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The Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series #27

Nigeria:
A Meeting of the Minds
(Professor Bolanle Awe in Conversation with Toluwanimi Olujimi)

by
The Chinua Achebe Foundation

Professor Bolanle Awe,

Chinua Achebe

Prof. Chinua Achebe

 

Bolanle Awe

Prof. Bolanle Awe

the Pro-chancellor and Chairman of Council,
University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), and professor of History (D.Phil.Oxon) at the University of Ibadan, is one of Africa’s leading Historians and academics. She was born on January 26, 1933 and attended elementary school at Holy Trinity School, Omofe -IIesha and St James Primary School, Okebola Ibadan between 1939 and 1945 respectively. Between 1946-1951, she attended the prestigious St Anne's School, Ibadan where she obtained the Cambridge School Certificate. Afterwards, she gained admission to Perse School for Girls, Cambridge for an 'A levels' course in English, History and Latin between 1952 and 1954. Professor Awe then attended St Andrews University, Scotland, graduating with a Master of Arts (MA) degree in History in 1958. In 1964 she obtained a D.Phil. (History) from the University of Oxford England.

 

Professor Awe has been a lecturer in the Department of History, University of Ibadan, 1967-1980. At the time of her appointment as Lecturer at Ibadan, she was considered one of the youngest academics on the African continent. She has been Senior Lecturer University of Lagos, School of African and Oriented studies where she was also a Senior Research Fellow of the Institute of African Studies between 1969 and 1976. She was appointed Phelps-Stokes Fellow African Lecture series in the United States of America in 1973, and a Professor of Oral History Institute of African Studies (University of Ibadan) in 1976.

 

Awe became an Associate Fellow, Centre de Salvador Bahia Brazil and a visiting Fellow, Queen Elizabeth House, University of Ibadan in 1982. She was also the Director Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan between 1983 and 1991.

 

 In 1986, she represented University of Ibadan as the Penn/University of Ibadan Exchange Lecturer in Philadelphia. She is the Founding chairperson, Women Research and Documentation Centre, University of Ibadan (1987). Between 1988 and 2002, Professor Bolanle Awe was a member of the Advisory Board Africa Journal of the International African Institute London. She is a member of the Founding committee, International Federation for Research in Women's History; has been a member of the Advisory Board, Gender and History, London. She has also been on the Board of African Gender Institute, University of Cape Town, South Africa.

       

In 1995, Professor Awe was a visiting Fellow, Harvard Centre for Population and Development, Boston, USA. Awe has also served on the Council of International African Institute, School of Oriental and African Language, London between 1999 and 2002 and as Nigeria Country co-coordinator, John D and Catherine T. Mac Arthur Foundation between 1994 and 1999. She is today on the Boards of Director and Trustees

of many Non-Governmental Organisations [NGOs], particularly those focusing on Women.

 

Prof. Awe has held several public appointments, notably as the First National Secretary, Nigeria Association of University Women (1962-1963); Commissioner for Education (1977-1978); and Commissioner for Trade, Industries and Co-operatives in Oyo State (1977 and 1978). She was a member of the Governing Council, the Nigerian Institute of International

Affairs, [NIIA] (1978-1984); member of DAWN's (Development Alternative for Women in a New Era) (1988-1994); chairperson, Nigeria National Commission for Women (1990-1992); Awe has been a member, Negotiation and conflict Management Group since 1999. She was chairperson, University of IIorin Teaching Hospital Management Board (2000-2004), member, Governing Council, Ajayi Crowther University, Oyo (since 2004) and member, Governing Council, Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba between 2001 and 2003.

 

Professor Awe has written a total of 15 Journals/Articles and is the author of many books on history and women’s issues. Among those awaiting publication include The Impact of Colonialism on Nigeria Women; The Feminist Saga in Nigeria: The Story So Far. She is married with children

 

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.

 

THE INTERVIEW

 

Nigeria’s history of political ineptitude is typically blamed on poor leadership. What is your assertion?

Nigeria is in the predicament that it finds itself today, because we have not made a concerted effort to elect the right people into leadership positions. And this is a mistake of long standing. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Nigerians [of my generation] were coming back home from various parts of the world, particularly from Europe, we had a clear vision for Nigeria and for nation building. One way we thought we could achieve our goals was to contribute, through our different callings and professions, to the development of Nigeria. If you were an academic, you tried to excel in the academic community and your chosen vocation. Some of us who returned home from Europe thought that if we worked as hard as our colleagues abroad, everyone would be successful. And so, we left politics to the politicians.

 

Could the point not be made that by leaving politics to others many believe were, credential wise, not up to par, the so-called “best minds of your generation” are partly to blame for what followed – a tragic failure of leadership?

 

That is a bit harsh…we rightly or wrongly believed that the politicians were the people to effectively stir the ship of the state. I think that was where the problem first began. We believed then that those in leadership positions were up to the task, and because of that, left the work of government, of directing the fortunes of this country, in the hands of people who really did not have the competence, the understanding, and the heart. They also did not have the political savvy to see that Nigeria excelled among the comity of nations. They were often not sophisticated in the affairs of politics, both international and national, and yet they came into power anyhow; unfortunately, they ended up making a mess of things. And by the time people realised what was happening, it was almost too late.

