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Nigeria’s next president should ’ve good education, bold vision –Mimiko, former AAUA VC

A professor of Political Science, Oluwafemi Mimiko, shares his views with BOLA BAMIGBOLA on the leadership that Nigeria needs in 2023, the Electoral Act and other issues

It’s somewhat rare for academics, who have served as vice-chancellors to return to the classroom; having occupied such an exalted office, what motivated you to go back to teaching?

Well, I didn’t set out to be a vice-chancellor when I started my career as a young academic way back in 1985 at the age of 24. All I wanted was to be a scholar, know more, be better accomplished, and make some impact on society. I later found the art of mentoring younger folks, imparting knowledge, and seeking always to unravel sundry problematic and research questions and these were quite ennobling and fulfilling. It was much later that the vice-chancellorship came on top of all these. With that background, you’ll understand that my original intention was just to be an academic and later, professor. By the time I was completing my five year tenure as VC at the Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, I had missed class and my students so much.

I could not wait to return to my professorial chair at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. I actually was in class for one semester as VC and taught a course. It was quite fulfilling and rewarding for the students. They couldn’t believe that the VC was coming to class to teach them. Teaching, research and mentoring can, therefore, be regarded as my first love, and I wouldn’t give that for anything. So, off to OAU I went as soon as I completed my term.

There was even a groundswell of pressure on the government from the university to have the university law amended so as to enable me to have a second term of five years. People thought I had done so well that I needed five more years. But I wasn’t going to have any of that. The university community didn’t believe me until I made a public statement on the campus that whatever happened, I was not going to be in that office of the VC on January 4, 2015. Again, one good thing about this job is that we see ourselves first as scholars before administrators; and so for us, it is no embarrassment, but rather a thing of joy to serve, even as a professor, under a head of department or dean, who was once your student.

What would you say was your most memorable moment as a vice-chancellor?

It’s been quite some time now. I left office in January 2015. A couple of months to the end of my tenure, the student leadership wanted me to give them a date for them to come and do some sort of send-off for me. I was pressed for time given that one was deeply involved with the last minute table-clearing routine as the tenure inched to an end. So, I grudgingly obliged and gave them a date. It was December 14, 2014. I was pleasantly surprised that day walking into the venue of the event, the very expansive Olusegun Obasanjo Multipurpose Hall, to find the place packed full and brimming with students.

It was the most impressive event put together by students that I witnessed on any campus. The students were there in their thousands. It was such a huge carnival, with a lot of drumming, dancing and cultural parades – a real celebration, as it were. And the testimonies came in torrents. It was such an emotional time. It was where they formally pronounced me as ‘The Architect of Modern AAUA’. For me, the event was more than mere symbolism. It spoke to the idea that the primary constituency over which I presided for five years was so excited by my service. Remember, we ran the five years with our academic calendar unbroken – almost unprecedented in modern university governance in Nigeria! Since you asked for just one memorable event, I’ll stop at that most dramatic one.

And what will you describe as a major challenge that you faced during your tenure?

I had a really tough time, and I mean tough time, managing the staff unions. For whatever reason, the leadership of the unions simply chose to make my life impossible. We had this very troubling experience from September through December 2012. The three non-teaching staff unions wanted me to pay arrears of the salary component of the 2009 FGN-ASUU agreement. We had started on the payment of the new salary under the agreement soon after I resumed in January 2010 – the first conventional state university in the country to do so. In September, the union leaders handed me an ultimatum to pay the arrears, running into some N1.4bn or thereabout, within two weeks.

The alternative, they told me pointedly, was that they would make the campus ungovernable. This was money not budgeted for, and of course, our IGR was not anywhere near that. Interestingly, in most of the federal universities, with whom the Federal Government actually signed the agreement, implementation of the salary component had not even commenced; yet my union leaders wanted me to cough out arrears amounting to almost N2bn. We attempted negotiations, but couldn’t get far on that. Negotiations failed, and by the first week of October, the real ‘wahala’ started. But to the credit of the national leaders of these unions – SSANU, NAAT and NASU – they refused to approve for their members to go on strike.

And so, what these local chapters did was to embark upon a daily round of very noisy and intrusive street protests around the campus, mouthing all manners of expletives. They did everything to draw my students into the fray, but luckily, I was updating the student leadership from time to time as the crisis evolved, so those ones understood the dynamics. They couldn’t be persuaded to be part of the crisis. Luckily, our local ASUU chapter too was not a party to it; and so, I kept the campus open and academic activities going throughout those tortuous three months.

It was much later that we realised it was the group of politicians angling to shut out Governor Olusegun Mimiko from his second term project that had penetrated the union leaders. The idea was to use AAUA as a demonstration effect that the governor could not run the state, and so undeserving of re-election. They failed. Iroko (Governor Mimiko) won his second term and the crisis fizzled out soon after the elections. But it was really tough while it lasted.

