As the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, marks its 50th anniversary, an alumnus of the institution and Managing Director of Central Securities Clearing System Plc, Mr. Abba Kyari Bukar, in this interview with Uchechukwu Nnaike, goes down memory lane and highlights some of the issues affecting students, as well as his responsibilities as the CEO of a leading company. Excerpts:
Ahmadu Bello University is 50 this year, how do you feel as an alumnus?
Quite interesting; looking back at those ABU years, it gives me a sense of pride and fulfilment. In essence, I believe ABU at the time offered one of the best opportunities in the engineering and physical sciences in the country. Honestly, 50 years of celebration is a mark of achievement both for the university and for the alumni. I remember that during my time, a professor mentioned something during our matriculation to the effect that if we were to pull out all the alumni of ABU from civil service at the federal level, the Nigerian government will collapse.
Though, it was in a lighter mood, but looking through these 50 years of ABU, I believe the quality of human capital that it has produced over the years is a wonderful mark of achievement. I am proud to be an alumnus of ABU. Nostalgia was the feeling when, less than six months ago, I visited the university’s Nuclear Energy Centre and the Centre for Energy Research, which house the nuclear energy reactor of the Physics Department, where I graduated from. It was quite emotional to find that everything was still the same even though more students are passing and the entire town has changed. There were too many cars, too many people. But for some of us, we still reminisce the good old days of our great ABU.
Can you compare the quality of graduates of the university then and now?
Generally, the quality has certainly gone down. There seems to be lack of maintenance, the library is not what it used to be. Those days, we had journals in the library and well equipped laboratories. I remember that even though I was a Physics student, I used my first microscopic copy to do my Physics in the Geography Department. We used facilities across the university.
I even used facilities in the Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Departments during my days, but some of these facilities were hardly there the last time I visited.
The education we had was fundamental and broad-based and as such, a university graduate then was well groomed and grounded to face any challenge on his own. Today, unfortunately, the quality of graduates is not the same. This issue came to the fore in my previous job where we had to introduce pre-employment testing. When we test about 20 people, we hardly get two or three people that pass.
Out of that three, one of them must have graduated from a foreign university. So essentially, we have a very dismal quality. That means that there is need for us to look at our educational system critically, especially the university, which is probably the last in the educational process. This improvement should start at the nursery and primary level. If kids are well equipped at that level, even if through self-education, they tend to pick up quite naturally as they advance through the tertiary institutions. Therefore, we need to emphasise quite early on, at least the first four to five years of a child’s life and then onward to primary school, these are fundamentals of quality education.
When exactly where you at ABU as a student?
I was admitted into ABU in 1977 and graduated in 1980. Though we had two strike actions, generally, those were not the days of strikes. One was ‘Ali must go’, that was when Colonel Ahmadu Ali was the Minister of Education and General Olusegun Obasanjo was the military Head of State. I think it was about tuition introduction or something like that. But generally, there were very little interruptions through the educational process. Students were quite active politically, in the sense that they were the pulse of the nation.
There was extreme awareness probably because we were just coming out of a civil war and most Africa countries were going through independence and Nigeria was one of the countries that actually supported this African renaissance financially and morally. I remember some South Africans and Zimbabweans on scholarships by Nigerian government attending schools side by side with us. I also remember having some of the freedom fighters, especially in the southern part of Africa, attending or visiting ABU with their presidents to give lectures and so on.
I recall seeing Samara Michel and Augustine Nato, who visited us from Angola. Even the current Zimbabwe President, Robert Mugabe, then a freedom fighter for the UNITA rebels also visited us at ABU. So life in the university was quite enriching in the sense that it was not just academics, but we were generally exposed to what was happening in Africa and the world. That made us to be actively engaged both spiritually and physically in what was happening around us. For me, going through ABU was an experience that shaped who I am today.
If given an opportunity to choose a university, will you still go for ABU?
The quality of teachers and my fellow students who came from various parts of Nigeria and some from neighbouring West African countries was rich. For me, the environment was so enriching that, given the same circumstance; I wouldn’t have chosen any other institution.
I am saying this because I believe the quality of education then was the foundation for the grounding under one God. Let me give an example, in our final year in Physics, we were exposed to a course called Mechanics, which you might consider quite advanced for a graduate course. I remember Professor Micah, a Ghanaian gentleman who taught us the course, gave us a textbook by Mesbaker to help resolve some difficult problems we were working on. One was so difficult that we had to write a letter to the author.