 

Many pundits suggest that the military’s series of interventions in Nigeria’s history, created the culture of political ineptitude you have alluded to; the “cults of mediocrity” at various levels of government?

 

I agree…initially, we were running a kind of democratic government right after Nigeria’s independence.  And in some cases, leaders existed who were sensitive to our needs; however, the advent of the military worsened the situation. At a stage, the military believed it could effect a change, and I must also say that there were some of us who also agreed with the notion. Very soon, however, it dawned on us that this was a mistake; of course, things turned out to be even worse than with previous administrations, because the military possessed firearms with which they got what they wanted, or didn’t have. And this made those in the military feel that they were not responsible to the people. There were civilians working with them; technocrats and professionals who were commissioners, and so on. But in the final analysis, whatever decisions that were made, were essentially made by the military.

 

Ethnicism is another factor that appears to have derailed Nigeria’s progress. What is your opinion about this political scourge?

 

It is my contention that ethnicism

Bolanle Awe

Prof. Bolanle Awe

is another factor that has been responsible for the nation’s decline. Increasing ethnicism became the reason for the first coup, and of course, that coup bred even greater ethnicism, which eventually resulted in the civil war.

 

The painful truth is that people of my generation have fueled this problem in the country. When we were attending school, especially those of us who studied outside this country, nobody really thought of ‘X’ or ‘Y’ as Igbo, Yoruba or Hausa. I remember that most of my friends with whom I schooled in Britain were not Yoruba. They often spoke Igbo to me or in my presence, and I had to remind them that I didn’t understand their language. Once they knew that, they stopped, and apologized, and that was the end of it. But when I came back home just before the civil war, or around the time it broke out, it became apparent that a major issue up was the way we had begun to distinguish ourselves as Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo. And gradually, our thinking processes became conditioned by political opportunists. Our (non)acceptance of other people’s points of view was also conditioned by the civil unrest in the country.

 

For instance, whenever anyone puts forward an idea, the general thinking becomes, ‘Ah ha! he or she is saying this because s/he is a Hausa man, and is thinking in terms of his or her own group…” and not because such a person has reasoned out the idea intelligently. We always feel that the advantage of his or her tribe is always the foundation of anyone’s ideas. And because of that, the openness to objectively examine the substance of what anyone is saying; the acceptance of general principles, becomes more and more difficult. This has always been the dangerous trend in the country, meaning, in some cases, that whenever a person brings up a good idea, we are unable to accept it wholeheartedly, because we tend to think that there is a catch –‘he is thinking of his people.’

 

Or when somebody does something wrong, what we hear is -- they are persecuting him, because he is a Yoruba man or an Igbo man, rather than a candid examination of the nature of his sin, and the need to make him pay for it. So, gradually, we have developed different yardsticks for different people, and this is a most unhealthy practice. It is not good for the development of this country where what we want and need are the best people, the best possible brains to work for our country’s development. Our parochial way of thinking has demoralized us to a great extent.

 

Mixed into this murky ethnic milieu, is the issue of Federal Character. Some believe it was designed as a system to foist mediocrity on the rest of the nation. What is your take on the issue?

 

I disagree…one must first understand the historical underpinnings of what we refer to

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as “federal character” and “catchment area.”
Federal Character as a policy came about because of differences in levels of achievements and education among the general populace. We felt that since we had a democratic society, the impact of this must be through equitable and equal participation. One way to achieve this lofty goal was to make provisions for those with lower levels of education to equally have an opportunity to become involved in development of the nation. This Nigerian style Affirmative Action is being practiced in different parts of the world, notably the United States and India, with great success. As a remediation measure or policy, it is designed as a temporary intervention. It is set up to make it possible for disadvantaged states or areas to catch up, to feel that they are part of the system. It is not, however, meant to be a permanent thing.

 

 

A concern is that in the Nigerian case, Federal Character may undergo a “political metamorphosis into an entitlement program” – and a tool to entrench power in certain areas or people…

 

Well, it was not designed to create a situation whereby people relax and feel that because they happen to come from one ‘X’ ethnic group or ‘Y’ ethnic group, they have the right to leadership. I mean, it is a situation where those who have not caught up to the rest of the nation must make a serious attempt to do so, and should always bear in mind that they are enjoying a concession. The nation should also emphasize this so disadvantaged groups are moved to buck up.

 

I also realize that this concession could be abused, and it is being abused. But then it is important to understand how this situation now affects the younger generation; for instance, in the case of entrance examinations into secondary school. A boy writes an examination, scores grades that are above average, but does not gain admission, because he is from a particular state or ethnic group. It does not require a great deal to see how demoralising this state of affairs can be for the boy. It also sends the wrong signal to the boy. He begins to feel that he is a second class citizen in his own country, and for a young child, it could be very destructive to his attitude and to the country whose future he is.

