In this interview with LEADERSHIP Sunday, Executive Secretary of Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund), Professor Suleiman Elias Bogoro, explains why the Fund places a premium on research and development. He also reveals efforts by the Buhari administration and TETFund to wriggle the country out of the economic and social morass it is enmeshed in through applied and developmental research for problem solving.
Under your watch, TETFund’s profile has risen in the international community beyond Africa to the level that other countries like Ghana and Tanzania have come to understudy Nigeria’s TETFund to enable them establish their own version of the Fund. What would you say is the magic wand?
Thank you for that particular question. In fairness, even before I was appointed ES of TETFund some of the African countries actually have come to understudy the Fund. So, I will give credit to my predecessors also. I will describe the ETF and TETFund as innovative creation that took deep thinking because the traditional funding window for the tertiary sub sector literally failed the nation. When ASUU went on strike in 1992, I recall that at that time we had said Universities were effectively glorified secondary schools because even fiscal infrastructure as a reference that you talk about were almost not that. They were in such a bad state. And if there was a state, they could describe that as it was decrepit. In other words, they had gone bad. They were almost collapsing, parts of them were
collapsing. They were not maintained and no new ones came up as one would wish. So, there was this innovative, non-budgetary funding window, the first of its type in Africa. I can say this; no doubt about it. It went as a big credit to the innovators and the government deserved commendation because we said, ‘look, in Nigeria generally we are very poor in ensuring people pay taxes and of the diverse types of taxes, education funding is a major problem. Why don’t you create one?’ And I remember at that time, ASUU had said, ‘Most major operators in the private sector were not paying enough tax. Let us introduce the education tax’. And it has worked and that is why you can see other African countries coming today as it obtains. You would agree with me that TETFund is virtually responsible for essentially the capital expenditure component for public tertiary institutions and the budgetary window remains there to address other aspects like
personnel costs and day to day running of the institutions. So, it was really innovative and that’s why other African countries have come and in fact, let me say this, you are right to have said the profile of TETFund has risen in the eyes of the international community beyond Africa. As I talk to you now, we have a number of events this week. We have an international agency that is flying into Nigeria from the United States to seek partnership with TETFund. Don’t forget that in academic staff training and development, we have scholars funded exclusively by TETFund for PhD and master’s degree programmes across the world, there’s no part of the world where you don’t find them: South, North America, Asia, up to Australia, Malaysia, UK, Germany and of course the United States, as well as in across Africa. That is a reflection of an achievement because the main purpose of academic staff training was to ensure that all those that are employed as lecturers will have minimum qualification or PhD.
So, we have gone beyond just those aspects. We have signed a number of MoUs in respect of what I now call the content component and that is contributing to a number of international organisations. As I talk to you now two things have happened that have planted TETFund in the international map. We have gone far working out protocols to eventually sign a MoU with Fulbright Scholarship. We are hoping it may not take much longer to conclude that process. If you ask me how come Fulbright it identified TETFund of all entities, they told us very clearly that they took time to evaluate and assess TETFund and they characterised it as a credible organization, even in managing scholarships, as it were, both locally and overseas and they felt this was a credible partner they can work with and they intended.
Hopefully, there will be some benefits accruing to TETFund by way of discount when the MoU is eventually signed. Only recently, TETFund emerged as the only organisation that was picked up by the Commonwealth Science Granting Council. TETFund is the only organisation representing Nigeria that has been recognised as having credible research grant management infrastructure. It is for that reason they identified TETFund and it is joining the Commonwealth Science Granting Council. Funds from that platform will be sent to TETFund and it will manage it on their behalf. It is recognition of the credibility of our operations about research grants because like I said, in Nigeria today TETFund is holding the largest research grant in Nigeria.
You seem to place a premium on Research and Development. Why?
Don’t forget that I came from the academic constituency to TETFund and I was privileged to be involved in the negotiation of the emergence of the ETF in 1992. I was also a member of the technical advisory group of TETFund at inception up to the time that I became executive secretary. So, no doubt about it; I’ve been involved from the conception to the operations of TETFund. While I was in the university system before I came to TETFund it never crossed my mind that I would become ES of TETFund but by the magnanimity of the government, I was appointed in 2014. It was a rare opportunity for me to do what I’ve been reflecting on.
And guess what; my personal concern as an academic and as a professor is that we have not placed research at the appropriate level of record as it ought to be. It is partly colonial heritage that we are emphasising teaching at the expense of research. When they created the universities, the priority the colonial Masters had was to produce graduates that would fill the public space as bureaucrats to replace them at that time. So, they were supposed to be administrators but you would agree with me that if our economy was to be resilient, our economy was to add value and increasingly get stronger. We need experts in the various disciplines and sectors as Nigerians with degrees, Master’s, PhD and professorial levels. So, that means to get graduates that will not just be administrators, but managing the various sectors, you need engineers, you need the architects, you need to be curious, and you can go on and on. Is it the military? The military of these days is the most effective military; it was driven by the latest technology.
