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The Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series #20

A Meeting of the Minds
(Prof. Grace Alele-Williams in Conversation with Toluwanimi Olujimi)

The Chinua Achebe Foundation

Professor Grace Awani

Chinua Achebe

Prof. Chinua Achebe


Professor Grace Alele-Williams

Prof. Grace Alele-Williams

Alele-Williams is an extraordinary academic pioneer and trailblazer. The first Nigerian female Vice-Chancellor [The University of Benin], Professor Alele-Williams was born on December 16, 1932 in Warri, Delta State.  She attended Government School, Warri (1939-44); Queen's College, Lagos, (1945-49); and University College (Now University of Ibadan, 1949-54). She left for the USA to study at the University of Vermont, USA -- 1957-59; and later at the University of Chicago, USA, 1959-63, where she earned a PhD.


Professor Alele-Williams began her teaching career as a mathematics instructor at Queen's School, Ede, 1954-57. Between 1957 and 1959, Professor Alele-Williams was Graduate Assistant /Assistant Professor, University of Vermont, USA.


On her return to Nigeria, she was appointed Post Doctoral Research Fellow at the Department/ Institute of Education, University of Ibadan, 1963-65; Lecturer 1, University of Lagos (1965-68); and Senior Lecturer, University of Lagos, 1968-74. She was Associate Professor of Mathematics, University of Lagos 1974-75, and was appointed professor of Mathematics, 1976-85. As Nigeria’s first full female professor of mathematics, her appointment made academic history.


From 1985 till 1991, she was the Vice-Chancellor of University of Benin.


Alele-Williams has served on the Academic Curriculum Review Committee (Old Bendel State), 1973-74; as chairman, Lagos State Examinations Board, 1979-85; Member, Governing Council, UNESCO Institute of Education; as a consultant to UNESCO; Institute of International Education planning member; Africa Mathematics Program, Newton Massachusetts, USA (1963-73); World Organisation for early childhood Education, President Nigerian chapter; director, Chevron Nigeria ltd, and Member, Vision 2010.


Her publications include Modern Mathematics Handbook for Teachers, 1974; and numerous articles in national and international academic journals.

About Toluwanimi Olujimi

Toluwanimi Olujimi is a Lagos based journalist. She has considerable experience in the print media, and has written extensively on Nigerian politics, education and women’s issues.





Q: Professor -- several eminent Nigerians such as Dr Sarah Jibril, Gamaliel Onosode and Cardinal Okogie [guests of the Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series] believe that Nigeria requires an ethical, even a spiritual revival. What is your take on this issue?


A:  Nigeria has many problems – A history of poor leadership, corruption and moral decay, collapse of our

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institutions, etc. I strongly believe that at this point in time,
Nigeria will benefit immensely from a change in its value system and attitudes. Why am I so bothered about attitudes as to advocate a value change? A country’s values and attitudes serve as a moral compass. These values are a synthesis of the beliefs we take seriously and cherish, and come about as a result of several years of development, analysis, trials and errors.  


A simple example: We all know that there was a time when in order to be successful, one had to exert oneself through hard work and discipline. If one made money in a corrupt manner, such an individual would be scorned by his family and the entire village. In church, the pastor would preach against corruption in order to shame him. Today, however, people who steal -- from the nation and from ordinary folk -- are given exalted positions in our communities and country, and honoured as knights in the church! So we really need to reexamine our values and attitudes. Without an appropriate moral compass, a country is doomed!


Q: Many Nigerians will postulate that ours has become a lawless nation. The moral compass of “the many” often gets lost or suffocated by the corruption and ineptitude of ‘the few.’ Has the strengthening of our legal system become an absolute necessity?


A: The judicial system is a microcosm of our larger society. Some believe [the judiciary] is in decay and in much need of salvaging. A country that cannot trust or rely on the judiciary cannot call itself a nation! There are too many cases where the outcome of a court case depends on whether and how much one can pay for effective counsel! If you can hire a clever and intelligent advocate, the easier it is for you to get what you want even when you do not merit it. There are cases of judges handing down politically motivated judgments that are far removed from legal or moral conviction, or merit. This I am convinced about: evaluating Nigeria’s problems cannot be done without also examining the collapse of our institutions – one of which the judiciary is central.


Q:  What factor(s) do you think has precipitated the erosion of our values and attitudes?