 

Lives are not lived in a vacuum; somehow, in time, that boy’s rage will tell on the nation...like is happening now. And so, we have to find a way to make giving certain groups concessions a temporary thing.  Still, I would argue that “Federal character” has its benefits.  For instance, I know that children often come home on holidays from federal government colleges to say to their parents: "Oh! I never knew that people from ‘X’ group go to school; I thought they were all beggars!"

 

You know, Federal character can be a good educational experience for all children. For those who become enlightened as to the actual state of our people, and for those who may not have gotten into federal government schools if these concessions were not made available to them.

 

Nigeria is currently beset with the political conundrum of “Godfatherism.” Some believe that it is a Nigerian political idiosyncrasy that we must get used to. Others believe that is one of the greatest threats to Nigeria’s burgeoning Democracy. What is your assertion?

 

Our so called 'Godfatherism' is an aberration and a danger to the development of our democratic system; it should not in any way be encouraged or tolerated. Its common feature is the overbearing influence of an individual or individuals who, because of the often questionable wealth that they control, are able to dictate the choice of political leaders in the country. Their action makes the voters' role in the electoral process irrelevant, and negates the idea of the people having any input in their governance. It makes nonsense of any claim to a democratic government as moneybags have hijacked the political machinery at all levels.

 

These Godfathers have also contributed, in no small measure, to the political conflicts that have characterised this fourth republic. They are akin to 'area boys' and are a distinct breed from political advisers who, because of their experience and knowledge of the political terrain, are in a position to advise political aspirants. These 'Godfathers' are, in reality, thugs who see politics only as a financial investment from which they hope to profit, often denying the populace, in the process, the social benefits which a responsible government should provide. Certainly, for democracy to have a firm root in this country, we have to ensure a fair electoral process (no rigging absolutely) with the full backing of the law. Touts and hoodlums will become scarce in a polity that consciously eradicates poverty and provides jobs for able-bodied men and women whom these 'Godfathers' press into their service. 

 

What role has oil played in our morose economic condition? Many believe that this resource has become some sort of curse; what is your opinion?

 

Yes, the period of the oil boom – a period that should have been a source of great strength to us actually became our weakness. We concentrated so much on oil and neglected other sources of revenue throughout the country. Yes, oil was yielding much more money than the leaders could handle…to the extent that our Head of State [Gen. Yakubu Gowon RTD] was quoted as saying that money was not our problem, but how to spend it. And looking back now, I think that was a most terrible statement, because even with all that was coming in then, we were still generally poor as a country. Not enough development had occurred at the time.

 

Technocrats might have offered the proper advice; however, I’m not sure the military was listening. So resources became mismanaged, and the outside world shared the proceeds, as it were, with them. Gradually, then, corruption crept in with the presence of the military until it became endemic. And it was not just at the highest level.  Today, our children subscribe to corrupt practices, which is the saddest part of it. Children now believe that it is not possible to get into schools without the aid of bribes. Where does that thinking get us?  No need to work hard, or even at all. Bribes will do the work, the talking…and pretty soon all we have is a nation of corrupt illiterates. When all the oil money is gone, I suppose every one of us will abandon our destroyed nation, and troop off to live abroad!!! So, this is the state we now find ourselves in; getting out of it is going to be very difficult.

 

 You paint a dire and gloomy tapestry of the scale of corruption in this country. Is there any hope of containing this beast?

 

It’s not going to be easy to be rid of it, because the mess now has so many faces, it has become a hydra-headed problem! Even so, I think that if we have a leadership of example, then we shall have begun something good. I think the bad leadership in the country has encouraged corruption. But if there is a strong and determined battle against corruption, and anyone behaving wrongly is dealt with, the leadership will succeed in mobilising the people. That is more than 50 per cent of the problem resolved.

 

The degree of pessimism and apathy is quite crushing among the Nigerian polity. How do we instill hope in the public?

 

I have spent a long time pondering the same question: how do we mobilize our people to believe that there could be a better world? There is a great need to cure ourselves of our deep skepticism that nothing is likely ever to be right in Nigeria. And it’s a tough job that has to start on all levels, beginning with the schools. We have to create a new vision of Nigeria. The people need a new vision of Nigeria; a Nigeria of which people can be proud, and which allows us to raise our heads in the comity of nations. Then, people will realise that it is possible to turn things around. The situation of Nigeria for now is really desperate. We are a despised people in the comity of nations.  Whether we like it or not, people look down on us, they don’t respect us. I mean, how many of our leaders are asked to speak to gatherings of intellectuals; how many of our leaders does the world really listen to? You have to travel out of this country to realise how little respect we have. When we go through foreign immigration, one look at our Nigerian passports and we are subjected to all kinds of humiliating questions and even searches. It is assumed that you are fraudulent, merely because you are a Nigerian.

 

I almost do not like to travel out of the country. And when I must, I prepare myself about having to go through humiliating experiences again. “Condition your mind to the inevitability,” I tell myself, “And be patient; don’t become annoyed, don’t become upset because of it.” So we should let our people realise that this is how bad, how low we have gone. This is not good for us, and it is not going to help us in anyway. That’s why, for instance, all kinds of fake items, including fake drugs are brought into the country. Of course, our people collaborate with the foreigners who do this. The worst second hand, even tenth-rate cars are imported into the country, because the world feels that anything goes in Nigeria.

