A former Vice-Chancellor of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Prof. Ango Abdullahi, who is also a leading member of the Northern Elders Forum, speaks about the controversies of his tenure, and the proposed amnesty for the Boko Haram sect, in this interview.
What was your experience as the Vice-Chancellor of the Ahmadu Bello University?
That was a very long time ago. I left ABU as VC in 1986, that’s about 27 years ago; it’s been a long time.
Each time people talk about your tenure, they remember the “Ango must go” crisis…
(Cuts in) My tenure was the most peaceful of all tenures of vice-chancellors.
What happened then?
There had been (Prof.) ‘Ishaya (Audu) Must Go,’ (Prof.) ‘Iya (Abubakar) Must go,’ ‘Akinkugbe Must Go,’ and after Ango left, so many other ‘Must Gos’ have happened. In fact, I think, I had the least number of student demonstrations in my eight years. If you look at the eight years, there was one in 1981 and another in 1986. The one in 1986 was the one that became fatal, that was what gave it the big umbrella of debate and concerns. Policemen shot some students in the course of trying to keep peace on campus and we were criticised for inviting the police. ABU is part of the country and if there is a breakdown of law and order in any part of the country, you call on law enforcement agents. That was what really happened. After the hue and cry, government succumbed and instituted a panel of inquiry headed by General Abisoye. When they wrote their report, they particularly underlined the place where they said the VC is completely blameless. That became an additional certificate for me. When I was contesting for elections, some people wrote a petition about my tenure at ABU and brought out the report for electoral purposes and I said this is my certificate in terms of that crisis and if there is anything or anywhere where they said I touched one kobo of ABU’s money, I will be delighted to answer. The only thing I can tell anybody is that I was the first person to be elected as the VC of ABU. Prior to the election, I was the acting VC but I was not interested in becoming the (substantive) VC. My colleagues insisted that I should become the substantive VC and I said in that case, there must be an election because there were six candidates. I told the registrar to go and prepare secret ballots for the election. The (university) Senate was full; it had 116 members that evening. They were told that the acting VC has decided that the Senate will have a say in who becomes the VC, they came and the ballots were cast. I scored 73 votes and the next person to me, Prof. Gomwalk scored 18, then I knew the university was ready for me to provide leadership. I thanked them and told them that: Anytime you are tired of me, just let me know, I will walk away.” It was not something I insisted on doing. I told the registrar that the election results must be put in the archives because the way VCs emerged over the years in many universities, leaves a lot to be desired. It has led to a lot of bloodletting, arguments, so on and so forth. It’s a job that is honourable, but it’s a job that is also thankless. When I started in ABU in 1979, I had to go to the bank to take overdraft to pay salaries but when I left ABU as VC in 1986, the university could run a full session without subvention from government.
How did you achieve that?
When Prof. Nayaya, who took over from me and saw these funds, he ran to my house shivering and said Ango, what happened? He said, “I left Calabar with a lot of debt and when you put all the universities together they don’t have this kind of money in their accounts. How did you do it?” I said go to my bursar; go to my director of works, that’s where it happened. I’ve never seen a bursar like Daniel Ugbabe, he is an Idoma man. Until of recent, he did not have a car. It’s just a matter of sacrifice. I refused to have a generator in my residence, the car Iya Abubakar and Akinkugbe used was what I used for eight years. So, no head of department could walk into the office of the vice-chancellor and ask for a new car. It was not possible because he knew I was using an old car so why should he ask for a new one? This is really a matter of leadership style and sacrifice which is not available anymore, not only in the university but everywhere and that is why the country is in crisis today.
Was this due to the academic culture that was prevalent on our campuses then?
Exactly! Even today, I criticise universities for being indolent, subservient and quiet. Last month, I had an occasion to lecture at the Congo Campus of ABU and I said I missed the days of Bala Usman, Femi Odekunle and the likes of them who kept everybody on their toes not only within the university itself but the country. They were watching out for bad leaders, exposing and criticising them. I still argue that universities are the last bastions and if we cannot stand and really protect the interest of the Nigerian public, nobody can. Right now, we have crisis with the police and the judiciary, there is no fallback position, none.
It was also during your tenure that the fiery Caribbean academic, Patrick Wilmot, was deported from Nigeria. What went wrong?
Oh yes, it was during my time. It was during the Gen. brahim Babangida regime. You know back then, you had the Marxist group of academics who were not at all times in good terms with the government especially when there was this change from the Gen. Muhammadu Buhari regime to Babangida’s. People saw Babangida as a stooge of Western political and economic interests — the devaluation of our currency, the IMF debate which said Nigerians should reject the loans and so on, and that’s how perhaps they (Wilmot and co) began to criticise them and then he (Babangida) had to pick on somebody and since he could not deport Bala Usman, he had to deport Wilmot who was not a Nigerian.
Universities now have a single five-year tenure for vice-chancellors. Has this helped the system?
I don’t know. Whether you stay for two years, five years or for eight years as I did, it all depends on what you set out for yourself to achieve and what the institutional goals are and how hard you are working towards achieving them. The question is: What are the institutional goals? Let’s strive and get them. Do we have the resources to get them? Once you identify them and once the institutional goals are known, all you worry about are the resources to carry them out. The resources are human and material. Human in the sense that you work with your heads of departments, your deans, you work through the committee system and of course the management of resources is in the hands of the VC, bursar and principal officers. The number of years doesn’t matter, it all depends on the attitude of those in charge and the resources that are available for them to carry on.
In the 1970s up till the late 1980s, most Nigerian universities could boast of intellectuals from different parts of the world. Can you say the same of our universities today?
