In this interview with Charles Ajunwa and Ahamefula Ogbu, former Vice-Chancellor of University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) and former Minister of Power, Professor Chinedu Nebo, insists that the current educational curriculum ensures Nigeria is left behind in the global scheme of things. He explained why he birthed the idea of Post-UTME, issue of sex for mark and the need to resist underhand practices in our ivory towers. Excerpts
When you became the VC of UNN, you met a very horrible situation on ground security wise, how exactly were you able to sanitise that environment and return it to a full academic work?
You know, when I went to University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) people called it ‘National War College II’ because two years before I became vice-chancellor, cultists assassinated the Chief Security Officer of the university. A year before I became vice-chancellor cultists assassinated the dean of the faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences. Occasionally, cultists would seize the entire university, take all the walkie-talkies from the security people and announce that they were now running the university. So calling it ‘National War College’ wasn’t too far-fetched. It was horrible! Any time there was going to be a convocation they send the students packing. So university was essentially closed down for a week or two because of convocation to avoid cultists from disrupting it. It never happened during my regime. But you ask how? I started by studying the entire situation and inviting the governor to assist me.
The governor at that time was Dr. Chimaroke Nnamani and he was very sympathetic because I took this situation to him when people started screaming at me that VCs never get out of their lodges by 6 p.m. They said if I do it, I could be lynched by the students and then I realised that almost every day there was robbery on campus and almost every week there was car snatching on campus. A lot of times, girls were also being raped on campus. So, I pleaded with the governor and he called a security meeting of the state. He invited from the army to police, to mobile police, to civil defense, state Attorney General, and key functionaries and had a meeting in the governor’s Exco Hall and he asked me to say exactly what the problem was and I told him.
He told me to give them time; that the problem would be solved and the governor went to work. Within a few weeks, they were able to apprehend most of these students who were causing trouble only to find out that many of them were not even the bona fide students; and they dealt with them. Some of them didn’t come back to the university, they had to leave that whole environment. But again, I now discovered that more than 70 per cent of the cultists, of the rapists , of the armed robbers and all the miscreants, were people who were not bona fide students but rather they were diploma students. The mandate of the university does not include doing diplomas, it is only something you can attach.
Society never do well were the diploma students are so I had to summon a meeting of Senate, presented all the facts before them and then told them I was going to ban and bar the diploma programmes. Initially, people viewed it with mixed feelings because many people were benefitting from the diploma programme. At that time, they said it was an indication that I was actually insane because the diploma was yielding hundreds of millions of naira to the university and if I stopped it, it meant I wanted to kill the university since the federal government was not even bringing in enough money. But we needed to sanitise the entire system. So stopping the diploma programme alone cut down crime on campus substantially.
The next thing, we found out that the so-called motorcycle operators on campus were the petty thieves, snatching purses from young ladies, especially taking them to bushes and raping them. I also banned Okada operators on campus and that again drastically prune crime down. But we still had a major problem; cultism was still to some extent palpable but there was no obstruction of any activities. We now noticed that students were beginning to become fidgety because many of them were not prepared for university, they bought admission. So, I introduced the Post-UTME and informed the Minister of Education. The next thing was my brother and friend Professor Nwanze of UNIBEN followed suit. There was an uproar, JAMB would not have anything like it and National Assembly would not have anything like it.
National Assembly would send you people with all kinds of scores that are not university material and tell you to admit them otherwise your budget will not be approved. All kinds of things were happening but with that Post-UTME, only bona fide students would come in. So, we now found out that people who scored 300 over 400 in UTME, cannot even get up to 150 in the Post-UTME meaning that people took the exam for them or they cheated. Those were the days. JAMB is much better today; it’s doing a fantastic job and there is always almost a positive correlation today with your Post-UTME scores and your JAMB scores. In those days, there was a near negative correlation in most of the areas. You scored 311 in JAMB and cannot score less than a 100 in Post-UTME.
