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The Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series #28

A Meeting of the Minds
(Professor Babatunde (Babs) Fafunwa in Conversation with Toluwanimi Olujimi and Professor Okey Ndibe)

The Chinua Achebe Foundation

Prof. Aliu Babatunde Fafunwa –

Chinua Achebe

Prof. Chinua Achebe


Babatunde (Babs) Fafunwa

Prof. Babatunde Fafunwa

the former Federal Minister of Education and Youth Development, 1990 to January 1993 – is widely regarded as
Nigeria’s foremost educationist. He received his primary school education between 1932-1936, and then attended C.M.S Grammar School, Lagos, between 1937-1943, where he obtained the Senior Cambridge School Certificate Grade 1 and an exemption from London matriculation.


Professor Fafunwa received his B.Sc (Magna Cum Laude) in Social Science and English (salutatorian) from Bethune Cookman College, Daytona Beach, Florida, U.S.A, 1947 – 1950. Between 1950-1955, he attended New York University School of Education, where he completed course work towards an M.A. (Cum laude) in English and Education, 1951; and a Ph.D. (Cum Laude) in Administration and Higher Education, in1955.


Between June 1951 and June 1952, Professor Fafunwa served as the Area Specialist United Nations Secretariat, New York Division of Trusteeship and non self governing Territorial, under the directorship of the late African-American Noble Laureate Dr. Ralph Bunche. During this time he also worked as the Assistant Nigerian Liaison Officer, for Nigeria and Sierra Leone Students in North American and British Embassies.


Professor Fafunwa returned to Nigeria and became both senior tutor and principal of Ahmadiyyah Teacher Training College, Agege, Lagos, from January to December 1956. From 1957 to 1961, he worked as a public Relation Manager at Esso West Africa, Lagos.


Later, Professor Fafunwa joined the University of Nigeria, Nsukka as a senior Lecturer, College of Education, 1961 to 1962. He was appointed the head of the college, 1962-1963; Associate professor and Dean, Faculty of Education, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, 1964; professor of Education and Dean, faculty of Education, 1965; Director of the Institute of Education; Head, Department of Education and Acting Vice Chancellor of UNN, 1966. He pioneered Elementary Science Teaching in Nigeria 1963 to 1968; and Ife six year primary Education in Yoruba, 1970 to 1985.


From UNN, he proceeded to the University of Ife - now Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) - as professor of Education and Head of Department of Education; Director of the Institute of Education and Dean, Faculty of Education University of Ife, 1967-1975; Senate Representative, University of Ife provisional council, 1967 to 1970; Chairman, committee of Deans, 1967 to 1969; Acting Vice Chancellor, University of Ife, Summer, 1967 and 1970; member interim National University Commission, 1968 to 1972; Deputy Vice Chancellor, university of Ife, 1970 to 1972; member Ibadan university council 1972 to 1975; member, Board of Directors, International Council on Education for Teaching (ICET), Washington, D.C, 1972 to 1975;  and member, Editorial Advisory Board, Teachers College Record, Teachers College, Columbia, University, New York, U.S.A., 1973 to 1984.


 Professor Fafunwa’s published articles

Babatunde (Babs) Fafunwa

Prof. Babatunde Fafunwa

and books include:
“Library and Education” 1968; Journal of the Nigerian Library Association;”Relationship Between Nigerian Secondary schools and The Universities” 1963; “African Education and social Dynamics 1963and “The major Educational problem of Nigeria: Some implications for modern Aids to Education;”Nigerian Teacher”, March 1964. Other publications include Criteria for establishing New universities in Nigeria: National universities commission, 1970; Role of African universities in over all Educational Development, International Council for Educational Development, New York, 1975; New perspectives in African Education, Macmillan & Co Ltd (London and Lagos) 1967; and Memoirs of A Nigerian Minister of Education, Macmillan Nig. Publishers Lagos and other publications. 1998;


Professor Fafunwa has received numerous awards and honours including the following: Founders day special Honours Citation for scholastic performance, New York university, 1956; Franklin Book Award for outstanding contribution to Educational Development, New York City, 1973; Medal for Distinguished Service in Education, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, 1973; Distinguished MUCIA (Midwestern Universities Consortium) visiting professorship to Michigan State, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin Universities, 1972 to 1973; and Distinguished fellow, International council on Education for Teaching, Washington, D.C; 1983.


He has received honourary degrees from the University of Nigeria, University of Ife, Ile Ife, 1987; and Lagos State University, Lagos, 2000. He is a Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Education, 1991; Fellow of Science Teachers Association of Nigeria, 1992; and received the Jan Amos Comenius UNESCO medal for outstanding achievement in the field of education research and innovation, Paris, 1994.


Professor Fafunwa was awarded the Nigerian National Merit Award, in 1989; and was received the CON in December 2002.



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.