 

So you have pirate copies of books, tapes, and so on; is it because we are not entitled to the original, to genuine goods? These are things that are not allowed to happen in other African countries much smaller and poorer than we are. And if people commit wrongs, they are severely punished for their offences. Nigerians have to begin to respect themselves, and demand the best not only for themselves, individually, but for every other Nigerian; and then the rest of the world will begin to respect us.

 

You have, very clearly, articulated the depth of the pathology, the magnitude of the problem. Where do we go from here?

 

We need to begin with the children. Particularly, we have to let our children understand that the present situation does not have to exist; that there are other countries where people look up to the leadership, where people aspire to be like certain individuals in leadership positions. We have to mobilize the whole country for this, through education, and awareness and reorientation programmes.  But it’s not going to be an easy task. It’s been tried before. But without the right points – the right leadership, continuous planning, determination, it might end up a lost cause. It also has to be a continuous exercise.

 

The administration’s anti-graft crusade has been greeted in certain quarters with great fanfare. Many Nigerians, however, appear cynical about the war on corruption believing that there is a great deal of rhetoric, yet a seeming absence of commitment…

 

I think I have to believe that the war is sincere, because (laughs) as things are, I will really become depressed. Very often, when I talk about the situation in the country, my husband, for instance, tells me, ‘Don’t get hypertension because of Nigeria,’ So, I have to look at the bright side of the situation. And the fact that various government agencies are trying to do something about it, even at the risk of their lives…young men and women in NAFDAC, EFCC, and so on; these people are sticking their necks out, and that gives me a lot of hope. But I am a skeptical optimist. I’m not sure that government can do as much as it may want to do, because there are obstacles constantly working against it. And these may even be forces within the government itself. There are vested interests outside the government, as well, and all this can sabotage the efforts of government, if it is not fiercely determined.

 

The good thing is that change can come about in a day, a week, or a year. As long as one is determined, one can bring about change. This is the reason why one has to be hopeful about our situation, but one also has to be cautious; one cannot afford to become over-excited. Change is an effort that must be sustained. And one really hopes that this government, this leadership wants to effect change. Because, this ailment known as corruption is nothing you can cure overnight.

 

One of the reasons there is skepticism about the resolve of the anti-corruption crusade is the fact that the most corrupt Nigerians have not been probed or arrested outright. What is your perspective?

 

Well, this might be so, though I don’t have all the facts. But I’ve also heard of people who have been accused of one thing or the other, and after a time nothing is heard anymore about their cases. And this has bred a lot of skepticism among Nigerians --  that ‘X, Y, Z’ did something wrong, and we all know this for sure, but they are never penalized. So there is a problem here. The situation has become so bad that…remember the assassination attempt on the life of Mrs. Akunyili? It is as bad as that; her life was at risk! Someone trying to achieve something for the good of the country... And it would almost have to be an irresponsible government that would carry on as if nothing happened. And I’m sure it has its feelers; it has its information about the counterforce to know how to get around it. Still, that the former Inspector-General of the Police could be arrested, that a man at that level can be brought under trail by the EFCC; I think, perhaps, there is a new lease of life.

 

The most prosperous nations on earth have made great strides in terms of gender equality. Can one surmise that Nigeria’s poverty in some ways lies at the feet of its deplorable treatment of women?

 

I think this country has not been very fair to women because of our history. First, we have to understand that traditionally, women have had an input in the development of this nation. They have always had faith in what goes on in their country.

 

But with the colonial experience, a very different idea of the position of women evolved. That experience put women in second class positions as citizens in their country; it took a long time before women could gain hold, before they were allowed to attend higher institutions of learning, and a long time before they were even allowed to earn degrees from those universities. The British came here with a particular mind-set, transferred it here, and the women lost out in the process. For instance, one of the signatories to the first agreement the British people signed with the people of Ibadan was the Iyalode of Ibadan. But when it then came to establishing the local government administration, she was left out, and that happened in very many other occasions.

 

By independence, the number of women in leadership positions was very few. Women’s political party wings have been very much ghettos for women - who want to be part of the action, but are pushed to the side – “you can do your own thing there, but you do not belong in the mainstream.”

So, our thinking could not really affect what went on in the mainstream, was not considered important for policy making. This is what has been happening. But there have been attempts to abolish women wing practice in Nigeria. There are a few women participating in the mainstream, but we have not fully arrived, yet.

 

Increasing access to educational opportunities for oppressed groups is often a key strategy in developed parts of the world for addressing past discrimination…

 

Women have, and continue to suffer set backs education-wise, because the emphasis has always been on educating the boy-child. For a long time in Lagos, there was only one secondary school for girls while there were four for the boys. There was therefore greater opportunity for boys; you had a higher number of boys in schools than girls. And of course, people became used to thinking that boys would grow up to work, while girls would get married, bear and rear children. So, girls were very rarely trained.

