Inaugural D. M. Ukpe Lecture delivered by Atiku Abubakar, GCON, former Vice President, Federal Republic of Nigeria, at the 35th Anniversary Homecoming of the Federal Government College Okigwe Old Students’ Association, at Okigwe Saturday 17 November, 2012.
I feel highly honoured and privileged to be invited to deliver the first D.M. Ukpe Lecture as part of this 35th Anniversary Homecoming of the Old Students’ Association of the Federal Government College Okigwe. I thank the Association for this privilege and also for being singled out for the honour of being the Grand Patron of this vitally important association.
I thank the good people of Okigwe for hosting this Federal Government-owned institution and for the hospitality shown to its students and staff for these many years. I also thank them immensely for hosting us today. I also sincerely thank and congratulate Mr D.M. Ukpe, who I am told, was the first Principal of this school, and who, therefore, nurtured it from its infancy. In a country where we rarely honour teachers for their critical contributions to societal development, it is praise-worthy that your former students and their friends and colleagues have decided to honour you in this enduring way. Thank you for your services to this school, this community and this country.
It is certainly good to be back in Imo State, among friends. And I am not really talking about political friends. Wherever people gather in this country in favour of education, they are my friends. Education is the best gift that we can give to our children, the best legacy that we can leave for the next generation.
I shall be speaking on the rewards of giving back, which, I believe, fits very well with the theme of this Homecoming: “Mentoring as a Stimulus for Personal Growth and Organizational Development.” Mentoring simply means guiding, teaching, advising and counseling someone, often a younger and/or less experienced person. It involves taking a person or some persons under your wings and helping to guide, teach and advise them with a view to helping them to become more successful in a given field or endeavour. Mentoring is critical for individuals, for organizations and for society. It ensures that a helping hand is extended to younger, less experienced persons or groups; it ensures leadership training and development, and a more successful transition to the next generation. It ensures that young people are equipped with the necessary cultural capital to assist them to navigate the complex world of education, work and even of politics.
Anyone who does not understand the power of mentoring only needs to look at the success of the Igbo in small (and not so small) businesses. I have no doubt that part of the factors that have ensured the relative sustenance of relative equality among the Igbo, even in the modern economy, is the apprenticeship system, otherwise known as the ‘boy-boy’ system. This is a system where small businessmen or tradesmen take young people (mostly boys) who may or may not be related to them and groom them in their business and in life, and, at the end of an agreed period of tutelage, give them some take-off capital to start their own business or trade. In return, of course, the apprentices provide a variety of services to their masters including helping in the business and domestic service. Call the ‘boy-boy’ system what you will (because of all its imperfections), but it is certainly also a mentoring system. And it has served the Igbo well, accounting for the wider spread of prosperity (or at least middle class incomes) among this very industrious, resilient and adventurous group of Nigerians.
I am particularly delighted that the former students of this great school are pooling together to give back to their alma mata, and that you consider mentoring to be a critical ingredient in that effort. You are doing something very important. And it is something that you are not required to do. You are all volunteers, which makes your efforts much more remarkable and commendable. You are doing something that does not have an obvious material benefit to you. You could as well have moved on with your lives without giving a damn about what goes on in your former school.
But there are rewards to giving back. Giving back is indeed a reward in itself. As humans we are competitive beings; but we are also cooperative beings. Without cooperation human society would be impossible. It is in our nature to look after each other, to give a helping hand to others even as we compete for scarce resources such as wealth, power and social honour and even sexual gratification. And there is the satisfaction derived from knowing that you are able to help and that you are helping other human beings. There is also the prestige of being associated with a living, breathing, top quality school: Barewa, Government College Keffi, Holy Ghost Owerri, BSC Orlu, DMGS Onitsha, CIC Enugu, Hope Wadell Calabar, King’s and Queen’s Colleges Lagos, to name just a few. Ever wonder why many Nigerians are quick to announce to you that they are alumni of Harvard University even when all they did was attend a four-day course at that storied institution?
It is, therefore, important to help your alma mata to reclaim its past glory and to move it to greater heights. Your alma mata is a tag that you will continue to wear for as long as you are alive. Put another way, the reputation or notoriety of our alma mata follows us for the rest of our lives. Giving is good. When the Koran tells us that the hand of the giver is always on top, it is encouraging us to give.