Okey Ndibe is an associate Professor of Literature at Simon’s Rock of Bard College in Great Barrington, MA, USA. He was born in Yola, Nigeria, in 1960. After a distinguished career as a magazine editor in Nigeria, he moved to the US in 1988 to be the founding editor of African Commentary, an award-winning and widely acclaimed magazine published by the Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe. He has been a visiting writer-in-residence and assistant professor of English at Connecticut College, and has contributed poems to An Anthology of New West African Poets, edited by the Gambian poet, Tijan Sallah. He has also published essays in a number of North American, British and Nigerian magazines and writes a weekly column for the Guardian, one of Nigeria's most respected daily newspapers. Professor Ndibe is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Arrows of Rain.





Q: Sir, how do you respond to the phenomenon of "godfatherism" in Nigerian politics?


Godfatherism seems to be a new phenomenon in Nigerian politics, to the best of my knowledge. Indeed it evolved from an old Nigerian practice whereby the man or woman who contributed the most in financial terms to the formation of a new club, society or association takes it over as his or her property, thus giving credence to the saying that he who pays the piper dictates the tune.  This political

phenomenon will prevail for as long as the majority of our people are illiterate.


Q: Nigeria is embroiled in the debate over constitutional amendment. In what major areas do you think the constitution calls for revision?


I strongly believe that if there is to be only one amendment of the constitution, it should be the removal of the immunity clause. To me, this is the most urgent and the most desirable action.


Q: Ex-military ruler Ibrahim Babangida recently indicated his desire to run for the presidency. Does he represent the kind of leader Nigerians need in 2007 or beyond?


The electorate will decide as to whom they want.  It is said that a country deserves the government it votes for. General Ibrahim Babangida has a right to contest an election as a Nigerian as there is no rule that disqualifies all army generals, colonels, admirals or potential candidates with big ears or one leg! 


Q: Sir, eminent scholars such as Professors Bolanle Awe, Grace Alele-Williams, and Ade Ajayi [guests of the Achebe Foundation] all believe that the blame for Nigeria’s history of political ineptitude can be squarely placed at the feet of poor leadership. What is your take on this issue?


A: I agree…the history of poor leadership in Nigeria can be squarely placed at the feet of visionless political

elite. Unlike
Ghana’s visionary and great leader, Nkrumah, who was able to unite his people, and steer them in the right direction of development, Nigeria has been hampered by the absence of unifying, strong, leaders who are accepted by the majority of the people. Today, Nkrumah is still revered as a great and dynamic leader, years after his death. It is unfortunate, however, that not many who came after him can be placed within his category of great leadership.


Jomo Kenyatta is another example of a great leader, though with limited success. And I guess the most revered of great African leaders is Nelson Mandela who led his people out of the ‘shackles’ of Apartheid, and still forged reconciliation between the races. He had a clear and great vision for South Africa, and was able to set out and accomplish his goals. Incredibly, unlike other leaders on the continent, this great man handed over power after just one term. Imagine that happening in Nigeria! (laughter)


I wish I could say the same for Nigerian leadership. In this country, even when a leader has focus, he often has to contend with a great many adversaries intent on derailing his plans. So, this has been the problem – not so much a lack of ideas as a lack of execution and follow through. It is important also to note that Nigeria’s ethnic, political, and linguistic diversity has served to complicate this problem.


Q: How does apathetic followership affect the quality of leaders we have produced?


A: My contention is that in a system that works, the polity can keep the elected officials in check and accountable to the people that empowered them. In such a system, the political aspirations of the population can only help to shape the vision of the leaders. In the absence of such a system, however, it is difficult to talk about the ‘apathy’ of the polity. The point is that we must aim to build systems that work, and into their framework, the insertion of checks and balances to ensure the smooth functioning of the country on all levels.


Q: The United States National Intelligence Council predicts the possibility of an 'outright collapse of Nigeria in fifteen years!’ Is there wisdom in continuing the Nigerian experiment?

A: I’m an astute optimist; all hope is not lost. I think we can still find a way around our myriad problems! Nation building is not easy…it takes a great deal of patience, excellent planning and execution. The Nigerian populace, the civil society, has a responsibility to become involved at all levels. The tendency to leave everything to the government is a carry-over from the colonial days, fuelled by what I believe is a pathological ‘colonial mentality.’ This mentality - that we are helpless to do anything; that the government will do everything for us, that we are not supposed to take initiative, just obey laws and not ask questions – was carried over from the colonial era, to the post-colonial era, and has stifled our progress in many ways. This mentality has permeated our thinking to the extent that today, we still talk about ‘government property…’


Q: Interrupting…“Government property?”


A: Yes, ‘government’s property’ or more correctly, the public sector -- is nobody’s property, and so nobody respects it. We feel that anything within the public realm is to be treated carelessly and employed however we like. And this is because ours is not a strong, vocal, civil society focused on its self-development…



Q: How can we develop a strong focused civil society?


A: Democracy provides the fundamental scaffolding, or foundation, for the evolution of a strong civil society to emerge. A healthy, free press is also imperative as is an educated, energetic polity.


