Professor Muhammadu Ahmad Abdulazeez is the incumbent vice chancellor of the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University (ATBU), Bauchi. In this interview with HARUNA MOHAMMED, Abdulazeez, a professor of physics and Fellow Nigerian Institute of Physics (FNIP), speaks on scholarships in the university system, the controversial IPPIS, funding and how universities could leverage on agriculture and ICT to improve their Internally-generated Revenue (IGR).
Sir, steering a university such as ATBU is not an easy task, how as the journey be?
Actually, as you rightly said the task is a herculean one. Actually, the university has its own system where it based its powers. In the university we have what we called ‘committee systems’, if you can use the committee system, the work will reduce drastically. In ATBU, we have been using the committee system for long. Before I became the VC, I was the Assistant Vice Chancellor (Administration) and this has prepared me to take up the leadership of the institution.
The main focus of the committee system is to create a division of labour and decentralised powers because you cannot be an island. You have to leave many things to tap from the experience of others. You can be the VC, but it is possible for you to have someone who is more experienced than you in the university only that God has not ordained such a person to be the VC, so you have to use them.
In the university I have my lecturers who taught me when I was an undergraduate. As God may have it, I am the VC. You have to look at your target in life. Some people don’t want to think of administration at all. Somebody can be a professor without heading a department. But you find that somebody started work as an academic officer in the department, record officer, exams officer, seminar coordinator in the department, to head the department, deputy dean, dean, director then chairman of a committee. These are all tilted towards leadership. Throughout my stay in ATBU you find out that I held one position or the other.
What you are saying signifies that you have grown very quickly because you said some of your lecturers are still in the university; what is it like heading people who naturally ought to be your leaders?
It is very simple. Because you have a relationship and a reputation, they respect you and you respect them. Whenever you start feeling that you are the boss, you can dictate and coerce, that is not possible all the time. You can convince people to work. By the time you have somebody coming up to say VC, Sir and you say Prof Sir, there is respect. I am very close to some of them. What we are doing in ATBU is that we have value for the university. I and my team usually visit them on weekends or other occasions. It is very easy for you to visit someone as VC and it is easier for him to reciprocate.
The issue is that, when you start thinking and feeling that you are the boss, then that is when you will be having problems.
Your submissions suggest that team work is very important, what lessons do you think other people could learn from you?
The fact is that you must know how the system works first. Because we have a committee system and they are vested with responsibilities, give them the latitude to do their work. What is meant for you is to supervise what is being done towards achieving the mission of the university.
You are heading a very diverse university at a time there is a raging crisis between the federal government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). As an administrator you are always at the middle. How are you managing to reconcile these competing but complex differences between ASUU and the federal government?
I have said that for you to be a leader, you have to understand the psychology of the administrators and the staff. I have been an ASUU member for many years and held positions. I did not contest in ASUU, but chaired the Ethics Committee and I have been part of extended ASUU excos for more than 12 years. So, I know the working principles of ASUU and I know what they are doing, as long as you are transparent, you will not have a problem with them. And you should not hide any information from them. With the present Freedom of Information (FoI) Act, it is easy for them to have whatever they want.
The issue is that the federal government wants to push ASUU members into IPPIS and ASUU said that we don’t want IPPIS, we want to have our own platform. We are happy that the coronavirus pandemic has given ASUU time to have their alternative ready. From what I heard from them is that the alternative they are mulling is ready. They are ready to present to the government.
Part of the argument is that VCs are naturally on the side of government, are you on the side of the government or you are with ASUU?
No. I am on the path of truth. Anybody who is telling the truth, I am with him. The federal government and ASUU are not sacrosanct on the arguments. There are some things they can do which are not right. The only option you have is trying to strike a balance and follow the path of the truth. When you are truthful, you will not have any problem. The issue is that as an administrator you have your own schedules, you do it and ASUU has their own too. We don’t want to force anybody either from the side of ASUU or from the management side to either support the government or not. What we are trying to say is that we have been having strikes with the federal government for many years. There are missing gaps in either of the sides.
Do you think that ASUU is fighting a good cause and the federal governmentneeds to consider some of their demands?
I think both of them have to adjust. The government is talking about IPPIS and ASUU is saying that there are some components of staff that cannot be captured on IPPIS. What the federal government should have done is start trying the IPPIS on some universities to detect the problem and try to address it. By the time that ASUU knows that this IPPIS will solve all their problems, then the federal government will have an easy way to do it across the board. And the second thing is that ASUU believes IPPIS negates visiting lecturers and sabbatical lecturers.