It shows that it wasn’t your brain that wrote the 311. But today, thankfully, JAMB is doing much better. When we started the Post-UTME, we now started admitting a brand new set of students who were university prepared and university materials. So cultism died at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Crime died for five years of my stay at UNN, I didn’t lose a single student to cultism and by the grace of God, UNN didn’t join any national strike whether ASUU or NASU or SSANU because I always appealed to the workers and they agreed not to go on strike for five years. That was how we were able to restore the academic calendar that had been distorted completely.
Now, stopping the diploma programme and starting the Post-UTME, were the two major things that killed cultism. Then my policy was zero tolerance for cultism. Very thankfully, I think it was during my tenure or so that the Supreme Court ruled that Senate of the university has the right to award or deny a student a degree. Like in the UN we say ‘you are qualified by learning and character’. So if you are qualified by learning but not by the character you don’t get a degree. If you are qualified by character but not by learning, you don’t get a degree.
The two must marry. So, I wasn’t afraid of litigations. Even before that ruling, I was not afraid of litigations because these people were wicked. They would brutalise human beings, smash people’s heads with axe , bring their brain out and splash it on the floor. That is the kind of animals we had. In fact, at Enugu State University of Technology (ESUT), I saw hell as Dean of Students and eventually as a Deputy Vice-Chancellor. So, I set zero tolerance for cultism. Though thankfully creating an enabling environment and then of course for the first time in 15 years, UNN started operating from the budget and while as Vice Chancellor, every unit, every department, every faculty had budgeted money for operations. It wasn’t so before I came and they stopped when I left. The records are there.
In spite of all these, stopping the diploma programme, starting the Post-UTME, we adjusted the school fees but some people said we increased it. It wasn’t necessary because students were paying all kinds of money; about 10 different fees from departments, faculties and so on. So we did what we called a consolidation and the school fees now ranged between N11,000 to N20,000. The students were complaining that Professor Nebo has killed them and eventually, we published it in the newspapers and the same parents who wanted me crucified because their children had told them that we were charging N80,000, started blaming themselves. The parents got to know that the school fees were N11,500 and the highest was Medicine about N20,000 annual fee for the full session.
We didn’t do anything outrageous. Even for the Post-UTME when others were charging N2,000, N5,000 we started with N500 and while I was there we moved to N1,000. It was National Assembly that said it should now be N2,000 and thank God for such intelligent, wonderful people like the late Senator Uche Chukwumerije who supported us and knew where we were going. Not those who will scrap something they don’t even understand or have a feel. Regrettably, when this government came into being the first thing they did was to scrap the so-called Post-UTME only for them to turn around later to say, let there be Post-UTME again. Thankfully, every university is using that to screen students. Now, integrating school certificate results, which is something we encouraged in those days. We think there is something good happening there.
Are you satisfied with the state of education in the country?
If I tell you that I’m satisfied, I would be lying. Nobody in his right senses would be satisfied with the education system in Nigeria today. We are in trouble and we need to come out of the woods. I think the government needs to do something and it’s not something that can be done in a short time. The melee has been on for many years and I think one must of necessity look at the whole system holistically and then set out a plan of action in order to eliminate all those things that are causing this incredible melee and disruption of the university system and then bringing our students up to bar with what the international community experiences.
Why were you head-hunted to Oye Ekiti and what was your experience like?
Well, I was actually abroad on my accumulated leave and sabbatical leave. I took the sabbatical leave mostly to see if I could develop the farmland that I purchased some 32 years ago. That farmland I bought it the year I got my Ph.D. in the U.S. So for five years of my tenure as Vice Chancellor of UNN, I did not see my farm which was just a few kilometers away. I was so deeply committed and busy with UNN that I didn’t have time to visit my farm. Yet, I had workers and the farm was doing poorly. So, I was abroad when I got a call from honourable Minister of Education to inform me that the president had approved my appointment as Vice Chancellor.
