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A CONVERSATION WITH PROFESSOR OLU OBAFEMI, PART 4

 

OBAFEMI’S HARDWARE: THE ACADEMIC AND LEADERSHIP NEXUS

 By Toyin Falola

PART A

THE INTERVIEW
(Unedited Transcript)

 

 

How and why did you choose academics out of all the career options open to you?

 

As I said, the academia literally chose me, initially. In our time, there was very minimal mentorship and career guide; we just went to school, passed our exams and the rest was left to fate, environment and circumstances. There were no mentors in the strict sense of the word. No career advisers or counselling. But by the time I went to the university, with the events that shaped my life as I mentioned before—Dramatic Society, Current Affairs Club, Debating Society, Editorship of School Magazines, and so on, certain indications began to emerge, but in yet unclear directions in my life at that stage. By the time I was entering the university, I had vague thoughts about becoming a journalist or just a teacher. I had mentioned the ‘subversive’ roles we were perceived to have paid at school in Dekina and Titcombe. In fact, I only narrowly escaped rustication in Titcombe for being called an instigator or at least an inspirer of college demonstration. Since then, I had begun to nudge the burning passion and desire to fight injustice; to take a message to the audience, especially the predated upon and downtrodden in society. I wanted to educate. I wanted to reach the audience through the shortest and quickest route possible and by deploying the most enduring tools available to me; the media, writing and the classroom. The classroom is a certain audience. The newspaper is a public domain. I was admitted to read English at the ABU Zaria and the University of Ibadan. I was also offered admission to read Journalism in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. The fratricidal war (1967-70) had scarcely ended with its fresh scars on the body and mind of our people, even those of our parents who did not participate in the carnage. Nsukka was out of it. My maternal aunt lived in Kaduna as a subhead of the market women, and I had cousins living in Kaduna and Zaria. All roads led to Zaria, inexorably.

By and large English teaching chose me apparently. With a good degree in English, the options were narrowed down, though not necessarily limited as I had offers in industries and the civil service. The latter was particularly unattractive. Three months into the civil service, my mind was made up; with the sheer drudgery and the red-tape of the civil service—with vindictive authorities hiding car loan and promotion files for staffers under the carpet in their office, the service was soul-deadening. The bureaucratic technocracy was anathema to the restlessness of my spirit and temperament. I desired a stage and the media for self-expression, as I felt then, quite strongly. The only attractive outlets for me then was the classroom to engage my undergraduate youth and the newsroom of the newspaper house so as to be read every morning from the news-stand. The theatre, classroom and the media gave me fulfilment. The earlier two for tenure, the last as a reporter and a freelance. I got employment to the University of Ilorin shortly after my National Youth Service and admission to read my Masters at my ABU, alma mater. Thus, I took a career in the academia almost without thinking about it. I was still thinking about it nearly forty years after!

 

From what we know, you entered into university administration after a foothold in union politics. Why did you choose that sequence along the way into your life experience in the university system?

 

I returned from Leeds in May 1981, barely two weeks after defending my PhD. I could hardly wait to pick my baggage, literally. And In a few weeks, at the unwitting nudge of my friend and senior colleague, Dr. Oluropo Sekoni, whom we simply called RS, I had been bundled into the heart of the matter—the bubbling radical temper of the Academic Staff Union of the Universities. And by 1982, I was already Secretary of the Union under the Chairmanship on that genial, radical social being, Dr Olatunde Oduleye. It was the new era of ASUU away from the domestic, chartered life aegis of the Union. Jeyifo and Tukur were in the driving seat at the centre and the hot chapters then, propelling and manning the radical left trend of ASUU were in Ilorin, Ife, Benin, Calabar, Zaria and, to an extent, Lagos, and Port Harcourt. It was the era of the great FG/Negotiation. We were the foot-soldiers, roughing it through the struggle. We had the offer of the five-star Federal Palace hotel for accommodation but the leadership rejected it and we were scrounging it through at the sparsely maintained Unilag Guest House. It was my year of Baptism and was it exciting! Before the year ran out, circumstances had thrust on the mantle of leadership of the union at the branch level, with a new crop of fire-brands on the Executive, manning the forte for the left bound national spirit of the Union. The union made me, by and large. There was great commitment to the cause of the union—not just the welfare of the membership but the state of the nation. We, the whole band across the country, confronted the decadent capitalist hegemony of our government and took the reprisals as they came. We did not compromise with the University management. Indeed, we tolerated them in a relationship characterized by mutual suspicion.

