At 50, ABU Still Waxing Strong — Prof. Mahdi
Strong despite the mass exodus of scholars, foreign and local.
The university that you once led as Vice Chancellor is now 50 years; how would you describe the journey so far?
Well, the journey has been a successful story. It has not been a bad story. Ahmadu Bello University has done a lot in terms of university development as far as Nigeria is concerned.
How old were you when ABU was founded?
I must have been around 14-15 years when the university was founded.
What were you doing at the time?
I had just finished my senior primary school. I then proceeded to Teachers College, Mubi, in Adamawa State. I was doing my teachers grade course in Mubi and I moved to ABU to start life.
How did you find yourself in ABU?
There are many ways in which one could find himself in ABU. You could come to ABU then through GCE Advanced Level. You could come to ABU through preliminary studies or through Advanced Teachers College, and finally through higher school certificate. I went to ABU through Advanced Teachers College, Zaria, where I got my Advanced Teachers Certificate, now called Nigerian Certificate of Education (NCE).
As someone who we can say has seen it all in ABU, what would you say has been the driving force?
ABU has its reputations. It has the reputation of being the turbulent university among the Nigerian universities. Having said that, ABU has a very good history; it has high quality students. In this very university, scholars came from all the corners of the world; From the former Soviet Union, Brazil, Argentina, the United States, etc. When I came to the university, virtually 99 percent of the scholars were from different parts of the world. This will tell you the mix and the vast experience and the background to which the university drew its staff. Equally important is the diversity of students.
There is no doubt that there is no other Nigerian university that has drawn its students from all over the country. At the time of it height, there was no local government in this country that had no representative in the university, either as a student or staff, either junior staff or senior staff. It has also drawn its students from all over Africa, especially Southern Africa when the struggle for de-colonisation was taking place. And ABU, as a matter of policy, went out of its way to bring as many students as possible from former South-West Africa(which is now Namibia), from South Africa, from Mozambique, etc.
This was what ABU was well-known for and this has paid off. When you move across the length and breadth of the country, you will be at home if you are walking in ABU, whether you are in Gala, Borno, Jega, Calabar, Kebbi, polytechnic post-utme Lagos, etc. This would tell you the number of people that graduated from ABU. In fact, those coming from the South have excelled in engineering, architecture, etc. And this has formed the reason why the strongest branch of the ABU Alumni came from the South, not the North. This will tell you the extent to which ABU draws its students from all over the country. This is what makes ABU different from other universities.
With the proliferation of universities in the 70s, more staff members of the ABU were transfered to other universities. To this day, when you move around other universities in the country, you will find former staff members of ABU. Many of the university’s vice chancellors have taught or graduated from ABU. This is to the extent at which the university has exercised its role in the development of university education in Nigeria. When the University of Abuja was established, virtually all the staff members were drawn from ABU, partly because the pioneer vice chancellor was working in ABU. We also have substantial ABU lecturers at the Sokoto University.
What is happening? The scholars are no more there.
Well, this is part of the Nigerian problem. The scholars dispersed, especially after 1975 and 1976, and accelerated up to the mid-1980s, but this was the fault of ABU; it had to do with the collapse of the Nigerian economy. Scholars are like birds; they flock to greener pastures. When the Nigerian economy virtually collapsed in the mid 70s and 80s, those scholars from various parts of the world had to leave because they had to get something to support themselves properly. They were not here on the basis of charity or goodwill; they were here to earn a living. Of course, many of them did this on voluntary basis for the love of knowledge, but there is a limit to which you can keep people on empty stomachs. And that explains why there has been dispersal of international scholars from ABU.
What about the massive indigenous brain-drain?
I’m really surprised that ABU has continued to remain as Strong as it is. I just told you the number of people that left ABU to form a new university from 70s till date. People have been moving out of ABU and I’m surprised that it has remained Strong despite the massive exodus. However, I am not claiming that all is well with ABU’s development, but we are very pleased about ABU.
