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‘Nigeria needs competent people to get education policies implemented faithfully’

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Michael Omolewa


It is only with Emeritus Professor Michael Omolewa that an interview session that lasted over one hour would wind-up as a “lovely visit.” He would also seize the opportunity to rain encomium on The Guardian, saying: “Your newspaper has been great blessing to the Nigerian Delegation to UNESCO when I was there (2000-2009), sharing information on the Nigerian initiatives and reporting challenges and carrying news from home, which helped us prepare position papers and develop appropriate programme for the consideration of the international organisation, with the mandate for the promotion of Education, Science, Culture and Communication.“It also sustained a robust coverage of my universities (Ibadan, where he has continued to serve as Emeritus Professor of Adult Education, and Babcock (as Emeritus Professor of History), as well as all endeavours that have engaged my attention right from the time I became literate.” Born on April 1, 1941 in Ipoti-Ekiti, Ekiti State, Omolewa finished his secondary education in 1963, having traversed Ibadan Grammar School from 1955 to 1958; Ekiti Parapo College, Ido-Ekiti from 1959 to 1960 and Christ’s School, Ado Ekiti from 1962 to 1963. His erudition and academic excellence blossomed right from the secondary school, as he secured a full scholarship to study History at the then premier University of Ibadan (UI), graduating in 1967. Omolewa’s ingenuity as a great historian and scholar began to manifest in 1968 with the release of his first publication, Essays in European History 1774-1799: The French Revolution by Onibonoje Press.It is certain that Omolewa’s appreciation of The Guardian is more or less a reflection of his humility and simplicity, which have become permanent virtues in his character through which he has affected and sustained a network of friends and institutions globally and delivered services to humanity as a scholar and diplomat.

How did you end up in the teaching profession?
When I graduated in June 1967, I was invited by the principal of Remo Secondary School (RSS) to serve as the head of the department of History. The reason, according to the principal, was that he was looking for me as the president of the Students Historical Society at the University of Ibadan (UI).Two years before I graduated, I had been selected as the exchange student of the university to spend one semester at the University of London. By the time I graduated and was invited by the principal, I was more than ready and over prepared to teach History.

After about five months of my teaching at RSS, UI invited me to start a research programme in European History. This was the season when most students took delight in the study of African History. But Prof. J.F. Ade Ajayi, the new head of the department, conceived the idea that it was important for every part of the history of the world to be taught at the department. So, he sent Prof. Okon Uya to America to study African-American History, Prof. Kola Folayan to Libya to study North African History and myself to France, Germany and United Kingdom (UK) to specialise in European History.

During this period, as a postgraduate student, Onibonoje Publishers approached me to write a textbook on European History. I took my lecture notes and my understanding and interpretation of the European History, as well as my earlier experience at the University of London as an exchange student and thus emerged in 1968, the textbook on European History.

The book sold out and became well known, because it was carefully written to encourage young minds who wanted European History to take an informed interest in European History and if possible, to specialise, so that they could also complement my efforts in research at the time. And because the book was one of the first set of books at that time published by a Nigerian publisher, many students who were attempting examinations to gain admission into universities used it expansively and extensively. The book indeed helped me a lot to advertise European History and people to study European History.

It is true that everybody wants to study African History. It is good to know the history of our own people. Sometimes ago, I was in the UK and one young man came to me and said, ‘sir, so you are Michael Omolewa who wrote the European History textbook?’ I said yes, I am. He then said, ‘I used your book and on the basis of that, I got admitted to the university and studied Law… Now, I practise Law in Europe. Thank you for writing that book.’ In a similar way, the present Dean of the Faculty of Education, UI, Prof. Julius Ademokoya, said he was a young student at Ilesa Grammar School when the book came out and he used it to gain admission into UI and he was anxious to meet the author, who had by then been elected as Dean of the Faculty of Education at the time. Today, Ademokoya is my boss, as I serve as emeritus professor in his faculty.

