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‘We have first class brains that should have been deployed to lift Nigeria’

By Gbenga Salau
07 August 2022   |   4:10 am
Professor Ayodele Francis Ogunye clocked 80 on July 31. He is not just a giant in the field of Chemical Engineering in Nigeria, he has also impacted the field tremendously as a scholar and industry player.

Professor Ayodele Francis Ogunye clocked 80 on July 31. He is not just a giant in the field of Chemical Engineering in Nigeria, he has also impacted the field tremendously as a scholar and industry player. In this interview with GBENGA SALAU, he underscored the importance of clocking 80 in a country where life expectancy is averagely 52 years and the need to explore Nigeria’s human capital resources for its advancement in all ramifications.

What is it like celebrating 80 in a country where life expectancy is about 52 years?
At 80, I believed I have all I wanted in the world. Two, I have set a record in my family, because my father died at the age of 67, while my mother died at the age of 73. And as you have said, considering live expectancy in Nigeria is about 52 years, that means, I have already added 50 per cent of life expectancy to my age. What else do I want? The only thing left for me in this world that I pray for, is for my two last children, Ayodele, who will be 28 in October, to get married. In fact, the engagement was part of my 80th birthday ceremony. Also, the younger sister, who just completed her National Youth Service Corp (NYSC) to get married too. Once they get married and I see my grandchildren from them, I now believe that I am fulfilled in life.

I wanted to be a professor, I am already one. It was my first year at the university, Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London that I had the ambition that I wanted to be a professor. Those days, it was only in Imperial College that you have more than a professor in a department. There were six professors of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College in my days and three of them would only give about five lectures during your three years stay at the university, while the other three were giving regular lectures. But (Professor KG Denbigh), the father of Chemical Reaction Engineering handles the introductory course in Chemical Engineering, and when he comes into the class, a white man in white rob, a janitor, will follow him and when Denbigh has written to the half of the board, the janitor will clean the board. I had to ask myself, why is this person so special. He was special, he was the contract professor occupying the chaired professorship that was endowed in Imperial College by Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). That was how I had the ambition of wanting to be a professor of Chemical Engineering and when I completed my PhD, I had three jobs in the country. The first was Institute of Computer Science at the University of Lagos, salary was 1350 pounds; the second was University of Ife, at the Department of Chemical Technology, which was changed to Chemical Engineering the following year, gave me a job of a lecturer Grade 2 at a salary of 1575pounds; thirdly, Shell BP at 2750 pounds. But I decided I will take the University of Ife offer. I doubt if we have many that will do that because of the gap in salary. And this was because the only way I could achieve my ambition was to go to Ife. Luckily, I met a good boss. I still call him boss till today, Prof Sanni, he was the one that gave me the letter of appointment as a lecturer.

The next is my ambition, not just to be a professor but a timeline. In those days, the average age of a professorial appointment was 45. After listening to the foremost statistician in this county, Prof Biya Aja, at his inaugural lecture, I promised to work hard to be a professor before I was 40. To God be the glory, I became a Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Lagos at the age of 36. So, what else in this world have i not achieved. I have very resourceful children.

Growing up, what were the building blocks that contributed to who you are today?
I was a spoilt child. My mother was not pregnant for 16 years before I was born. So you can imagine how the woman will treat me. When I was born in the village, am not ashamed of the village I was born, palm leaf was the roofing material. It was when I returned to the country after graduation that I changed the roofing to aluminium. My mother gave me anything I liked. So in November 1947, I was just five years old when the Anglican Mission wanted to start a primary school in our town, Ijapara in Ijebu-Igbo. They needed to populate the new primary school. My two uncles, my mother’s immediate juniors, were lay readers in the church. So, the senior one came to the village to inform my mother that I should be one of the foundation pupils of the school. My mother objected. I was told there was a fight between him and his sister, eventually he had his way and he took me to the town to school on November 10, 1947. The other pupils with me in the class were ten years and above. My cousins from my uncles were also older than me and it said that I was always crying.