So pick any area and you will realise that if there is no value addition to what we have from the projects, whether it is the agric sector. For instance, the agric sector has failed to meet up its potential because we have not been injecting enough agro-based technology into that sector and that’s it. I am an agric scientist and I can afford to say this with facts. A few years ago, it was very embarrassing. Anyway, it was said that some yards from Nigeria where we went for export, Nigerians were turned down because they had not met the basic criteria, whether it is World Trade Organization or whatever, for export. We can produce raw materials, but there is no value addition injected through Agricultural Science and Technology, agric engineering, for post-harvest, for packaging, for long term storage. That is where research comes in and the economy of the 21st century is called knowledge economy.
The Chinese of this world, the Japanese of this world, the Singaporeans of this world, not only Western powers like the US, Germany, France and UK; check it out there; it is science-based research that has changed everything. You go to China today, look at infrastructure, a major area that you have appropriately identified as key infrastructure. Is it the bridges, is it the buildings? You know that these are science-based interventions and innovations. So, are we different? It is this thing that bothered me, but let me tell you more, I reflected while in the Nigerian university system that we sit down and we’re hardly talking about research. If we discuss research, it is peripheral and only associated with undergraduate projects, with Master’s thesis, with PhD thesis.
How do I solve the problem out there in the next community near me, in my state, and in my geopolitical zone for the nation or Africa? Look at the challenges; is it climate change today? Look at global warming. In fact, the worst hit if we’re not careful is expected to be the least developed countries and Africa will be the worst for it. We’re just lucky that COVID-19 was merciful. Maybe we prayed a lot. COVID spared Africa. Of all continents, we were the least affected. I think God must have been very merciful. You better imagine the tragedy if COVID-19 had happened at the rate it happened in the developed countries.
But we can’t just sit and just be praying and hoping for luck. We must prepare for it. That is why I chose to insist on the institutionalisation of Research and Development (R&D) – applied research for problem solving. That is what took me to that. What is the expenditure of the most competitive nation against the GDP? The least even in Africa has adopted one per cent in investment in R&D. But the most competitive nations are in the region of two, three, four, five and even six per cent. That is why we have the R&D committee in TETFund; we are working towards getting the R&D foundation for Nigeria. If that happens, that is what will define and practicalise the knowledge economy going forward to make our economy more robust, more sustainable, more dependable and more competitive.
In September 2020, you inaugurated a standing committee to promote R&D. What is the level of progress of the committee so far?
The last sentence I mentioned is in respect of that. To be more detailed, the TETFund Research and Development committee was exactly one-year-old penultimate Friday when the minister of Education inaugurated it. The calibre of personalities that constitute that committee and their disciplines tell you this is not business as usual. On behalf of Mr President, the Honourable minister of Education inaugurated that committee. The committee that invited industry research institutes across the sectors was initiated by the Federal Ministry of Education to institutionalize R&D. For too long in academia we have been doing research for the sake of the next promotion. You publish in journals and they clap for you because you have one to three hundred publications. The more the number of publications we are clapping.
Nobody is asking how many outcomes of those publications have solved problems. That is we have the RDSC now. We are asking the question: why can’t we engage in problem solving research? That is the R&D; Research and Development, not just for theoretical purposes. The focus is how to apply it to solve problems of space technology, of defence and security, of governance, of medicine, whether it is COVID-19 or cancer, of infrastructure, of ICT that is the facilitator of virtually every other technology, of engineering. In conclusion, I am happy to inform you that that committee recommended the emergence of a National R&D Foundation some months ago and we have gone beyond the level of recommendation. We have put up a draft executive bill committee which was inaugurated by the minister of Education. They have finished their work and very soon you will hear about the next step. We are hoping that if the Foundation comes to being, it will produce the largest R&D funding basket for Nigeria and it will make Nigeria look serious as a nation that wants to recognize and institutionalize the knowledge economy.
We are a nation where people are not ready to pay taxes. What is the level of compliance by companies with the payment of education tax that forms the money available for TETFund’s operations?
I can tell you that even FIRS had been embarrassed by some statistics that came out. We did the taxpayer forum in Lagos recently. Let me give credit to FIRS; over the last two to three years, the collection from FIRS had been gradually increasing. In fact, the bigger problem has been Nigerians’ attitude to tax payment. Believe me; we discovered that from some of the figures of banks, they have not been remitting their education tax as it ought to be. I’m not going to name any particular one. It’s a little bit disturbing. They have a record and we have been assured that they are ensuring that these changes and we are working hand in hand with the Federal Inland Revenue Service. Let me say that Nigeria has a very poor tax payment attitude, it’s very, very sad. Some people will say ‘we pay the tax and we don’t even guarantee that the money will be useful and used properly’. That should not be an excuse. You play your own part of the budget and leave the rest to those that are responsible for utilising the funds collected from tax. That’s my response.
