In this interview with AKINWALE ABOLUWADE, a former vice-chancellor, University of Lagos, and Emeritus professor of History, J.F. Ade Ajayi, decries the leadership failure, the cost of neglecting history and harps on way forward
Nigeria will be 52 on Monday, how do you view our journey as a nation so far?
We thank God for all the blessings that we have in terms of agricultural produce and oil. But are we making the best use of them? We seem to lack the leadership. We have other countries that are as blessed and they take advantage of their opportunities. But we seem to lack good leadership who will move the country forward. We are not stagnating, because we are not on the same spot; rather, we seem to be moving backward and getting lower and lower. I don’t know how many universities that we have, but we don’t worry about the staff or the students in the institutions. Everybody just wants to claim to have established a university, but this is not doing us any good. Our grammar schools and elementary schools are not the best in the world. And, without good education, we are deprived of the best means to rally round for development. We seem not to be able to rally support for progress.
Are you saying that poor attention to education is at the root of this slide?
If we can get the educational system right, it can provide the incentive for progress. Unless this happens, we have to go on complaining about corruption and injustice. These are the things that drive us down, apart from bad leadership.
Those who think Nigeria is getting it wrong canvass a return to the old regional structure. Do you share this view? If so, why?
At the time when there were the regions, there were some degrees of competition. At that time, we seemed to be making progress. The competition among the regions was a means of getting things done and right. That might be better than the present system where power is concentrated somewhere at the centre. We may say we are practising federal system, but we are, indeed, practising unitary system whereby we take advantage of the regions. Some are saying Nigeria is breaking up; so what?
Are you in support of that?
Perhaps if the nation breaks up into regions and the regions compete with one another, that might introduce a new impetus. Depending on how it breaks, no region will want to be left behind and that will be better than what we have at present.
Tafawa Balewa Square in Lagos where Nigeria was born has been concessioned to private firms, with a part of it covered by weeds. Shouldn’t it have been preserved as a historic monument?
The monuments should be looked after by the leaders, but what can we do when the leaders are busy looking after themselves rather than looking after the welfare of the country? I don’t understand any leader who invites other people to look after what he should have looked after. Such a leader is reflecting his inability to perform.
We don’t take history seriously, and that is why we stopped teaching history in school. Any country that ignores history is inviting trouble. This takes us to the adage that says ‘if a child falls, he looks ahead; but when an elder falls, he looks behind.’ Certainly, people that do not pay attention to the past will fail to learn from the past.
As the doyen of historians, what did you do to tackle this problem?
It is not the business of historians to call the leaders back because that will mean that historians have suddenly become politicians. All my life, I never joined politics; but I speak as plainly as I can. If the idea is to get people to act, there is a Historical Society of Nigeria meeting in various places. Lack of interest in history weakened the society that used to meet to help energise and publicise what history is about.
What steps did the society take to change the trend?
The society passed resolutions, contacted ministries and ministers of education as well as commissioners for education in the various states. This is aimed at correcting anomalies. But I am retired now, so, I cannot tell you what the responses have been like.
What would the restoration of history into the educational curriculum mean for the nation?
If history is restored into the curriculum, younger people would be sensitised and accept their own responsibility to keep it alive for all-round benefit as an endowment.
Compare university education today with what it used to be in the past. What’s your conclusion?
For a country the size of Nigeria, one cannot say 117 universities are too many. But, considering the standard of education at nursery, primary and secondary levels, how many candidates are suitable for university education? The problem is that people are setting up the universities to raise money. In setting up universities, you have to think of who will attend, the staff and the facilities.
What are the ways out of the country’s educational crisis?
The National Universities Commission is supposed to regulate the establishment of any new university; they have to ensure that the staff and the students are there and even regulate the salaries. If they have fallen asleep, somebody needs to wake them up. The ministry of education is supposed to look after that.
Would you advocate a return of Advanced Level certificate as a requirement for varsity admission to address the drift?
I think the ‘A’ Levels approach brings more mature students into the university system. ‘O’ Levels students seeking admission, brilliant as they might be, put at risk the required maturity for university education. With ‘A’ Levels admission, we tend to bring in maturity and experience into the university system.
The President bestowed national honours on some personalities recently. How do you view this?
When you give awards in celebration of certain events, you tend to think about what you do and therefore do not just open your register to just anybody. The basis on which you give an award has a lesson to teach the younger ones who learn from the kind of honour you give. We should act with caution.
by AKINWALE ABOLUWADE