At the moment, Nigeria is trying to evolve a democratic system of governance; but unless we have a dynamic and well-coordinated civil society that produces, shapes, influences and moves public opinion -- elements that are currently absent from Nigeria’s political machinery -- then we are really running democracy on one leg.  And when attempts are being made to turn Nigeria into essentially, a one-party state, then at the end of the day, we are not really running a democratic process, as it does not allow for opposition or healthy disagreement, dissent. It would amount to a truncated democracy. Opposition is necessary; but we don’t employ that option right now in this country, in a way that is meaningful and effective. The press, for instance, strives under a healthy democracy…we will, I am sure talk about the need for the appropriate education…


Q: Many, in exasperation, often wonder if Nigeria as an entity can ever be a success, especially with a political and historical report card full of failing grades…


A: As I have mentioned, nation building takes time… it will require the virtue of patience. This is not to say that we should accept mediocrity on both a leadership and followership level, but that we should remember the old cliché: Rome was not built in a day. We have had some successes, just not enough for meaningful development to have taken root.


Remember that we have succeeded, after about 35 years of military rule, in returning to the path of sanity -- democracy. We have been able to hold two elections in the country, albeit imperfect elections with considerable difficulties, but elections, none the less, spiced with the usual Nigerian political flare for grand – standing, elephant sized promises… Listen; I think Nigeria has great promise. In throwing in the towel, so to say, we take the easy route. The hard path is to tackle the problems squarely, even one at a time; until we achieve the development we desire. 


Q: Corruption has long been the bane of our nation. What steps, in your opinion, can Nigeria take to tame this scourge?


A: Kofi Annan informs us that “corruption undermines democracy, and the rule of law leads to violations of human rights, distorts markets, erodes the quality of life, and allows organized crime, terrorism, and other threats to human security to flourish.”


Corruption has been instrumental in disorienting us in this country; it has made us the laughing stock of the world. We have so many good people; we have resources which should make us the envy of other nations in the world. But because of mismanagement of resources, under-utilisation of manpower and the syndrome of ‘get rich quick,’ our country is in shambles. We have laws that must be enforced to punish the corrupt!


Q. Interjecting…For three straight years now, Nigeria has ended up high on the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. What can Nigeria do differently to make the crusade against corruption a success?


Surely, there is corruption in other countries; but why is it that Nigeria must be number one or number two? Especially, because we are so endowed, even though we are still young, still developing… But let us not deceive ourselves. Stamping out corruption will not be easy. We all must be part of the crusade… of the jihad to stamp out corruption or reduce it to the barest minimum.


Several expert bodies have outlined strategies for fighting corruption: we must build an effective accountability system, make sure that policymakers focus their efforts on strengthening the public sector's institutions, make sure that politicians and public employees are held accountable for fulfilling the government's responsibilities and commitments, and ensure that ordinary politicians and bureaucrats are more responsive to the needs of the public. In turn, we must ensure that citizens, the private sector, the media, must be educated and empowered to increase the accountability of the public sector.


Q: You allude to the involvement of several cadres and sectors of society in this fight against corruption. Is the government not ultimately responsible for waging this crusade?


A: Good. Who is government, I ask you, then? We all are the government! This is a very important concept that may require emphasizing…I gave an example of this apathetic detachment earlier on as the “government property” syndrome. Fighting corruption is something we must all take part in; not just elected public officials…


Q: How, exactly, can the average Nigerian take part in the fight against corruption?


A: In many ways…in the family, as a

Babatunde Fafunwa

Prof. Babatunde Fafunwa at an event

very first step! Let us bring up our children with our once highly respected traditional values of honesty, accountability, hard work and so on. We must arm our schools with the resources to once again teach, celebrate, and reward these cherished values. Individuals can do their part by refusing to pay bribes, by insisting on accountability from their co-workers, by organising and taking part fully in the civil society and elections; you see what I mean?


I believe the present administration’s effort to tackle corruption is important, and, at the very least, the beginning of the journey that will hopefully get us out of the forest of corruption. We all know that many people in various sectors were and still remain nervous. There are many that are bent on derailing any effort to fight corruption in this country!



Q: The time it took to pass the Anti-Corruption Bill in the National Assembly made many cynical about the anti-corruption war. It is still believed, in many quarters, that some of those bent on derailing the fight on corruption are, themselves, in government…


A: One remembers that the initial Anti-corruption Bill was announced soon after the 1999 inauguration. The administration had sent a bill to the National Assembly from their first week in office, and it took a deplorably long time to get it passed. But thank goodness, it was passed into law! We all hailed this particular bill, although some of us did not take it too seriously. The Nigerian population went to sleep feeling that having empowered the government it had done its part and could now fold its collective hands and become onlookers, critics of government performance…as if the polity is not part of the government! The generality of Nigerians, particularly the educated class among us, behave this way, rather sadly. But the Nigerian public must see itself as part of the solution! Until the educated elite seriously become part of the solution, we really cannot do very well as a nation. Neither can the government go very far...


Q:  What do you say to the critics of the anti-corruption war who believe that it is a selective crusade?


A: A lot of what has been said is that government is selective. Here is the quandary:  If government is selective, let’s acknowledge that it is selective…however; does that mean we should not do anything to address the problem of corruption? I’m not in favour of a selective approach to the fight against corruption, but to say that we should therefore forget everything is more than unacceptable to me. That is simply rubbish.