But we should never ignore the history of other people. That is why you find that in Europe, America and even Asia, everybody is studying African History. This is not for the fancy, but because they know if they can understand African history, they would understand the mind of Africa, know their expectations, hopes and aspirations and relate to that and carve out their own national interest within the context of their understanding of the history of Africa.

The issue of stoppage of the teaching of History in the secondary school, although it is returned now, what could have motivated that in the first instance?
Teaching and learning of History cannot be suspended. A situation in which history is removed from the school curriculum does not bring an end to the study of history, because teaching and learning of history goes beyond the classroom. In every village, there is always history; hence there are celebration of special days, events, festivals and so on. You don’t determine a day without knowing its history. There is history in every town, every village, every home, whether it is taught in the school or not, it doesn’t matter, as long as people take continuous interest in the promotion of history.

In spite of the elimination of history in the school curriculum, history was uninterrupted. However, there is a society called Historians of Education Society of Nigeria, which was formed by a group of people, led by Profs Israel Osokoya of UI, Alice Jekayinfa of University of Ilorin; Dr. Aminu Ahmed Chiroma of Modibbo Adama University of Technology, Yola; Prof. A. A. Adeyinka, former Dean of Education at University of Ilorin; Dr. Yusuf Abdulrahman of the University of Port Harcourt; Dr. Fibainmine Paulley of Niger Delta State University in Bayelsa State, who came from all parts of the country and have studied History.

These teachers protested the exclusion of History from school curriculum and said ‘we are not going to allow history to go out of the classroom, because we teach teachers who go to teach History in the schools.’ They worked hand-in-hand with the other historians, many of who are members of the Historical Society of Nigeria and who had also challenged the exclusion of history in school curriculum.The issue is to determine the content of History to be taught in the school. When I was the chairman for History panel of the West African Examination Council (WAEC), we were interested in knowing what type of history people wanted to learn. We asked ourselves what type of history would be most suited for a nation.

When you talk about Nigerian history, for example, what aspect of Nigerian history? Is it the history of Nigeria since independence, as was encouraged by Prof. Tekena Tamuno or the colonial period as was encouraged by people like Prof. Adiele Afigbo, then of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, or the 19th century history as was encouraged by Ade Ajayi? What type, period and content of history? These are the issues that are so important.It is good that the possession of the school certificate is listed in the Nigerian Constitution among the conditions for holding some elective positions. This condition should encourage the curriculum developers in History to set the minimum standard expected at the school certificate History level. Thus, from the primary school level to the highest level in the secondary school, pupils and students should become familiar with the history of nation building and the major nation builders over the years, the type of people that the National Anthem refers to as heroes of the nation.

There should be an understanding of how Nigeria came to be one country from the amalgamations of several peoples, cultures, languages, histories and traditions of the people. This knowledge should promote sensitivity to differences and respect for differences. The minimum history would also teach leaders and aspirants to leadership and occupation of positions of the transient nature of power and the consequences of decisions and actions of the individuals. Those who arrogate power to themselves will learn that some day, the positions will leave them if they fail to leave the positions, that for everything that has a beginning, there will be an end. They will appreciate the opportunity given to make an impact on the course of history of the nation and learn that they would reap the fruits of the seed they had sown and be caught up by the products of the good and open, transparent administration, as well as being consumed by the evil, wicked, vicious, secretive and malicious acts.

On the removal of history from the curriculum of the senior secondary schools, it was all about the argument that since social studies accommodates teaching of citizenship, which is also a core topic in History, there might not be any need to have history again. But the counter-argument is that social studies is going to encourage people to be good citizens, but history is doing much more than that, as it helps people to know what went on in the past and how the people got to where they are now. Therefore, to know where you want to move to the next phase, you must be conversant of how you arrive at where you are now.

