By Tommy Odemwingie –
In 2012, my friend and fellow Bini tribesman Omorefe Asemota was appointed the Executive Director of the Nigerian Institute for Oil palm Research (NIFOR), near Benin City, Edo State. He recently ended his five-year tenure. The story was that the issue of who to appoint to the position was so volatile that the then minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and current president of the African Development Bank, Akinwumi Adesina, had to put the contestants through a competitive (written) test!
Excited about the fact that one of my generation had been offered the opportunity to lead a reputable national institution, I mooted the idea of a reception for the soft-spoken compatriot. As it turned out, several of our generation of Benin alumni of the University of Ife of the early 70s to late 80s supported the idea and contributed resources to make it happen. The reception took place on Saturday, 25 August 2012 at the Catholic Social Centre of St. Paul’s Catholic Church on Airport Road, Benin City. Omo N’Oba N’Edo Ewuare II, then the Crown Prince Eheneden Erediauwa, sent a senior Benin chief to represent him as the guest of honour on the occasion, which underscored the success of the event.
The previous year, I had organized a reception on the premises of the National Defence (War) College in Abuja for the late Babatunde Osotimehin, on his appointment as the Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which I worked for five years as National Programme Officer for Advocacy. Again, my peers in the international development and civil society communities did not disappoint in making financial contributions to the event.
Why did I take the trouble to put my personal resources and energies behind these initiatives? In the case of Dr. Asemota, this involved several trips on the Abuja-Benin-Lagos axis; hours on the phone cajoling friends, etc. It has to do with my willingness to celebrate excellence. It derives from my belief that nations built on merit realize their full potential and achieve greatness, the corollary being that nations built on the foundations of mediocrity are bound to under-achieve.
In the case of my friend, I had a special interest in NIFOR. I worried that the people in government did not sufficiently appreciate the importance of palm oil in Nigeria’s economy. The legend is that both Indonesia and Malaysia that are today the leading oil palm producers – between them accounting for 85% of global production – actually got the improved planting stocks from NIFOR. However, today, Nigeria imports a huge chunk of palm oil-based consumables from these countries.
The unwillingness of Nigerian authorities to accept – and submit to be guided by – the truism postulated above underlies the inability of the world’s most populous black nation to achieve its potential. It is also the reason Nigerian universities are unable to measure shoulders with their age-mates in other parts of the world. Appointment of vice-chancellors has all too often been acrimonious, sometimes leading to violent battles between ethnic jingoists. It usually takes about half of the tenure of the “successful” candidate to have the breathing space to give attention to the serious academic leadership required of him to deliver on his position. Some vice-chancellors spend the entire tenure managing the tensions emanating from their appointment!
That is the scenario playing out currently at NIFOR, established in 1939 initially as the West African Institute for Oil Palm Research (WAIFOR). Newspapers have reported that the country’s oldest and most sophisticated oil palm research institute has become a battlefield for loyalists to two gladiators claiming leadership of the institution. Locked in the battle are Dr. Napoleon Osasuyi Aisueni, who retired in 2016 on attaining the age of 65, and Dr. Charles Aisagbonhi, 64, who is said to have been appointed to replace the former.
While the battle rages, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, which supervises the institute, has not attempted to clear the muddle, amidst insinuations that the minister has a personal interest in the matter!
The worrisome thing about the situation is that, while both Aisueni and Aisagbonhi are from Edo State, someone has discovered that while one is a Bini from Uhunmwode local government area, the other is an Esan from the neighbouring Igueben LGA. So the Bini and Esan have decided to reenact the battles they have leant to fight at Ugbowo (University of Benin and UBTH); Ekpoma (Ambrose Alli University); and Auchi (a federal polytechnic). The battle is very probably raging in other less visible sectors and theatres!
In the course of researching this article, the names of prominent Edo personages have been unfortunately dragged into the mud of unbridled and self-serving ethnicism. I don’t want to glorify the ethnic jingoists by mentioning these names, because I hope – and I do hope that this hope is well-founded – that they are not a part of any scheme to divide the Bini and Esan.
Well, I confess that I am being selfish here – I am married (through my firstborn) to a beautiful Esan woman from Ekpoma. Also, thanks to the evolution of Ekpoma as a centre of learning, several childhood friends and schoolmates have settled in the town, intermarried and have no plans to ever relocate to Urhonigbe – except their children are charitable enough to take the decision for them when the time comes! The truth is that all ethnic groups in Edo state are one family. It is important for both the government of Edo state and the Benin Palace to call all the warring parties to order. No public institution in the State should be converted to ethnic war zones.
Back to the NIFOR imbroglio. If there is any one research institution that needs to be given urgent and massive national attention, it is NIFOR, so Nigeria can turn the tide of dependence on importation (Nigeria: 1.03mn) of a produce for which we otherwise had a comparative advantage. Who, then, is the best person for the job? That’s who the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development should be interested in. If he is unwilling to settle for the best, then the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria should step in to appoint an excellent scientist to run the institution.
-Odemwingie, a former features editor of The Guardian and communication consultant to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Ibadan.