 A: There has been a gradual slip in our values, because of an unhealthy attitude towards the acquisition of money; let me suggest materialism, our more or less worship of money… Once upon a time, it was very important to receive a formal education, because this was a major avenue for legally acquiring money or respect in the society. Along the way bad eggs amongst us found ways to pay for educational certificates, and to use these certificates to acquire money and positions of power even without the benefit of an education.


Much more important, however, is the related problem of the destruction of the political process due to the corrupting influence of money. The scale of political corruption in Nigeria is mind-boggling! It is clear that the real sense of power in this country is in politics - where power translates into the ability to control the source of wealth of the country. Nigeria is a country where “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely!” Politicians in power in Nigeria forget that they are servants of the people, and command the power given to them by the people as if it is theirs by right. They then attempt to hold on to this power forever. In Nigeria, people in political power gain control of a great many things; they may even control the society as a whole. In the industrialized world, say in America, the three branches of government – the presidency, legislature and judiciary – serve as checks to one another. In Nigeria, one first gains political power, and then through a massive employment of bribes gains control of the other arms of government; finally the country is under their control – the insidious role of money again!


Q: How can Nigerians free themselves from the albatross of “mammon worship?”


A: Several things can be done on several fronts. Let us insist that the source of the money that corrupts our institutions – the petroleum industry – be overhauled. This means that its accounts must be made public and constant auditing conducted. We must insist on clear guidelines for those who have access to the oil industry. Once we can control ‘the fuel of the corruption’ in this country – petrodollars -- it is my contention that a major part of the problem is solved.


Let us set up in this country, an EITI (Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative). An EITI will ensure the examination of the daily, monthly, yearly operations of oil companies and the oil sector as a whole. It will also serve as a watch dog organization, keeping track of pollution and other human rights atrocities. But one must be sufficiently knowledgeable in this field to be able to do this kind of work, and most who are, already work in various capacities in the industry. Therefore, it behooves the country to seek out and appoint neutral observers from a diversity of backgrounds. They should be competent, and able to audit not just the oil operations, but the money accruing from it. They should also audit how that money is being spent, from the top to the bottom. It will be imperative to arm such a body with legal authority to persecute and punish, imprison much like the EFCC. 


Let us also begin to re-examine our values and attitudes -- we have under-valued attributes of goodness, neighbourliness, honesty, hardwork, truthfulness; hence our country is not making any progress. It is important that we stop according well known thieves with high positions and respect in our society!


Let us discuss the direction that the country is heading. With a project like this, embarked upon by the Chinua Achebe Foundation, and conferences -- let us confront our demons squarely.


There is a role for the educational institutions in realigning the values of the youth. Civic education can often translate to wide spread education of the populace on subjects such as good governance. Once the population is well educated, we can then hope for an impact on the polity – their understanding of the democratic process improves, their voting knowledge and choices improve – all of which will, hopefully yield better elected office holders.


Q: Why has it been so difficult to achieve the objectives you have so clearly articulated?


 A: Because of corruption and the lust for power, as

Professor Grace Alele-Williams

Professor Grace Alele-Williams

I have outlined earlier. There was actually a plan to examine the constitution as a matter of priority in order to plug the loop holes that have hindered our nation’s development. The immunity clause is an example. Sadly, along the way, this plan seems to have been set aside in the obsession with how much time the leadership can hope to remain in office. This lack of vision is the real problem.


There are other problems hindering the democratic process. Politics, in this country, has become a major financial investment. There is the case of “godfathers” who have financially backed gubernatorial candidates with the intention of recovering their money when the candidates become elected. The scramble for the extension of office tenures for politicians is related to the phenomenon of godfatherism, as well. I have mentioned that in recent years, one sure way to get rich, in this country, is through politics. Now consider a godfather being able to dictate the number of years that a candidate he is sponsoring for political office can remain in power. This is very important, because he would want his political puppet to stay long enough so that he [the godfather] can recover all the money he has invested, plus a profit margin!


So, let me ask this -- do you think that a governor under this kind of pressure is going to pay any attention to governance and the well-being of the people? Or is he going to devote his attention to repaying the people who sponsored him to that position?  This is part of the explanation of the obsession with the extension of tenure for elected officials. The other reasons include a disdain for the electorate and the country, the fear of political reprisal from enemies, and the lust for uninterrupted access to the country’s resources. This obsession has taken over from what should be the real focus for those in elected office, which is to serve the interest of the people.


Q: Where, as the saying goes, “did the rain begin to beat us” [How did it get so bad]? Do you think it is possible to identify a particular period in Nigeria’s history when the deterioration commenced, or should we assume the downward slide is, perhaps, as old as the nation itself?


