Not many Nigerians can match his passion and patriotism – not that he has done something out of this world. Not many people can be true to their calling like he is – not that he has laid his life as a sacrificial lamb. As he takes off his glasses you can see the tender glint in his eyes; talking to you, you feel his heart pulsating with passion and patriotism. His story lies somewhere between revival and revolution. It is little wonder that it did not take him much persuasion when asked to return to a place he had left as a toddler. Meet Professor Ibraheem Gbajabiamila, Vice-Chancellor, Crescent University, Abeokuta, Ogun State whose passion and patriotism, writes Funke Olaode, is revolutionary and redemptive
Prof Ibraheem Gbajabiamila is from a renowned dynasty in Nigeria as his family name Gbajabiamila has become an institution in Lagos. It resonates in education, social movement and later politics. The son and great-grandson of a teacher, his grandfather started the Ansar-Ud-Deen Movement in his family compound in Isale-Eko, Lagos State in the 1930s. The movement later led to the establishment of Ansar-Ud-Deen group of schools to help tackle the menace of out of school children which was prevalent in that era. The Ansar-Ud-Deen’s vision did not only affect the generation of that time, it also produced many accomplished professionals whose generations are still making waves till this day.
Gbajabiamila belongs to the league of privileged kids courtesy of his parents, which placed his feet on the pedestal of success both in academic and professional life. But he didn’t take it for granted as he embraced the opportunity and conquered his own world. He was moved to England as a toddler where he acquired his primary and secondary. He studied Microbiology at the University of London and stayed back as a research fellow after his post-doctoral thesis. He would later ply his academic trade for the next three decades as a researcher with the renowned institution.
He may have stayed and lived in the UK all his life, but a sense of patriotism to his fatherland was reawakened when he met the eminent jurist, Prince Bola Ajibola, who was then Nigerian ambassador to the United Kingdom. The jurist convinced him to join his vision and mission of breeding well nurtured products in character and learning.
Recounting his encounter with Prince Ajibola, he said: “I met Prince Bola Ajibola who was Nigerian ambassador to the UK then at that time. He had always mentioned that when he went to the World Court at The Hague, as a Nigerian representative. He felt that the perception of Nigeria is different from what we know ourselves. He said that whenever he introduced himself as a judge from Nigeria, they almost always said that that it was a country that didn’t care about education. Although he has always challenged that but the fact speaks that 20 percent of out-of-school children are from Nigeria and that figure is getting worse. He says he always feels uncomfortable because we have not done anything to improve the situation.
“They gave us a chance to improve the figures. In 1995, they reviewed it was the same and in 2005 we were still the largest, and in 2015 it hasn’t gone better. Whereas other countries have actually improved: Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia. These are countries that are considered smaller to us. We have been unable to crack that egg and we as a big nation, a top 10 producer of oil country in the world. Apart from the largest number of out-of-school children we also have the highest number of infant mortality in the world. We have been unable to find a solution to it,” he lamented.
The passion to support Prince Ajibola’s vision was re-ignited when the former ambassador decided to float a university in 2005.
“Prince said in his retirement that he would make his own little contribution by starting a university. And 14 years ago, he got a license to start a university as a way of increasing the opportunity for our children. The key issue is that we have 1.5 million sitting JAMB every year seeking admission into tertiary education but the total carrying capacity of the Nigeria system at private, state and federal is only 450,000. So we have 1.5 million looking for space that doesn’t exist. In the process of seeking education they end up with substandard education in some schools in countries around us. That is a problem for us as a nation. It was on that basis that ‘His Excellency’ invited me to Nigeria to assist in the development of Crescent University.”
Gbajabiamila left his comfort zone in England in 2010 to join Ajibola in driving his vision and in 2014 was appointed the vice-chancellor. Speaking on how to rid the country of out-of-school children, the erudite scholar said: “It is a straightforward equation in the sense that the UNESCO says that each country should spend 25 percent of their GDP (income) on education. And those countries that have done so have been able to improve their education standard. For instance, Ghana is the only country in Africa that is spending the 25 per cent on education. And with that, there has been an improvement on its educational system as more of children are back in school and they have turned its university equation into money spinner.