People complain about the quality of graduates of Nigerian universities as compared to those trained abroad. Having been an administrator and a teacher, do you think the issue is exaggerated?

I think the distinction is largely exaggerated. No question about it, our universities deserve more attention. But my argument has always been that a good student that gives himself or herself to scholarship makes the rounds of the library, lecture rooms and laboratories, and what have you, and graduates. Chances are high that such will be able to compete favourably with their counterparts from across the world. As we speak, we still have students admitted into fully funded PhD programmes with their first degrees. I have at least a couple of them currently in the US. If the kids are no good, nobody will give them such consideration.

The Academic Staff Union of Universities has been on strike for months. Many people believe the lecturers have been insensitive and some feel the government has not acted appropriately by not honouring its promises. As a former administrator and now a member of the union, whose side are you on and how will you assess this age-long problem?

I have not just become a member of ASUU. I have been for 37 years. It is unfortunate the type of orientation that Nigeria’s government has towards university education; and I am not just talking of this particular government alone, but practically all of them. Funding for education in the federal budget got up to 10 per cent only once since 1999. That was under the Umaru Yar’Adua government. I mean, a country cannot be better in developmental terms than its universities. Countries in the Americas, Europe and much of Asia realised this fact a long time ago, and so, they prioritise university education. As Prof Pat Obayan and others most aptly argue, universities are the very bedrock of knowledge generation, dissemination and application. If you marginalise them, the chances of you doing well on the development track are actually limited. It is especially the case in a knowledge economy that the world has now become.

You need to see how bad things have degenerated in Nigerian universities to understand what ASUU is talking about. I don’t know if there are still many universities in this country today, for instance, that can still afford to buy daily newspapers for their libraries, not to talk of academic journals. What professors are paid as salaries is a disgrace to the nation. That’s why foreign academics no longer find our universities attractive. The instability already built into the system, willy-nilly, is the reason why we no longer attract foreign students. Everywhere you turn, the rot stares you in the face. And what the government needs to do is to resource the universities more robustly.

Do you think ASUU’s decision to down tools incessantly is justified, considering what it is agitating for?

Our universities have virtually collapsed! That is the point ASUU is making. Whether it is a point that should be pushed with strike actions or not depends on where you stand on the issues vis-à-vis how the government tends to respond to these legitimate concerns. That said, I have my concern with ASUU’s method. It is difficult for me to embrace the argument that we have exhausted all options, as our official lines go. I do not think we have thought out of the box well enough on what options of engagement are open to us other than strikes. The trouble in this regard relates to ideological positioning. The leadership structure of ASUU parades an ideological orientation that really does not admit of anything too much at variance with the dominant thought. I have a problem with this and have given expression to it at the level of the union for a long time.

The government has maintained that it does not have the money ASUU is asking for, while the union has insisted that the issue of funding cannot be negotiated. How best can the nation proceed for a lasting solution to this issue?

Is it believable that the government does not have the money, yet it allows federal legislators to go home with such a humongous amount of money that we are told they cart home every month, while university professors go home with a pittance? Come off it, please! That’s what the Americans will call a bunch of malarkey. To resolve the current crisis, the Federal Government must demonstrate the will to meet ASUU on those critical issues it has identified – a more realistic package of emoluments to academics; substitution of a new payment platform for the IPPIS, which has completely made nonsense of what remained of university autonomy; and of course, better funding of a university system that is to all intents and purposes in the throes of death.

I do not support the idea that we should stop licensing new universities. Only a quarter of those who qualify for admission into the university system in Nigeria get admitted every year. Expanding existing universities to be able to accommodate more students and licensing of new ones are not mutually exclusive. Both tracks can be pursued simultaneously.

The issue of cultism in Nigerian universities has yet to disappear, and now with the menace of drug abuse, the issue has simply escalated. How deep is this issue and what can be done about it?

The high spate of cultism in our universities is consequent upon the migration, or indeed, collapse of values in our society. Our youths have come to see that it is possible to get by in Nigeria, not necessarily on merit, but by some other means, including muscling your way through. They see a system that does not necessarily reward scholarship and excellence, and are scared that they are graduating into a society that has little or no regard for them, or their interest, e.g. creating the basis for good paying jobs for them. In the circumstances, they embrace some of these vices – cultism, violence, substance abuse, prostitution and now,  ‘yahoo-yahoo’, including its more scary version, ‘yahoo plus’, which is about ritual murder, and all of that. To extirpate this menace would have to be a holistic programme, carefully thought through, starting with a deliberate effort to prioritise issues of concern to the youth, including giving them a basis for productive engagement.