A: My contention is that we missed the boat from the beginning. I agree with Chinua [Achebe], that one of Nigeria’s major problems is the lack of solid, accountable leadership. Unfortunately, Nigeria has never had anyone as meticulous and loyal to his ideals as the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo was, at the helm of affairs in this nation. We had other great leaders before; one came from Northern Nigeria [The late Sarduana of Sokoto]; one from Eastern Nigeria [Late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe]. These men never had the opportunity to make an indelible mark on the Nigerian nation, the way Kwame Nkrumah made Ghanaians aware that they could do anything, and develop in a way to compete with the best in the world. Nkrumah was a uniting influence on Ghanaians. He ushered in a period in Ghana when, for the first time, Ghanaians ceased to perceive themselves as Gold Coast Christians, Moslems, Ashanti, Twi, etc but as simply, Ghanaians. It did not matter to Nkrumah that Ghana had few resources, it was the vision that mattered, and had he not been deposed, he would have positioned that small country in the direction of sustainable greatness. Much of the stability that Ghana enjoys today is due to the foundations laid by Nkrumah.




Q: (Interrupting) Does that suggest that Nigeria’s early leadership was limited by a collective myopic vision?


A: No, Nigeria is far more complicated than Ghana. Nigeria was not as fortunate...from its amalgamation onwards. Our

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three early leaders were giants of sorts, but they didn’t seem to want to cooperate with each other, because they placed more emphasis on their individual regions. And each of those respective regions was larger than all of Ghana. So, in many ways we ask too much of the early leaders.


The way we structured the country did not help matters either. We started off with the Littleton Constitution; at the time, the Federal center was weak. Later in our history, we consolidated more power with the center, swallowing regional control of most parastatals and departments, but most importantly, taking over the control of finance in the jurisdiction of the regions. The intervention of several military juntas did not help matters, either. Corruption may not have started with it, but it certainly got worse under military leadership. What we see today is the manifestations of decay long in the making. One of my colleagues suggests that the only thing keeping this country together is oil, which is sad. In fact, Nigeria’s power tussles can be summarized as cycles of struggles to control the nation’s resources – in particular our oil wealth. The British may have created one Nigeria for their own interests, without regard to our diversity in religion, ethnicity and politics. However, Nigeria holds great possibilities, and we can, and should, make something out of it.   


Q: The electorate – an apathetic followership some believe - appears to be culpable in this political mess. Corrupt politicians often feed into our apathy, buying voters, influencing the vote with corrupt favors…


A:  I understand the frustration… it would be wrong to blame the people, for they are victims. Poverty is a powerful force. Throughout history, large populations of people have been controlled by keeping them in abject poverty. We have learned  from history that this oppressive tool called poverty can, in fact, stir great revolt, and turn an apathetic polity into one full of rage and bitterness. Some naïve politicians think that they have bought the electorate, and that they are in a good position; however, the answer is “not really.” They may have bought the illiterates in the rural areas, but even these people are full of bitterness, asking questions in terms of how the politicians have affected them. Civic education is one way to counter political apathy. Make sure through education, that the people understand what is at stake, and how they can play a part in bringing about change…


We have to overhaul our political system. Look closely at INEC. Who are we appointing to run this important government body?  Is he or she reputed to be incorruptible? Are they competent to oversee the running of free and fair elections?


So, we are now talking of corruption of several strata of our various systems and corruption of many processes that should not be corrupt. In the final analysis, we need to root out those who are corrupting our systems -- is it the people in power; in other words, the people elected into office, or outside forces? We can’t bring about change overnight. Our focus should first be on bringing about change in the attitude, and in the values of our people.


 Q:  How can the values and attitudes you have mentioned become a part of Nigerian life?


 A: You don’t legislate values; they are imbibed as people are growing up within the family unit. On the other hand, there is the legal system; we have correctional institutions and also schools. The correctional institutions were set up to punish and, hopefully, rehabilitate felons – among who are counted corrupt politicians. But these days, people with money also possess power, and if such people go through the law courts, they can get away with murder and leave with a slap on the wrists. So, it appears the answer lies with our schools and our teachers. But the students themselves must be taught by persons who have solid values – hard work, honesty, integrity, uprightedness, accountability, respect for one’s self and for others, etc. Unfortunately, one can find the insidious hand of corruption, even in the schools...


