The Verdict By Olusegun Adeniyi, Email: olusegun.adeniyi@thisdaylive.com

 The verdict olusegun By Olusegun Adeniyi: olusegun.adeniyi@thisdaylive.com

President Muhammadu Buhari was in Qatar last week and the major news that came out of the visit was the signing of Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA) between Nigeria and Qatar to pave way for direct flights between major cities of both countries. While I continue to wonder whether any due diligence was done by the relevant authorities before committing Nigeria to such an agreement, there are pertinent questions as to whose idea this BASA deal is. Since Nigeria currently has no national carrier, it stands to reason that Qatar initiated the idea and that is where the problem lies: I don’t believe that the interest of our people was served by the agreement.

Early in January this year, I got a mail from a lady, Mrs Chioma Okigbo, narrating one of those unpleasant experiences to which Nigerians are usually subjected in their own country. On receiving the mail (with supporting documents), I immediately forwarded them to THISDAY aviation editor, Chinedu Eze, asking him to investigate the claims and give me a feedback. Since Mrs Okigbo’s enclosed her phone number, I also called to assure her I would follow up on the matter. It took Chinedu a week to get back to me but he confirmed Mrs Okigbo’s story. Now, this was what she wrote in her mail:

“Dear Mr. Olusegun Adeniyi,
“I felt a need to share an event that happened to me with you. On 19th November, 2015, I accessed Qatar Airways website with the intention of purchasing a ticket to visit Doha and Dubai. The visit to Dubai was the major reason for the trip as we had planned a reunion of our secondary school classmates from all over the world in that location. Having a friend working in Doha, I opted to leave Nigeria some days earlier than the planned reunion dates of 25th – 28th February.

“Before buying my ticket, I confirmed from the website that the airline was able to process visa for visitors to Qatar; in fact this information was very prominently displayed on their website. I proceeded to purchase my ticket and on Tuesday, January 19th, a month to my travel date, I visited Qatar Airways website again, this time to complete the visa process. The site redirected me to a website called Discover Qatar, which I believe is the official information center for all visitors to Qatar and had been set up by the Qatari government to provide accurate and timely travel information to visitors. I was required to complete a simple form but the first unpleasant surprise was that Nigeria was not listed among the countries under the pull down menu for Nationality. I found this curious and told my classmates that I had planned the Doha trip with a friend (who would be flying in from London) and she suggested that a country called Niceau was their own clever way of writing Nigeria. I decided however to contact the center and make proper inquiries.

“To my shock and utter dismay, I received an almost instant response from the website informing me that the government of Qatar does not issue visas to Nigerian nationals. This response upset me a great deal and raised a number of questions in my head: If we, as Nigerians are not good enough to visit their country, what exactly are they doing running an airline in ours? What is the Nigerian Government’s stance on Qataris visiting Nigeria? Do we issue visas to them or are they also not allowed in Nigeria? Why is the Federal Government of Nigeria allowing a company to run a business in Nigeria, whilst their host country feels we are all criminals?

“Anyway, I went to the Qatar Airways office where, by the way, I met some really nice Nigerians, and asked for a full refund. To add insult to injury, the airline will be deducting a 10 percent fee for cancellation! Where in the world is this fair and equitable? I felt that I needed to share this with you as I do not know the number of other unsuspecting Nigerians that would be affected by such discrimination.”

When THISDAY sought explanation for such discrimination against our nationals, the Qatar Airways Lagos Airport Manager, who simply gave his name as Hashim said: “for a Nigerian to get a Qatari visa, he ought to have a sponsor who is resident in Qatar; that is the new policy for those countries that are not listed among the nations that its citizens are allowed to visit the country (Qatar).”

And it is this same Qatar with which Nigeria has just signed a BASA deal!
For those who still may not get it, what we are dealing with here is not the usual impunity of some foreign companies operating in our country, the summary of Mrs Okigbo’s ordeal is that Qatar Airways operates and makes money from Nigeria yet our citizens are considered not good enough to enter their country like other nationals.
There are several critical issues here for both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Consumer Protection Council but I will highlight only two. First, Mrs Okigbo was practically fleeced of 10 percent of her ticket money because she did not embark on a flight to a country that would not give her a visa. Two, it is an official policy of Qatar to discriminate against nationals of Nigeria.

I believe that the humiliating experience of Mrs Chioma Okigbo should not be seen as a personal insult, it is a serious affront to our country. What is perhaps more worrying is that the presidential statement announcing the BASA deal went further to disclose that Nigeria has commenced discussions on partnership (with Qatar, I imagine) towards establishing a national carrier without providing any details.