We should not spare government its faults. Let us therefore demand that it amends its errors; but at the same time, we should encourage those in government positions where and when they move in the right direction. To achieve this, we need to develop a strong public opinion system.


Q: How does this ‘strong public opinion system’ that you refer to help us slay the monster called corruption?


By galvanizing the populace! Let us take a look at professional bodies. In this country we have a large number of

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renowned professionals –much more than in any other African country, including
South Africa. And we have all these various professional bodies -- from the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA), the Association of University Vice Chancellors (ASSU), (NASU), Nigerian Union of Journalists; Engineers; Surveyors; Accountants; Architects…that all remain apathetic. Except for the NMA, MBA and ICAN which from time to time discipline erring members and publish the disciplinary actions/directives in the news, the rest of the professional groups often keep quiet when members err or are involved in corrupt activities. So the question is what are we doing? Are we really working for the good of our professions? Even ASUU, as noble as its vision and work is…I’ve never seen evidence of disciplinary action towards erring or corrupt members. This is part of the reason why some of its members behave in ways that are morally unacceptable, pursuing their selfish interests… I cited ASUU as an example; but this problem goes for many other professional associations. This is where the problem lies. We must sit down and organise ourselves, discipline our members, get together and express public opinions. If we fail to do so; this country will merely go round in circles…


Q: You seem to be suggesting, indeed, advocating, organizational activism…


 Yes…others have suggested this for years; highly respected individuals like the late Beko Ransome Kuti stood for this, and so have many others. Now, let us take a look at the medical sector…If, for instance, it is said that we have one of the highest infant mortality rate in the world, what is the NMA [Nigerian Medical Association] doing about it? Or, that none of our universities can compete with those of the western world, and that our libraries are very poorly stocked; what are those of us in the academic field doing about it -- the unions, the professors, or even the students? It is a general malaise in Nigeria… things do not work as they should, partly because of this malaise; this apathy, this self destructive disinterest... It’s a general malady, and we need to tackle it squarely.


Q: One of Nigeria’s stumbling blocks in the journey to development has been the problem of Ethnicism. What is your perspective on this old pathology…?


Ethnicism has affected us tremendously, and in a negative way. In my mind, ethnicism has become a national pathology. In almost every facet of our lives, people no longer play the game according to the rules. In most business environments now, the owners simply flood the place with their relatives and family friends. I remember I had an experience as the manager of Employee and Public Relations in an oil company. I was in charge of recruitment. And I was bent on pursuing this purely on merit. People expected me to bend the rules on ethnic sentiments, but I stood my ground saying to myself that ‘if my own relatives came for a job, they would simply have to compete with the others. And I stuck to that principle…to the extent that, in that job, there was a famous appointment that I made for management -- former Vice President, Dr. Alex Ekwueme -- I employed him as an engineer! People chastised me for employing an Igbo man and not a Yoruba man for the position; however I was unmoved. Hausas at that time were most favoured, because they were in positions of power, and able to recruit other Hausas. So, the Yoruba people felt they were lagging behind, and tended towards the same act as did the Igbos. But we must realise that public positions are not to be treated as a private enterprise; the entire country has to be taken into consideration.


Q: The pressure to sway to the demands of ones own ethnic group in matters concerning positions of power, I imagine, can be overwhelming; even when one is poised to do the right thing….


I was confronted with this dilemma when some members of my staff would bring people to me; the Igbo brought Igbo applicants, while the Yoruba brought Yoruba applicants. And I’d say to them: “Okay; I shall employ your candidate without an interview, but on one condition. You must first of all sign that you are responsible for making sure that your protégé does his or her job excellently; if not, I shall penalise you, and also inform management that you knowingly brought in an unqualified employee.” (Pauses) And do you think anyone agreed to take on such a responsibility? Of course, I stopped receiving such pressures. So, it is one of those problems that we really cannot isolate from the larger problem of corruption.


Q: So you seem to be pushing the Nigerian polity to reach deeper, find even more creative ways to stay on the right course…


Exactly! Again, we often know the answers to our problems, though we may not have the political will to pursue them. Ethnic tendencies are as widespread as corruption. We must realise that it is only with our own personal business that we can do whatever we like; however, government business belongs to all. We need to value, indeed, treasure government facilities. We are all tax- payers; we should never destroy public properties, nor appropriate them, neither should we keep sealed lips when we observe that they are being tampered with. We need to develop a national orientation. At this point, what we have is a joke…


Q: Professor…how do we develop this “national orientation?”


Through the media -- radio, television, and newspapers -- it should be brought to the attention of our people that we have a need for a dynamic national orientation programme. Who is a true Nigerian? Does s/he take and give bribes, destroy public properties, or rather is cultured and disciplined and his or her brother’s keeper? If I need medical attention in a hospital, can I be sure to get it even if I am not from the doctor’s so-called tribe? We’ve got to get back to the fundamentals; decency, high moral expectations, respect for our fellow beings…we have to get back to that...


Q: You were a former Education Minister from 1990-1993. The educational sector is in a state of steady decline, many might say, in a state of crisis; what your opinion?