I must say it, I was pushed to the next class and in those days, it was class one and two and standard one and two. By the time I got to Standard Two, I had improved, I was no more a bloomer. But we had to go to senior primary school in another town that had the same boundary with Ijapara. We got there and that was where my talent started to show. I was representing my school in the scripture quiz and when we got to Standard Five, the only thing was that I never came first despite the fact that I was outstanding. There was a man then, who had very good handwriting. He did not allow me to come first. Luckily when we were in Standard Five, the modern secondary school started and he was not from a rich family. So, he now transfered to the modern school, which was 35 pounds while Molusi College was charging 60 pounds, which was an elite college. It was after this man left that I became first. In those days, Government College education officers often come to our school to interview pupils and they could pick the two or one, and sometimes if none qualified, none will be taken. Despite the fact that this man has left, I had two other competitors who joined in Standard Six. They were the children of elites, their father had been a nurse working across the country and the man decided to return home after retirement and these two boys were his children. So when Government College education officers came and they interviewed two of us, within me, I knew I would not be taken, because the spoken english of these boys, you will think he was born in England.

The story of how I ended up at Molusi College, Ijebu-Igbo for my secondary education, short stint at the Government College, Ibadan for the Higher School Certificate Education, award of scholarship by Ijebu-Igbo Local Council for HSC studies at Government College Ibadan and the Federal Government Scholarship to study Chemical Engineering at Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London, England has been vividly captured in the book, Trials, Triumphs & Legacy: Prof. Ayodele Francis Ogunye @ 80 to mark my octogenarian age.

What are the milestones of your career as an academic?
I was a political element in the University of Lagos. And it started from the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). I served as Assistant Secretary to the then Union of Universities Teachers, and I learnt how to campaign to win from Ife. So, when I got to the University of Lagos, when a new department was to be started in August 1973, four of us were to start the new department, a Professor from Surrey; myself, a Senior Lecturer; and two Lecturers Grade 1. On the day of resumption, I was the only one that showed up. The professor from Surrey dictated his term of employment, as he wanted to stay three months in UNILAG and three months in Surrey. The Vice Chancellor then, Prof Ade-Ajayi said, please stay in your university, as I have appointed a senior lecturer. The two other lecturers never came because they were my seniors in secondary school and till undergraduates. So, the onus fell on me alone but did not disappoint the people: Ade-Ajayi and Dean of Engineering then, Prof Oladapo because they insisted that I must head the department, and that Chemical Engineering would not be an appendage of any department in the University of Lagos.

I was just 31 years old then when they gave me that responsibility and my fame today is as a result of that responsibility given to me. I recruited the best of Nigerian lecturers from all over the world,  Beckley, MIT, Stanford, Waterloo, Imperial College. These were the cream of staff that started the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Lagos. And today, the department is number one when you talk of Chemical Engineering.

But I started to be part of the university politics. First, I contested to be a Senate member from the congregation. A member of the congregation is anybody with a degree working in the University of Lagos. When I became professor, there were just 42 professors in the University of Lagos. One third of that figure are the elected members of the Senate. Easily, I was elected that was in 1976 as I was already an associate professor. So, I was elected and the leader of the caucus, those 14 professors were the most powerful in the Senate, though their powers were later whittled down. These 14 were so strong that before the Senate meets, they would have met to take their decision. It is true like my son would say, you will never go to any meeting without making sure to know what the decision would be on every issue. We were dreaded by the vice chancellors in those days. So, that was how I started my political life at the University of Lagos, but after two years, my papers were already out for professorship. When my tenure expired, I decided I will not go back because I knew that I will go back as a professor on my right, which is true and by early 1979, I became a professor and returned to senate. The only area of my political life at the University of Lagos is that four members of council must come either as a provost college of medicine; elected member of the congregation of council and two other routes. But I decided that I was going to run as the elected member of the council through the congregation. That one elected member was the most powerful member of council. Everybody told me that I should not run because there were four positions that professors are entitled to from Senate that I should take one from the four and the congregation member of council is the only one that other lecturers could fight for.