History is a continuing process of learning. It provokes and challenges the mind and promotes understanding. It is described as mother of all subjects. There is nothing that does not have history. For instance, when you visit a medical doctor, the first is to take your history. There is history everywhere and it has to be encouraged. If for whatever reason it was expunged at a time, it was quite unfortunate. But the present Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu, with determination, courage and dedication, decided with the National Council on Education that History has to be restored and that has been approved by the Federal Executive Council, and that has become a policy as contained in his Ministerial Strategic Plan 2016-2019, that history will not just be restored to the secondary school, but even in the primary school level, history will now be taught.

As a global actor in scholarship and service spanning critical areas, such as education, diplomacy, community service and development generally, what actually prepared you for this multi-dimensional contribution to humanity?
I think I am a child of circumstance. God Almighty, for reasons that I don’t know, decided to send me helpers to assist me. Coming from a large family, it was going to be difficult for me to meet the cost of my education, as the limited resources of my parents would have to be shared among so many of us, his children.

My senior brother, Joseph, now late, decided to take me to Ibadan with him when I was only 10 years old to continue my primary education. Later, Pastor S.A. Dare, a friend of my father, agreed to take me with him to his station at Erunmu, near Ibadan, as my brother had to go to the Southeast for further studies at a Teachers’ Training College. I was with the pastor for four years and completed my primary school education at Ibadan.

Under what was clearly a miracle, I was admitted to Ibadan Grammar School with full scholarship of the West Region government, as directed by the late Prof. Stephen O. Awokoya, who was then the minister of Education. That full scholarship, including boarding, tuition, books and all other expenses, changed my situation and circumstances, as I did not have to worry about the payments. I had my secondary school transferred to EkitiParapo College, Ido-Ekiti, where I took the school certificate examination. After working for one year at a secondary modern school at Ile-Ife, I gained admission to Christ’s School, Ado-Ekiti, for my higher school certificate course.

There were supports from other people that kept me in the employment of UI, such as Ade Ajayi, whose support and belief in that pioneer research made it possible for me to study under Professor Douglas Johnson, Professor of French History at the University of London and finally to be awarded the degree of doctorate at UI in 1973. This is the reason for my own zeal and energy to assist people, as I always remember the son of whom I am- a son of circumstances and Divine visitation!

What about your encounter with David Babcock?
Elder David Caldwell Babcock was the first Seventh Day Adventist Church minister and evangelist to Nigeria. He arrived in Lagos on March 7, 1914 and was invited the following year to extend the sphere of his influence to Ipoti-Ekiti. My father, Daniel Omilusi Omolewa, was one of the four indigenes that welcomed him to Ipoti-Ekiti. My father, who was then a farmer and tailor, made himself available as cook for him. As Babcock could not eat pounded yam, my father prepared marsh potato for him. My father also doubled as Sabbath School Secretary.

Babcock later started planting churches allover Nigeria. In 1917, he decided to go back to Europe to collect more resources to strengthen his missionary work in Nigeria. It was, however, during the First World War years and his boat was attacked by German forces. The boat capsised, and Babcock almost drowned, saved only by miracle. He did not return to Nigeria. To commemorate his work as pioneer missionary, Babcock University in Ilisan, Ogun State, was named after him.

What were your greatest moments of joy as ambassador and permanent delegate of Nigeria to UNESCO?
The thing that gave me the greatest joy was the event on the day that the 132 poorest countries of the world met to decide who to support as the president of the General Conference of UNESCO. Because of this large number, 132 out 189 countries that constituted UNESCO at the time, whoever this group supported automatically became the president. Tanzania and Nigeria were in contest for the post, but few minutes before the start of the meeting, I was told that a telegraph had come from Tanzanian government asking its nomination to be withdrawn for Nigeria.

As a result, the chairman, who was from the Philippines, said ‘we really don’t need this meeting, because there is only one candidate, which is Nigeria.’ I almost fainted when the group unanimously accepted Nigeria’s nomination and that was how I became the 32nd president of the General Conference of UNESCO. It was a day of joy for me. The occurrence strengthened my faith in the power of prayer and I began to spend more time on my knees, confident that there is nothing too hard for the Lord to do and trusting Him for anything I want and if it is His will, He would always grant me effortlessly from above.