Given that the nation’s aviation industry is currently going through financial crisis with many of our local airlines highly indebted, the Buhari administration has refused to answer the most pertinent question about this idea of national carrier that is being driven more by nostalgia than economic common sense: On what model will the flag carrier be based and what are the funding plans, especially at a time like this?

Again, coming up with a prestige project at a time Nigeria needs all the resources it can muster to meet pressing national demands betrays a clear lack of seriousness on the part of this administration. Against the background that even countries like Italy and others that are better managed have found running airlines a difficult proposition with most of them divesting from the business, I still fail to understand what is driving this obsession with national carrier. However, more pertinent is the question of why the latest announcement was made in Doha after signing the BASA deal.

Since our international aviation sector is very lucrative (Nigerians travel a lot and to everywhere in the world) and we currently do not have a national carrier, the implication of any BASA deal with Qatar can only be to the advantage of Qatar Airways. While I should not begrudge them for that, I hope the Nigerian authorities also have ready answers for the questions posed by Mrs. Chioma Okigbo. Yet, there is something in this untidy affair that should make one very sad. Apparently because we are now looking anywhere and everywhere for “foreign investors”, we don’t have a sense of shame anymore. But just how cheap can a nation be?

A Gathering of Great Ife!
Last Saturday night, the Abuja branch of the Great Ife Alumni Associations held its 2016 annual dinner. Among the several prominent graduates of Ife in attendance were the Minister Of Communications Technology, Alhaji Adebayo Shittu; JAMB Registrar and a former VC at Ife, Prof. Dibu Ojerinde; immediate past VC at Ife and current Secretary General, Committee of Vice Chancellors of Nigerian Universities, Prof. Mike Faborode; President of the National Industrial Court, Justice Babatunde Adejumo and his wife, Justice Bimbo Adejumo of the Federal High Court, Ibadan Division, both of whom were graduates of Ife. There were also Prof. Ayobami Salami, DVC Academics; Mr. Wole Olaoye, a respected former students union leader at Ife and one of the brains behind the alumni associations; Secretary General, ECOWAS Parliament, Dr. Nelson Magbagbeola; House of Reps member, Hon Akintola Taiwo; Asst. Corps Marshal at the FRSC, Dr. Kayode Olagunju and several others.

I must commend the Chairman of the Abuja Branch, Elder Abiodun Akanji, his immediate predecessor, Mr. Omolaja Adisa Saibu and other (past and present) officials of the Great Ife alumni association for their commitment to the development of our alma mater. They are worthy ambassadors of Great Ife.

Last Saturday, the worldwide president, Mr Segun Oke, who spoke on behalf of the 37 Great Ife alumni associations represented at the dinner, highlighted some of the current projects being embarked upon at the campus to include the Alumni Guest House, a three-star hotel with about 120 rooms to be managed by an International Hotel Management group. There is also the Student Village which is to be constructed on 11.42 hectares of land and is projected to cost about N 7.5 billion. It will have 12 blocks of 312 rooms per block and will accommodate about 8,000 students.
To be executed on Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT) basis, it is designed to have facilities for recreation, shopping, reading, ICT, eatery and banking while the fund for the project, according to Oke, has been secured. “We are presently at the stage of signing a tripartite MoU with the developer and the University. With this, we believe the current accommodation problem on campus will be drastically reduced. I am very sure this will be first of its kind in any Nigeria University. Great Ife always set the pace,” Oke said.

When it was his time to speak, Alhaji Shittu, a proud product of Ife law faculty, asked me a pointed but very loaded question from the podium: “Segun, which one did you attend: University of Ife or Obafemi Awolowo University?” When I replied him by saying, “both”, the audience laughed thinking I was joking. Well, I was admitted into the University of Ife in 1985 but graduated from Obafemi Awolowo University in 1989. In between, on 12th May 1987 to be specific, the name of the institution was unfortunately changed (many students were weeping openly) by former military president, General Ibrahim Babangida.

However, last Saturday, the “big guns” who attended University of Ife like the Hon. Minister Shittu (not to forget my brother, Edo Ukpong!), the ‘Eaglets’ who attended Obafemi Awolowo University like my sister, Mrs Josephine Mudashiru and the rest of us who attended ‘both’ mingled together in a night of fun. Meanwhile, I was invited to the dinner as guest speaker and my brief intervention dwelt on the roles alumni associations can, and indeed should, play as drivers of social change on our campuses. Below is my short dinner speech.
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Four brothers attended the same University and they were all successful in their chosen fields. Several years after graduation, their alumni association was having its annual dinner as we are doing today and all the brothers decided to attend so they could catch up with one another. On that day, as the dinner was going on, they discussed the gifts they were able to give their elderly mother who lived far away in another town.

