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Prof. Omole @ 80: I am sad most academics are no longer interested in academia

By Wole Oyebade
13 August 2022   |   4:12 am
Professor Wale Omole is The Guardian Editorial Board Chairman and a former Vice Chancellor of Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile–Ife, Osun State.

Prof Omole

Professor Wale Omole is The Guardian Editorial Board Chairman and a former Vice Chancellor of Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile–Ife, Osun State. He is a man of many parts. Most notable is his die-hard activism that resulted in landmark personal battles with institutions, the system and public opinions. As an undergraduate, he pursued a legendary lawsuit against the premier university where he would later become its Vice Chancellor 23 years after. On his 80th birthday today, Omole reminisced on his background, travails with troubles, his disappointment with the current public university system, leadership failure, the future and prospects of the Nigerian youth. He spoke with WOLE OYEBADE.

Congratulations on this landmark anniversary. How do you feel today?
I feel very happy and full of thanks to God. Actually, thanking God is the only thing in my life right now. When I look back, there were a lot of steps that I took that could have been wrong, but God redirected them. I ran into problems in many situations. People thought I was too tough, this and that, but God has been with me all the way. I can only be grateful to God. Growing up came with a lot of steps that I didn’t know to be right or wrong. To see that all those steps turned out to be right is only God.

Who am I? It is only God. I recall that I took my final year undergraduate examinations at Great Ife without knowing the timetable. I had to travel from Ibadan to Ife everyday to take the exams with security officers always waiting for me at the gate. I was not a criminal, but because I acted on behalf of the students and against the university authority. Now, I can only wonder how I managed to survive those days.

You didn’t seem to anticipate a long life, how much more 80th birthday?
I didn’t want to because of the way I was going; I was in the fast lane. But I didn’t care. Long life didn’t matter to me. All that matter was helping everyone that needed help as I was moving on and I was able to do that.

You once wrote that your life was full of troubles; you were either walking into them or they were running into you.
That is right.

Does that connect with your surname – Omole (i.e. a tough child)?
Actually, there is so much connection. My mother once told me that ‘in the entire family, you are the only Omole’. I said: ‘Mama, why would you say that?’ She replied: ‘The difference between you and others is that when you say you would do something, you always do it. Have you heard of anyone who took his mother out of the (family) house where there was no problem, just because the mother does not look good?’ But I didn’t even think about it. I was just not happy that my mother was not looking the best and I thought of what to do.

Till today, whenever I am not happy with anything, I do something about it. ‘But I’m not that bad,’ I told Mama. She said: ‘People know that you are not bad, but you are tough’.

You had very rough times at the School of Agriculture that landed you in University of Ife by accident. You were subsequently expelled and you took the university to court to overturn the decision and won. How do you feel reflecting on those episodes?
I was the first student ever to take the university to court. But when I did it, I wasn’t thinking of the consequences. I just wanted to do something. Usually, when I take steps, they are not to save myself, but a situation, and those situations are such that I have been appointed into by my colleagues. I didn’t want to be anything. In fact, I was called No Future Ambition (NFA) in secondary school, because I didn’t have one.

But you are from a staunchly-devoted Christian home; father was an Anglican and later a (Jehovah’s) Witness, and mother a Cherubim & Seraphim member. How does one marry that background with your persona?   
Actually, there was conflict even in those religions. Let me say today that those who wear the white garments are the real Christians in those days. I don’t know of today. My mother, by 12 midnight, was praying and she was not praying for herself but for others. That was where I learnt how to pray, think and work for others. I learnt that from my mother. Whereas, the Anglicanism was more of myself: ‘this year, I want to buy a house, God do it for me’. K&S was never like that and till date; that matters too. And I have remained very interested in the success of others. That is what gives me happiness. You said 80, but I can only see 80 for others, not myself. If I live longer, I pray I could help others to live longer.

More often, altruism gets you into trouble like you had during your tenure as Vice Chancellor at OAU.
Trouble, trouble and troubles, even till date, just because I try to change unpleasant situations. For instance, since February 2022, universities have been shut down. Can you blame the students? No! Again, you cannot blame ASUU. They are not getting what they deserve. The universities are surviving on pittance and nothing good is happening in the country. There is no governance or government. If some of us are keeping quiet, then we are not fair to the country.