And I refused and to the extent that I was telling everybody at the University of Lagos that I was going to double the votes of my opponent. My opponent was a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics then, he was the chairman of the staff club. I met the wife when we were campaigning at the College of Medicine, I told her, I am going to double the votes of her husband. And she slapped me and I told her not to waste her vote, I will advise you to vote for me. At the end of the day when the votes were being counted, his votes were counted first and the officials stopped at 96 and mine, they counted to 97, 140, 180, 190 and 192 and it was exactly double of his votes. And they started to give me very good respect on campus.

How did your transition from academic to industry happen?
In 1980, the Vice Chancellor indicted the student union leader that he misappropriated N2100. The VC has the final say about the discipline of students. The senate pleaded for this boy to be pardoned, the VC refused. He sent the student union leader away. A month later, he was indicted for serious offences, he was taking rent for his house in VI, whereas he was occupying the house on campus and that was how the crisis blew. And i warned the students not to support the VC or the staff because either way they must lose. Thereafter, the students and staff boycotted the VC, the staff declared no lectures until the 9th of October that the gate was closed not to allow people into the campus.

Eventually, the FG set up a committee. The staff did not want to attend and I told them to attend because how can the president of the country set up a visitation panel and you will say you will not attend. I put up my memo, the biggest of all the memos at that time and submitted. We appeared before the visitation panel but to my surprise one of the closest lecturers to me was the one who alleged that I was the one that went to Mariere Hall to incite the students. I said, Olugbemi, he said, “yes, uncle!” and i no later learnt he wanted to be an ambassador but he never be before he died. I returned home, told my wife what happened. she was having her birth and she slipped saying that my appointment will be terminated. Immediately, I warned the lecturers, not to go there. That was how my crisis started because I was a member of council, the government called us to Dodan Barrack then to announce the result of the visitation panel and we were there for about five to six hours without offering us anything to drink or eat. I had to provide money to buy something for the people who were there. When the Vice president then, Alex Ekwueme came to announce. he started with me that my appointment has been terminated for inciting students while the others, five professors and the registrar should withdraw their services. So that was how the case was transferred to the University of Lagos council for us to meet. I was a member of council and was present at the meeting. There was no meeting I did not attend through out my tenure the only issue is that I was already banned because a friend  of mine coming from ile-ife said between Ife and Lagos, my termination was announced ten times on Radio Nigeria. We met at the council on the appointment date but I advised the council what to do that we should follow the university act, section 17. The chairman, Chief Osadebe said no as the council is just a sub of the president and the president has said my appointment should be terminated.

The irony of the day was that the people whose appointment was terminated in 1978 as a result of the Ali Must Go crisis was being  reabsorbed back into the university on that day. It was after their own absorption that my case started. It was a very long day and some people were timid that when the minutes was being read they asked that their names be removed, but we finished that day by 9pm. When we finished, the secretary was told to produce the minutes the next day which was a Thursday. Immediately, i got out, one of the senior professors then came to meet me that hope I knew no decision was taken to terminate my appointment. Professor Elebute followed me to the house and said Ayo, I hope you know we did not terminate your appointment. I said I do not know. He said get the minute tomorrow.

