By PETER AGBA KALU
Here is an academic who has excelled from cradle to his present professional status. Here is a man who serves God and man and is known as a man of honour and integrity. Here in one person is a first class engineer, an internationally reputed academic, a community leader, an astute administrator, a disciplined team player, a venerable clergyman and a brave and courageous leader. Here is a spokesman for National Transformation who delivered the 2010 version of the famous AHIAJOKU LECTURE series. That lecture was a stunning call for national rebirth and has been published over and over again because of the demand for it.
His name is Professor Chinedu Ositadinma Nebo, Vice Chancellor Emeritus of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Archdeacon in the Anglican Church, and now Vice Chancellor, Federal University, Oye-Ekiti, Ekiti State.
Born on June 3, 1952, in Kafanchan in Kaduna State of Nigeria. He started his primary education six years later in 1959 at Ibadan District Council School and completed it in Municipal Council School, Port Harcourt in 1965. Although, he was one of the 21 candidates from the then Eastern Region who passed the entrance examination into King’s College, Lagos, his father refused his attending King’s College on health grounds.
Having bagged a distinction in the First School Leaving Certificate, he won the school scholarship of Government Secondary School, Afikpo, but opted for the Government Scholarship so as not to deny another worthy student of the opportunity. Indisputably one of the top students in his set, he gained accelerated promotion that would ensure he writes his West African School Certificate Examination in four years, instead of the regular five.
However, while in Class 2, the Nigeria Civil war started. And being an idealistic youngster, he opted to join the Biafran Army. He was selected for training as an officer cadet at the age of sixteen and was commissioned a second Lieutenant after three months of training. Being one of the best military graduands, he was one of the forty selected for the Advanced Platoon Commanders’ course, after which he was deployed to the STF Division in Arochukwu. He was later posted to Lions’ Brigade, and then to Eagles’ Battalion where he was made the officer commanding the “D” Company. Ironically, one of his very senior Old Boys, who was in Class Upper six when he (Chinedu) was in class one, was later posted to him as his Second-in-Command (Company 2 i-c). Chinedu thus ended up with a big brother as his assistant.
After the civil war, he returned to Government Secondary School, Afikpo, which was then temporarily stationed in Enugu. He passed his West African School Certificate in flying colours. Thereafter, Chinedu proceeded to Government College, Umuahia, for higher School. Though he retained his scholarship at Umuahia, he later showed preference for Afikpo.
Chinedu later won a federal government scholarship to study Mining Engineering in the United States of America. He attended the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, reputed to be one of the best Mining and Metallurgical Engineering Institutions in America. He graduated in May 1978 with First Class Honours and received the university-wide prize as an outstanding student. While a student, he married his sweetheart, Ifeyinwa, and their first daughter was actually born eight days before his Bachelors Degree. Although Chinedu received six different scholarship awards for M.Sc/Ph.D. studies, he settled for an M.Sc. first because of his growing family.
After obtaining an M.Sc. in Metallurgical Engineering, he worked for DUVAL Corporation for nearly two years to obtain practical industrial experience in running a mine and processing minerals into metals. During his M.Sc. studies, he received research grants from the industry to conduct Kinetics studies in a hydrometallurgical environment.
On returning to Nigeria in 1981, the legendry Professor Kenneth Dike invited and encouraged him to join Anambra State University of Technology (ASUTECH). Professor Dike sold to him, his vision of making ASUTECH the greatest university in Africa and the black world. Chinedu quickly caught the vision and bought the idea. At that time, there was no other university in Nigeria offering Mining and Metallurgical Engineering. Shortly after, in 1983, he won a federal government postgraduate scholarship to study Materials Engineering in the U. S. A. In addition, he won an International Fellowship for the same purpose.
Professor Nebo returned to ASUTECH on bagging his Ph.D. and embarked on his mission to help train the critical mass of professionals needed for the take-off and running of a robust solid minerals industry in Nigeria. A Fulbright Scholar, Nebo has served as a Visiting Professor of Metallurgical Engineering in South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and the University of Nevada, Reno, both in the U. S. A.
He was appointed the pioneer Vice Chancellor of Federal University, Oye-Ekiti in February 2011.
In this interview, he speaks about his rise and rise in the academic world, various experiences that shaped his life, life as an academic and preacher, as well as values that we need to imbibe to achieve greatness.
I understand that your growing up was traumatic, which made people to refer to you as a miracle child. Can you please tell us the events that led to this?
Well, as with several families back then, and still now, my parents did witness the death of a child. But for their deep-seated faith in God, they almost gave up hope in life. Before I was baptized as an infant, my parents had just lost my elder brother few days before his second birthday. And so upon being baptized, my father, in demonstration of his desire to have me stay alive and grow into adulthood, did name me Ositadinma, meaning ‘it is well from this day onward’.
