotal and in Nigeria, the education system is very poor. That is why we have the problems. With quality education, we can conquer poverty, ignorance and leap up in life. The Nigerian government is not giving to education its rightful percentage. UNESCO advised that 26% of their budget should be given to education but the military reduced it to 7% and since then it has not improved, even with the present government. That is why public schools in Nigerian dish out local education and award local certificates.
There is no world-class university in Nigeria today; if there is anything gravitating towards that, it is only a few private universities here. A world-class university must have courses, students, lecturers that will attract other students from the international communities.
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The NUC curriculum was handed down to our universities as far back as 70 years ago. That is what is still being taught in our public university till today and yet the world has moved beyond that. For instance, Mechatronics, a new modern system in Engineering, was started in this university. We fashioned five other courses to the NUC. The programmes are Human Biology, Social Justice, Intelligence & Security and Mechatronics as well as Tourism & Events Management. We are the first university to have those. We have foreign teachers, students and students from all the states of the federation.
Being a Jack-of-all-trades and master of all, how did you conceive all these?
I keep on asking myself how did I do this too? Honestly, I don’t know.
A writer said the success of the Afe Babalola University is hinged on his personal involvement. He is the de facto Chief Executive and also the Chief Marketer. He said the success of the university is almost 100% due to the efforts of the Founder. However, he is immortal and one day he would go. So what happens after that? But he has taught us how to run a good university and how not to run one.
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But I can assure you that I have put this university at a level that whenever I go there won’t be any reversal, it will be like Harvard and Oxford. We are getting there now, we have got accreditation in all courses up to Postgraduate level except in Medicine and will will get there very soon now that we have graduated the first set of Medical Doctors.
Twenty years is too long a time for us to become fully world-class. There is what we call Webometric rating which is done every six months for universities. Among the four areas, there is one area called Excellence, in which they score universities under 35 percent. In other areas, the rating carries 65 percent. Except a university is 10 years old, it cannot be scored under Excellence. In other areas, we have scored highest in 65 percent.
In two years, when we clock 10 and are rated under Excellence, we will be among the first 500 in Africa and among first 1000 in the world in another five years and be the first in the nation.
One of your projects is having Industrial Parks in all the Local Government Areas of the state. How far has that project gone?
Universities are built to develop the intellect, but it should be functional. We started Mechatronics as a new modern course in Engineering in this university, we are partnering with FESTO of Germany, the biggest Mechatronics firm in the world. Having graduated first and second set of students In Mechatronics Engineering, we want to go to the market and partner with Engineering companies, which will enable us to manufacture the equipment in the university.
Instead of the firms asking foreign companies to send their equipment, the companies will tell our university what they want as parts of automobiles and our university will design these and manufacture them. This is what the Industrial Parks will cater for.
We will have many factories here, and many companies have already indicated interest in partnering with us. The only problem we have is transportation. We have an unfinished project, the Airport. No state can develop without transportation, which includes train, airport and motor roads.
We urge the Federal Government to revisit the Airport project it approved for us alongside Bayelsa, Delta and Gombe which already are enjoying theirs now. We are completely landlocked in Ekiti and that is very unfortunate.
The Airport that we ought to have was frustrated by the immediate past state government. Two white men came from John Hopkins to my university for partnership. When they were returning to Lagos to catch their flight, they had a terrible encounter with armed robbers.
Fortunately, they were protected by the security I gave them. But after that horrifying experience, they never came back to Nigeria.