And I do not think that there is a better way to give back than to help in the education of the young. When they say teach people how to fish rather than just give them fish, they are saying we should invest in education. When the Chinese say “if it is for a lifetime educate the young”, they are saying that education is the best investment we can make in society. Education is a vital vehicle for social advancement. It helps a society to bring up informed citizens who are more likely to know their rights and have a better appreciation for the rights of others. Education is a necessary ingredient for the exercise of freedom in modern societies. Education helps society develop its human resources and capacity. It helps to impart skills and knowledge necessary for people to better understand their surrounding environment and to apply such skills and knowledge in taking from as well as enriching and protecting that environment.
In the modern world the countries that lead in education are also those that rank the best in other critical indices of development, including technological advancement, research, innovation and competitiveness, incomes, life expectancy, maternal health, and infant mortality. In well-run educational settings, ideas are freely exchanged, robust debates take place and received wisdoms challenged, validated or expunged – a process that is on-going and enduring and leads to improvements in the human condition. Conversely those corners of the world that reject education, demean it or fail to adequately invest in it also tend to be the most backward corners of the world, lagging behind the rest in all measures of development and the improvement of the human condition.
I think that giving back, especially through education, is something that every alumni association of our various schools should do: pool together and help your alma mata irrespective of government’s investments and efforts in education or lack thereof. Giving back through education can take different forms: scholarships, books, laboratories, and other equipment and supplies, physical infrastructure such as classroom blocks, dormitories, bathrooms, mass transit vehicles, and mentorship, among other things. Education is a collective responsibility: we all benefited from public resources whichever school we attended. Those who do not belong to their alumni associations should join; and those who have not formed such associations should do so without delay. And it is not just about helping your old school; it is also about interacting with old school mates and friends, reminiscing about the past, reliving important moments and renewing shared values. Many societies have changed for the better because a group of school mates or classmates came together around common causes in the interest of their societies. They then worked together doggedly to realize their vision for their societies. Through the vehicle of your association, you can participate in and encourage mentorship not only of the students and young graduates of your former school but across the country, including your places of work.
You can also as individuals and as a body lend your voices to the calls for the reform of our education and for increased public investment in education. However helpful they may be, alumni associations cannot substitute for governments in the development and promotion of public education. It remains primarily the responsibility of governments to make the necessary investments in education to ensure that citizens, whatever their state in life are afforded the opportunity to acquire an education. Therefore, we need, as a matter of urgency, major investments in public education. While the UNESCO recommendation of a quarter of the national budget may seem unrealistic for us now because of the crying need of other critical sectors, especially physical infrastructure and healthcare, it should be a goal of our governments. If we drastically reduce corruption and waste in the system we can meet the UNESCO target. We cannot make the transition to a developed country if we do not develop our education and begin to produce those with the relevant skills and knowledge to build such an economy and society.
As some of you know, I am a founder of a private school system (from kindergarten to University levels) in Yola in my home state of Adamawa. But I am a product of public education and would like every Nigerian child to have the same opportunities that I had to get good qualitative education. Private schools should just be supplements and niche players rather than a replacement for good quality and accessible public education. I have to stress that strong, qualitative public education does not foreclose private education. The United States and United Kingdom are among the leading countries with strong public education and private education systems. The competition between private and public education is healthy for democracy.
Unfortunately some people have resorted to blaming the growth of private education for the rot in the public education in Nigeria rather than see them as a response to the rot in the public school system. Some even call for taxes to be levied on private education. That would be a wrong-headed policy. We should strive to improve public education as a way to reduce the need for private education, or to make the latter a matter of choice rather than necessity for most parents and their wards. The growth of private education is not responsible for the rot in public education but is rather a reaction to that rot and a reflection of the lack of confidence in the governments to address it. And we should not forget that private education has a long history in this country. The first schools in Nigeria, the mission schools, were private. And they coexisted with good quality public schools when governments started investing in education. There were also the various famous private schools such as Dr Tai Solarin’s Mayflower school, Ikenne, Dr B.U. Nzeribe’s Santana schools in Awo-Omamma here in Imo State. Oh, and by the way, the schools that Governor Rochas Okorocha built in four or so cities across the country have not prevented any government from improving public schools in those states.