 

Even, if they had the opportunity for exposure, for participation in development, many women did not have the qualifications to do so. That was the problem; but this issue is gradually being addressed. I mean, in the Western Region, we have secondary schools for girls alone, federal government schools; and then there are secondary schools where you have both boys and girls, so it is apparent that more spaces for girls have been created in secondary schools than even for boys, in a real attempt to redress the situation.

 

But, of course, there were other problems influencing the kind of professions girls could go for. In schools, they were not being taught the core sciences, or even mathematics, so they couldn’t delve into the technological field. It’s only now that we are seeing a lot of women in science and technology fields.

 

It appears from what you are saying that there was a deliberate attempt to stifle the growth of women…

 

Yes, there was the belief that women must perform the traditional roles of child bearing, child rearing and teaching, perhaps as civil servants; of course, that was what most of the women in Britain were doing at the time. It was much later that provisions were made for women interested in the sciences to go across to male institutions like CMS Grammar School for science lessons.  

 

If one examines the issue of reproductive health which is extremely important, one finds that the provision of facilities for women is inadequate. I’m referring to the areas of ante-natal, post-natal, obstetric, and gynecological care, in particular. Often, women in a labour have to be carried physically since there are no available stretchers or ambulances. There are bad roads, and lack of proper transportation services. Some women who develop complications die in the process of being moved to better clinics with the specialist doctors.

 

So you see the problems in the area of reproductive health and procreation where women play a very significant role, yet are not very well provided for. The proper facilities ought to be provided for them to carry out this important responsibility without undue difficulty. There is the general belief that women can manage somehow, even where there are not enough provisions for them, and that is not right or unfair.

 

 

In what arenas do you believe women have made their presence felt?

 

 

In the economic field, in most parts of the country, women contribute greatly; they are the majority buying and selling in our market areas. But what are the conditions of the markets? Some of the big markets, until recently, did not have the basic facilities expected to make life in the open air market bearable. These women are there from morning till evening; sometimes there are no toilets, there is no water, and there are no proper facilities for child care. Women and their children sit under the scorching sun, or rain, all day. And for some of them who want to go into big businesses, there are no loan opportunities; they may not be able to get credit facilities as the banks tend to demand collateral. More has to be done for women, I believe. I really respect the fact that our women achieve so much despite what they have to put up with.

 

Unfortunately, women seem to have accepted their situation; but in spite of their societal handicap, they are determined to make it, and they do make it. They educate their children and they themselves provide for their needs. They tell you that it is not about the men; they are going to make it possible for themselves to succeed.

 

So, I admire them a lot. When you go out early in the morning to Bodija (Ibadan), for instance, you will see women with loads on their heads, moving in and out of traffic; I always say, ‘Look, our women are hardworking.’ Even on their own, they somehow are still able to bring up their children.

 

Women are more than half the population of this country. Does it now make economic, political and strategic sense to galvanize them to play a more crucial role in the political affairs of the nation?

 

At the National Assembly, I think there are a few women; in the House of Representatives, there are a few, but still insignificant in number compared to the men. In some State Assemblies, you find that there are no women representatives at all, which demonstrates that politically, women are not faring well. They do not have the input necessary for the role they want to play in government, to making decisions that affect their lives. They have no say in that. And the saddest aspect of this is that when it comes to voting in representatives, the majority are for men coming from women who campaign for them, as well. But I think part of the problem of course, is that our women are not organized enough; that they also do not understand yet, the amount of power that they have. I don’t think they have that understanding of the enormity of power that they wield. When women do recognize that, there will be a change. But without an organized platform, women are used and later dumped by men in politics.

 

What is responsible for the negative reaction to female politicians in this country, particularly at a time when women in such diverse parts of the world such as Liberia and Germany are taking up the mantle of leadership?

 

 I think that when women who have the ability to deliver pursue politics, they are not likely to be put in the spotlight or advanced by their political male peers. I mean, what are the women already in politics doing? What impact are they making in any debate of national significance, in any debate, at all? It means that merely having numbers is not the point; we need women who have the ability to articulate problems, to make their own stand known, to argue, to debate and to be well informed about the issues that come before the National Assembly. It is my impression that not enough of the women are kneeling in that direction. Again, I think those who have the competence are not coming forward in enough force.

 

And of course, for elections, women do not have access to the kind of money usually spent in politics. It is an enormous gamble; they may spend all the money they have, and still not be voted in, and then they are in trouble.

 

Isn’t part of the problem male and even female bigotry and the entrenched patriarchal traditions in most Nigerian ethnic groups that is making it almost impossible for Nigerian women to emerge as leaders?  One can make the controversial statement that the Nigerian female achiever may very well not have the understanding, the co-operation and support of the men in her household -- father, husband and the generality of men folk…

 

Well, some of the women

Bolanle Awe

Prof. Bolanle Awe and a child

who are into politics have their husbands’ support; their men do not necessarily work against them. But I know that women usually have strategies for gaining the support of their spouses or other men in their lives. These men eventually come to accept the fact that the women in their lives are going into politics. But the generality of men may be skeptical about the capability of women. If a woman shows that she can deliver the goods, however, they will accept and toe her line. We can see this in women who are leaders in various institutions of government and various corporate organizations today.