About two weeks ago I was with IPPIS people and they told me that they are trying to see that the scheme can take care of all the fears of ASUU. The problem now is that if you don’t have an IPPIS number, it will be difficult for you to be employed by a university as a part time lecturer. You have somebody as a professor in a state university, he cannot have this IPPIS number and he wants to come and teach for like three months, getting him enrolled into IPPIS is something that will take a very long time. So, the federal government should look at all these issues. Somebody from outside may have interest in ATBU and he wants to come but he doesn’t have an IPPIS number. So, if you can have a way to make the IPPIS flexible such that universities can enroll somebody for like three months, I think this can help a lot. The federal government can also look at the other alternatives suggested by ASUU and have a test of it. This alternative was produced by ASUU and the union members are Nigerians. If you can have a Nigerian who can give you a platform with all the securities, I think so far so good. But I think the federal government has to look at the security issues on UTAS because it is very important for you to test the security issues. Because in any software, you have to test the security issue because fundamentally if you leave it open, anybody can temper with it.
Some of your students said that they easily access you as VC. Why did you choose to leave your doors open to them and how is the measure helping you?
I think for a long time when I was a student, throughout my stay from school days I played for my primary school team, I have played for my secondary school team and I have played for my university team and even now I play football. If you can come into the university on Saturdays you see me playing with the students and some people outside. This will give you room to know club logistics of a team is trying to bring some people closer. A messenger, a professor, an intermediate cadre, we all interact, we play and dance and do a lot of things. This will give you room to know the feelings of people. Somebody will come and say Prof Sir; we have this and that problems and give you a solution that will help you to solve them. Am saying that even if you are the least worker in the university, you have something that we can tap from you that is very important because human beings have a lot of wisdom and you don’t know who may have the best until you test him or her.
Now that you have talked about sports and it is an area where spectators argue that there is less investment and perhaps that is why our government is unable to integrate sporting activities in such a way that they can use to diversify the economy; how can we leverage from the sporting activities from the university in such a way that we can export the ideas and passion to diversify our economy?
When you are talking about diversifying the economy through sporting activities, you are trying to reduce the amount of money spent on health. Because when you have sports people, the money spent on health and drugs will be reduced. I remember during my days in the university; I can only read comfortably when I play. If I don’t play, I don’t normally read. And sport will help in developing the psychomotor of people. We can also leverage on sports and make ourselves agile. And what does that mean; I remember I did my masters at the University of Ibadan (UI) and we have a Physical and Health Education (PHE) department in 1994. They play friendly matches against those playing under-17 and under-20. So, it is just a department.
Since this sport is science, the university here in ATBU is trying to look at the possibility of bringing a physical and health education department in the system. It will help a lot in developing our students and it will also engage the youths by reducing incidences of Sara Suka because those who venture into it don’t have anything to do. These days, our youth only watch films, but in those days we play inter local government and inter club competitions. There are a lot of sporting activities in the town. So, you don’t have much time to think of evil things because you are always preoccupied-you want to be like Messi and Ronaldo. We have mentors. But today, we have a situation when you ask Bauchi, who is living in sports, you hardly can find somebody but when you ask who is earning his living from government job, you will get names. We can also do something like that in sports. We can encourage it and by the time we encourage it people from outside will come to see our students. Any basket baller you see in the United States (US), for example, is a university graduate because you must get formal education before you enter the industry. we can have something like that in the university. In those days, we had something called PEPSI comprising NUGA, NASEGA and NIPOGA. We called it a division game. From these sports we find most of our under-19 and the rest.
When I was in university, we went to NUGA, we saw somebody, I forgot the name, who was playing for Nigeria and we felt happy and snapped pictures. In those days, you have university students representing Nigeria, they can get scholarships which will help reduce government spending. By the time you are a professional, you bring a lot of dollars into the country, help a lot of people and serve as a link between those who play whatever game here. We should not only look at football. Presently, we put more efforts on football and neglect other games. If we can try all the sports equally, I think we can have a lot of agile people in future like Brazil and Argentina are having at the moment.
Away from sports, , I know ATBU is a technology-driven institution. The last time I had a conversation with you was when some of your staff displayed some level of ingenuity trying to invent ventilators and hand sanitisers to confront the scourge of COVID-19. Can you talk to us about that ingenuity and what it meant to you as VC?
Let me give a short story on how I find these staff. Most of them said, like you rightly observed that my doors are very open. Most of them think that as a VC you are inaccessible, you cannot give them room to tell you their problems and ideas. We went to NITDA’s programme in Abuja showcasing different items produced by individuals. I met somebody and he greeted me. I asked him ‘what are you doing here’, he said he has his application for a farming system which will enable you to know what is going on in your farm so that you can address them without asking somebody to go there and come back. I asked where are you doing this thing? He said ATBU. I said why is it that I don’t know you and you do all these applications. He said he was always thinking that the office of the VC is too big for him to be there. And he started discussing with some people and they discouraged him that the VC will not listen to you. I gave him a permit and he came to my office and we discussed and that is what led to the invention of the ventilators, the sprayers and all that they have done.