All the same, we must try to start from somewhere, and one way I envision solving these myriad problems is for us to foster a community or communities in which these values are solidly entrenched – this I have termed the “development of a civil liberty system.”




Q: You mentioned accountability as a virtue that needs to be emphasized…


A: Clearly politicians need to be put through a more vigorous screening and litmus test. Nigeria needs to ask some salient questions about its politicians. What was he/she before he/she got into politics? Did he/she have a house? Did he/she go into politics to build houses? Why have we abandoned the process of declaring one’s assets if we have the intention to run for public office?  Isn’t it time that we put the mechanism in place, apart from the media, to really evaluate what a man did during his tenure as a public office holder, or in any position of power?


If you say to me today, ‘Madam, you were vice chancellor of the University of Benin for seven years; can you enumerate your accomplishments, please? I will tell you what I did for students; I will tell you what I did for academic merit as it affected both faculty and students. Since universities are made up of human beings and facilities too, I will tell you what I did to maintain physical facilities as they were then, or improve physical facilities to make life easier for the students. Did I make sure there were more classrooms; did I make sure there was light, running water? What new programmes were introduced in the university during my tenure? You see what I mean?


We would, therefore, demand removed from office, anyone who views leadership, especially in politics, as an opportunity to make money; people, who outside of politics are unable to survive, or compete successfully in the public arena. This speaks to the core of our problems.


Q:  In an intellectually provocative speech you gave in February 2005, you blamed a number of Nigeria’s problems on what you termed “Nigeria Centeredness.” Can we explore this a little more?


Of course…this is the thesis of the paper that I presented. While I agree that corruption, tribalism, religion are major forces which have participated in Nigeria’s decline -- they add to people’s demoralization, make people behave in a way not particularly conducive to national development-- I believe also that being ‘Nigeria-centered’ and confusing it with true centralization has some thing to do with our present predicament. In my recommendation in the paper, I describe “Nigeria Centeredness” as having a negative outcome, in certain ways, by pointing how before the Richard’s Constitution, we had set up our country as three “countries.” Power was assigned to the Regional Premier; no one person was at the center. At that point, we did not have a national leader who had the patriotic drive and vision for the whole country, in the way Ghana had a Kwame Nkrumah, for instance. Thus, the country continued developing as ‘Three Nigerias.’


Later, as the country evolved, instead of practicing federalism or a true ‘Nigeria-centeredness,’ we started practicing centralization, instead. The centralization that was practiced was not conducted in a fashion that was fair to everybody – people began to feel alienated. This resulted in a situation whereby Nigerian citizens no longer thought of themselves as Nigerians - people began to think of themselves as Ndigbo, Yoruba, Hausa, Ijaw or Itsekiri, or Kalabarian -- what have you. Even among the Yoruba, you found splinter group allegiances – the Ijebu, the Egba, and so on.  


The point I am trying to get across is that if there had been true federalism, flavored with the vision and patriotism of great leaders like Nkrumah – someone with the combined qualities, managerial skills and vision of those three Premiers, and had the strength of character to view Nigeria as one country from the very beginning - we would not be where we are today. If we had leaders of that ilk from the start, we might, from that time, have developed a generation of people who think of a one Nigeria, but we didn’t. And today this is one of our major problems. Because as soon as someone assumes any position of responsibility or office, he thinks: oh, what can I do to ensure that my village benefits from my present office?


Q: How does religious zealotry play into Nigeria’s present condition?


Religion need not be a negative factor in our development. This premise is part of what informs my background in saying that, whether we like it or not, we’ve got to start building core groups of technocrats, core groups of

women and men interested in education, core groups of persons who really are religious, and it does not mean that they must be Anglicans or that they must be Moslems or that they must be Roman Catholics or they must be Pentecostals. No, but a group of people who really fear God; upright people, men and women of integrity who can come together and talk about religion and what good it can do for us -- how as a nation we can use religion to effect a change in the polity.




Q: So you see a role for religion in curing our national ills?


A: Yes, if religion is used in the correct fashion, and not manipulated as it is often done to further selfish interests. How often do you hear politicians share with the people, Jesus Christ’s anti-corruption message? He said “Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar‘s and give unto God, the things that are God’s.” What belongs to God? Humanity belongs to God. We should be fair to our children, to our neighbors. We should nurture them to become upright citizens. And God gave us the Ten Commandments didn’t He? If you take away the First Commandment which all Christians must adhere to, and you take away the same thing from the Moslems, we are talking about -- don’t steal, don’t tell lies, don’t kill, don’t covet, don’t bear false witness, honor your parents, don’t take your religion in vain, that is, you don‘t swear by your religion when it is convenient, when you know you are telling lies…These are some of the main tenets in both religions.