 There are many facets to education in Nigeria. We’ve made a lot of progress; we’ve also committed a great many blunders. We are long in theory, but short in practice. We started out enthusiastically with the 1960 independence, or even a little bit earlier -- with Awolowo’s moves, which made the old Western region better educated, so to say, than the other regions in the country. The Western region was greatly enthusiastic about education to the extent that the average market woman could, more or less, speak and write basic English. But then in the 1970s, because the quality of education had fallen precipitously, we began to talk of some form of free education. Matching the commitment to the rhetoric since then has been the challenge. Classroom construction, for instance did not match the demand that we faced. The squeeze on our resources; at least as claimed by the government officials of the period of the oil boom --  placed by universal free education caused some lawmakers to move away from this policy. Unfortunately, an alternative that made any sense to anyone was not presented… and here is where we find ourselves.


Q: You were clearly being polite when you mentioned that a former government’s mantra was “that there wasn’t enough money to sustain UPE.”


 You are very perceptive (Laughter). Of course, there was enough money; but like every thing else we have destroyed in this country, education from the onset suffered at the hands of those that did not fully value its worth. Almost immediately, different regions began to sramble for the meagre funds allocated to the educational sector. Some regions would claim that since region ‘A’ was receiving N100, they should receive a similar or even double the amount, because they did not have as many schools as region “A”. Then if they were given N100 or even N200, only half of it would be used for the actual building of classrooms, sometimes nothing!  The administrations of those regions diligently executing their contracts would become discouraged, because it was evident that other regions were not using the funds judiciously, and getting away with it. That was the beginning of our problems.


Q: Where, sir, can we find the where-with-all to turn things around?


We have been blessed by providence with enthusiasm for and about education, and this enthusiasm can propel one to the vanguard…to become the best example in the world. Because once the interest to excel is there… creativity and innovation often follow. Unfortunately, our enthusiasm is not matched by necessary financial support cum implementation of policies that would bring about desired results. It is here, that the problem lies.


Q: Certain observers believe that building more universities is a catastrophic mistake. Clearly, when all is said and done “more sub-standard schools can only produce even more poorly educated students.” What is your assertion?


I agree. When you look back over 45 years since Nigeria’s independence, we’ve come a long way. For instance, we started from zero universities in 1960, with the University of Nigeria as the premier university in the country, even though the University College, Ibadan, -- part of the University of London then -- is older as a higher educational institution. Today, we are talking over 70 universities in Nigeria – at the federal and state level, as well as the private universities. And, you might say that 70 universities are not enough for a nation as populous as Nigeria; but even those, we are not administering well. Yet, we want to create more and more universities, which again is a part of our problem. I remember when I was a minister between 1990 and January 1993, and I saw the trend that was going on. I said, at the time, that we should hold development of new universities for another 10 years in order to consolidate what we had…


(Interrupting): That seems like a rational strategy…


Of course, many people criticised me for that insisting that Nigeria needed more universities. I’m not denying that we eventually should have more institutions of higher learning; but in a situation where what we already have is not properly financed, is it not only logical that we take care of that before we go on to expand further? Nigerians have an unusual idea of what development is about. In other words, we are enthusiastic about having great things, about competing with the rest of the world; however, we are not ready to make the sacrifice to make that happen. And we think that by talking about it or jumping on the state box and making noise, it will happen. But development does not happen that way; we have to settle down, face our problem squarely, and solve it.


You have outlined many of the ills that ail the educational sector. What is your prescription for this “sick patient?” Where do we go from here?


You see, it’s simpler and,

Babatunde Fafunwa

Prof. Babatunde Fafunwa at an event

certainly, cheaper to sit down and say that you are going to build more universities, but when you get the money you then put up mere structures just for everybody to see and say, ‘Ah, they are building universities.’ That’s a typical goodwill strategy and manifestation of our decision. But it stops there. Putting in chairs and desks -- that can wait; constructing properly outfitted laboratories – those are not eye-catching, and will not get one in the news. The furniture, the laboratories, the workshops, paying our teachers regularly; these do not stand out as readily as building structures, and so are not readily implemented. That’s why we have so many universities that are not well funded and have incomplete structures all over the country. Granted, the present administration is trying to do something about it; but these are the problems of education. I mean one cannot just make one all encompassing statement about the Nigerian education system since there are so many factors impeding its development.


In spite of that, however, the most important historical statement for the development of education is the introduction of the Universal Basic Education, UBE. This is where this present government can make an indelible mark in the history of Nigeria if and only if it is implemented well. It insists that ‘every child must be in school for nine years.’ They should make sure that the pupils will be provided with free books, free exercise books, free pencils, and free paper. In addition, a mid-day meal should be added (as I believe is being done now) -something I consider, ‘icing on the cake.’


Now, how well will such a noble initiative be implemented?


Well, that is the challenge! But if this is the only thing the present administration is successful in doing, it would earn it the eternal praise of this country as one of the best things that ever happened to Nigeria.


What else needs to be in place to make UBE a success?