 

Going into university management was fortuitous, really. Many of the positions came with climbing the academic hierarchy. Headship of Department, Deanship and the Senate. I came unto the Governing Council of the University of Ilorin by popular election—from the Congregation, which comprised all graduates of the University, both in the academic and administrative sectors of the university.

Did that exposure lead you lead you to the national service that you have been engaged in over the years?

The public service appointments again came by the way—having served as union leader, and as President of our writers Association, the name had been in the public place, so it was no surprise that I would get called upon to some positions. In the year 2000, I was appointed as the Chairman of the Governing Board of the National Commission for Museums and Monument, having been previously appointed by the Senate unto the Board of Governors of the University of Ilorin Teaching Hospital. I must say that the position did not derail me as many may have thought. During those years, I ran my newspaper columns as fiercely as they go, even to the distaste of government at the centre. That is the story for another day and space. In the year 2010, I was invited to join the Nigeria’s policy apex think-tank, the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), from which platform I was delegated by my Director General, Professor Mohammed Tijjani-Bande, who is presently the Permanent Representative and Ambassador of Nigeria in the United State to the Board of Directors of National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO) and so on. In effect, it was not a planned sequence from academia to administration and public management services as such.

 

PART B

INTERVIEW ANALYSIS AND REFLECTIONS

 BY TOYIN FALOLA

(OBAFEMI’S HARDWARE: THE ACADEMIC AND LEADERSHIP NEXUS)

Extensive academic research has cemented the place of mentoring and career guides for people in contemporary times. The action of guiding people to choose a particular career path have no place in the Nigerian education system, especially during the heyday of colonialism and Nigeria’s post-independence era in the 1960s. The reason for this is not unknown. There was a scarcity of academic graduates who understood the place of mentorship to develop individuals coming behind them. In addition to this, not many career opportunities were available or open to these individuals.

Thus, individuals usually chose their career journey based on a factor associated with personal preferences or social pressure. It was more difficult because the availability of courses and career options determined, to a large degree, the career choice of the said society. This was the social and historical contexts in which Obafemi was raised, and therefore, he was affected by this same condition. For someone who would choose to be an academic, the assurance of that career choice was not something he had, even at the early period of his school days as an undergraduate. With no vital counseling, if there was any at all, the prospect of being a future academic was not forthcoming. Still, the fact that he had engaged in a few commitments made it one of his career direction motivations.

Some of a teacher’s good qualities are aspects of his or her practical communicational skills and persuasive ability demonstrated in speech situations. Teachers need excellent communication skills because it would help drive home their point into the students’ subconscious, and therefore, help in the facilitation of a better understanding of a course or topic of discussion. In other words, a successful teaching-learning encounter depends mainly on the communication mastery of the person sharing information and knowledge. On the other hand, it is within the teacher’s intellectual duties to have solid persuasive skills because the act of teaching presupposes persuasion. Students are not objects into which one can spread an idea without interrogation. The people we call “students” are referred to as such because they can measure the content of a message passed along to them, examine the arguments, and sieve the content before digesting them in their minds. Therefore, without persuasive skills, getting messages to these individuals would be inarguably tricky because students are known to be especially sensitive to information they are given. Once they realize that the information is of no particular importance, they would become passive and uninterested in the whole process.

 

 

Meanwhile, Obafemi engaged in social activities that sharpened his communication abilities and increased his persuasive skills. As a university student, he was exposed to several group activities, such as the drama society, current affairs club, debate society, editorship of school magazines, among many other engagements. It was in these various areas that he had the opportunity to improve himself in many ways. For example, becoming a member of the drama society exposed him to audience dynamics and how to confront them in a public situation. It is incontestable that many individuals have glossophobia (fear of public speaking): they are challenged by speaking in public spaces because of the fear of losing their credibility, among other things. To be candid, people who confront a large audience for the first time are usually faced with this challenge. It requires a gradual engagement with the public before one can conquer the said fear. However, the situation was different for Obafemi because he belonged to a drama society where the opportunity to speak to an audience was offered to him on many occasions. Acting during this period involved speaking and also demonstrating his ability to speak to people directly. Without knowing it, he was being groomed in preparation for a teaching career without his knowledge. But if the drama society meant anything to him, it was that it exposed him to the act of speaking in public without nursing much fear.