Q: You allude to a partnership of sorts – an amalgam of different religious and interest groups. How can such a fusion change the attitudes and values of our country?


A:  I am suggesting partnerships of professionals, religious bodies, teachers, Lawyers and NGOs [Non governmental organizations] to sit down and brainstorm… focus on how we can ensure that the right values are imbibed by our children… then discover avenues of outreach… make forays into the society and re-build our nation. 


Q: The term ‘resource control’ has come into vogue recently as a mechanism for the survival and sustained development of the Niger Delta.  Why, in your opinion, has this particular term turned out to be such a fiery coal, politically?


A: Let me begin by stating that this is a complex problem. We have a finite resource called petroleum, and we are not using this resource or allocating its benefits as we should. There are people who now have control of the resources, and their main objective is to ensure that they hold unto these resources, continue to use these resources for as long as possible, and remain in positions of power to make sure that their children also assume the positions of power required to continue that cycle.


In the past, several brave Nigerians fought the British because they were convinced that they [the British] were using all our resources, and we wanted to have control over our own resources so that we could determine our destiny, not so? But determining our destiny, I tell you, cannot be in line with all that we are seeing today.


Q: One of the most disturbing developments in the Niger Delta Region and other oil rich zones of Nigeria is inter-ethnic tension and wars. What can be done?


A:  This is a very worrisome problem. I recall a meeting at the instance of the Head of State, of people from the Niger Delta region - the Itsekiri, Urhobo, Ijaw, etc. Several people made presentations, and then the Head of State said: “I don’t know why you are fighting each other, you are brothers, you are friends, and you have inter-married and you’ve lived together for centuries...” Now, many at the meeting suggested that the break down of law and order in this region is a result of instigation from diabolical interests – people trying to forcibly seize land that is rich in oil from its rightful owners in order to exploit its oil resources. Many such people have succeeded in this, and have made millions, billions, and trillions of naira from the conflicts that have ensued.  


A man got up to make a statement on behalf of one of the groups. The man said: “There is bunkering, Your Excellency - International bunkering, national bunkering and boy-boy bunkering. We are doing boy-boy bunkering around Warri and Port-Harcourt. What about international and national bunkering? Ask the people sitting on the chair with you there (on the high table). The Head of State looked around him, and everybody else stared at the people sitting at the high table.” At that point, I felt like disappearing under my chair; I was so ashamed. I thought ‘What a stupid thing this man is saying.’ But less than three months later, we heard of the disappearance of the African Pride – the disappearance of a whole ship full of oil! What does that tell us? That man that I had at first thought was stupid knew what he was talking about! Because when you now think back to the core of the conflict, it is a question of how much power one maintains in order to grab as much money as possible. That is the problem.



Q: Is it not true that our mono-export economy portends further economic, social and political instability for the future? Should we not look towards rejuvenating the agricultural sector?


A: I want to say that we do a lot of things in Nigeria in a disorganized, unplanned manner. But in order to improve the agricultural sector, we need to have proper planning and preparation. Let us utilize the manpower we have – agro-economists, expert farmers, and scholars -- to examine what problems exist and provide recommendations for revamping the sector rather than rushing in headfirst, as we have done with everything, unprepared. Our universities can be commissioned to carry out research studies on, for instance, yam species that grow more rapidly or that are resistant to pests or that are drought resistant. Why, for instance, don’t we grow rice in certain parts of the country where the conditions – high rainfall, soil conditions - are suitable for its cultivation, instead of spending billions of dollars importing this food stuff? These are some of things that are needed for us to be able to achieve the much touted “economic diversification.” We really do need people with the vision to embark on our national development, rather than those whose sole interest is in maintaining power for selfish reasons.


Q: Nigeria’s educational system is in crisis…has been for quite some time now. What factors, in your opinion, are responsible for the decline? What steps should the country take to fix this problem?


A:  I think that what happened to our educational system is multifactorial.  I may not be able to name all the factors, but one of them was that [the educational system] grew too fast without the requisite resources to support the structure or the teachers to man the system. I believe that we reorganized the civil service as far as remuneration was concerned, but without doing the same for the universities. And I think this happened because when the soldiers first came into power, the universities did not have their act together… They were somewhat like British universities, but with the structure of American universities. It was a dysfunctional situation… you had university dons going to vie for political appointments without re-examining our institutions in the light of the changing political milieu. And it was as if we sold ourselves cheap.