I was shocked. I didn’t know they were establishing nine new universities, I had no idea such a thing was going on. I just travelled out. Many of my colleagues after being vice chancellors spend a year of their sabbatical at the National Universities Commission (NUC), but I said let me on my own and see if I could get my farmland back to work again. So incidentally, I accepted the challenge. It wasn’t an easy one. I was given the hardest one; the only one where the state governor then being ACN and federal government being PDP. They were at loggerhead. The main senator there wanted the university sited in his own village and then the governor wanted it to be sited somewhere else. There was a kind of tussle and some people had been killed in skirmishes even before I started my work as Vice Chancellor there.
But I was able to convince the government to allow two campuses: Oye as the main campus and Ikole as the second campus and that brought peace. Ikole people are fantastic people and I had wonderful experience with them, very nice people, cooperative and very eager to assist that whenever we come to do some work their delectable traditional ruler, Kabiyesi, would even encourage the youths to come and offer free service to help to clear the land and do whatever we needed. They were willing to give any amount of land that the university needed.
At Oye, the traditional ruler was helpful but the people were not so helpful. I think Ikole people gave us wonderful support and Oye didn’t give us that kind of support. So we got there and incidentally, at Oye, we were denied a take-off site. It was a harrowing experience. The day the Surveyor -General of the state brought people and he came and showed me the land I thought like all of the other vice chancellors. Remember mine came six months later, the last of the vice chancellors was given his take-off site on April 11. Mine came in October of 2011 and the day I was shown that site literally, I’m not saying figuratively, literally I cried.
I cried because how I start a brand new campus when others have been given places they can just remodel and I had the same amount of money that they were given. So, I felt deprived. I felt marginalised . I cried to God. I said God, what was happening? But one of us who believed in me strongly Professor Ayase who was the one in Katrina said, “Prof. Nebo we know you even if you start six months or more before, you will overtake everybody else”. We laughed over it but it happened. Well, only at Ikole we had a small take off-site. At Oye we had zero take-off site for the main campus. By the grace of God within six to eight months, we built a university campus there. That is what they called the six months miracle.
Turning a virgin forest into a university in six to eight months and that wonderful Minister of Education, Professor Chinwe Nora Obaji, God blessed me while I was VC of UNN, she was one of the best things that happened to me. And then when I was Vice-Chancellor , Federal University of Oye Ekiti, she was so supportive. When she came to visit that university, she asked me several times, VC where did you get all this money to build these things? I said honourable minister, you gave me the money. Is the money you people gave us that we are using; I’m not borrowing any money from anybody. It’s the same money.
Building two campuses and then everybody else had one campus to build. Within four years that university was rated number 26 in the whole country of 140 universities. When I was minister , I helped the Engineering department to secure accreditation and not only that, I helped them to raise funds and eventually bought the largest universal testing machine for that university, and the Engineering faculty is doing well. Fortunately, when I left they put a seasoned administrator to take over from me but eventually, this present government flushed out the vice-chancellors and appointed politicians as vice-chancellors and even said that the names they announced were names given to them by a political party.
No place in the world does a political party choose VCs. Only in Nigeria, this administration did that and it’s on record. You go to Oye Ekiti now and you see what is happening and you ask yourself was it the trajectory? Because I started the university and said, to God be the glory that I now have a university that I can build and it would have my imprint on it. And if they had allowed the man who came after me to continue, that trajectory would have continued but not in Nigeria, everything is politics. That is why I cry for this country. People don’t care about excellence, they care about political expedience – giving jobs to the boys. Look at the leaders of the world, look at the kind of people that are put in sensitive offices and compare them to the type we have in Nigeria here. I have reason to weep for this country.
Would you say that the academic curriculum of universities in Nigeria tally with present developmental needs of the country?
In all honesty, I cannot say that. Even though I know that if by saying that I put myself in trouble because I co-chaired in 2005 the development of a benchmark and minimum academic standard for all the engineering programmes in all the universities. Well, that was 13 years ago. The academic programme, curriculum or curricula still changed with time and these things are dynamic. You don’t use archaic, analog system to teach these digital babies that we are producing every day. If you have a problem at home with television or phone mostly likely it’s your under 10-year-old child that will fix it for you. You don’t know what to press on the remote control, you call Junior. He is eight years old, but he knows what to press. He will change the channel for you and tell you, Daddy this thing it’s this small remote, this one is for this and so on.