The first said, “I had a big house built for Mama.”

The second said, “I had an Olympic size swimming pool built in the house.”

The third said, “I had my Mercedes dealer deliver an SL600 to her.”

The fourth said, “You know how Mama loved reading the Bible and you know she can’t
read anymore because she can’t see very well. I met this preacher who told me about a parrot that can recite the entire Bible. It took twenty preachers 12 years to teach him. I had to pledge to contribute ten million Naira a year for twenty years to the church, but it was worth it. Mama just has to name the chapter and verse and the parrot I bought for her will recite it.”

The other brothers were impressed, believing that the idea of getting a parrot to read the bible to their mother was an ingenious one. Well, as it would happen, in the course of the holiday, their mother sent out her Thank You notes. To the first she wrote: “Chukwudi, the house you built is so huge I live in only one room, but I have to clean the entire house all the time. Thanks anyway.”

And to the second, the message was: “Ibrahim, I am too old to travel. I stay home and I have my foodstuff delivered, so I never use the Mercedes Benz. But the thought was good. Many thanks.”

To the third, the mother wrote: “Omonla, you gave me an Olympic size swimming pool but I can no longer swim, so I will never be able to use it. However, I appreciate the gesture all the same.”

Finally, she wrote to the beloved son who sent the Bible-reading parrot: “Dearest Heineken, you were the only son to have the good sense to give a little thought to your gift. The chicken you sent was very delicious after cooking it. I cannot thank you enough for it.”

Mr. Chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to be here tonight to join exemplary ambassadors of Great Ife as we reflect on our common bond. But first, I must commend the efforts of the executive members of this association and the representatives of 37 other Great Ife alumni associations who are here tonight for your doggedness in identifying with an institution that contributed significantly to making all of us what we are today.
This is a positive development because all over the world, universities, to a large extent, actually owe their survival and development to the vibrancy and enthusiasm of their alumni associations. Unfortunately, that is one critical resource we are yet to tap into in Nigeria.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I am well aware that we are invited here tonight to eat and not to talk. But I have been conscripted to share a few thoughts on how our universities can invest in building loyal alumni associations as vital partners in the development of our campuses. I don’t intend to take more than a few minutes in doing that so we can all enjoy our dinner. However, I must point out, as I said earlier, that where alumni associations are concerned, we have not really started in Nigeria. What we have basically are social clubs by which some former students come together from time to time to network among themselves. I am sorry to say, in other societies, alumni associations represent more than that. Yet if there is any period in our history as a nation that we need the alumni associations to take ownership of their alma mater, it is now.

About three years ago, the Committee on Needs Assessment of Nigerian Public Universities, identified common problems among Nigerian universities. Some of these challenges include but are not limited to lack of critical infrastructure like libraries and laboratories; preponderance of teachers lacking in requisite skills; poor learning environment and so on. These identified inadequacies and many other problems have contributed to the declining quality of education in our country.

It is therefore little surprise that a great number of graduates of Nigerian universities are said to be unemployable, as they lack sufficient knowledge and skills that will enable them to serve themselves, their employers and the larger society. This problem can easily be traced to the neglect that the sector has suffered over the years. Yet while inadequate funding has been one of the major impediments to the development of the education sector in our country, policy makers have not demonstrated the will to devise a way to address this challenge.

For instance, a 2012 World Bank table of the annual budgetary allocation to education by some selected countries placed Nigeria at the bottom, occupying the 20th position out of 20 countries selected. Nigeria’s yearly budgetary allocations to education constitute an average 10 percent of our national budget over the years. This pales in comparison to many other African countries and falls short of UNESCO’s recommended standard of at least 26 percent. South Africa allocates an average of about 25 percent, Cote d’Ivoire 30 percent, Kenya 23 percent and neighbouring Ghana 30 percent.

Given that the government will continue to find it increasingly difficult to meet up with its responsibilities, especially now with the dwindling price of oil, the administrators of our universities have to be more creative. To the extent that alumni associations represent a significant and vocal constituency in the education sector, I believe that our universities can begin to draw support from their ex-students. In doing so, the critical areas in our education system will be impacted positively.