The appointment of vice-chancellors was perhaps, one of the greatest tragedies of all. We discovered a situation where the people making appointments were military people. They did not understand the university culture, the culture of higher education, and were not a listening people. They foisted elements of their order, authority, force, dictatorship under the gun on our university system. Rather than the academic community retaining its culture of honor, dignity, respect, academic intellectual pursuit, it lowered its standards  to accommodate the military, because the latter possessed power, and the academic community was concerned that the military would interfere with our higher institutions…which inevitably happened.


If the academic community had maintained its dignity, met the military on its own terms as one strong body, emphasizing emphatically, the need to educate our children at the highest possible levels and quality, get the military to see the institutions as they are and ought to be valued, instead of begging for favors individually, the story would have been very different for higher education, I think.


Q: You mentioned the rapid expansion of the institutions of higher learning as a problem for Nigeria. Could you expand on this point…?


We started expanding the university system [in terms of numbers] without sufficiently considering the implications of what we were doing…what it would take, for example, to build technical universities that were world class. All of this occurred without appropriate planning by people [the military junta] who did not fully appreciate, understand, some say even care about, the ramifications of their actions.


 We first set up seven institutions of higher learning which were like the original six first generation universities. After that, we set up seven technical universities – the Universities of Technology, and in the 1980s, we conserved them, and then later expanded them again. Unfortunately, the academic community was not allowed to educate the soldiers as to the implications of their actions. They were making political decisions they could not back up… Corruption had already made its entry into the decision process. We saw this in several arenas. One of the most pathetic was the location of many of these universities. Do you realize that a number of these institutions were built in the villages or towns of the military men on the education committees planning higher institution development, and not based on economic, social or educational need?


Several of the new universities were hastily put together with half hazard or poor construction. Sometimes entire campuses were constructed without appropriate hostels for students, necessary facilities, equipment or adequate housing for staff. And the reason for this was because the construction of these campuses had become a racket, with several people pocketing the monies meant for our universities. In the end, the nation was the loser, because Nigeria was saddled with substandard university campuses.


So, why did the academic community not more aggressively and effectively use its intelligence to build up the university system in the country? It failed. It’s painful but I accept it, we failed, all of us in the university system at that time.


Q: What does the future hold for the university system in Nigeria?


One can only hope for a brighter future. Right now, I am afraid that most academics have lost the vision. We are too busy lobbying for positions to lead the universities; we are too busy fighting to be vice-chancellors, to be deans that we’ve lost sight of what the battle really is about – to educate our children, and serve as engines of development for the nation.


Money -- or the lack thereof -- plays a subterranean part in this morose situation. The quality of a country’s tertiary institutions signals the strength of the country at large. It is no accident that America is where it is today in the world. Her excellent universities helped put her there. America pours billions of dollars into the educational sector- public and private funds- to help her maintain that ever important competitive edge. In America, professors especially those with endowed chairs [those with endowed funds set aside to pay their salaries and research needs often from very wealthy donors] often command six figure dollar salaries.


Here, in Nigeria, it is only when you are vice chancellor or Dean that you earn, I suppose, enough to sustain you. So the deliberate impoverishment of the university system by those in power [to control our university lecturers] has destroyed our nation. The future of Nigeria rests on the quality of the education our citizens receive. There is no greater reason for better funding of our tertiary institutions. When lecturers are better paid, they can spend more time doing what they were trained to do – teach our youth – and less time worrying about subsistence. I have always believed this and fought for this…


We must, as a matter of national urgency, salvage our corrupted examination boards. We need to go back to the blackboard and determine how and when things broke down. We are likely to discover that the substance of the system – purpose, mechanism - is still intact. The problem lies with the people that are running things. We often put self first, religion first, or ethnicity first and end up turning everything upside down, to the detriment of Nigeria.


Q:  You referred to America as home to many of the best institutions of higher learning in the world. How did your own American education prepare you for leadership?


A:  I had a wonderful educational experience in America. I attended graduate school at a historical intersection…an exciting time…the civil rights movement was taking off, and America was re-evaluating its science curriculum, buoyed by the perceived “Russian scientific threat.” For me, it was a wonderful opportunity to bring what I was taught in America, back to this country, my country….


Q: What was the attitude to a woman – ‘the first female PhD in Mathematics’ - when you returned?