It is not that our situations then were better, but we fought for them. I fought against poor conditions of the student, rotten chicken, exposed bread, poisoned food and so on. Otherwise, why would I all by myself take the university to court as an undergraduate? They (the university) could have gotten away with it. Somehow, God just directed me to do something.

Looking at your days as VC at Ife and the crises that engulfed the tenure, do you have any regret?
Not really. It was a success for me despite the crises. There is one of my students that rose to become Dean of the faculty, Chairman Committee of Deans and even one of my Deputy VCs. Why should I regret that? That is one of those things I want people to do for others.

Some of your critics believe that your policies were not pro-poor students.
I was strict and worked by the rules. For instance, I sent my own daughter back home to retake JAMB because of one mark. Everybody appealed to me, but I said ‘no’. She did JAMB test (then UME) the following year and became number four in the country. So, it all depends on how you look at it.

We (human beings) really have more capacities than we claim and when people don’t know that they are capable, we as the leaders should help them to discover themselves. I saw those children (undergraduates) as my children and pushed for them. I had to overrule the policy of the minister on the use of computers. Those things I cannot regret. About two or three years later, the use of computers became a policy. If it was so bad, why would they adopt it nationwide?

In the Christian home that you grew up, honesty was regarded as the only policy. Does that still suffice for today’s world?
It was my father that couched it thus: ‘in this house, honesty is the only policy’. I agree with that, because it is the only way not to get into trouble, and I still maintain the clique till date. Unfortunately, you rarely find that in the society today, not even those that called themselves leaders. They are not honest and they don’t care about anyone. If there is any strand of honesty, why would universities be closed down for months without any thought for the students, lecturers, their unpaid salaries, their welfare and how they still manage to sleep in this circumstance?

As a matter of fact, I was Pro-chancellor of a university not too long ago. At a public forum, I had to announce that I had directed the State governor never to come to my house again because he was not paying salaries. So, how does he manage to sleep as a state governor owing salaries? Those little things get at me, just like it does a baby.

At a recent editorial board meeting where higher education was discussed, you wept openly. Why?
The universities are the only anchor that we depend on to develop. Unfortunately, nobody seems to care about them. So, where is the future when universities don’t matter to drive growth? Things are so bad that even our lecturers now care less because they have been overpowered by the wrong set of officeholders presiding over our affairs.

In my time, I fought against such as the VC, such that I even took decisions against that of the then Head of State. He said we should not pay salaries, but my lecturers were working at Ife. Besides, the life of the village called Ife was that university. By the time you are not paying salaries in such a place, life grinds to a halt. And I said I will not allow that to happen, so I continued to pay and even paid more than what was approved for university lecturers.

The minister later came to me saying they wanted me in Abuja. I looked at our rule book and saw that the minister has no recognition whatsoever. The problem is that some of us in leadership positions don’t even read the statutes. We just want to listen and do the bidding of principals. I saw that there was no place for the minister nor did the National University Commission (NUC) have any authority to summon the Vice Chancellor. The point is, always look for the right thing to do in any circumstance. If you have authority, I will follow you as an obedient servant, but there is none.

You damned the consequences? 
Of course! I even told them that they could sack me because they had the authority to sack. They didn’t. The issue was that had I taken a decision against the interest of the university, we would have lost what that institution stands for.

You are an apostle of university autonomy. Are you disappointed that our universities and their officeholders are not pushing for its independence?
I am disappointed though with an understanding of our weakness not to take our proper positions. We (academics) are too interested in our selfish interests rather than the students and the academia. Even the lecturers are no longer interested in academics. It is that terrible.

Do you think the current ASUU strike could have been handled differently?
Definitely. We should not have gotten to this juncture because academics should have been more important than anything else. But we are no longer doing academics. We should be more interested in growing up academically, but we are not. We just want positions. Many of our colleagues that applied for the top positions only wanted the office; for its own sake and not because of the job. I can tell you that the job is tough and you must be ready for it.

