Abdullahi Hassan, Zaira
Professor Ibrahim Garba, is a Geologist and immediate past Vice-Chancellor, Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria. He was Director-General, Raw Material Research Development Council (RMRDC) and former Vice-Chancellor, Kano State University of Science and Technology.
He spoke of challenges as helmsman of ABU for five years, including his face-off with the Governing Council Chairman of the university.
Can you share your five years’ experience in office?
The recollections are obvious and very much fresh in my memory. The simple answer is that we thank God that I am ending my tenure in a good form, health and spirit wise. I am happy and fulfilled at least with what I achieved for the system with all gratification, in most challenging times and conditions.
I think one should be happy about coming to this milestone. But the emerging challenges of our time also bring new things that appear hard, where one begins to see and wonder how such challenges could be addressed in the future. I am sure one can use this experience to advise those coming behind in managing the system or on any issue that could help in managing the Nigerian University System (NUS) better.
What kind of ABU did you inherit in 2014?
I did not take over ABU from outside. I have been part of ABU and I know it very well. That is why I was able to hit the ground running, especially on urgent issues that needed to be addressed. I did not wait for anybody to tell me how things were. I moved on to make decisions that captured the objective of the university and made it better to our standard expectations.
What then were the challenges you encountered?
You know in the university system, you find things that you consider better to fulfil the aspirations of the diverse stakeholders; students, staff, alumni and the larger community. All these are parts of the university stakeholders and they have expectations.
In trying to manage the system successfully, especially in a country like Nigeria, where simple things will be made difficult because we deliberately do not want to do things right. Sometimes if you try to do the right thing or good, if it touches some people’s interest, it will become something else. They will hate you, so to get things moving in the system is quite an enormous task.
What are your achievements?
Sometimes, because we do not do things right, it is difficult to list one’s achievements. What is required is that once you are the head of the university, you should just keep the system going, by assuming that each component of the university is important and you don’t have to tell people what to do.
For example, imagine yourself in a flight or inside an aircraft and the pilot comes out to tell passengers that one of the passengers is not sitting well, meaning something is wrong. But when you find some people not doing their work or not doing it the right way, you find out that apart from doing your work, you have to carry the work of others who fail to do theirs effectively. That means you will lose focus.
Our university system is really not working well enough, especially our attitude towards work and the way we handle students. The landscape of learning in the university in the world has changed over time. Students are the most important elements in the university system. It is the students that drive the system not what we want for the system.
Any student who studies abroad and comes back to Nigeria, he will look at things differently because of what he sees there. It is only in Nigeria that university management compels staff to do the job that he or she is paid for. It is sad that sometimes university staff reluctantly fail to do it rightly. One day I had to pursue a lecturer to mark examination scripts, forgetting that he was paid to do it but refused to.
But anytime the management delays to pay them their entitlements, they will begin to make noise. Universities are made to be independent bodies. Anytime you want to tackle this kind of staff, they will consider you a bottleneck or highhandedness. This is common especially to those who are ignorant of the interface with other universities or communities in which universities are located.
Unless this attitude is changed, the system would never be free from crises. We have established more programmes, expanded faculties and departments with staff and have linkages through collaborations so that we can play the role of a university within the global spares.
I succeeded in taking ABU students to international competitions. There has never been a semester without our students engaging in one or two academic competitions, representing Nigeria abroad. ABU students have been exposed to how things are done differently at the international level through these competitions.
As the returning officer during Kogi State gubernatorial election, the impression created from your interactions with politicians is that you are likely to join politics after leaving office, is that true?
Yes, it is true that some people including my friends have the same notion, but honestly, it is quite the opposite. I know the chairman of INEC for a very long time. During the presidential and governorship elections of 2019, all VCs were involved as returning officers. I was appointed the returning officer for Zamfara State. But because of my dislike for Nigerian politics and in order not to disappoint him, I gave some reasons to decline the offer.
My DVC went on my behalf. In fact, somebody drew my attention that only ABU VC shunned the exercise. When Kogi elections came up, he called me to say “this time around is your turn.” I accepted because I would not want to be seen as avoiding national service or ABU not involved. I reluctantly went and I learnt a lot of things about politics and its difficulties.