I am also regular guest at Ori-Okes and the Victory Sanctuary. I have continued to appreciate Pastor E. A. Adeboye and his wife, Pastor Adeboye for the cover they have given me through prayers, advice and encouragement.In contrast, the unhappy day of my life was the day that I was hosting my former minister of Education, the late Prof. Babalola Borishade in 2001 in Geneva. As a very competent minister with first class qualification from his university, Borishade had shown considerable mastery of the affairs of UNESCO. I wanted him to be president of the International Conference on Education, a meeting of ministers of Education from all over the world.

I had started selling the idea to the people, prayed over it and invited representatives of the countries and their ministers to a reception in the evening, while I was fasting. I told my minister that the meeting would be about 5pm, but I would like to have a pre-meeting interaction with him around 1pm to take him around Geneva and explore the city.

Shortly before we set out, information came to me that I had just lost my son in London. I couldn’t leave to go to London because of the receptions and meetings I had arranged. I didn’t want the minister to know what had happened, as it could derail the whole plan. So, I honoured the 1pm appointment with him, took him to lunch and sites-seeing and later went for the reception. I watched as the ministers of Education were drinking and eating, but I couldn’t eat, as the news had devastated me, but I kept my cool. One of the ambassadors who noticed that I wasn’t taking anything approached me and said, ‘I noticed you have not been taking anything and since you arranged this forum on behalf of your government, please tell me in private if you poisoned the meal and the drink.’

I said no and that I was only waiting on the Lord to wipe out my sins and renew my salvation. She said to me, ‘I have never sinned in my life and I have always been in eating and things are going on fine for me…’ Two days later, we had the election and my minister was unanimously elected as planned and he became the first president from Africa to lead International Council on Education in Geneva. I felt pleased about the achievement for Nigeria, although I was also remembering the death of my son.

As soon as my minister returned to Nigeria, I flew to London for the burial of my son. It was a very painful experience, but I realised, from that incident, that there is nothing that can be so pleasing as the security of the home, the happiness of the home and the safety and promotion of the children. It remained a very unhappy moment in my life.Any time I remember it, I always give thanks to the Lord, especially for the election of Aborishade, who later got President Olusegun Obasanjo to propose my nomination as the president of the 32nd General Conference of UNESCO on behalf of Nigeria.

As a renowned educationist, what is your view on the observation that Nigeria’s education system is troubled?
In any march to development, there is always a crisis period. I think, as Nigerians, we are just going through the crisis period, because western education is alien to us and when it came people, began to look down on the indigenous education. For instance, instead of allowing African languages to be promoted as it was done in Japan, China, India, people started looking down on them, calling them vernacular. At the time, if you were caught in schools speaking the local language, you would be punished and asked to write ‘I will never speak vernacular again’ many times over. That was the genesis of what became a problem, as we neglected our beautiful languages of Africa with their rich proverbs and fascinating idioms.

Another problem has been policy implementation, which has been our bane. We need people who are competent and capable to get education policies implemented faithfully and professionally.It has been discovered that all the administrations were aware that if the education component of our development agenda is not strong, the human resource capital will not be strong and the material that will service the system will not be strong. But there is a new will and resolve that education has to be taken to the higher level of seriousness, support and encouragement. So much attention is being focused on adult and non-formal education, curriculum development and all other areas. It is just a matter of consistently following these reforms to a logical conclusion.

What really instigated and how did you surmount the controversies that nearly derailed Nigeria’s aspiration to host Africa’s first UNESCO Category 2 Institute for Culture and International Understanding?
The Institute derived its history from the effort to house the collections of UlliBeier at the Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding in Osogbo. The centre was proposed as an affiliate of the Institute to be located at the President Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library in Abeokuta, Ogun State. Happily, three very distinguished arts writers have been commissioned to compile the history of the establishment of the Osogbo Centre as part of the celebration of its 10th year anniversary in January next year. The book is expected to detail what I call the miracle of the establishment of the centre. The opposition to it was immense. I thought at a stage that it was going to be problematic, but again, I was conscious of the fact that as my country’s representative in UNESCO, if I failed to deliver on the country’s project, I would have failed my country. So, I was not going to give up on the project, in spite of the opposition to it.