I remember it was two of us that sent a letter to the author who was teaching in IMT, United States. He replied. It was quite funny because he did not only respond; he also sent additional materials and additional questions on the topic with application forms to the university. That is a kind of thing that happened in our lives.
The other interesting thing is that for our practical nuclear energy, we went to Germany to the Centre for Energy Research where even in our first year, we spent the entire summer doing hands-on experiment in Nuclear Energy, Reactor Physics and Health Physics, which actually gave us a strong grounding. So when I went to the US to do my graduate studies, the best course I took was Mathematical Methods for Scientists and Engineers. When I did that course the first time, I scored 100 per cent and the Professor said I shouldn’t have taken that course but I should actually have been the course tutor. I ended up becoming the tutor helping my other fellow students. Honestly, the foundation is the reason I am here today as MD of Central Securities Clearing System Plc.
Can you name some of your classmates that now occupy leading positions in the public service or private sector?
Yes a number of names come up like Alhaji Bintube, the current Managing Director of Jaiz International Bank. He was also my classmate in secondary school. The Director-General of National Pension Commission (PenCom), Mohammad Ahmad was also my classmate before we were admitted into ABU. The list goes on and there are others who occupy positions in private and public sectors and have contributed immensely to the growth of the country.
How has your career path been?
For me, it’s been quite interesting. I did the one year national service with Shell. Before then, Shell and Slumberger conducted what I call IT assessment programme and selected a few of us. I also was among the first set of people ABU enlisted to go to the US and UK for graduate studies.
So I left the country and went for Nuclear Engineering and Nuclear Physics and I ended up having my Nuclear Engineering at the Oregon State University. I developed a simulation programme for Physics and during the series of presentations, I ran into some engineers from HP and one thing led to the other, we had some interactions and they offered me a summer job with HP; culminating into a permanent employment.
So I made my first career change and joined the computing industry. That is from nuclear engineering, from designing nuclear reactors to designing and unveiling computers. It is all about looking at issues and trying to come with creative solutions.
Can you remember some of the teachers that influenced you in school?
One was my head of department, a lady by the name Professor Ajaikaye, who I learnt has left academics and is now consulting for oil firms. I would love to see her because she made a positive impact on me. In the first place, she was not the type of head of department that was always in the office. She taught us one or two courses in first year. In my final year, I had a challenge of getting access to the scanning electro microscope at the Geography department, she helped to pave the way; she was always willing to help.
The other professor whom I am still in contact with is Samsudeen Elegba, former director of the Energy Research Centre, ABU. He is the immediate past DG of Nigerian Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Abuja.
He was a young lecturer who just completed his PhD and so we could relate well because of the closeness in age gap. He is someone that can take you under his wings to assist you. In fact, he was the one that recommended me to attend Oregon State University because he did his PhD there and he needed to have a rival in the American football so that we can push one another when I return.
had a professor in solid state Physics, Brinksman, a British fellow, who also had some huge effect on me. There are also some professors in the department of Mathematics, Mallam Makaranchi, Ishaya Isa Mohammed, Karanda, a gentleman from Tanzania.
How was childhood like?
I was an active child in primary school, I used to play soccer in secondary school. I played both soccer and field hockey in the first-11 team of my school. We had enough eastern championships in Bauchi where we got a silver medal. Azare beat us in the finals. I also represented my school in quiz competition. I think we had the finals in Benin or Port Harcourt. It was a national championship and I think we got kicked out in the finals at the national level.
In the university, it was mostly books because in the Physics department, we used to have two days of laboratory work; on Tuesdays when I leave my dormitory in the morning, I will be in the laboratory until very late in the evening .With that type of life, you hardly have time for anything. The sporting activities I used to do in ABU was mostly in athletics. But I didn’t do it at competitive level but mainly for exercising. Later on in life, I picked up golf when I was in Oregon State University. I took a course in golf and I played for a while until I came back to Nigeria. So I love not only watching games, but also participating in them.
Do you regret any decision you have taken in Life so far?
Not that I remember. Before ABU as we were applying for admission, most of my friends wanted to study Architecture, some Engineering, but I wanted Physics. A friend of mine said that there was no money in Physics, ‘why don’t you choose Civil Engineering or something’? I remember he crossed the Physics and put Civil Engineering and then when I crossed it again and put Physics. If you can find the original application form of mine, it would be quite messy because there will be two to three cancellations of my first choice.