A: I honestly wasn’t thinking about what others felt about me or my achievements. I came back with the idea that I was going to revolutionize the teaching of mathematics in this country. And I did. And I said I’d work with only three schools, later six and at the tail end, I had nine. Then, I was a lecturer at the University of Ibadan, teaching in the Institute of Education, but I also taught in the Mathematics Department; and everybody understood the objectives of the programme.


Q: What kind of support did your initiatives receive…?


A: I started out in Ibadan but our group extended to Lagos.  I decided to do that for two years – shuttling between Lagos, Ibadan and Benin - after which we moved to Lagos permanently. I was able to convince the Ministry of Education in Lagos; I showed them what I was doing, they bought the idea. I started developing my own concept for Nigeria. I was working with so many teachers, about 100 - all Grade II teachers - and having taught them, what they had to do; instructed them on organizing seminars for their own teachers. The concept is often referred to as ‘Teach the Teacher, or Train the Trainer.’ We would later carry that experiment from Uganda to Kenya and from there we limited it to West Africa. It was all very good.


Q: So you concentrated on teacher education in your attempt to revolutionize the teaching of Mathematics….


A: The approach extended beyond that scope to encompass textbooks as well. Many of the books being used in our schools to teach Mathematics, in my opinion, were not adequate. I discussed my ideas about changing the curricula of mathematics in Nigeria with three important publishing companies in Nigeria, all located in Ibadan. But they said they had just re-written their arithmetic books, and having invested so much capital in those projects, were not prepared to take on mine.


Q: Did you eventually get the books published


A: Yes, but initially it went on and on, like a house on fire, with me full of energy….(laughter)… with my 100 teachers in Lagos State, which we hoped to use as a case study; but as they saw my gradual progression, WAEC include modern mathematics in the syllabus. However, the Minister of Education under General Obasanjo, Ahmadu Alli, cancelled the use of Modern Mathematics in schools because he felt it confused teachers and students. We actually heard this on the 1 o’clock news. The headline was: Modern Mathematics abolished! Now, if a minister of education is not equipped to understand a mathematics text and, for that reason, cancels the teaching and learning of modern mathematics in the school system, why should we be surprised that mathematics as a subject continues to be a problem for our students? The minister is responsible for this. There was no attempt to seek understanding, only to apply the military sense of force and order the abolition of an essential unit in education...


Q:  That must have been a blow to you after so much exertion and effort…


A: I grieved for some time… then picked myself up, dusted myself, and continued my work. I worked like a dog; I was convinced it was important work. I wrote and worked with the teachers, etc. It was this work, in this area, that I got my professorship. Later, I met someone in America who thanked me for giving him the motivation to study Modern Mathematicsthat must have been before its discontinuation in the country. He is now a professor at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] – one of the most prestigious universities in the world.


Q: ‘Silver lining indeed…’ What did that experience teach you…a young, brilliant woman in Nigeria attempting to do the right thing, but with so many obstacles placed in your way?


A:  When you are young and energetic and talented, you tend to believe that every time you have a good idea or want to introduce an idea, that it will be embraced automatically. One forgets that there are so many people, who because they are ignorant, lazy or don't want to work, will attempt to wreck the idea. Well, it cowed me for a while, but I went back to curriculum development, I had people in the Social studies in English, Home Economics and Early Childhood Education, working on myriad projects at the Institute of Education. We started offering the equivalent in these areas. Three months later, the Federal government again invited me to serve as chairman of a committee that would help them re-write the mathematics curriculum. 


Q: (Shocked)…That’s incredible….


A: Yes, but as I told them, the success of a mathematics curriculum or programme is not in the writing…anybody can sit down and write up a curriculum in mathematics. What is important is how well you train the teachers. What kind of teacher training institutions with world class facilities do you have? What are the subjects that you are putting in the programme that would make the teachers well equipped to teach? Do these teachers know how to lead the children without directing them? Do they know how to get their students to listen and then to act? Do they know how to introduce stories and visual aids in order to make mathematics exciting, especially in Primary One and Primary Two? Have they been able to get into the heads of the children that: “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, follows the same basic principle as 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100?”


When you look at all of these things and the amount of work that has gone into this field from 1964 till 1977, and then someone just wakes up one morning and announces, “We have cancelled modern mathematics,” and after that, has the temerity to invite you back to the Ministry of Education to write a new curriculum (laughter)... Leaving all that aside, though, what is most important, is the way one can teach the subject so that the teachers understand perfectly; so that the teachers enjoy teaching, and facilitate the students’ complete understanding of the subject.