When the proposal first arrived at UNESCO in 2007, the required background papers were not available from Nigeria. In order not to miss the opportunity to have the proposal endorsed at the level of General Conference, I requested the subject to be listed at the culture sector meeting. During the deliberation of the subject, the chairman observed that there were no supporting documents from Nigeria. The minister of Culture from Jamaica asked for intervention. When he was given, he explained that he was delighted that the Institute would be at Abeokuta, because there was a town of same name in Jamaica.

Thereafter, he began to sing reggae song, which thrilled his colleague ministers, who screamed with delight. The chairman of the Commission asked if that cheering was an endorsement of the request. When he was told yes, he considered the paper approved, subject to the supply of the required background materials to be discussed at the Executive Board of only 58 member states. That was how Nigeria’s request sailed through the General Conference as a miracle.

At the Executive Board level the following year, I invited all the members of the Africa Group in UNESCO and told them about my predicament, while seeking their support for Nigeria to get the proposal for the establishment of the Institute and the centre approved. Beyond Paris, the campaign was also strong. In Nigeria, meetings were held with eminent personalities, such as the Alake of Egbaland, Oba Gbadebo, who rallied support for the main institute to be located in Abeokuta. The then governor of Osun State, Prince Olagunsoye Oyinlola, was a tower of support for the establishment of the Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding in Osogbo. He stood firmly and with great courage and commitment for the project and paid many official visits to UNESCO.Without the strong endorsement of Alhaji Dambatta, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Culture and his Mr. Tokunbo Kayode (SAN), the struggle for the establishment of the Institute and Centre would have remained an exercise in futility.

After the approval of the Institute by the Executive Board of UNESCO in October 2008, the UNESCO director general, Koichiro Matsuura, paid an official visit to Nigeria, where he had expected to have Nigeria to sign the agreement. Nigerian government, however, declined to sign the agreement and asked for more time to study the text. When the delegation returned to Paris, people thought I would be embarrassed by the denial of the signature in Nigeria, but I was happy that my own part of the assignment, the UNESCO endorsement, had been accomplished. So, what remained was between Nigeria and UNESCO.

Happily, after four months, in April 2008, the Nigerian government allowed the minister of Culture to come down to Paris to sign the agreement at the UNESCO headquarters. There was celebration, but the battle was perhaps unnecessary and had cost us, the major actors, much unquantifiable loss.My years in UNESCO were glorious and this was due to the vision of the new government of Obasanjo. My predecessor in office, Dr. Olusegun Akinluyi, was not as lucky, as he had to deal with issues connected with the death of Kenule Saro Wiwa and other related matters. In response to the directive of Obasanjo to the Nigerian delegation to UNESCO in Paris that he wanted real and accelerated development and the cooperation of the UN agency in matters under its mandate, members of my team at the delegation quickly set out early to push for projects and programmes that would assist Nigeria.

Nigeria was elected to the Executive Board of UNESCO as well as the World Heritage Committee. The Osun Osogbo Groove was inscribed as World Heritage Site in Durban in 2005. Nigeria was at the forefront of the adoption of the intangible cultural heritage convention. With the assistance of Prof. Wande Abimbola, Ifa was inscribed as an intangible cultural heritage.

Nigeria was elected president of the General Conference, member of the World Heritage Committee, Executive Board and won all the elections to many councils and committees of UNESCO, as the Lord gave us favour before all the delegations and representatives.