Are you proud of Ife as it is today?
By the time I was told recently that everybody was saying that they want a Prof. Wale Omole-like tenure to return to Ife, I was happy to hear that happening in my lifetime. I had to invite the Vice Chancellor and he confirmed it. But they had said that I was so bad because I was following the kind of autonomy that I understood about universities. University is a universal city and we should interact properly to grow together. We are still not doing that.

A lot of our colleagues appointed as lecturers or whatever are not interested in that job the way we should be. That is why you can be a head of an institution and too afraid to challenge leaders. Those leaders are supposed to be your contemporaries and should be made to correct the wrongs of the system, not lord things over you

A lot of critics are still unhappy with your antecedent at Ife. What word do you have for them?
They should think again. All I stand for is the autonomy of the university and what a university system should be. If we academics don’t know, who will tell us? University has a lot of powers that should never be given away. God said: ‘Let there be light. And there was light.’ For me, that should be the position and power of academics. He is not just any person. You must think, plan and programme. Why, for the young ones and the future to come. The universities are not doing that and you can see the country at large. Nobody today cares about the youths, yet they are some of the brightest you will find globally.

As a country, where do you think we are headed?
Disaster. Unless we really note those things that are wrong and correct them, we are headed for disaster. Otherwise, we won’t make progress. At the level we are, we are finished because we have refused to grow and don’t even care that we are not growing. It is most unfortunate because we have this enormous individual capital to grow this country. We should be looking for those individuals to grow this country. We should stop looking at our problems as if they don’t matter. They should matter to us all.

I stood for the university during my time. All they could do was to take their job and I was ready to relinquish the office. I even told them to take their job, but they said they wouldn’t. ‘Though, you can be more useful for this (in another office)’, but I said no. Because the only thing I knew was the university and by the time a civil servant was telling me that I can be more useful for the government, I felt insulted. These are some of the issues. But some of our colleagues in the system are not thinking about the system or the future. And whatever they are able to produce on account of their competence is the future.

Almost all average Nigerian youths are contemplating the migration syndrome. Does that bother you?
The observation is correct and it is saddening. All they want are passports and visas while everything here portends greatness for the country. The kind of resources God has endowed us with are more than enough. We should be utilising our wealth to help the entire Africa and black community globally. We should be the best.

Though the white man would tell us that we are not good and some of us would believe them, but that is not true. It is also part of the problem of black men. The young ones are far better than us and I learn from them. We should work for them to lead our country forward and not jump ship.

And through the youth there may be hope for this country?  
They are the only hope. But we should learn to treat them properly and with respect.

Do you think things will change anytime soon?
With the kind of leadership that we have, I’m not so sure. When the leadership has no respect for human beings, then there is trouble. They would be unable to develop institutions and they need development for growth. But nobody cares. Everyone is thinking about money. That is another problem and there is no future in that.

Not too long ago, your wife of 47 years passed on. Certainly, you missed her.
I can cry nearly every day for her. Not because she is a pretty lady; I don’t care about beauty though she is beautiful. The point was that I didn’t choose her for beauty but for her manners. I was brought up in morality and have to do things rightly all the time.

It was at an event and I saw her arranging things and I exclaimed: ‘who is this lady? I want to marry her’. They said she wouldn’t talk to anybody. She was using serviette paper as a coaster instead of placing the glass cup directly on the table. That attracted me. There was no phone in those days; otherwise I would have called my mother immediately because it was the week that I told my mother that I was not going to get married.

I had told my mother that my younger brother, Segun, was doing very well. He became a professor of petroleum engineering and I told mama that he would give her good grandchildren. I wanted to be left alone. By the time I met my wife, all of that changed because of strong moral values. She was exceptional.

You have never been admitted to a hospital until the last one year. What is the secret of your health?
God is the secret and I am not being religious here. I said that because I know not of any other power. Anyone that has God will never make a mistake. I made what looked like mistakes as I went on, but they turned out right in the end. For 79 years, I never went to the hospital, health centre. I didn’t use drugs and I kept going on and on. It could only be God.