Manpower; manpower is key...we have to focus on its development, because if we don’t, the programme cannot succeed. Do we have enough teachers? If we don’t, then how quickly can we train them? Though I don’t know the full concept, I believe that we cannot establish this noble idea without the teachers. The teachers are always needed.


Professor, you have recently written extensively about the inconsistencies in our educational system. One particular sore point for you seems to be the manner in which the 6-3-3-4 system was implemented. Can you further develop your thesis?


Certainly! You see, there are always people who like to push their own views and impose their will on others. If they have fought a battle and lost, they don’t give up, even when it is obvious that the policy is watery. I wrote some very strong articles on the re-introduction of the sixth form because we had to do away with that idea to put the ‘6-3-3-4’ system in place. So, when 20 or more years later, attempts are begun to once again re-introduce it, something must be psychologically wrong with us as a people. And without strong opposition, it will come to stay. So, the idea of a sixth form at the secondary school level is done with.


Because I was in the eye of the storm as minister when all these were happening, I tried to make sure that the ‘sixth form’ or ‘A Levels’ was offered in some private institutions. I noticed that certain old practices persisted – “when you get your ‘A Levels’ through Higher School Certificate, HSC, you were given advanced admission.  If you applied for a four -year course, you were allowed to complete the course in three years. So, this was till going on.”


Q: The HSC seems to have been a particularly sore point for you…


Well that was because suddenly, somebody woke up and wanted to disrupt the

System and I felt I had to make my voice heard. You see…the problem with the HSC -- which I fought against until I won -- was that in the first instance, the British had imposed the sixth form on us with the idea that it was the most unique aspect of education anywhere in the world. Many of the Commonwealth nations, in fact, had nothing like the sixth form. Now, the British might introduce, but not actually impose, this structure on us -- they are not even imposing it on us; we are the ones imposing it on ourselves. And what used to happen in the secondary schools was that, in the usual six year course, five and six year programmes were called leadership training years – the period during which the prefects, houses, sports, etc. were groomed. With the imposition of the sixth form, a number of 5th formers lost the chance for leadership skill set grooming. And I even said, ‘look, if you must have your British Aberration of sixth form, just take fifth form away from the school, because the teachers in the schools will prefer to teach and focus their energies on sixth form students at the expense of the fifth formers. After all it’s more prestigious to say, ‘I’m teaching sixth form’ than to say, ‘I’m teaching fifth form.’ So, the ones that should be taught were now being neglected…


You were also vocal about the imposition of foreign languages on the schools by a former dictatorship…


Abacha, during his own time, because the British and American governments considered him a pariah leader, decided to team up with the French; he decided that French would become a second language in Nigeria. I mean, this is a crazy idea to begin with…to the extent that teachers were being prepared for this when we didn’t even have enough teachers to teach our own local languages – Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. So you see, we sadly misdirect ourselves, and we neglect to question government policies. And those who should speak up are not speaking up, not only in education, but in law, in medicine, name the discipline where things are not in disarray. We should speak up. We have numerous seasoned professionals in the country, and we must develop this spirit of confronting issues and helping the government; otherwise we are not ready to turn around the nation for good. The government cannot carry everything on its head without the help of its citizens; collaborating its efforts, or whatever. We must develop this spirit, otherwise we will become a banana republic and Nigeria deserves better than that.

I believe Nigerians know what their problems are, know even the solutions to their problems; but they don’t have the political will to tackle it.



You have alluded to the fact that experts in the educational sector believe that the ‘6-3-3-4’ system is a good idea that has not been implemented correctly. How, in your expert opinion, should it operate?


Again, we need to educate the Nigerian public on this. Our original design was that after the first three years of

Babatunde Fafunwa

Prof. Babatunde Fafunwa at an event

secondary education, there should be what is called a diversified curriculum;
  academics, commercial, vocational, technical, home economics, just to expose the students to all aspects of learning, and to see where each one’s strength lies and what interests him or her. There should also be parity objectivity – so that if I am inclined towards an academic career, and I also want to go commercial, it does not mean I cannot do both while privileging academics. There should be equity between the disciplines as they are all needed in this society. We might prize the academic’s intellect, but without builders, there would be no houses; we would have no structures to live in. This is what I mean by parity objectivity; give each discipline its due respect, because each one makes it own contribution. So, having said that the ‘6-3-3-4’ is succeeding, I add that it is not succeeding as much as we would have loved it to because of under-funding. And we have not trained enough professional tutors to handle certain aspects of the system. We went to Hungary and imported a lot of machines and gadgets that are now wastefully dumped outside the schools, because workshops have still not been built, and we forget that the machines have a life-span. In some schools, there are no teachers to teach those subjects and so on.


To borrow a term you used earlier: “we are enthusiastic about having great things, about competing with the rest of the world, but we are not ready to make that sacrifice which will make that happen…”


Precisely! Another analogy is this: NEPA, as an example, has not lived up to its expectation. But do we then scrap efforts at producing electricity?  Or since NITEL is not performing, the solution would be to disconnect all telephone lines... We have to be realistic, and face the problem. Therefore, about the ‘6-3-3-4’ system; I used to tell my American and Nigerian colleagues that the Americans, with their ‘6-3-3-4’ educational system, landed on the moon. The British with its ‘most unique sixth form’ did not; although, it is true that they developed the powerful telescopes to watch the Americans land…


The difference between being spectators versus achievers and innovators….