That fellow had also later in life, said ‘it is very funny that you wanted that thing even as a choice and that is what you pursued’. Therefore, the choice I made to study Physics in ABU was a choice that I contemplated since I was in primary school. I wanted to be an atomic physicist then and I had an interesting chat with my mother at the time because I saw and believed the picture of Einstein and one other professor Deathly, a UK professor in Atomic Science though I didn’t even know what an atomic scientist does.
But that was what I wanted to be and I ended up studying Physics and going for Nuclear Engineering. It was an interesting choice that was made quite early in my life that I stuck to. However, I haven’t practiced any of those things; I ended up doing some other things throughout my life. That is why I tell parents that if your children decide to do something, let them do it.
Don’t insist on them becoming an accountant or a medical doctor or whatever. Yes, these are professions that you would wish your kids do that you failed to accomplish yourself, but don’t put your own expectation on your child. I believe very strongly that whatever options children decide to do with their lives, the best the parents can do is to support them.
Will it be right to label you a risk taker?
Risk taker is a good label; not a blind, but a well calculated risk taker in the sense that even as a kid, I loved Physical Sciences. It is Biology that I hated. I wouldn’t probably be a good doctor but I could certainly be an engineer or physicist or even a mathematician.
So the risk was minimised by the fact that I have a natural inclination towards the Physical Sciences. In fact, I remember receiving a letter from my dad when I entertained the idea of staying with Shell because they had offered me a job.
I remember the pay was about the equivalent of three times the pay of a graduate assistant in any of the Nigerian universities, but I decided to follow my passion. I went for my graduate studies in Nuclear Engineering. Having joined HP, which is the world renowned technology company, my career progressed there, every two, three years, I was being promoted and I reached senior management position. At the time, I was entertaining the idea of working with HP for the rest of my life and retiring and coming back to Nigeria. For me, to decide to come to Nigeria and join FSB International Bank was a risky decision in the sense that, ‘why would you leave the US or why would you leave a company like HP for FSB’! But at the same time, it was not a decision informed by money, prestige or anything.
I believe it was what I would call an autistic decision in the sense that I had a young family, my daughter was just turning nine and we were entertaining the idea of her coming to Nigeria for her secondary education. Having joined FSB as an executive director, I believe that would be the pinnacle of the career of most people. But when the opportunity of becoming the MD of ValuCard Nigeria Plc, now Unified Payment Services came, I found out that ValuCard was bankrupt. It had lost money since it was started and was still losing money. Someone who left a cosy job like an ED in a bank and embraced that uncertainty can be characterised as a very risky person. However, at the same
time, it was a calculated risk because I know and will continue to believe that electronic payment is going to grow at a phenomenal pace.
I had a professor in business in the US that once told me that if you must go into an industry business, go into an emerging one. So you have to have certain skills, certain risk management framework and a bit of luck to make a success out of a near comatose company.
How does your as day as a CEO look like?
My day, during the week, starts, very early. I am up usually at 4.30 am or so. By 5.00 am to 5.15 am, I would have prayed. I exercise and catch up by logging onto the internet, check my mails and respond to mails. By the time the rest of the family is getting up, I would have put in at least two hours. I take my shower and I am usually on my way to the office between 6.00 to 6.30 am. Sometimes by 7.00 am I am usually on my desk unless I have an appointment elsewhere. And I do a lot of work before the rest of the people show up. By 8.30am meetings take over.
I tend to have lunch on my desk if I am very busy. But the best lunch is to go outside because changing your environment helps. My day stops between 5.00 pm and 6.00 pm in the office and usually I am home early unless I have an evening appointment. When I get home, I will have dinner with my wife. Thereafter, I watch news and make few phone calls. My other habit is that I turn off my phones around 9.00/9.30 pm. So by 9.30 pm, I am usually disconnected from the world and go to bed. By 10/10.30 pm, I am usually in bed.
Apart from the family cycle, how do you socialise?
My socialisation involves basically what I call eating with friends. I can have breakfast and lunch meetings. For me, eating a meal is not about eating, but having time to discuss. So meeting my friends for lunch or dinner, especially during holiday, is the best time to have fun. In terms of activities, I have actually reduced the social activities. I do not for example, go to clubs or anything like that, but I swim much more than I used to. Most other times, I stay at home with the kids.