No, sadly. Today most of them have either become ethnic enclaves or are in the process of becoming one. I am glad that the Minister of Education, referred to it at the inauguration of new governing councils for universities the other day. She said university councils must find a way to take universities particularly the federal ones, out of their ethnic cocoons. That is what is breeding the kind of elite dichotomy and disunity you find in this country today. Our forefathers even though they were in regions did more for unity of the country than we have been able to achieve now. The thing is so intense now. Definitely, the universities have become small enclaves and ethnic crossbreeding is not flourishing. That is perhaps why there is more intense ethnic divide now and to some extent even religious ones in the country. The universities, if they can re-orientate themselves, will have a major role to play in dealing with this.
ABU was famous across Africa for its agricultural research among others. The same cannot be said of the institution presently, what happened?
What happened was abandonment. By the time Ahmadu Bello university was transferred to federal control, the support for research, particularly agricultural research, moved away from the direct beneficiaries, we began to have problems. In addition, I think because of the federal intervention which was not there before, additional research institutes just like universities were created. They started mushrooming; we started having more research institutes as if the numbers are more important than the quality of work that was going on in the existing ones. If they had expanded and consolidated on the existing one, it would have been adequate for the entire country because they were diversified to reflect the ecological areas where they were working. When I started as an extension specialist, there was no part of the North that I didn’t set my foot on and this was how we produced the groundnut pyramids, cotton and the rest of it. But now, the policies are gone; no adequate funding for the research and the lecturers are satisfied with their petridish experiments behind and inside their offices. But there are no funds for practical research that will help direct application in the field. It is such a pity.
Some have said you have never won an election and so, you cannot speak for the people of the North. How do you react to this?
(Prolonged laughter) I have contested for and won elections six times. Let me list them for you: I contested and won an election for the first time in the history of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, to become VC with an overwhelming number of votes from members of the University Senate; that was free and fair election. Then when I started politics in Kaduna State together with General (Sheu) Yar’Adua, I won an election first in the primaries of the Social Democratic Party to clinch the SDP ticket and the candidature of the party to contest the governorship of Kaduna State. I also won the governorship election; everybody knew I won the election. I defeated Dabo Lere, he was in National Republican Convention and of course, the powers that be said they would not want to handover Kaduna State to a radical governor. I was among one of the first people to suffer being denied victory in an election. Go and ask anybody in Kaduna State today, who won the election between me and Dabo Lere, they will tell you, Prof. Ango Abdullahi won. I won an election to emerge as the Presidential flag bearer of Kaduna State under the option A4 arrangement. I contested against Maikori to be the flag bearer of Kaduna State under the option A4 in Jos, to contest with Abiola, I contested with many people to emerge winner. Since then, I won three other elections to represent my constituency in three Constitutional Conferences, one in 1987/ 1988, one in 1994/1995 and another one in 2005, the constitutional reform conference.
We are still looking forward to working together with the groups claiming to be speaking for the North. We have to find a forum where we should speak with one voice.
What do you think about the rejection of the amnesty proposal to the Boko Haram sect?
That Shekau is reacting or his group is reacting to the position of government on amnesty is itself a good beginning of dialogue. It may not be a face-to-face discussion but dialogue through the media is a good beginning, as far as I am concerned. At some point, I believe there will be more of such exchanges and these exchanges will throw more light on the positions taken by each side and those who are mediating whether openly or behind the scenes will have more tools with which to work to be able to bring the two sides closer together. I believe that when you go back to the Yar’Adua time when amnesty was given to the Niger Delta youths, he gave six months offer of amnesty after which the amnesty will be withdrawn and they kept on dilly dallying until the last week. I don’t want to look at it negatively and say when they reject, what remains? Do they want us to continue to use force? To use force will not solve the problem and this has been acknowledged by most reasonable opinions. That it is not the way forward. We must try everything possible to encourage this interaction even at the beginning when it appears to be hostile with rejection.
Are you still a member of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party…
(Cuts in) No, I am not. I was a founding father of the PDP I left it 10 years ago.
Why did you leave the PDP?
It is not running the way it should. We wrote the constitution. I was one of those who sat to consider it, the party simply began not to obey the rules; it was not only disobeying the rules of the party, starting from this issue of zoning, it was also disobeying the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in so many ways. I thought that when we started with Yar’Adua, we were going to start something really very far-reaching and sustainable. Of course, Shehu (Yar’Adua) didn’t make it and it was a major loss to Nigeria and since we lost him, unfortunately we haven’t got a replacement. We have not gotten a new rallying point. That is why I am not in any of these things.
What is your take on the talk of power shifting come 2015?
It is unfortunate that people who are benefiting from a very good arrangement of being their brother’s keepers are now kicking against it. Power is transient. No matter how many you are; no matter how strong your voting power is, there is a time in which you will relinquish power to others. This was what zoning was all about and I thought this was done in good faith and should have been encouraged until such a time that Nigerians feel they don’t need it and there is enough understanding by all Nigerians that they don’t need zoning to be able to find a leader, irrespective of where he comes from. This is what the principle was and we are not saying it should be permanent but at some point, we will discard it ourselves. But unfortunately, those who started it, who benefited from it, were the ones who wanted to begin to create all the problems we are experiencing now-Obasanjo in particular. He was the first beneficiary, he was not a politician, he was in prison when he was picked up, cleaned up, pardoned, given money to run his campaign and he became the President but he was the first to say there was no zoning. Obasanjo, who was the first beneficiary of the zoning arrangement, said he did not know anything about zoning. To even think that he was going to go for a third term, shows you how untrustworthy some leaders can be. This was what went on and on until the person who succeeded him, Umaru (Yar’Adua), came to say he didn’t know anything about zoning.
Source: Punch Nigeria