 

If a woman knows her job, nobody is going to say, ‘She is a woman; I’m definitely not going to listen to her.” Once a woman can deliver the goods, in the local government administration, for instance; improving the state of the markets, making sure that there are drugs in dispensaries, and making sure that roads in the rural areas are motorable, making people realise that she is doing all this because she regards it as her mission, people will respect her and they will accept her.

 

We need women at all levels of government, in order to affect government policies in our favour. And I think that since women are more affected by these policies, they would be more relevant at local government levels. Now that more money is going to be made available at the local government level, they should be able to do much more than they are doing at present, to alleviate the suffering of people.

 

Apart from the oil and banking sectors, Nigeria’s economy can be described as moribund. What prescription do you subscribe to revive the economy?

 

I’m not an economist, but I think our local industries are suffering; the government is not giving them enough support to survive. I really don’t understand what the owners of these local industries are doing, because I see some of them abusing privileges given them by government regarding foreign exchange. There are certain infrastructures that government should really provide -- water, electricity, good road-networks reduce overhead costs at the end of the day, and are still lacking.

 

Also, government encourages the importation of goods that really should not be imported. And I definitely object to the way we import textile materials; at present, it’s the silk scarf and the damask that is all the rage!!! These materials come from some where in Asia, and what this means is that we are keeping those people in jobs, supporting their manufacturing sector, while our own people have no jobs, and our manufacturing sector is destroyed.

 

I have had on occasion gone to the 17-day market called the ‘Oje’ Market where traders come from all over with their wares. It is basically an Aso-Oke market; but it’s now a ghost-town, because people now go for the damask and silk head-ties from Asia.

 

I went to church during one of the festive seasons, and later, counted the people wearing Aso-Oke headties; I think there were about six or seven people, in all!! And all because of our excessive lust for things that are foreign. I do not know why that has to be encouraged. I think it should be the business of the government to educate the people about some of the reasons people at home have become jobless. This preference for imported goods is an excellent way of making that our very own industries, and therefore, our own people are continuously out of job!!!  There is a need for us as a nation to cooperate with the government to make sure that foreign items do not continue to flood our markets.

 

Also, we should take great pride in our own products; for now, we have little pride in what we produce in this country. And if people are desperate for damask material, perhaps our local industries should start looking into producing them. It may not start off being the best quality, but demand will ensure improvement, and we can wear whatever we have produced here. The point is to decide to support our own.  Are we ready to do this, or do we continue to ape the rest of the world, is the question. We must understand that we can never be as good as the original, only second rate. Our permed our hair has never looked like that of people whose hair is naturally straight. Our own styles are beautiful. We should be proud of what we have, who we are, and other people can ape us!!! This is what developed countries have done.

 

Nigerians are often the first people to deride “made in Nigeria” products, preferring foreign made products instead….

 

Yes, I’ve been to places like India where they had only two types of cars, both made in

India. These cars were not particularly attractive; they were ugly, but our Indian friends told us, "the Prime Minister drives one of those, and anybody who dares import cars pays so heavily in duties that they think twice before doing it. And they had television sets in those days, black and white, when we already had coloured television sets here in Nigeria. My friend said: “Until we can produce coloured television, we are not going to have coloured televisions in our homes. You know, we have to train ourselves to accept that we don’t have to imbibe western things when we cannot produce western products ourselves.” I think it’s a question about doing much more to educate us about these things.

 

The other day, a Chinese market was opened in Lagos, which is part of what I’m talking about. What led to the opening of a Chinese market in Nigeria? What are they producing that is so attractive to us. If we are producing something and the quality is not good enough, let’s keep on working on it. We will improve on it, and nobody will deride us for not getting it right.

 

The quality of education in this country may account for this; clearly, it has taken an incredible dive. What can be done to save this sector?

 

The basic problem that I see is that we are not encouraging those in the field of education. Some of us in academics have children who have sworn never to come into it, because they have seen what a struggle it has been to survive in education. So, there is a lack of encouragement; even when the impression is created that our salaries have increased manifold, it’s never enough. But much more than that, I think, are the poor facilities in our institutions of learning. We have extremely poor facilities; very poor. The classrooms are overcrowded, there are no books in the libraries, some of the schools are in dire need of tutors, and these are not conditions that are satisfactory.

 

Teachers are over-stretched. You talk of general under-funding of education in Nigeria? Well, teachers/educators are the hardest hit. And those are the basic problems we have. When there is a lack of facilities, it means good quality output is impossible. There was a programme we were involved in with teachers, and a woman stood up and said: “I have over 100 students in my class.  How am I expected to teach, and then attend to each student’s problems, deal with them on a one-on-one basis?”

 

What do you say to this situation? I heard of a medical school where even microscopes which should be one per student, became one to two students, then one to three students, one to four, and finally one to five students. Then, the teachers realised that they were not really teaching.