Exactly! I always make it clear that the British have a right to fashion their own education system, and if it’s the sixth form

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they want, fine. But, what is our business aping them? And when we were introducing the sixth form, we did not have as many qualified people as the British to operate that, or the 10
th form. Again, I ask: what is our business aping them? Does it make any sense? So, we should face our problem; we need more manpower, and implementing the sixth form narrows the scope. As I said earlier, when Abacha said that French should be our second language, I initially thought he was joking. Then I realized he was serious, and I felt: ‘Oh, after Abacha, this too will also pass away.” But it seems there are some who continue to gun for French as a second language in the country. And I have to say that we are really a crazy people. This idea cannot give us any respect at all. It does not really develop our own local languages, and even English, over which we have no real mastery. Yet, we are nursing the idea about French as a second language. So, I felt that we must speak up, and I did so, because I felt so strongly about it. Many people, I’m sure, feel the same way; but they are silent. Moreover, I have the authority to speak up, because I established the Badagry French village, and so nobody can accuse me of being anti-French. I do not underestimate its value; but to make it a national language, I object. That is going beyond necessity; it just does not make sense.



A recent study out of Eastern Nigeria that received national attention, highlighted the fact that male students from that part of the country were dropping out of the schools, and opting to become ‘traders’ instead…eroding much the educational gains in the country. What is to be done?


From what is happening, I’m sorry to say, our brothers from the East that were really making all kinds of strides in education are the ones who have now relaxed. Because their children find it difficult to get jobs at the national level when they finish school they feel that they might as well set up their own jobs, and afterwards, marry a woman with a Ph.D. I remember giving a lecture as the Education Minister when that thinking was just developing, and I discovered that in a College of Education at Awka most of the audience were women. I asked: “where are the men?” The women made up about 80 percent of that gathering; there were only a very few men. And I said to them: ‘if you think that a spare parts dealer will make a lot of money, and then marry a woman with a Ph.D., that can is only be a temporary situation; because educated men with PhDs. from elsewhere will come and marry off your Ph.D. ladies.


In other words, the North is steadily achieving while the East is really lagging behind, and we are hoping that educational leaders will really address this, and try to bring those students back into the classrooms. In the case of the West, it does not matter whether we get jobs or not after graduation, we continue to forge ahead; we keep going ahead. In other words, the enthusiasm of last century remains in the west. For the sake of every Nigerian child, we applaud this UBE; it’s now compulsory for the child to stay in school for, at least, seven years.


This is why I say this is probably the best contribution that the administration will make to Nigeria because every child up to 15 years must be in school. If a child is found wandering about, there should be welfare officers who will pick up him or her, and charge the parents with criminal abuse. With that, there should be no child beggars or hawkers on the streets. This will be the kind of evidence we look out for in each state to convince us that the government means business.

And I do hope that the authorities in charge of this programme will work towards this to make it effective. In other countries, not just the police, but certain welfare officers whose job it is in each city, town and locality, pick up wandering children and charge their guardians for their delinquency.


Q: A number of private universities have come on stream in the last few years. How does this affect the status of state-funded universities? What suggestions do you have for strengthening state and federal universities?



I expect that the establishment of private universities will serve as a healthy challenge to federal and state universities.  In the USA, there is no federal university, but practically every state has one or more state universities and there are thousands of private universities owned by individuals, religious bodies, societies and other groups across the country.  As early as the 1960’s I proposed that our new universities should seek ways and means of generating their own income to supplement Government subvention.  I was told that we were academics, not businessmen and women.  I reminded my colleagues that

the Americans were managing funding schemes without compromising their academic status.   Let our state and federal universities ask the Americans how to do it successfully.  It reminds me of the story of the Black woman President of my undergraduate College in the USA.  A white man shared a train compartment with

her in a Pullman section.  The man tried to downsize her (it seemed) by saying, “Aunty, I bet you can cook”!  Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune asked the white man

which of her sisters’ sons he was.  But before the man could recover from the embarrassing question, Mrs. Bethune answered his original question, saying, “Yes, I can cook and be President of a (university) college too.”


Let me steer the conversation in the direction of the plight of women in Nigeria: Nigeria is witnessing an upsurge in the visibility of women in public life. Some applaud this development as a long overdue empowerment of women. Others point out that women still face many economic, political and especially educational obstacles. Do you share this opinion?



I’ve always been an admirer of our Nigerian women. In the past, they struggled to contribute money and send their children to school, even when the men weren’t fully convinced that education was worth investing in, and therefore refused to pay school fees. These women were mostly traders, and illiterate. My own mother was one of them; although, I must say, my father struggled as well.

But in all fairness, Nigerian women are unique in many ways. Illiterate women saw the need for education even before their literate husbands; at least, that was very prevalent in the western part of the country.