Did the university have any international partners?
Yes, we had a lot of foreign partners. When some international foundations wanted to come to Nigeria and partner with some universities, they went round and as soon as they came to ABU, they said ‘this is a university with a serious mind’. This influenced the choice of ABU along with other four Nigerian universities. They did a lot, and even transformed the Faculty of Science. The movement of Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital from Tudun-Wada to Shika was made possible by the money we got from the partnership.
The ABU of yesteryears is not the same as that of today; the level of education has dropped; to what would you attribute this?
Well, this has been talked and talked upon, and it is very simple. When I came to this university, there were only about 10 of us admitted into the Department of History. The library and the books that 10 of us used is the same library and books in use now. The number of students has multiplied; in fact, there was a time, when I was vice chancellor, some students used to receive lectures outside the university’s hall; but I was able to handle the situation. So, a culture of learning by rumours has crept into the university. There is no interest in learning, too. During our time, we went to school for the sake of learning. We built our libraries by buying books. So, the interest of the students themselves, the facilities available and even the commitment of lecturers are key. Lecturers hardly go to classrooms. Some of them circulate their old notes. There are so many other reasons. During our time, we were treated like princes and princesses: our clothes were washed; we eat good food free. But today, students struggle to do everything: they have to wash their clothes; they have to cook their food; they have to go to the market, etc. Some of them have to travel long distances to receive lectures; this is despite the poverty level. There is nothing much you can do about the decline of knowledge.
What would you want to see in ABU now?
My plea to ABU is that the current vice chancellor should do everything possible to bring everybody on board. He should also bring aggrieved people to reconciliation. There are grievances here and there; we cannot close our eyes. The vice chancellor knows about it and I know he is determined to make a difference. I think it would go down well in history with the current vice chancellor for bringing people together and getting them actively involved. ABU Still stands a very good chance of becoming an excellent national university. It has all that it takes to become the best university in the country. I plead with the current vice chancellor to encourage the return of scholarship and other academic exercises. Selection of lecturers should also be done on merit, just like in the past. But, my advice to students is that they should work hard, because those who work hard will be vindicated.
The appointment of vice chancellor over the years has been heavily politicised; has this affected the university’s growth and development?
Well, I don’t run away from problems; I am very much aware of those problems. When I talked about reconciliation and going back to do the right thing, this was what I had in mind. I know Prof. Andre Nok’s case, but we cannot go back now. Prof. Nok is a very good and hardworking scholar, but all sorts of things had come in and it is unfortunate that things went the way it had gone. But the most important thing now is for a kind of reconciliation and restoration of confidence. And that’s what I am urging the current vice chancellor to do. Since the establishment of the Ahmadu Bello University, I have been the only vice chancellor that handed over to my successor peacefully.
During your tenure as vice chancellor, there was a lot of controversies, strikes arising from staff welfare; how did you handle the situation?
Sure, especially in my last six months, there was virtually a civil war. Everything was fine in my last four years; I had good relationship. What happened was, some memebers of staff of the Ministry of Finance came from Abuja and commenced the ‘operation count the staff’ before they were paid salary. Those who came from the ministry in 2003 for the audit wanted me to give them a bribe so that they could inflate the figure. In fact, they called my Bursar to Zaria Hotel and said he should do business, and that other federal institutions had complied with them. They wanted us to give them a bribe so that they will increase the allocation. I told them that we did not do that kind of thing there. And when they went back to Abuja and the result of the audit came out, they cut our salary by 50 percent. So, there is no doubt that we suffered by our being honest. So, that created a lot of problems for me. The other problem was that some workers did not want to work and we had worked out our modalities. People wanted to collect allowances that they did not merit. So that has to do with the cutting of our budgetary allocation by corrupt officials of the Federal Ministry of Finance. I am ready to testify before anybody.
At 50, ABU Still Waxing Strong — Prof. Mahdi
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