The extant level of youth alienation in the country is scary. The frustration they carry around is almost palpable. How, for instance, do you explain the type of wanton destruction at the MKO Abiola Stadium in Abuja a few days ago, when Ghana kicked Nigeria out of consideration for the upcoming 2022 World Cup, other than that you are dealing with an angry, very angry, youth population? You saw the energy that went into the #EndSARS campaign? But to the glory of God, I did not have a single on-campus cult incident in the five years that I was privileged to run the Adekunle Ajasin University.

How did you achieve that?

We simply mainstreamed students’ interest. We made our students the centre of our operations. Where the legitimate interest of our students were involved, there you would find us; and it didn’t matter with who the students were in contention. We also brought them directly into administration. We ran ideas by them, especially on issues that had to do directly with them. Every quarter, I met, under what I called the VC-Student Forum, with the entire student leadership structure in the university. That involved not just what they like to refer to as the Students’ Union Government, but indeed all and every student association that was registered on campus. I met them with my team, at least once in a quarter. It was a veritable platform for discussing issues. Above all, I gave my students challenges. Assignments were committed into their hands, which they executed gladly.

The impasse over the selection of the new VC of OAU surprised many people. Are you worried that the issue of ethnicity in the selection of VCs may get worse as it is becoming a trend?

My perspective is still the same. It is to the effect that it is really sad that we are seeing this type of thing happen in our universities. I’ll be surprised if any of the contestants supported the acts. Don’t get me wrong, please. I have no objection to people protesting if they had reasons to believe the process that produced the preferred candidate was not fair. This is a fundamental human right that you can’t deny anyone. And there is no question about the fact that not all of these processes instituted in many of our universities today will meet the rigorous canons of fairness. And I can speak from experience on this. I am perhaps one of the most interviewed professors for the position of vice-chancellor in this country. The point I am trying to make is that if a contestant is convinced that he or she has reasons to protest an exercise, why not? I am all for it. You can even go to court. It’s all a part of renewing the system.

But for me, a protest on the grounds that a son-of-the-soil was passed by is simply unspeakable. I do not think professors would be proud that they got appointed as VC by reason of where they were born, rather than what they could offer. Again, as I shared with this paper earlier, these shenanigans did not start in Ile-Ife. Yes, here at the OAU, we saw a variant of these acts. Though not driven by ethnicity, but six or so years ago, it provided the backdrop against which the incumbent VC himself was appointed. Some of the staff unions provided the foot soldiers to push back on the appointment of a VC, who could thereby not resume until the entire process that produced him was cancelled by the Federal Government, a step I think was wrong. My hunch is that the concerned ritualists from the host community took something from that experience, and that of Ibadan last year, that if it was possible in OAU six years ago and in Ibadan in 2021, why not in Ile-Ife in 2022? That must have been the logic.

A flip through the pages of the history of appointment of vice chancellors in the recent past will reveal that these crises predated both the UI one and the ongoing one here at OAU. It started from Ilorin through Benin to Ibadan. So, the virtual descent into nativity by our universities started some time ago, but we pretended as if we did not know that such epitomises the precipitous decline of our universities. The truth is that the universality of universities is what gives them their unique character; and it is this very basis of their existence, their very essence, that we are now attacking through the type of ethnically driven advocacy we see unfolding everywhere.

When you were appointed as the vice-chancellor of the Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, Ondo State, it was at a time your brother was the governor and some people felt it was favouritism. How did those in opposition make you feel and how did you navigate through?

No critical stakeholder in the AAUA would make that type of suggestion, because they all knew the facts. I was not favoured and couldn’t have been favoured anyway in my appointment as the VC. This issue has been addressed over and over again; but let me just mention it briefly. I was the DVC under a VC whose style of leadership I fancied so much. His vision of where the university should be I shared completely. I am talking of Prof Funso Akere, appointed from the University of Lagos. Now, when Prof Akere was completing his term, I felt I could give the post a shot, and if lucky to be appointed, I would be able to continue from where he stopped. I think 13 of us applied, including one or two eminent colleagues from the US.

The short listing was done, indicating that those shortlisted prima facie qualified for the job. The interviews were held and Femi Mimiko came out tops; but he was not appointed. I was the incumbent DVC, so I assumed the position of acting VC for some six months before a substantive VC – one of the candidates earlier considered – was appointed. I, however, chose not to apply in that second exercise. The critical points to note are these. At that time in 2006, Dr Olusegun Agagu was the governor of Ondo State. His most compelling opponent was another Olusegun – D. Olusegun Mimiko – my brother, who was then the Federal Minister for Housing under President Obasanjo, and was revving to give the governorship election a shot. So, Dr Mimiko and Dr Agagu qualified to be referenced as your textbook example of tough political opponents.

How those realities influenced my not being appointed even when I came first is better left to anyone’s imagination. But as I have often repeated, the university council placed an advertisement. I applied; I was shortlisted and I was interviewed, as others were. I came first amongst 13 applicants, but was not appointed. These are the facts. Why I was not appointed, I wouldn’t know; and this time around, I choose not to be speculative.