 

The Tertiary Institutions are probably the hardest hit by years of mismanagement and neglect….

 

My sentiments exactly…our tertiary institutions are over-populated; the lecture rooms are over-crowded to the extent that students have to peep from the windows to listen in to lecturers. There is also scarce accommodation; students are squatting, and there are non-students, as well, squatting in the rooms with them. There are also the tragic and dangerous incidents of cultism. Then, we have the problem of inadequate government allocation to education that even the National Assembly is not taking seriously. If this situation is taken seriously, the ridicule that we had of late over the Prof. Steve Osuji N55m bribery scam would not have taken place.

 

And I would have thought that the members of the senate would have realised that it would take even one government action to turn around the situation. They should also see beyond the issue of bribery in the case that I mentioned, and try to appreciate the seriousness of the problem. Bribes should never have to be given before allocations due our educational institutions, any institution are distributed.

 

And then we now have the tradition of sending our children abroad for an education; well, it is the right of anyone who chooses to do so. But rather than regard this situation as an example of one’s high socio-economic status, we should realize that sending children outside the country for a good education is really a result of our failure to be successful on our own. Even parents unable to afford this, go to all lengths, and try all means to send their children abroad to school. Again, we are helping countries that are already developed to develop their country the more. It does not say much about us, and we lose the respect of the world when our every need, even education, cannot be met, except outside out own home!

 

Somebody went to a party, I think in the US, and the place was full of Nigerian professionals with very high qualifications, all living in the states. And he said to himself -- these people should be back home helping to rebuild our country. But where are the opportunities for them; what can tempt them back? It is not a matter of telling people in the Diaspora that it is their duty to come home. The reasons they fled the country in the first place must be fully addressed.

 

Even those who may be willing to come home, do so, but go back again, because the environment here is not conducive for them. The facilities and resources are not available, so they return where they came from. I recall convincing one young man a doctor to come back, and he did. But each time he saw me, he said, you persuaded me to come back, but there are no available drugs in the hospitals if my baby needs it! This man is a pediatrician; I think his parents eventually advised him to go back, and it is not likely that he will again return home. But this is only because of the lack of facilities here.

 

What is your assessment of government’s University Autonomy Bill?

 

With autonomy, we can achieve many things. If it has to be with the governance of the universities, if it has to do with the ability of people in academic communities to appoint or choose their own candidates as their leaders, then, I think the bill is right. We don’t have to keep on canvassing, to keep going round government circles to make sure we receive our due appointments. But I think it will be good if government allows universities some autonomy in this sense. It should not be a case of whoever pays the piper dictates the tunes, all the time. Everywhere in the world, the government has the first responsibility of supporting education.

 

The government should not say -- if you want to run your institutions, and choose those who will oversee your affairs, then you will have to be ready to fund yourselves, including paying the salaries and allowances of your appointees. I think that is wrong. The autonomy should include the freedom of universities to teach what they want, to be able to express opinions freely, without fair or favour, and to examine issues objectively, without pressure and persecution and otherwise from any quarter. Universities should be allowed to choose those people it is felt will exercise constructive leadership based on insider knowledge of these people and their academic capabilities.

 

This should be in recognition of one’s contribution to knowledge and recognition by one’s peers, not just in Nigeria, but all over the world. People should agree that an individual has made such and such contributions to knowledge, and should be recognized for it. Autonomy should revolve around that, and it should be the responsibility of government to provide a platform for this. But I will like to add that in other nations of the world, institutions don’t just depend entirely on the government. They also go out to source funds. They may have special programmes set up in areas of excellence, and they will go out to source for funds from industries, foundations, and so on. They might even embark on projects that will generate money for them as a back up. It’s not a question of sitting back and folding arms, and expecting that government will do everything. The universities must also go out and see in what ways they can meet some of their needs.

 

Let me steer the conversation in the direction of intellectual freedom: There has been an outcry amongst university lecturers that Democracy has not yet fully brought forth or restored the intellectual and creative freedoms that were crushed under the kleptocracies of the past….

 

I think within the conference of universities, intellectuals cherish the ability to speak their minds on myriad issues. There have been cases, unfortunately, where some professors have been victims of censorship, and worse – intimidation, harassment or outright persecution - because they have taken a particular position concerning government actions. Many in the intellectual community are repulsed by this development.

 

….And on standards and quality:  Some institutions had the accreditation of certain programmes withdrawn; the Medical School of the University of Ado-Ekiti was closed down, for instance. The welfare of students was not taken into consideration, many critics allege, when that decision was handed down. What is your view on this development?

 

I think that in the case of the Medical College, it seems they were not really prepared for the programme; and I think, in all honesty, that they couldn’t cope, because money was not available to them. Though it was run for two or three years, nothing much was accomplished; the administration could not cope. But the interests of the students have to be taken care of. Places should be found for them where they can be absorbed, especially if they are qualified by JAMB, and were on proper admission. It may be decided that additional tests be given them to ensure that they are able to cope with the resultant academic load. The university should not neglect their needs.