“In fact, it is Nigerian parents that are sustaining Ghanaian universities. There are 78,000 Nigerian students in Ghana. And their parents pay in dollars. Nigerian parents are spending more money on tertiary equation in Ghana than what Nigerian government is spending on university education in Nigeria. So the answer is that if government can spend more there would be an improvement. Nigerian Government has signed an agreement since 2012 they did not honour it. So the morals are low for some of the academics. The kind of standard we used to maintain is now sliding rapidly.”
Going back to the good old days, according to the don, would require commitment on the part of government.
“Nigerian universities used to be ranked among the best in West Africa and globally. Students used to come from England on exchange programmes. Neighbouring Cameroon and other countries seeking qualitative education used to throng the then University College Ibadan. I remember during the apartheid era, Nigerian government used to offer scholarships to Southern African students from South Africa, Botswana, Angola to study at University of Ibadan, University of Lagos and other places because standard was very high.
“In fact, Ghanaian students would prefer to come to a Nigerian university because we have the history and the standard. Those were the good old days and I think those were the days Nigeria prioritized education but since the military era things have gone down. That has been the real reason for the decline in education because university is an engine driving the economy, which means we have to have standard facilities but most of the facilities are obsolete especially in science and medical and engineering,” he stated.
The professor of Microbiology still believes all hope is not lost as there is still good news.
He said: “Despite the decline in academic prowess, our students and lecturers still belong to the leagues of first class intellectuals if given the opportunity. Recently, the first pioneer surgeon in America who carried an operation on a child brought out from the womb, operated on it and was taken back was performed by a Nigerian. The fellow was trained at the University of Ife. He went abroad and developed the skills.
“That kind of opportunity that is very technical and scientific is important. It means that if our people are given an opportunity, they can actually do well. But if you are in a place where there is no electricity or water, there is no way you can be world class or be able to make innovative discovery. Our main challenge is to retain our talents and develop them for the benefit of our country.”
Commenting on the achievements of his university over the past 14 years, he says it has been a success story.
“The vision of the proprietor, Prince Bola Ajibola is to have an academic environment with moral excellence. And we are achieving that. He said he wanted an environment where the students are not only academically sound but they can actually be put in a position of trust. That is why we introduced courses such as Global Studies that would enhance knowledge and understanding in civic rights and understanding of moral that being in a position of authority in academic or circular world should not be abused. Somebody who has gone to the university should be seen as somebody who would put the nation first, would not abuse his or her position of authority. And that is why the university reinforces and reinvigorates the message to the students.
“We have been able to touch lives as all the states of the federation in Nigeria are represented here. We have contingent of northern students from Kano, Zamfara, Gombe, and Sokoto. And when those children come here, they don’t go back home until the end of the session because they find Abeokuta very conducive. We have a student who had a first class whose parent didn’t go to school. The boy did JAMB by himself and the government gave him scholarship. The father was disappointed because he wanted him to be a herdsman like him.
“Another female student from Kano, Fatima Abubakar got a first class in Economics. She is totally unassuming but dedicated and the lady said if she hadn’t been given the opportunity, she would have been married off and wouldn’t have had the opportunity of education. Our best graduating student last year (2018), Tiamiyu Latifat, had a GP of 4.91, which it had never happened in the history of this school,” Gbajabiamila explained.
With the mantra of education not meant for the poor, he believes Nigerian parents’ resilient spirit and kind gesture of the proprietor have been able to bridge the gap.
“All over the world everybody knows that quality education is not free. But here in this country reverse is the case. The only thing they know about us is the number of private jets that we have while the opportunity to improve our health care, education, our roads have been missed. When we put the mirror in our faces some people don’t like it. Nigerian parents are trying. Even here we have a number of students with helpless situation and the proprietor will step in. For me, I believe as top 10 oil producer in the world, we should be able to provide quality education and health for our citizenry,” he added.