We would be right to say that the university provided mentors and guides that helped Obafemi in his choice of teaching and acting career. Because he was unsure of following this trajectory at the beginning of his academic enrollment, what life introduced to him in the university showed him his career journey. Being a member of the debate society improved his persuasive skills. To debate in Nigeria, tertiary institutions are meant to involve a series of mental gymnastics where one makes conscious efforts to keep one’s brain fit and agile. Debating precludes shyness, and because one would be duty-bound to make people understand a situation from a person’s perspective, one needs more than substantial evidence of facts. One needs the ability to make them understand issues from one’s standpoint. From what Obafemi implicitly conceded to, the debate club helped sharpen his communication skills and persuasive power. Without a doubt, a teacher would need these attributes in their desires to achieve a successful interaction with their learners. Looking at this great man’s social involvement, one would undeniably understand why his artistic productions are a reflection of brilliance and intelligence. Apart from dedicating his time to social events as a student, he belonged to a series of groups that added to his academic ingenuity.

 

Being an editor for a magazine meant that Obafemi was better off in his mastery of the English language. For the Nigerians of their time, these are the different ways they understood what they would pursue as their career in the later stages of their lives. Perhaps after he was established as a public actor and figure whose communicational competence cannot be contested, he dived into the stream of advocacy where he employed his communicational competence to challenge authority in a quest for equity and justice. Whereas society usually likes to celebrate the genius among students and individuals, they can be critical of them when they use their intellect to organize demonstrations, especially whenever they considered that there is injustice in the environment. In the case of Obafemi, he had once been a voice of freedom in a particular demonstration in his school, and because of the hostility of postcolonial African leaders to criticism of any color, he barely escaped rustication for his involvement. Although the school was successful in repressing his voice after he engaged with the said affair and struggle, it ignited a passion in him to consider public speaking in his determination to educate people on essential ideas regarding their environment. Becoming a teacher readily came to mind. There are not many opportunities for people to carry a message to their desired audience, but teaching offers this golden opportunity, as we all know. Also, the media presents a similar chance, and it is rewarding that he explored the options in these two career areas.

In the age of Obafemi, if one does not belong to the political circle, the choice is limited to either becoming a teacher or belonging to the civil service. This was so because the government controls the bulk of employment opportunities and not many private corporations to work for. This means that Obafemi was open to serving as a civil servant, but he refused to follow directions for many reasons. He confessed that the country’s civil service was a site of vindictive politics where the superiors deliberately toy with the future of their subordinates and thus prevent them from reaching their fullest potential. He was not unaware of this decadence, and realizing how being a victim of such an antagonistic system would compound his woes, it appeared preferable to consider a career in teaching rather than to subsume his future under the exceedingly corrupt and particularly disconcerting civil service system. He laments that authorities in the system always get themselves involved in actively denying their subordinates’ progress without necessarily having a reason for their actions other than to be outrageously vindictive.

Bureaucratic decadence thrived for a long time because of the association of absolute power and authority among the occupants in office. Meanwhile, it has allowed the system’s destabilization because it especially discouraged individuals who would have added to the beauty of civil service and crushed their productivity in the process. Anyone familiar with the destructive politics in this sector would run kilometers away from it. One of such individuals is Obafemi, who decided to move away from the possibility of functioning as a civil servant. Here, postcolonial politics is unraveled, and because it encouraged corruption and other forms of condemnable behaviors, it delimits the people from reaching their potential. During this time, the foundation for Nigeria’s decline in economic and political virtues was sedimented and their moral decadence took off at an accelerated speed. The ubiquity of unpatriotic people in different parastatals in contemporary Nigeria started when the civil service who constituted the labor force of the country was treated with such a level of disdain and disrespect. Even though the country underwent a record-breaking economic transformation from its mono-economic business, the elite class’ extravagance negatively impacted the people as it impeded their progress.

These became the factors that determined the quality of individuals who enrolled in the civil service, and that also chased some individuals away. Because the teaching and acting sectors were comparatively better than others, they became the preference of this man who was already built with interest in sharing knowledge to impart to the people. Obafemi was aware during these periods that the inherent leadership deficit and moral decadence pervasive in the civil service are something to educate the citizens about, perhaps hoping that they would contribute positively in fighting the menace. He considered the classroom as the grounds where challenges confronting the country would be appropriately corrected. The continuation of a decadent behavior is naturally impossible when conscious efforts are made to educate the younger generation of the devastating consequences it would have on society. Teaching, therefore, became a natural call to service. It became the only platform where the construction of a better and fair society was possible. It was natural for someone who already developed reliable communication skills to consider teaching as the career choice to help him fulfill his God-given potential. Without mentoring and guidance, he dived into it and became successful.

