Tomori: Nigerian Academy of Science must become a voice for the people
Professor Oyewale Tomori’s is the outgoing president of the Nigerian Academy of Sciences (NAS). In this interview with J.K. OBATALA, the celebrated epidemiologist and environmental health activist gave an overview of academy’s activities at the recent lecture, which held at Federal University of Petroleum Resources (FUPRE), Warri.
What did the Nigerian Academy of Science (NAS) hope to achieve, by holding its Public Lecture in the Niger Delta?
Well, the topic was “Petroleum”. So the Federal University of Petroleum Resources (FUPRE) was naturally the appropriate place—a venue that would give us the right audience.
Also, a major role of the Academy is to inform the public and raise the general level of science-awareness and understanding, throughout the country. One of the things we have achieved is enhanced communication, which was demonstrated when we paid a courtesy call on the Ovie of Uvwie. We discussed all the issues….
What kind of feedback did you get?
He was quite cordial…. We discovered that we have a lot in common—because I actually went to school in the Niger Delta. So it was quite a good thing, to let him know my early education came from this area…That, in those days, many of us had our training in Nigeria, without having travel out. If we could do that then, why can’t we do it now? A few of our colleagues went to school with free primary education, and that kind of thing.
There was no “oil money” then. So why are we now in this poor state? These are some of the things we discussed …We also talked about being courageous enough to speak for the people.
You attended school in the Niger Delta?
Yes. I went to Federal Government College, Ughelli. In those days, you could move in any direction in this country. Nobody cared, whether you were from the North or the South. If you liked the school, and the school was good, and you did very well on your examinations, they would invite you.
There was no favoritism. There was no tribalism…People came in. And the best was given the opportunity to study anywhere he wanted to. That’s why I came from Ilesha, to train in Ughelli. I studied there from 1958 to 1964… I did my primary, West African exams and also the higher school certificate. Incidentally, I met two of my Old Boys who are now Chiefs in the Palace of the Ovie.
What is next on the agenda for the Academy, after the Public Lecture?
We have a Governing Council meeting. That’s one of the things we’re going to do immediately. We’ll review the past and plan for the future… In January next year, I’ll be handing over to a new president-elect. That’s Professor K. Mosto Onuoha…. My term ends at the next Annual General Meeting.
Looking back, how do you assess your tenure as President?
Well, I shouldn’t be the one who assesses my tenure! But…I wish we could have done more than we did. The objective was to popularize science…to get people to know more about what NAS is doing. We made some impact, here and there. But I wish it had been greater. No country can survive, without paying proper attention to science and technology. But Nigeria has failed to do that.
We seem to place emphasis on the wrong things…Nigerians like to import and consume everybody’s products—without producing their own. We take the easiest way out. We do not like to invest in the future. We are putting all our money into “now”.
The industries that used to be here are gone—because all we do is “buy,” “buy,” “buy” from abroad, without laying any industrial foundation. It’s sad to say, that 56 years after independence, we’re still not industrializing. But we’ve got to start one day…
When we last talked, you had high hopes for the then incoming administration. Has it met up to your expectations?
There are “pluses” and “minuses”… But the “minuses” are not really the fault of President Buhari’s administration. There are two things to remember. You can have a change. But the change has to be for everybody—not just the political leadership. The people themselves must also change. So, if this government has not done as much as we would have liked, it’s largely because we the people have not imbibed the spirit of change. Secondly, we’re too accustomed to quick results. We forget that, when something is broken down it takes time to rebuild. You have to clear the ruble first—and then start over. But Nigerians want building to commence immediately without clearing the ruble away and laying another foundation, which takes time. In short, a change has to come. But it must come from all of us.
What has been the main benefit to the Nigerian Academy of Science, from this administration?
The Minister of Science and Technology came out in the open. This is probably the first time we’re getting a Minister who is out front, when it comes to talking about science. He’s been visiting places, making attempts. One shouldn’t expect instant results. But at least he’s laying the foundation. I think this is the beginning; and we need to support him, fully…
What is the relationship of NAS, with the Science and Technology oversight committees in House and the Senate? Do you liaise with them at all?