Now, that was 2006. I was so pissed off by the events, and decided to move my services over to OAU, my Alma matter, where three of our departments had always been on my neck to come over and join them. I chose to take advantage of the offer and moved to OAU. Some four or so years later, AAUA began the search for a new VC, and I thought I should give it a shot again. This time, if I remember very well, 12 of us applied; and again, I came first in the interview. This time, I was lucky, and got appointed. By then, Dr Mimiko had become the governor of Ondo State. Does it sound fair to then suggest that I was favoured for the position in 2010, when four years earlier I had come first among 13 interviewees and was not appointed? On a lighter mood, I hope nobody gets to ask me this question again.

Heading a state-owned university, what was your relationship with your brother while you were both in office?

On official issues, we related perfectly. I am a stickler for procedure; so, I limited myself to procedural issues only. The only times we had to interact officially actually were during budget defence, and at convocations. The Governing Council was the connecting cord between the university and government, and we kept it at that. In relation to budgeting, the state government already had a template for funding its three tertiary institutions, and we were always funded on the basis of that template. I showed the figures on the three institutions in my book to show that AAUA under me was not favoured in any way in fund allocations. The records are there.

It was rumoured at some point during Jonathan’s tenure that you were being considered for the position of the INEC chairman. What or who do you think worked against you then?

As you noted, it was a rumour. I appeal that we just leave it at that. Don’t let us interrogate a rumour. But it was one rumour so salaciously reported in virtually all the major conventional as well newer media organisations in the country that it almost became an embarrassment. Interestingly, while all these were going on, I was doing my own thing quietly as a participant in the Senior Executive Course of the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, at Kuru.

People have narrowed down Nigeria’s challenges to poor leadership, while some say the followers are even worse. What do you make of these?

Followership may look important, but leadership is everything; and that’s the truth. Flip through the pages of history and show me a social formation that made the transition from poverty to prosperity, from weakness to strength, and from disunity to unity, without a strong, visionary and committed leadership. None! When the leadership of a collective is rickety, chances are that not much progress will be made. It is the leadership that serves as a compass to where society should be headed. If leadership is uninspiring, the followership is bound to take a cue there from. I am concerned by President Paul Kagame’s seemingly unending stay in power as well as the growing regimentation of the Rwandan society. Even so, you cannot take away from the great accomplishments of the man. That is why I have always written about the agency of leadership, strong leadership, as a condition for national development.

The general elections will hold next year, what qualities should Nigerians look out for in their next President?

Good education, intellectual depth, bold vision and ability to market the same to the population; courage of conviction; compassion for the underprivileged, broadness of mind, cosmopolitan outlook, self-confidence, commitment to justice and the unwavering desire to help deepen the democratic process in Nigeria. He or she must be of uncut integrity, disciplined and incorruptible.

What is your view on the new Electoral Act and do you think it will engender the necessary changes?

Perhaps the most critical element in the Electoral Act is the one that mandates INEC to transmit election results electronically. I think this is fundamental; and I commend the civil society for its advocacy in pushing this through; the National Assembly, for getting this one right; and of course, President Muhammadu Buhari, for the courage to assent to the bill. Experience has shown that it is at the point of result collation that a great deal of the manipulation of figures takes place in our electoral process. If it is possible to send results from polling units into a server, the possibilities of electoral malpractices are reduced. If you complement that with adequate security provision at the polling unit level, we may just be able to deepen a little further our electoral process.

A Federal High Court in Abia State recently ordered the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice to delete Section 84 (12) of the Electoral Act, which directed political appointees seeking elective posts to resign their positions. What is you view on this?

 I know it is not illegal, but I wasn’t at all comfortable with the idea that the attorney-general had to go all the way from Abuja to Abia State to get that ruling. It smacked of something untoward. You could smell a rat. That said, I recall being on NTA Tuesday Night Live towards the end of last year – on a discussion on this subject of the 12 nature of political party primaries that we needed. And I was unequivocal that I favoured direct primaries, because more than any other format, it makes for fuller participation by a broader range of citizens in the leadership selection process. I also thought the scope for corruption will be reduced with this system. You see, the honourable AG, and indeed the government in which he serves, must come down to the basics and privilege those things that serve Nigeria’s interest over narrower and particularistic ones.

Our leaders must commit to and live with the possibility of shrinking for the collective to increase. I am not sure many Nigerians would vouch that it wasn’t the particularistic interest of the attorney-general’s party or government, as the case may be, that motivated him to take on this battle so determinedly, including the alacrity with which he was going to push out the gazette. Come to think of it, why does it seem out of place not to confer unnecessary advantage upon political office holders in the process of   determining candidates for political offices?

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