Incidentally, all the candidates except the deputy governor were ex-students of ABU. I avoided anything that could tarnish my image and that of ABU. For now, I have no interest in partisan politics. I have been a scholar and consultant Geologist, and Mining expert at national and international levels. There is serious pressure from my area in Kano State to go into politics but I declined. I will remain in academia and continue to teach and conduct researches.
Can you share your experience during admission exercise?
My experience has been very bitter. The tension on admission year in year out has been tormenting and unmanageable. If there is anything I fear, it is the admission exercise.
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We are battling with an un-organised system. We have an education system in Nigeria that allows students to go to university directly from secondary school. Students that come out from secondary schools are too many that they cannot find spaces in the entire university system in the country, adding up the polytechnics and colleges of education.
JAMB candidates last year were more than 1.1 million. I tell you 95 percent of the candidates wanted to enter the university. The entire university space is not more than 300,000 capacity. ABU has the largest with 11,500 capacity. We have over 80,000 candidates that applied to ABU this year. After post UTME, we ended up with 18,000. But 11,500 spaces were available and spread across catchment areas.
In the last admission exercise, ABU came under public scrutiny over a candidate, Goodness Thomas. The Federal Government directed that she be offered admission into Medicine, what happened?
Honestly, I did not know much about her case until when I read the directive in the newspaper. I was later briefed on the issue. But I think the issue revolved around ignorant on how we do our admission exercise. I will explain all you need to know about admission policy in the Nigerian University System.
Put this side by side with the carrying capacity of the university and the courses. Let us say in Law, I have 100 spaces allocated by NUC and the Council of Legal Education; the Ministry of Education will not allow us to admit more than 100. Also, the Medical Council, Council of Nurses, because all these professional courses are regulated by their professional councils.
By the policy of the government, no admission is done in the university without JAMB’s approval. And for it to be approved, it must follow certain criteria; merit, catchment area, educationally less-advantaged states and foreign students.
Foreign students are supposed to be admitted automatically because all universities want foreign students for ranking purposes or other developmental considerations. The catchment areas of ABU are all the 19 northern states. What it means is that we must give a place to a candidate (from each state) in these areas.
Let’s take for example, arithmetically 100 students, 40 percent is merit, so 40 slots. Now anyone who has a higher mark than whatever the cut-off mark gets admitted. But if all the candidates with higher marks come from one state, it is not fair. We have to spread the merit bedause you are likely to find a candidate from all the 19 states within the merit mark.
If 290 is cut-off mark for Law, now supposing there are people with 320, 350 hypothetically. If all these people with 320 come from one state, will you take them? Whereas there is somebody with 290 or 295 that meets the cut-off mark but who comes from another state. Naturally, you have to drop some because you only have 40 spaces.
For educational catchment areas, it means you must consider candidates from such states. You divide, let’s say the number of applicants by the states that make up the catchment (19), for example. But what goes for catchment is not more than 35 percent. With 35 slots across 19 northern states, no state can get more than one. Within the state also there are some that you can consider on gender balance.
If you go to Medicine, you find over 500 students that meet the cut off marks to enter for MBBS (Medicine). But we have only 120 spaces, so how do you manage it? States like Akwa-Ibom and Bayelsa, they get the advantage here. If you are from let’s say Oyo State, your only chance is to be admitted on merit. If you cannot make the merit, you lose the admission.
And if for example there are 10 of you from Oyo that have 300, we cannot give 10 admissions to Oyo out of 40 slots. You may find out that the catchment areas for UI may only be the South-West. How many states? Six states. And we have a larger carrying capacity than UI.
There are some that still don’t get a place because 90,000 students applied for 11,500 spaces at ABU. After post-UTME, we ended up with about 30,000 or 35,000. Out of this 11,500, we give at least 3,000 to direct entry students, those that have NCE, diploma, A level and then the rest to UTME candidates. It is a complex process.
When the time for admission comes, we have sleepless nights. We have the pressure from families, associates, government officials, all of them putting pressure because they want their children to get major courses where the competition is very high.
Sex-for-mark has been a problem in the NUS, how did you handle such situation in ABU?
This problem has been on for a long time, like any other university. Recently, we dealt with other issues like that. We can’t live in a society which has access to information and you expect people to live without mischief of this type. The sensitivity and modern technology have made this type of crime prevalent. In the past, female students were shy, and they could not report such case of sexual harassment in ABU.