But again as if to test that faith and hope, I suffered a fall from the ceiling roof of a towering church/school building and landed on a concrete floor with my head (skull); thereby sustaining a deep depression thereon. I literally passed out in the process and was unconscious for about a day.
In addition, I was very sickly as a child, and there was no infantile ailment that was prevalent at the time that I did not succumb to. My entire childhood thereafter was chequered with debilitating health challenges, as I was easily susceptible to every manner of illness and epidemic back then. German measles, chickenpox, asthma, just name it, and I did suffer it. I was so ill at childhood that nobody ever thought I would live beyond that stage of my life.
But this was all capped up when I had that very traumatic fall in my school hall. I had landed on the hard concrete floor with my head. As a result, my skull was badly affected and a part was quite depressed. The injury was so bad, the medical doctor at Kafanchan felt that they could not treat me. Since there was no available car to take me, and they did not even think that I could survive a car, mammy wagon, or even a truck journey by road, they had to wait for the next available train the next day.
And it turned out to be a goods train. They put me in the goods train all the way to Jos, to the General or Specialist Hospital at the time. This was shortly after my 10th birthday, and I spent several weeks in the children’s ward of the Jos General Hospital. But in answer to my parents’ desperate plea to God, and in particular, my father’s vow to donate me to God should He heal me, I miraculously survived that death sentence.
The doctors looked at me and felt that I could not survive because I had sustained enough brain damage to render me mentally incapacitated for life. And that if I did not die or suffer brain damage as a result of that fall, then, I should be regarded as a living miracle. That was what he told my parents.
The doctor was a very lanky, handsome American. That was my first time of seeing an American and it was an American doctor, a very young man. But by the grace of God, not only did I survive, I did not have any mental injury. But my skull is still slightly depressed till date on account of that injury and by the grace of God, all the after-effect is that mostly I have not been able to pass a single hearing test from that day in October, 1962 to this time. I still have ringing in my ears., Doctors call it tinnitus. This has made it difficult for me to hear low frequency and high frequency sounds. But apart from that, I am okay. I am a regular human being, all to the glory of God.
You are a living miracle, indeed. But from that point you went on to become a professor?
Yes, by the grace of God.
There was no hindrance while you were studying?
No. Apart from what I have said about my impaired hearing, there was no problem. While I was growing up, my hearing was slightly impaired and I had to sit at the front row in every class, apart from the rest of my primary school where we were assigned seats in every class. But from secondary school to PhD, I always sat in front of the class whenever we were allowed to choose our seats, so that I would hear and could read people’s lips to be sure that I compare the sounds and their lips as they spoke.
Apart from that, it never affected my studies. I went on to pass my first school leaving certificate with distinction, went to Government College, Afikpo, with scholarship, actually winning two scholarships and I chose one. I finished and went to the university with scholarship of the Federal Government of Nigeria, and then graduated with first class honours and got a scholarship for my PhD. So, from class one in secondary school to PhD, it was all scholarship for me. So, that fall and my childhood ailments did not affect my ability or capacity to learn and to utilize my knowledge.
Was this circumstance that drew you closer to God?
Actually, just before I had that ghastly accident, I had been seeking the Lord. I kept asking my parents what I needed to do to know that I was going to heaven. The usual thing they said was that at the day of judgment, if my good deeds outweigh the bad deeds, that I would go to heaven. But that if I was not a good enough boy and the bad deeds outweigh the good deeds, I would end up in hell fire. Still not being satisfied, I kept asking and finally my father gave me the bible that was given to him when he was baptized in 1937 and told me that I was free to read everything in it except the book of Revelation. He said the book of Revelation would make me mad! But as God would have it, I started with the book of John. This gospel according to St. John opened my eyes and I met Christ at the age of 10. Reading that gospel of St. John, especially chapter 3, before the accident happened gave me the assurance that I would go to heaven whenever I die.
When I had that accident, my classmates went and told my parents that I was dead and they believed it. They believed that maybe the reason that I was asking them of how to go to heaven was that I had a premonition of my death. They did not know that I survived the accident until they got to the hospital and found out that though I was comatose, that I was still alive. I really met the Lord a little before that accident occurred.
What are the first major steps you will take in the new university to ensure a sustainable foundation?