Ordinarily, the main aims of an alumni association are to create a desire among ex-students to identify themselves with their university; to generate and sustain such interest and participation in the affairs of their alma mater; to contribute to the developments of the university and to promote the university’s name and reputation. But enlisting the support of alumni associations in funding demands hard work for which reaping can only come after years of investment in building sustainable relationship.

As things stand today, it will also take considerable efforts, time and planning as scholars in the field have pointed out. The point is that reaching out to graduates and long-time students of schools is a momentous task, specifically because it entails keeping track of the university’s database.

However, aside the challenge of record keeping in Nigeria, our universities still do not appreciate the enormous potentials that are in alumni associations in the area of fund raising. For instance, I spent just one academic session at Harvard University as a research fellow and ever since I completed the programme in May 2010, I have, on a daily basis received mails from the university on current developments, what alumni members are doing and so on. By identifying me as one of their own and keeping track of me, Harvard expects me to give back to the present and future generations of their students. It is a strategy that has worked for them and several other institutions of learning over many decades.

It was with that in mind, that I visited Ife about four years ago and seeing the decay for which I didn’t blame the school authorities and couldn’t have blamed them knowing their constraints, I decided to do a media intervention so I could raise the consciousness of others like me to whom Great Ife gave so much. The idea was to start a conversation that could galvanise past graduates of Ife to take ownership of the institution by giving back in such a manner that we would make it the centre of excellence and the most beautiful campus in Africa that it used to be. Unfortunately, the well-meaning intervention turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes of my life.

Within days of the publication of my piece, respected professors, including those old enough to be my father were deployed to attack me in the media yet my intervention was without any malice. There was no word of abuse in the dictionary that was not deployed to demolish me by people whose cause I thought I was projecting. Incidentally, what I was trying to avert happened not too long ago with unedifying stories on the internet about the sordid ordeals of students on our great campus.

Even though I have put the incident behind me, following some well-meaning interventions from the campus, I was so hurt at the period that I resolved I was never going to have anything to do with Great Ife again. But it was easier said than done. And I want to say here tonight that I still want to be part of the efforts to use the alumni associations to begin to raise funds for the advancement of that great university that I love so much.
The point that needs to be underscored is that the involvement of alumni associations in fund-raising projects reflects a positive commitment to repay the institution for the education received and it is a major social phenomenon in many countries, with the United States being the best example. For instance, 42 percent of all alumni in the USA are donors. Statistics also reveals that about 25 percent of university graduates worldwide at some time give to their undergraduate institutions.

Therefore, as former graduates of Great Ife, we have a special and critical role to play as the bridge between the past, the present and the future. Yet, such supports need not be financial only. They can include the provision of infrastructures, stocking of libraries with relevant books and laboratories with important items of equipment. If we must secure the future, we must begin to defend the integrity of the learning spaces and those of us here in this room today can begin with Great Ife. We must collectively intervene to ensure development and progress in the reformation of the campus. Our interventions can come collectively or separately. What we should never forget is that there is great reward in giving back to the system that in a way impacted our lives. If we do nothing, the rot will continue and it may haunt us all in future.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, alumni associations in Nigeria are critical stakeholders in this whole process of reforming the education sector. All of us must see this as a call to duty. We must provide all the necessary support to drive change in this most critical sector. And if we are serious, we can use Great Ife as a model in that direction. As I take my seat, let me share with you a popular online story many of you must have heard or read before:
A group of alumni, highly established in their careers, got together to visit their old university professor. Conversation soon turned into complaints about stress in work and life. Offering his guests coffee, the professor went to the kitchen and returned with a large pot of coffee and an assortment of cups – porcelain, plastic, glass, crystal, some plain looking, some expensive, some exquisite, telling them to help themselves to hot coffee.

When all the students had a cup of coffee in hand, the professor said: “If you noticed, all the nice looking expensive cups were taken up, leaving behind the plain and cheap ones behind. While it is normal for you to want only the best for yourselves, that is the source of your problems and stress. What all of you really wanted was coffee, not the cup, but you consciously went for the best cups and were eyeing each other’s cups. Now if life is coffee, then the jobs, money and position in society are the cups. They are just tools to hold and contain Life, but the quality of Life doesn’t change. Sometimes, by concentrating only on the cup, we fail to enjoy the coffee in it.”

So, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, don’t bother about the plates with which you are served tonight, just enjoy the dinner. But more importantly, never forget that in Great Ife we all have a tie that binds and we are family now. Thank you very much for inviting me here today. May God bless all of us. And may God continue to bless our own dear Great Ife.
· Remark at the 2016 Obafemi Awolowo University Alumni Association, Abuja branch Dinner on 27 February, 2016