To be frank, if you look at the youth population of today, a lot of scandals are happening and are not reported, except when there is a sour relationship with the lecturer then you will hear it. If the society is generally decaying, there is no way a university will be exempted. University is not a character or behaviour molding-institution. It is expected that anybody that comes to the university is fully matured and must learn to live wisely.
We can’t be policing people. If you are a lecturer and you violate the rules deliberately by threatening to have forced sex or lure any female student to an unlawful affair, once it is reported to management, we will take action without delay in accordance with due process. We have dealt with such issues in line with rules governing the university.
Nigerian universities are ranked lower than their counterparts in the world including South Africa, what is responsible?
It is not only in ranking universities, take anything in Nigeria, rank it at a global scale, what do you get? You will not find us anywhere. Some of us who travel to many countries will tell you more. There are places you have to hide because of the bad image. Although there are some foreigners who are so educated to know that not all Nigerians are bad.
How can you rank Nigerian universities under this shadow outside? It is unfortunate, Nigeria universities are affected by the environment they find themselves. Go to Ghana, you will see Nigerians lecturing but they don’t behave the way they behave in Nigeria in the conduct of work. Or go to Southern American universities you will find Nigerian professors.
I have visited two universities in the US, I found a professor who is a Dean, Faculty of Engineering. There is a Nigerian professor in M.I.T, one of the best universities in the world. He came to ABU last year. In fact, his dream was to work in ABU years back. If he is to come back to Nigeria, he will not survive the system.
Is ABU part of the on-going NUC curriculum review exercise?
Yes, we have been part of the curriculum review just like any other university in the country. In my personal opinion that is not the first and right thing to do at the moment. You can have the best curriculum but when you don’t have the driver of the curriculum, it is like good writing on paper. Even the curriculum we have is not effective, if only we do one thing, to be sensitive to it and implement it.
It is because of its dynamism that we will continue to change the curriculum every year.There are many fundamental issues that enable the curriculum to function. For example, if there is a course, for Mr. X in Mass Communications, but he has never worked in the media industry and you ask him to teach a particular course. Go to the media house and bring a practitioner to come and teach the same course.
The person from the media will tell you the reality of the course as against the initial lecturer who reads and teaches only the theory. It is good for our curriculum to provide such people with experience to come and teach in our institutions at least part-time so that their knowledge will be useful to students and the society. I told people that during our time, we taught science on two-dimension; practical and theory so that students could understand.
Today, you can teach students using technology, they can download and read on their own without difficulties. They can put it in a handset or Ipad. The distance learning programme introduced today in Nigerian universities is the best way of learning.
Students are studying at home. They learn better than those students in the school because some of the lecturers are not closer to you. With technology, interaction in learning is made easier. You can email a lecturer and chart, ask questions and get lectures notes even on practical.
Are there decisions or actions that you regretted not taking in office?
Very difficult to know, I cannot judge myself. I believe once you do the right things based on your conviction and sincerity of purpose, you will never regret. Let your conscious be satisfied that your actions are right and let people judge. If there is anything I regret is my inability to change the attitude of our staff.
Despite my efforts in changing the behaviour and attitude of our lecturers, many willingly or unwillingly could not understand. This is my regret. I felt I shouldn’t waste my time to fight them. Instead, I concentrated on other more viable policies and programmes that would help the university. Our creator Almighty God is watching everyone and there will be a day for accountability.
During the selection exercise for a new VC, you disagreed with the governing council, why?
It is all fall-out of these things I have said. We have not been able to work out our personal interest and official matters, this has affected this aspect. Some people will be happy causing disruption and confusion in the system; they don’t know that they are hitting themselves, whoever they are. It was a simple crisis between self-serving and laid down procedures of the university rules.
On another hand putting pressure that certain things must be done in their interest. Whatever happens, they don’t care. The university is more important than a personality. No matter how good you are, the most important thing is your image. ABU is our image and we will never compromise anything that will tarnish it.
That is the summary of the crises between the council and I. This is what we have been battling in this country. There are some of us who want to perpetuate illegalities and for no common good, unfortunately, and everybody keeps quiet.