TETFund has joined the Science Granting Council Initiative in Sub Saharan Africa. How would this promote research and development on the African continent?
The advantage here is that we’re talking about a science granting council. They are a grant awarding platform and I tell you that it goes a long way in strengthening the R&D.
The most visible aspects of R&D are the science driven companies; no doubt about that. You just close your eyes and imagine: can any nation do without infrastructure; the roads, the bridges, the buildings, the aviation, and the railway? These are the kinds of infrastructure. You couldn’t have done those things without science and technological innovation. It is said that the most competitive economies and nations in the world are those that prioritize science. And so there is no doubt about the science granting council. TETFund is the organization that has been so recognized as managing the funds for Nigeria, this is a credible recognition. Even the Chairman of the TETFund Board of Trustees said it all at the board meeting. He said, ‘I am not in science, I’m in humanities, but check out; most competitive nations are those that prioritize science. So, let’s do the right thing’. And that was a terrible decision, that going forward we should not sponsor people to go overseas again in non-science areas. It does not make sense. People will laugh at us. Sending somebody overseas to go and do personnel management does not make my listing, we must prioritize. For that reason, we are celebrating that the granting council has picked TETFund for all its grants from now.
You recently collaborated with the military and security agencies on research and development. Why the partnership? And how will the country’s security system benefit from this partnership?
Thank you very much. I will tell you one thing. You see, we never excluded any sector when Mr President or the minister, on behalf of the president, inaugurated the TETFund R&D Standing Committee. You watched that event at the transport Hilton and you saw a number of military people in uniform. I’m sure you saw that. I think one of the committees is actually chaired by a military person and he was inside. He just retired recently, but we felt he is a very exceptionally gifted person and we should return that kind of person.
If you see Modern Warfare, I always say it was during the Gulf War that we civilians started hearing of laser guided bombs that is cutting edge technology. And it is engineering and science being applied in the most precise manner. And in Nigeria in the North East or other parts of the country, insurgents have been attacking our military. Even if it was a few days ago or a few hours ago you get the news every now and then. They even have the audacity to go and attack barracks. Guess what? They are using a product of technology. Can you see why there is wisdom in TETFund’s inclusion of the military? In that committee there is one on governance. We are leaving nobody; everybody is a totality. The R&D committee, the NRDF that we have envisioned is a basket with sections of neatness that reflect the totality of Nigeria.
There’s nothing that will be left out, including governance and in governance, we are talking about leadership, including political leadership, leadership by Vice Chancellors, by managers of the industry and the private sector We’re looking at the totality of that; we must define some parameters that as a nation are indices to guide us with peculiarities based on our peculiar needs as well. So the military is very, very important. We are talking at a time they told us the military had a partnership with a foreign country on some mind detectors and Nigeria has been trying to get the mind detectors, but the radius of cooperation of the mind detectors remains very narrow. They’re either 10 to 20 meters and one of those countries they partner with have a capacity of about 50 meters radius of those technologies that we detect and use. Why not? Why are we not going back to the laboratories; into our engineering cells and workshops? So that is why you cannot exclude the military. You can imagine the military of today inviting technology that wins wars. And if you watch it now, when the Nigerian military now decided, they realized that some of these insurgents were taking them for granted, and the military intensified efforts and you saw it. They said many of those insurgents retreated and they’re being forced to go into negotiation when they surrendered.
You received a draft bill for the establishment of the National Research and Development Foundation. Can you give us an update on the bill?
At this point, it is a secret. We will let you know. The Hon minister will take a position in respect of the protocol. The education ministry that houses the natural leaders of research is now taking a step to say, ‘we will not just be celebrating publications by the lecturers in our universities, in our polytechnics or colleges of education. Let us celebrate the outcome, problem solving outcome, and that is why we are inviting the industry because if you do research in, for instance, chemical engineering you need to demonstrate or be able to show results that can attract auto technology, petroleum technology. There is a lot that we are not doing here. The natural leaders of research are universities and it’s the ministry of education that has it. So it is now facilitating the process of reaching out to other sectors to demonstrate that those that need research are with us but the research has to be in relation with the research institutes and the industry that needs those outcomes for the purpose of relevant sectors in the country.
You were recently given the highest award in the Animal Science profession, among several others. What do these awards mean to you?
Let me say this to you; I could not believe it when they decided to honour me in an unprecedented manner and I was the only one. Honestly, I want to confess to you it still beats my imagination and that is why in my acceptance remark I told them that I’m a baby compared to others in the profession. Well, I don’t want to call it a profession but I felt humble that I’m the one that is being solely recognized. Well, they mentioned the reasons; they said I have been exceptionally committed and that I excelled with a number of laurels in science and that makes me deserve it. Well, I wouldn’t dwell more than this. I know that I have earned a number of honours; all of them are very competitive. I thank God for it; it energizes me and challenges me to do my best for my profession, to continue to be a good ambassador to my family, to my profession, to my country and to humanity.