To some extent, that could also apply to the East. The North faced a different kind of situation, because there was, and still is, the dominance of Islamic education. But we are trying to prove to them that they can have western education and Islamic studies simultaneously, because a combination of the two will make them better citizens. And my conception of this might appear somewhat radical -- rather than insist on children going to school, we’ll take school to them. And I would have liked to sit down with women in the North, arrange with them to keep their children for, say, three or four days in the week – for help on the farm, or in the market -- and then, reserve the fifth day for their schooling. I began working on a proposal which I was very enthusiastic about. Unfortunately, it was towards the end of my term as Minister, but some of my officials were already against it.


It was my hope that after a few successful weeks or months, the parents would surrender even more days for teaching their children. I believe that we have to go beyond conventional thinking in order to address our problems, monumental as they are. In other words, to make an impact, you must think beyond what is predictable. If you take one Saturday every month to teach adults and leave them to do whatever they want with the remaining three Saturdays, you never can tell how much you’d achieve in a year.


Nigerian women have made certain progress; but when you realise how many important positions women hold in the United Kingdom and in the U.S., you know Nigeria could do better. Women have made a lot of progress, be it in the Police, Immigration, Civil Service, the Private sector. But I mean to say that I don’t see why we cannot have up to 30-35 women representatives as well as in our National Assembly. There are some African countries that have gone further than this, and I think Nigerian women deserve a lot more.


Nigeria imports most of her food. What suggestions do you have to rejuvenate the agricultural sector?


Everyone must participate in an effort to grow more food – fruits, vegetables etc. We should encourage everybody to plant something in his backyard, no matter how small. I have in my compound, more than six different crops. I have mango trees, banana, plantain, African apple trees; I’ve also planted lemon trees. So, if everybody grows some yam, maize, rice, cassava, beans; that’s something. We have to realise that Nigeria is basically an agricultural nation. During the tenure of one of the military leaders, I suggested that we should isolate two types of foodstuff and make sure they were available at all times. For instance, garri and rice; that is, no matter how poor one was, one could afford these two food items, because they would always be in abundant supply. But, again, what education is the government giving our people on this? Sooner or later, garri will disappear from the poor man’s table, and nobody is doing anything about it. So, as I said from the beginning, we have problems, we know the answers, but we don’t have the political will to tackle our problems. We must have the political will.


Apart from the oil and banking sectors, Nigeria’s economy is often described as prostate. What can be done?


Even though I am not an economist, when our banks are making billions of naira in profits, and we have mass unemployment, then something is seriously wrong. The banks are in possession of all these monies; the manufacturers are crying day and night that we are not supporting them enough, we are not creating jobs. The government in most countries is the least employer of labour; but here, it is the greatest employer of labour. And if graduates look for jobs, and don’t find any, then end up in the civil service, they feel they have failed. But really, the manufacturing sector needs support from loan facilities to help them expand and employ more people.

This is why you have a mass unemployment rate in the country. Graduates fresh out of school cannot access loan facilities and cannot even dream of creating employment. When I was teaching at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, many years ago, I used to tell my graduating class that I hope to see some of them in Dugbe market and Onitsha market where the traders are making so much money and are not even literate. Anyway, I’m worried about the rate of unemployment, and the fat profits that the banks are making; the two just don’t go together.


Professor, thank you for your thought provoking responses. Do you have any parting thoughts on the Nigerian State?


 I think, basically, that I believe in a Nigerian Federalist State; I was one of a group of young men who spoke in 1960, a member of the 10-man group Citizens committee for Independence in charge of the memorandum for the constitutional conference in London. We heard later that this impelled the move for federalism in Nigeria. At the time, we proposed to have 23 states and I wish we had stopped at that number. Today, we have 36 states and people are still clamouring for more.

However, I prefer that we go the American way. We know that New York State is probably the most developed state in the U.S, and that Alabama is at the other end of the financial spectrum. There is obvious prosperity in New York, relative poverty in other states. One basic thing is that U.S states have overall authority in certain areas; but there are certain other commitments that the nation ensures are held. Every child must be in school, for instance, so if a particular state is unable to ensure this, the federal government steps in until the state is in a better position to again take over. Moreover, nobody questions the national funds that the federal decides to put into such projects.


And the sources of income are such that no administration at the centre can penalise a disadvantaged state. Otherwise, that state can go to court to challenge the government at the centre. In other words, if any state is not doing well, the people will tend to speak up, and perhaps call for someone’s resignation. This is what we don’t have in this country, unfortunately. But really, what we should have is a true federation; with independent federating units, and not states going ‘cap-in-hand’ to the central government all the time.


People have asked whether it is still necessary to have the Soyinka/Enahoro Conference. My feeling is that, as Nigerians, they have a right to make their own contribution to the national situation. And if they come out with something that we need, in addition to the solutions of the National Confab, one hopes that the government will be fair enough to implement whatever recommendations they offer; that’s very important. Otherwise, a succeeding government will just throw such recommendations under the carpet depriving us of the change we need and are all clamouring for.

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 Babatunde (Babs) Fafunwa in Conversation with Toluwanimi Olujimi and Professor Okey Ndibe