Government control of schools or government monopoly of education in the Southern part of this country is a post-civil war phenomenon. It was part of the oil wealth-induced centralization and concentration of power in government. I am told that there was some punitive politics involved in the government take-over of schools in this part of the country. Whatever the case, while that action may have helped expand schooling and entrench secularism in our schools, the net effects have been largely negative. The schools declined in virtually every respect: inadequate resources, facilities, qualified teachers, sanitation, and character-building, among other shameful inadequacies.
In addition to making the necessary investments in education we must decentralize education and other sectors of our society. I will disappoint some of you who are products of the so-called unity schools, the federal government colleges. Consistent with my call for restructuring of the federation and devolution of powers to the constituent regions/states, I call on the federal government to hands off the direct control and administration of schools in the country. This should include ‘unity schools’. The resources that go to them should be passed on to those states where they are located.
I know that some will say that the objective of promoting national unity will be compromised; others are likely to argue that their quality will further decline. I reject those arguments. They presuppose that the federal government has done a better job of managing resources and administering institutions in this country. That is questionable. Who would say that the University of Nigeria Nsukka, University of Ife (now OAU), or Ahmadu Bello University Zaria were better run after they were taken over by the federal government than the regional governments that established them? Concentration of power and centralization of resources do not necessarily promote unity as Nigeria’s case amply demonstrates.
And today we have a bizarre situation where states and even local communities on which federal universities are located insist that the leaders of those universities must come from the locality. And they have largely been having their way. This completely negates the whole idea of university as an international centre of excellence which should scour the world in search of the best talent to recruit as teachers and administrators. Some will say that the states are too poor to adequately resource these schools and other institutions. Again that is a spurious argument. They are poor to the extent that the federal government is rich. The resources will have to be transferred to them as the responsibilities are. And the states, realizing that they can no longer blame the federal government for their own inadequacies, will sit up or be pressured by their people to do so. They will also sooner or later see the need to pool resources with their neighbouring states to provide infrastructure and services which would be more efficiently provided collaboratively. This will enable them to realize efficiencies and ensure more seamless service delivery. While public education is not for profit making, it will certainly benefit from such business principles as efficiency, accountability, and economies of scale.
When and if the federal government pulls out of building roads as I have advocated and repatriate the funds to the states, what prevents the Imo and Abia states from jointly rebuilding and dualizing the Owerri – Aba road or their portion of the Enugu – Port Harcourt highway? Why can’t Imo, Abia and Anambra States, for instance, collapse the various public universities located in them into a single university system with multiple campuses and facilities with reduced administrative costs so that they spend more on the students’ learning? To me, it can actually be done across the entire South-East geopolitical zone, and other zones in the country. We must begin to think differently, think big, and come out of our comfort zones so that the world would not continue to leave us behind.
Nigerians will know more about their country through education but more importantly through spatial mobility, commerce and justice. We must continue to promote freedom of movement and freedom of Nigerians to do business anywhere in the country. We must insist on unabbreviated citizenship whereby residency becomes the qualification for indigeneship rather than place of birth. We should be promoting healthy competition among the various states, zones and regions in the country to ensure a striving for excellence. In order to make all of these possible, we must make meaningful and urgent investments in the development of our infrastructure – roads, railways, air travel, and communication.
Think of the average Igbo man. He knows more about other parts of Nigeria through travel and sojourn in those other parts of the country. So let us build roads and railways across the length and breadth of this country; let us build and better equip our airports and improve air travel; let us build more schools all over Nigeria and let people travel freely and safely and engage in commerce and other legitimate activities. When we are able to move more freely and reside and do business wherever we want, our children will also attend schools in various parts of the country thereby coming in contact with others from other parts of the country. And they will learn more about and become indigenes of those other parts. That interaction, the sense of freedom and the sense of justice that would result from all of these, will more likely make us more united as a people and more committed to the success and security of our country.
Thank you and God bless.