First of all, we’ve tried. I mean, during the last Assembly, we met once or twice with the Chairmen. We’ve approached them again this term. But they seem to have too many other problems, to think of Science and Technology! You see what goes on in the Senate and in the House of Representatives. It’s been one fight, one war, or the other…you know…court cases and things like that. To me, I don’t think they’ve really settled down to do anything meaningful. But then, we’re not giving .up. We will continue to work with them.
Hopefully, as they settle down, they’ll know we’re here and come to realize that science and technology are very important for this country.
At the beginning of the year, for example, we were told that the House knocked out all the funding for polio!
All the funding for polio?
Yes for polio-related activities—until a lot of concern was raised and they put it back. Soon after that, Nigeria—which was on the verge of being declared polio-free—started having cases. Virtually all of the money that was to be used to fund those activities, was now invested just to contain a single polio epidemic.
So, this is a lesson I think we, as a nation, can learn. You refuse to give N600 million for polio. Then you have to go and get another N1.5 billion to control an epidemic. This is the message we should propagate: That, when it comes to science, we are often “penny wise and pound foolish” or “kobo wise and naira foolish”—however you want to put it. If you don’t take preventive action, it’s going to cost much more in the end, to eradicate or control an invasive disease.
Do you think enough has been done, to insulate this country from the Zika virus?
Nature itself has help us! But we’ve not helped ourselves. Yes. We raised an alarm. But the things we need to do, we’re not doing them. I’m talking about vector-control, monitoring the cases in the hospital…I mean catching cases of people who are coming down with it…We know what Zika causes. But are we monitoring our hospitals, to find out whether the thing has crept into the country? Our labs…Are they prepared for the diagnosis of the disease?
So, really. That’s why I said nature has helped us more than we’ve helped ourselves. I don’t think we’re doing enough. We need to get prepared. The issue of preparedness, is a major problem with us. We don’t have that…
Why haven’t these things been done?
That is the job of the Ministry of Health. But you know, they removed about six or seven directors, recently. And the new ones are just settling in. Incidentally, I have a meeting with the new director of the Centre for Disease Control very soon. These are some of the issues we will be discussing.
That is the first step in preparedness. Whether what we agree upon at the meeting will be implemented, is another thing. It’s not that we’re short of ideas, in Nigeria, about what to do. We know what needs to be done. The issue is, are we going to do it? …
Concerning your upcoming Council meeting: Can you give me a hint, as to what NAS is planning for next year?
Well, the new president is coming in. So it’s best you hear it from him. He will be at the meeting. He’ll lay down some of his plans, which we will discuss in the Council. We haven’t received them yet. But basically, I think we’ll proceed along the same lines, to ensure that we popularize science. One of the things I know we’ll be doing, next year, involves the anniversary of the Academy. The Academy will be 40 years old in 2017.
We will host all the African Academies, around November. We’re also planning to hold a meeting of ECOWAS Academies—maybe in January or early February.
These are major activities. We’re going to expand our activities beyond Nigeria—and go to the regional and the African continental levels.
When you hand over to the in-coming president, what advice are you going to give to the Academy?
That we be more active. I think we need to be bolder, in our commitment to the good of the people. We need to become a much louder voice—because our education has put us in a privileged position. We should become a voice for the underprivileged in this country—and not just focus on science. There’s no need doing science in an environment where you cannot carry out sustained research. It is impossible for science to make any heady in Nigeria, for example, unless we get the basic infrastructure in place.
…I mean electricity supply, water supply, equipment…all those kinds of things. They must be easily accessible and present all over the country, at the different universities.
…These are the kind of issues we must begin to address. Older scientists, like us Fellows, should be raising our voices to help get this country back on the right path. We were able to do science, in our day, because I never heard of a power outage in my area! So we could do our research 24 hours, nonstop.
But we can’t do that now. So NAS needs to speak more loudly and address relevant social issues. Let the young people do the “cutting edge” science, or whatever they want to do. But you can’t “cut´ any edge, when you don’t have any instrument to work with! So it is our duty, as the Academy of Science, to put forth more effort and get involved with the government. When it raises issues that concern us, we should make our voice heard. We need to make sure policy makers understand, that science cannot take off, until Infrastructural and social issues (such as security) are resolved, to create a conducive environment…