 

 

Invariably, the other side of Obafemi, which teaching and acting have revealed, is his leadership. Apart from being a seasoned academic, Obafemi has a good record as an administrator. There are many indicators that he was built for purposeful leadership, and one can even notice this in his engagement as an undergraduate. He led several demonstrations to reveal the excess among authorities while he was a student. In addition to this, teaching exposed him to the ills of academic inquiry in a country like Nigeria. It appears the solution to these challenges is naturally beyond the confines of a classroom teacher. The domain of making policies and formulating regulations is something beyond the capacity of a teacher. To provoke a noteworthy change in the polity, one must belong to the circle where decisions about education affairs are made. But for Obafemi, it is apparent that his road to academic leadership is to be littered with varying experiences of responsibility. It became necessary that he represented at the union level before he would ever taste administrative positions.

 

He had information about the Nigerian Academic Staff Union of the Universities’ nature in his fingerprints, so political dynamics of union affairs were not strange to him. Immediately after taking the role of the union secretary, he began to make substantial contributions to his capacity to impact the academic and political spectrum of the country. The union body is seen as the firebrand advocacy group to enable fairness on the part of the government. However popular, the political structure of the country was hijacked by the capitalist culture that has been deep-rooted in the nation’s political system. His generation was especially radical, committed in their assignments to the people’s emancipation and the enhancement of fair treatment of staff and students in tertiary institutions. Unionism became the only platform for the projection of their voices against the government, who are distracted by the euphoria of power to abandon their vision for personal aggrandizement. There were eminent personalities in the union during the time. Because they share a common interest in determining a fair society, it became exceedingly difficult for a compromise of their moral principles.

Having done essentially well at the union level, Obafemi eventually considered the administration assignment where he now functions not as a union member but as a university head. But we should not be unfair to his step-by-step rise to the position of leadership. Unlike what we have in most places today, his ascension to the university head position was a product of his exceptional service at different levels. He had been the HOD of the English Department at the University of Ilorin and eventually graduated to the deanship. In these two positions, he served to point to innovations brought to leadership. He was student-friendly and became very active in the enhancement of the welfare of staff under him. Ascending into a greater position of power in an academic environment is a testament to one’s progressional achievements. If a leader does not introduce new leadership trends or is operationally deficient in managing a team, the opportunity to function in greater positions would be taken away from him. However, this is not the case with Obafemi. Having served successfully well in the role of the headship of department and deanship of his faculty, he was promoted to fill in a senate capacity. He was not unaware of the responsibility ahead of him, and he did fine in this capacity too. To cap it off, he was chosen as an administrative head by popular election.

What is needed anywhere in the world to promote an individual is their receipt of excellence in positions where they have been tested. For Obafemi, the evidence of success in the positions where he has been chosen is substantial. In a country like Nigeria, one earns the opportunity to be nationally known if one contributes immensely to the advancement of activities for which one is elected or selected. The name of Obafemi became a domestic affair because he represented well in union positions he has served at different times. This brought him some level of popularity, which eventually helped his upward mobility and career trajectory. He became actively involved in shaping the country’s education system in his position as the headship of department, deanship, and then the school generally. But this would be surpassed by the positions allocated to him subsequently. Having realized how important he was in the various positions where he serves, he was called to function in greater places where he would be of national importance to the country generally. In the year 2000, he was appointed as Chairman of the Governing Board of the National Commission for Museums and Monument.

This position was meant to corroborate the belief that he was exceptional and fruitful in the different capacities he has functioned. From the experience of Obafemi, one would understand that a close connection lies between being determined and successful because a determined person would always look for opportunities to make an impact. Meanwhile, making an impact is the cornerstone of success because it would open the individual to a broader range of greater options. He became successful as a teacher because he was offered a chance to serve at a higher capacity, from where he once again demonstrated an uncommon level of control. The academic community where he functioned felt his presence and always celebrated his intellect. He became an invaluable addition to them with his highly innovative ways of handling leadership responsibilities. One of such skills is the ability to manage different people and harness their thoughts and ideas for the academic community’s common good. While he was a member of the union, he did not compromise the standards, and also when he found himself in administrative office, he was active and productive.

Before being appointed as the chairman of the Governing Board, he served in several positions with outstanding records of enviable achievements. When he served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ilorin Teaching Hospital, he brought his leadership experience as he made notable contributions to the committee’s enhancement of success. However, one thing that stands out is that he was never distracted by these positions as to waiver in his commitment. Despite being bombarded with responsibilities, Obafemi found no difficulty in managing his business with respectable performance. He was highly successful because moving between his career work and newspaper column, which he has dedicated most of his time, was more manageable. He admitted that every form of progress he made during his journey was his background as an academic. He has mastered the very act of giving priority to things that are considered very important. He managed his time very well as a seasoned academic and a successful administrator because he was raised in a generation where delivery and impact are the two most important things that are emphasized. In essence, there is a close relationship between being an academic and a leader because the two are mutually helpful.

 

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