By the special grace of God, I am a product of a highly disciplined culture. I did not on my own choose such a culture of rectitude for my upbringing. It simply grew up inside me-thanks to God for my parents and my teachers, who, at each point of the way, strengthened me. You see, every leader is a product of his society or community; and so an enabling environment is a great asset and architect of good leader(s). Good leaders should lead by example. Having such an understanding means that whenever a leader lives right, in private and in the open, everybody believes in him, and so obeys whatever code of conduct he institutes for that environment.
To answer your question, therefore, among the first thing I am doing here in the Federal University, Oye-Ekiti, is the very thing I’m already used to doing, which is to live right and lead right by example, God being my helper.
At Nsukka, you did a marvelous work. Now, at Oye-Ekiti, I have gone round and I am satisfied with what is on ground. So far, what is your leadership philosophy? What motivates you when you find yourself in circumstances like this?
First and foremost is that I see leadership as a trust by God and by society. God said: “My child, I am putting you in this position as a servant leader, not as a boss but as a servant leader and you are accountable to me.” Then, I see this position as confidence bestowed on and reposed in me by the society and with that, I now know that I am accountable to God, primarily, and then to the society, secondarily. And then, I go on and build a formidable team. I believe in teamwork, and that teamwork is what I do first. I get a group of people who believe the same way I believe, with regard to commitment to altruistic service; service beyond self, service beyond self-aggrandizement; service beyond self worship, service beyond self adoration and so on.
And with that kind of a team of formidable knowledge-driven individuals, we begin to map out what we want to do. For instance, at UNN, I did so and so, the records are there. Over here at Oye-Ekiti, being a virgin land, we have to add to whatever we were doing, with a lot of prayers. We prayed a lot, at the onset. We dreamt together with members of my team. We worked together and ensured there were no obstacles through the power and grace of God that we did not overcome. So, first, I regard leadership as confidence reposed in me by the society, and then, commit myself to excellence as a result of the fact that it couldn’t have come from the society without God first willing it.
Let us look at the structures you put on ground. What motivates you to visualize some of the things? Like I visited the ICT centre, it should be among the best that I have seen.
God, our heavenly Father, is my greatest motivation. He calls us to utilize all the faculties he has given us to transform our world and make it a better place for His creatures.
The African Leadership Forum Centre is trying to turn a silent village into an African knowledge centre. And the opportunity of developing the tourism potential of this area because of the way you are engaging in some tourism-related projects is huge. So, what motivates you to envision these things? Is it still the God factor because, from your track records, you’re an original thinker?
Yes. The God factor, primarily because God created mankind and said “increase, multiply, replenish the earth and subdue it.” So, the issue of conservation of resources, proper utilization of resources, proper husbanding and stewardship of the environment, all are part of God-given responsibilities to man. So, I would say that the primary factor is the God factor. Second, is that I never want to be in a place without turning the place around for better or for good.
If I am given a bad place, I want to turn my environment around for good. If I am given a good place, I want to turn it around for better. If I am given a better place, I want to do my best and make it even better. I want to add value to wherever I am and to ensure that I never left any place without imprint of excellence, because if there is anything I am addicted to, it is a drive for excellence.
I don’t even want to be just good, let alone mediocre; I have never been an average person in my life, I have never operated as a mediocre and I feel very uncomfortable if I have mediocre all around me. That is why, I can go out of my way to attract some of the best people around me to make sure that we work at the same frequency and that we are moving and that whatever system that has been committed to us is being propelled robustly forward.
You are in the system but somehow you have not allowed the system to corrupt you. This story might surprise you: a lecturer in Nsukka once told me that when you were the Deputy VC at ESUT, you helped the sister-in-law to gain admission. That, one day, they came to thank you but the first person they met was your wife who said you will be mad that they brought something. And that actually, when you came, you expressed your annoyance on why they brought something to thank you. So, why is Nebo different?
You see the problem in our country is that unless you are different, you will not impact on the society. I am always aware of the fact that the younger generation are looking for role models and if I am modeling leadership, and I have not shown myself to be distinctively different and to be distinctively superior to the level of leadership they are used to, then, I have not made my mark and that is why till today we refuse to accept gifts from people as gratification for whatever it is. While I was there at Enugu State University of Technology, we literally had to admit thousands of students who had nobody to speak for them.
We never took anything from anybody, same at UNN and it will be the same here. It will be no different here. So far, we are going only by merit here. I don’t think it is anything particularly special that one refuses to become a Nigerian that way. No. Rather, I think that is the way it should be. Our young people ought to know that you can be your best, do your best, serve your country without expecting any personal gratification for the things you do. To me, it is just my life style and not that I have to go out of my way.
No. It is just natural. If I have done my work, if I have been compassionate, if I have been true to mankind, if I have been kind, why should I be rewarded for that? There is only one who rewards and that is God. And he has always rewarded me abundantly.