He will come and teach you again. Now, you use the knowledge you acquired in the 70s to teach these kids. They know that you don’t even know where the world is. So these things are supposed to be dynamic, they should be changing. I have been recommending and shouting every day that bandwidth should become an infrastructure. Let every university and every secondary school in Nigeria, and if possible, primary school should have bandwidth so that with even cheap telephones, people can access the internet, download knowledge and information so that the lecturer don’t have to come and be teaching you mundane and useless knowledge. At Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), if you are a lecturer you can’t just walk into a class and open your mouth. Your students would challenge you and prove you wrong and by the time they do it a couple of time, the administration would show you out. But in Nigeria you dare not challenge your lecturer because you have gotten ‘F’ already. He will fail you. But it’s not so abroad. So it’s like one technological university, DELFT. They call it the MRT of Europe. By the time you are publishing a book in America, what they are teaching at DELFT had made your new published book obsolete. But in Nigeria, we believed as it was in the beginning now and ever shall be. That thing applies only to God, not to human beings and human systems. We are not as we were at the beginning, all of us should have been naked by now.
You know without clothes on, we have no television, we have no air conditioning and we have no internet. We are advancing, so should knowledge be advancing. I felt so sad when my own son whom I tried to encourage getting into academics, told me daddy the industry has overtaken the academic world in the power of knowledge and knowledge acquisition. Why should I be in the university system when the industry is ahead of the university? It shouldn’t be! But that is the situation in Nigeria and I’m not satisfied with it.
What is the way out?
The way out is revolutionary. I said that it’s an emergency situation in education. State emergency, it’s rotten to the core. I don’t know how many parents have their children in public primary schools who can afford private schools? I don’t know how many parents have their children in public secondary schools apart from the Unity ones which they have tried to maintain and a few state owned? That shows you that the public education system in Nigeria is moribund.
Free education, is it really free? It’s free ignorance that we have, free illiteracy, free mis-education when children acquire poor and bad grammar from their own teachers. When primary school teachers will fail primary four level exam given to them for proficiency and then they would go, at Ekiti I think Fayemi paid for it. I think he was trying to insist that they should take the test and they showed him the way out. You know, then primary four exam and teachers cannot pass it and you are teaching primary six. It’s is going to take a revolution.
I’m not saying sack these teachers, by internet, a combination of making bandwidth available, trying to have a massive retraining of our teachers, we can get them to competency level to begin to now teach our students. But if we leave things the way they are, only private primary schools, private secondary schools will continue to produce people who are semi-knowledgeable . By the time they come to the university system they are disfigured mentally and with that level of disfigurement, you can only panel beat them to some extent. Only the brightest ones will shine anywhere.
For instance, the same students who barely passed here go abroad because of the facilities they have and they begin to shine. Look, if God were to judge governments, I believe the hottest hell would be preserved for Nigerian leaders because of the way we treat our youths and our young ones. We have the brightest brains anywhere. You heard what happened at Howard University in the U.S. recently, of all the Medical graduates they have, the best of them were Nigerian students and nearly 30 or more per cent of all the medical doctors they produced were Nigerians in America. We have the best brains but we make sure we kill them and we make sure we give them the worst. And then those who cannot afford to study abroad stay in the country and we don’t even give them the minimum facilities that they need. It’s horrible.
What is your view on the sex for mark scandals rocking the universities?
I think if people go to record , they would find out I sacked more lecturers than any vice chancellor before me because of that same thing. There was even a day I sacked two lecturers at the same time. That was one of the two days that within a few minutes my phone got jammed with text messages. The two lecturers both of them have PhDs. They have no respect for female students. Their language was cash and carry. Cash, is you pay money while carry is you book a hotel.
And you know the horrible thing, they didn’t care if you were married and in some cases pregnant women. I sacked two of them. There were others that I disciplined or fired. There was one professor I said he should never be given any responsible position ever in the university again because of the atrocities he committed with female students. So, I sacked many lecturers. It’s unfortunate, but it does happen.