Now, what is your assessment of Nigeria’s role in the diplomatic world, as it concerns literacy and education generally?
Nigeria has just been awarded a UNESCO Literacy Prize, a clear demonstration of the fact that even if not well reported, there has been considerable development and commendable progress being made in the field of adult and non-formal education and literacy.We all know how important literacy is to development. If everyone is literate and able to read, the noise pollution arising from the loud announcement of the routes of buses, taxis and other vehicles would reduce and perhaps the blood pressure arising from the disorderliness in motor parks and on the roads would reduce.

Literacy would also reduce the incidence of rumour peddling and distortion of information arising from ignorance in the population. It is also possible that apathy and indifference to what is available on the streets would reduce.The country has generated many valuable documents that have been prepared on how to get and mobilise the country to have an increased percentage of literate population. There is also increase interest in the primary and secondary school levels as well as the university level. We should be delighted that we now have less number of Industrial upheavals that had characterised the education sector in the past.

There has been some stability in school calendars. There was a time when university industrial action was on for 10 months in one year, disrupting the plans of students and their parents. The intervention of private institutions in education delivery has been effective and efficient and the private sector commitment to educational promotion has been impressive. My expectation is that the new ministerial strategic plan 2016-2019 will prove very helpful in stimulating desired growth and development in all the sectors in our education architecture.

We want to produce more Nobel laureates as frequently as possible, we want to have best published journals, best books on monographs, we want Nigeria’s presence to be felt in the academic community globally, so that anywhere they are talking about best ranked universities, you will find Nigeria among them.

As a strong believer in prayer as a sure way of solving problems, why does it seem prayer is not working for Nigeria as a country?
It is always difficult to measure the impact of prayer on development, but my own personal experience has vindicated that prayer is efficacious. Adeboye spoke to me about the power of prayer and faith at one stage when I told him about my ambition to become the first West African to occupy the position of president of the General Conference of UNESCO and how it appeared almost impossible.

He encouraged me to go ahead with the realisation of the dream and prophesied that long after I had left the position, UNESCO would continue to be reminded that I was once in the organisation. I claimed the prophesy, got elected as president of the 32nd session of the General Conference of UNESCO and today, when you enter UNESCO building, you will see my photograph among those of other past presidents of the General Conference of the organisation at the main entrance to the hall, where all the ministers of foreign affairs, culture, education and information meet. This, to me, is as a result of that prayer offered at that time. I have no doubt about the value of prayer.I also believe that my duty today is to be of service to the world, to the nation, individuals everywhere and whatever I try to do, I try to remember that God is looking at me. If at any time I make a mistake, I quickly pray for mercy and forgiveness. Prayer opens up to you the advantages of favour.

What you do not deserve, prayers make you receive it. How else could you explain how I, from the village, became a graduate in the first instance?
How will you explain how, as a student of History, got elected as Dean of the Faculty of Education? Remember that I studied History and after a number of years, I became a professor in the Faculty of Education, still teaching history.Prayer is most efficacious. Prayer is useful. Collectively, I am sure prayer is working for Nigeria. It is prayer that is holding the country together and allows a country to go through three years of civil war and still come back as one nation. You hardly find countries that had gone through a civil war that ever come back as one again. They always break into pieces.

It is prayer that equips the population with the spirit of patience and understanding in the face of obvious injustice and wickedness. It is prayer that opens the beauty and joy of heaven to Nigeria that anywhere Nigerians are, they are always recognised and they are always enterprising. It is prayer that has given us all those minerals under the ground and the diversity in form of the many languages and cultural practices.

What other countries have such many languages of diversity, of beauty, elegance and culture, both tangible and intangible?
What are your future plan, hope and your expectation?

The future belongs exclusively to the Almighty God and He has remained very faithful and continues to make ways for me where there is no way, as He rules the universe. I am encouraged by the passage in the Bible that states that godliness with contentment is good gain. Therefore, wherever I am, that is where God wants me to be. I should be satisfied and thankful for that, while I simply remain on my knees and plead for His mercy. And I know that He does not fail, because He is the Almighty, and that all His promises for me and for the nation and for all of us will be kept.


In this article:
Michael OmolewaUNESCO
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