So, the people at the registry were too surprised that I was the first person to get the next day, this was the person whose appointment was terminated. I asked Momodu, the secretary who types the minute,if he would run the stentle. He said he was tired, but would do it the next day morning. And on Friday, he ran the minute and I got two copies. I looked through it, there were five decisions taken and there was none that said the appointment of professor Ogunye had been terminated. That was the first miracle of my life. When I became the hall master of Mariere Hall, the hostel had bad reputation. they call it Baluba Republic, but when I became the hall master, i recruited people like Felix Owolabi, and other athletes to the extent that Mariere Hall won all the trophies at the University of Lagos. It was after that I retired because I have not finished my tenure and then somebody said I went there in the night to incite students. So immediately, we went to court, I went separately because mine was termination, while the other six were handled in threes by Afe Babalola and Chief JOK Ajayi. They did not find anything against the registrar that they said should withdraw but this time around they terminated his appointment as Rotimi Williams advised. He actually advised that everybody’s appointment should be terminated. The registrar, the reason they terminated his appointment was that he was my teacher at Molusi College and he would never write Prof Ogunye’s termination letter. While we were in court, I decided to look for job, but I must tell you that the day we were at Dodan Barracks, Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) was holding their annual convention. I left Dodan Barracks to meet Baba Awolowo and he asked that I should meet UPN legal secretary, Mr Gomwak but instead of that I had Baba Adesanya, my own baba and he took up my defense for six years without taking a kobo. While we were fighting the case in court baba told UPN that they should make me Director of Operations and at the same time late Lateef Jakande gave me the option to be Rector of Lagos State Polytechnic but I believed that I am a professor, I should not take such portfolios and I do not have flair for politics, i could not have taken the UPN offer. So I applied to be General Manager of a newly independent petroleum marketer, General oil. That was where I went as an Assistant Manager. And that is how my life in the private sector started. It has not been bad. You should never blame God wherever you meet yourself. I believed that if i had remained in the university, financially I will not be what I am today. I will not be able to send seven of my children overseas to study. I can tell you today, my father will be smiling wherever he is that I was able to study overseas and seven of my children also did same. The two that did not, they were doing their internship overseas. It is not a regret that I had to leave the university. My Magodo house was built within eight months and I bought a brand new mercedes car. Would I have done that if I was in the university?  To build a house, buy a new car and plan my son’s wedding all at the same time without borrowing a kobo. My children were angered initially, but when they start to enjoy the plum of a businessman, they changed their mind. My children categorised  themselves into two; professors children and businessman’s children. I am not regretting but during the period, I still kept my faith in the university, mostly unilag because it gave me what I am today. It made me what I am today. It was that opportunity that I was given when I was 31 years that made me popular in engineering throughout Nigeria and the world. And to show my appreciation to unilag, when I retired, my gratuity and pension till today have been plough into the Professor Ayo Francis Ogunye Trust Fund, professor of chemical engineering endowment. The endowment has about N150m today, which gives prizes, scholarship and research grants to eligible candidates every year. Part of the programme on the day of the book presentation is that endowment of prizes, research grants.

Luckily, the court discharged us, saying the termination was not proper. And Justice Esho, specifically mentioned me that if the university had listen to prof Ogunye during the council meeting, that all these issues would not have got to the court because what I advised was to go by the normal law, follow section 17 of the university act. But because they knew if they follow section 17 of the university act, no university lecturer would found me guilty. The section provides for procedures to terminate the appointment of staff. The case dragged till 1986 and I returned to the university in 1987 but left officially in 1995, at 53 years old.

There is the argument that Nigeria’s progress has been retarding because the gown is not providing the lead, do you agree?
It is not the fault of the gown, our government do not believe in the university system to turn around the country. In 1978, we were in a better position than China. Look at the history. What did China do, let us do the same in Nigeria. China closed their doors to importation and challenged their engineers you must produce this and that.

Academics in China are the backbone of the progress in China. When I was the president of the academy, my last address to this nation was on that. Let them give us the challenge but until we have a president that will believe in such thing, Nigeria will never make progress. We have academy of science, engineering pharmacy and many like that. The government should call on them and let us close our doors to importation. You will see how this country will be transformed. So, it is not the fault of the gown but that of town. We have first class brains and you can never have better brains than we have in Nigeria.

How will you describe yourself?
Professor Ogunye is a family man, he loves his profession. He is a very humble person. I will like to be remembered as a Professor of Chemical Engineering that singlehandedly established the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Lagos. I want to be remembered as a humane person, I do no keep grudge, I will shout on you but the next seconds I have forgotten. I am also a community man.