 

The government recently announced plans to license up to 100 private universities in the country. Are we further eroding the quality of education with this measure? Is the answer to Nigeria’s political, economic and social development not lie in improving the quality as opposed to the quantity of institutions?

 

Well, one way of looking at it is this: if there are more universities, qualified students who could not be placed in universities today will certainly gain admission. That’s one way of looking at it. Also, universities are not all the same standard. In a place like Britain and America for instance, you have the elite universities – the Ivy Leagues -- that are at the top. Then you have the mid level, and then third level, and so on. There are about four, five levels; all good universities, but when the employer looks at your certificate, he immediately knows where you have come from and what your worth is. That’s the second thing that is likely to happen with an increase in universities.

 

I hope, however, that if there are more universities in the country, standards will not degenerate to the degree that graduates then become unemployable. This is dangerous for the nation, because if someone who has gone through a lower-level school enters the civil service and becomes a permanent secretary, even if he is transferred to the federal service with a reasonably good case, he still might under perform those he meets there who are from higher-level schools, simply because of the wider range and exposure they have received. The new appointee might be senior to his new staff, and this would instantly create problems.

 

Nigeria imports most of its food. What can be done to rejuvenate the agricultural sector?

 

I think it is important that we encourage people to return back to the land to farm. But we cannot do that unless certain infrastructures are provided. The roads must be motorable so that produce can be brought into towns and sold. The various tools required for farming have to be provided, such as fertilizers and extension services to improve agricultural methods. Government should also make it a top priority to help farmers improve their production technique. It is necessary to talk to farmers to understand what other problems they face, and what further measures are required.

 

Government should also guarantee a good price for farmers’ produce so as to encourage continuous production. If produce is not bought at reasonable prices or there is a shortage, farmers become discouraged and may decide to give up farming. There are various ways these useful people can be helped to dispose of their goods. A central depot may be established where all farmers can bring their goods, and rather than let abundant produce rot away, transport arrangements should be made available to help with their disposal

 

They should equally be shown ways goods such as tomatoes can be preserved. We used to have factories producing tomato puree. Now, tomatoes rot away on the farm. We should look into ways of transporting them to the factories to be preserved and put to good use, also oranges and other fruits and perishables. Similarly, various agricultural institutes should be encouraged to establish a link with the farmers to ensure the quality of their produce. Farmers should be encouraged to realise that produce is not only for direct consumption, and that oranges and other fruits can be processed other uses.

 

A particular state governor’s answer to developing the agricultural sector, at least in his own state, was to “import” white farmers from Zimbabwe to fix things. Some met the news of the relocation of the white Zimbabwean farmers with curious fascination. Others were outraged, calling it yet another example of our “colonial mentality.” What is your assertion?

 

The particular case of Kwara State, and I have tried to understand it...I certainly feel

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uneasy about bringing Zimbabwean farmers here, particularly when we know of their history of racism in Zimbabwe, their unhappy relationship with African farmers, farmers of African descent in Zimbabwe. But, perhaps, the idea is that their farming methods might be useful to Kwara State. However, I hope the government is aware of the experience of Zimbabwe where the indigenous people were dispossessed of their lands. The methods expected of the Zimbabweans will be of setting up farms as examples of how we can develop what we have here; there is, perhaps, a need for them in that sense. But the Zimbabweans should not be allowed to come here and set the stage for our people to become unprotected land-wise and fall victim to large-scale farmers. So, the government should really examine what is happening in Kwara state, very closely.

 

There is the case of the tobacco farmers, as well; I think what I understand the British American Tobacco Company as saying is that they are helping our own tobacco farmers, particularly in the long run, to improve on their farming methods. But I have uneasiness about the fact that tobacco is a dangerous product in its use for cigarette production; tobacco companies are getting a great deal of flack in Western countries, and it is not really clear to me how they became so well established in Nigeria.

 

Nigeria is blessed with an energetic, talented, but, alas, restless youth. Many of my generation have lost hope in this country. How can we look forward to a better and brighter future?

 

I think we should begin with the fact that everybody has the right in this country to contribute to the process of governance, of development at all levels. This brings the realization then that everybody has a right to question government, beginning from the local to the federal level; to inquire into the disbursement of allocations. How were the monies spent, and on what? I think the fact that allocations to states and local government are published now is a good thing. Elected officials can then be made to account for their activities. The essence is for the ordinary man and woman to start asking questions.

 

I don’t know how we are going to be able to do things so that everyone is given the sense of belonging, that we all have a right to be whatever we want in this country. Also, it is in line to think that those who feel marginalised at the moment should be given an opportunity to exercise leadership. I believe that this will give them a sense of belonging, and make them feel that they are part of the nation. Two, it will be a learning experience for them; they will realise that governance is not all that easy. And those who have been exercising it should also realise that this world is not made just for them alone; others want to participate in the leadership. But beyond this, I think merit should be the watchword, which is not usually the case.

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.

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Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series: Professor Bolanle Awe in Conversation with Toluwanimi Olujimi