Q: Some believe that greater involvement of women in partisan politics may solve a number of Nigeria’s troubles. How can women become equal participants in nation building?


A: I agree with that sentiment. However, we have to address the factors that have kept us back, and prevented us

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from taking an equal place in the political, economic, and educational arena. It is heart warming to note that all the ministries that are functioning in Nigeria today, save very few, are those headed by women.


We need to address the attitudes that oppress our women. I would like us to look at the way we treat our women; in one part of the country, religion is used to cloister our women into believing that they are being shielded from the storms of life. Whereas if you closely examine it, you will see that in most of the inter-gender dealings, we have honestly not been humane to women; we have actually been wicked to women. And women have responded by operating under the mantra: “We will take what we can, wherever we can, however we can…” Not a good thing, in whatever way one looks at it, for a nation.


Society for a long time has held that the usefulness of a woman depended on the number of children she can have. And the man’s power and worth, as it were to some extent, was reflected in the number of women he could have, and definitely, the number of children or the family size and the clan size that the woman could produce. So it is clear that women have been objects…items of possession, trophies to the male ego, and for child rearing. In many families, women are not sent to school until all the males have gone, and their school fees are paid for. It is this antiquated thinking that is keeping us back – excluding fifty percent of our population from nation building. There, has been, however, some success in certain parts of the

Country -- in the Western part of Nigeria, there is a slight difference here. It is not just one powerful woman here or one powerful woman there, but on the whole, an entire class of women who seem able to stand their ground on most issues, except the issue of land which is tied up in patriarchal tradition.




Q: What then is required to tap into this great human resource?


A: We must empower our girls and women, educate them thoroughly. This should not be threatening to men who are well adjusted. Everywhere on earth where women are well educated, the nation thrives…


Q: You have alluded to the empowerment of women. How does this come about?


A: I have spent much time thinking about this particular issue. Some of my questions include: How do we shape the thoughts of our young girls and women to respect themselves…shape their way of life? How can one actually create opportunities for them [young girls and women] to grow so that we can be equal partners in nation building? I came to the conclusion that the answer is through education; from both the private and public sectors. So, I'm glad today, that there are a lot of NGOs trying to teach girls and women how to develop their individual talents and understand what the changing political dispensation involves.


It would be a good thing if women in politics today could organize an educational retreat from time to time, aimed at young girls and women, to educate them on hard topics such as economics, business, accounting, and serve as role models…invite inspirational speakers to attend.


Q: You chair an NGO that is very concerned about the spread of HIV and AIDS…


A: Yes… For several years, we have been concerned with the spread of HIV/AIDS particularly amongst our young girls and women. We are convinced that for the teeming population of young girls, through education, we can impart morals, a change of attitudes around sex, encourage abstinence, chastity, hopefully, reinforce values of self-respect.


Q: What kind of threat do you think AIDS poses to Nigerian women?


A: I am not a physician, but let me say that God help us if the HIV/AIDS pandemic takes a higher toll on our young people, as it has in certain parts of Africa. So many young people, particularly girls have been infected; some are aware of this, others are not. But we will begin to see the impact of this pandemic in another six years when it will become clinically apparent, and what we will need to care for them is non existent – drugs, well stocked hospitals, medical manpower – it may very well drain our purse. Because it will reduce our manpower, it will reduce the ability of a section of our population to be productive.



Q: Is education the answer to the AIDS threat?


A: Yes, education is one of the many things that are required. Perhaps, the best possible way to reach large numbers effectively and rapidly may be through the mass media – public service announcements and programming through the television, radio and newspapers. The state government and the communities should be able to handle this, and not just the Federal Government; they have enough money. They should put their money into counseling programmes that target young girls…


Q: Finally, Professor, it seems that you believe education is the answer to many of the country’s problems…


A: I strongly believe that with education and core values of integrity, accountability, hardwork, honesty, uprightedness, the belief that there is dignity in labor, we can bring about changes in every area of our national life, whether it is in the economy; agriculture, industry and otherwise. This is based on the belief [quoting the Bible] that “you have sown that seed which will change the leaven into bread that we can all eat.”


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the interview are not necessarily those of the Chinua Achebe Foundation. The Chinua Achebe Foundation, an intellectual and cultural organization, believes in the right of every Nigerian to express their opinion.

Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series: Professor Grace Alele-Williams in Conversation with Toluwanimi Olujimi