Right now, they are trying to move to another level because they are trying to come up with another invention now. What they are thinking now is funds. We are trying to have a model. With the model, you can have people from the industry to come in and do a lot of things.
Even my staff, I informed them that if you have anybody from the town that has something we can tap from, forget about the certificate, bring him. I heard a programme on Radio France International (RFI) Hausa and heard somebody from this town who had developed a lot of farm implements and he wanted to establish a link with the ATBU, but for many years he could not. I looked for his contact and we have entered into an agreement with him. We are now trying to produce an automatic tractor that can help farmers, instead of using the manual way. I think they have done it well. We are waiting for it to be launched. I visit them often in the workshop and they are almost 80 per cent done with the work.
So, it means you are not only encouraging ingenuity from ATBU but also hunting some talents from outside; what is the impact thus far?
The major issue is that we teach from realities not from abstract quizzes. Our system of education usually encourages you to pass exams, not understand concepts and how it could bring impact. You are a journalist, just look at adverts placed on newspapers, they say 2-1, or First Class and you can have somebody by virtue of his background and circumstance cannot excel in the theories but can excel in the practicals.
And you have to understand that knowledge has three typified. There are people that, if you ask them about something, it is there in their heads; that is part of knowledge. There is something you can’t get until you go through the books; it is also part of knowledge and there is something that if you are being asked, you don’t know until you ask someone who knows it; that is also knowledge. But we are only testing one out of the three all times. You find out that when you finish with Masters’ programmes, you are trying to do research and we are not helping our students with research. We only give them some minutes at the end of the whole four or five years. What I’m trying to do is to blend between those who don’t have certificates and those trying to get certificates. Trying to bring them together so that those who don’t have certificates but have the practical knowledge can teach the students and vice-versa. Just like in journalism, if assuming we say nobody should practice until you have a first degree in Mass Communication, it can’t work. But when you leverage on talents so that anybody who is good can come on and that is why sometimes you get good and talented journalists who didn’t study journalism. That’s why we encourage people to practice, if you don’t have the certificate but you can practice, we still have room for those kinds of people in the university.
I know that ATBU has produced a lot of very prominent people, one of them is Suleiman Elias Bogoro, the executive secretary of TETFUND, when he made a presentation in your new campus recently he threw a challenge at ATBU, that as TETFUND boss, he was ready to fund pragmatic research that will address a lot of problems, how were you able to leverage on that challenge?
Recently, we set up a committee and the committee is headed by the deputy vice chancellor (Academics). Apart from the solution from the textbooks you have to listen to other innovators, hear their problems and try to help them. From that time onward, I know that a lot of ATBU staff have submitted proposals and we are very optimistic that most of the proposals will scale through.
Can you briefly talk to us about sponsoring some of your academic staff outside the country; how many countries have you sent your scholars to?
I don’t have the record now, but I know it cut across Europe, Asia and America. Recently, we have two of our staff going to the US for PhD programmes. You know the issue of exchange rate now has slowed us down. What we are doing is trying to look at the equipment we don’t have. The major difference between Nigerian Universities and European Universities is that we don’t have equipment. We have started acquiring equipment because TETFUND has secured about four heavy equipment for us.
What are the challenges that are giving you nightmares at the moment?
I would have said funding, but we are working to get over funding problems. It is a great challenge. Because we rely so much on the government. ATBU has abundant land with a parameter of about 46km and we are changing our faculty of agriculture. It is easier for us to have income from agriculture than say technology for now. We are trying to leverage on ICT, we are thinking of creating a faculty of computing.
If you look at how money is coming into the country, it is coming through ICT more than any other thing. If you go to one or two ICT companies in Nigeria, you can get an ATBU graduate. This I can tell you. So we want to leverage on these two. And then we have this mahogany that we plant. If you can plant about 200,000 you cut it after three years, it will grow and we can sell it. When we plant it, we will separate it into three; this year cut this part and next year the other. Before you finish this part, the other parts have grown to a level you can cut it again. Everything in this country, people rely on the government, but here we are trying to look outside the government circles to get funding for the university. That is why we said we want to plant mahogany and moringa. From moringa you can produce tabs, herbs and oil. By the time you concentrate, you can have a small factory with machinery. By the time you have these things working, even the strikes will be less.