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Monday, 3 February 2014

Professor Emmanuel Emovon, CON

Professor Emmanuel Emovon, CON
We must rethink our education policy
In 1971, he became a Professor of Chemistry and was subsequently appointed the Vice Chancellor of University of Jos in 1978. He spent seven years, which is a two-term of four years and three years.
His brilliance did not escape the notice of the military administration headed by the self-confessed evil genius, General Ibrahim Babangida who appointed him Minister of Science and Technology, an office he held  for about four and half years. Following a cabinet reshuffle, he was appointed as the coordinator and chief executive of Sheda Science and Technology Complex (SHESTCO)  in 1990; he held this position till his retirement in 1998 having attained the age of 60.
 A respected Benin chief, he holds the title of Obayagbona of Benin kingdom, which translates to ‘World is a gift to the Oba.’
Talking about gift, Emovon has been one great gift Nigeria, nay the black race, cannot forget in a hurry. His name resonates in the annals of who-is-who in science and technology. His strides in this field have proven him as a distinguished scientist, researcher and administrator. Professor Emovon has played a major role towards placing Nigeria in pole position in the comity of scientific and technological advanced countries. In particular,he played a pivotal role in the development of the National Policy on Science and Technology; the establishment of the National Science and Technology Fund; the restructuring and re-organization of research institutes in 1998; the pioneering of Science Village and the establishment of National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development.
He speaks on his life at 85, the lessons, travails and achievements.
Enjoy it:

As a younger scholar, what motivated you to study Chemistry?
My interest in science generally started in Edo College. Back then, I excelled more in the sciences. I was also good in the Arts, History and the rest. When I did the entrance examination to the UCI, I passed. The core subjects I chose were Chemistry, Physics and Botany. Those subjects were courses for the study of Medicine. I got admission to study Medicine, but I didn’t have the money to pay my way through school, until I won a scholarship from the Benin Native Authority, BNA.
But I couldn’t study medicine because the BNA wanted to train scientists at that time. So I made up my mind that rather than just stay at home and wait for the next year to write the exam, I should take the opportunity and enter for a science degree.
During my first year, I won the university scholarship. That took me through the course of my education. After my Intermediate B.Sc examination, which we used to write in those days, the professor of physics and chemistry wrote to me from London to come into their honours classes. I was in a dilemma which course to choose between physics and chemistry. Looking at the Nigeria situation at that time, physics was a little bit more limited than chemistry. So, I opted for chemistry.
What were some of the challenges you had to grapple with during your reign as vice-chancellor and minister?
Admission is the most critical thing in the university system. During my time, people had what they called catchment areas for university and the NUC tended to put the number of students that would be admitted into the university along with the financial allocation; so that the more students a university had the higher their allocation, hence universities started to admit to bloat up their numbers without caring if the amenities were available. That created a lot of problems because universities were admitting students without due regard to facilities available. It was one of the challenges I encountered and tried to correct. But it is still happening today because students completely outnumber facilities the schools have. The government tried to solve it by building more universities and issuing licence to private universities. However, building more universities would raise the question of skilled manpower to provide the necessary tutelage to the students.
The other one is when we tried to enforce the use of local materials in production. Even the cassava production we are making so much noise about now, we had used it in my time to make bread and other confectionaries. But we didn’t have enough funds to carry on the research further than what we did at that level before I left. But certainly we made bread and many confectionaries from cassava floor.
Then again, we tried to malt corn and guinea corn to be used in the brewing of beer. We insisted that since we could malt corn and guinea corn, we should stop the importation of barley malt. President Ibrahim Babangida agreed and we went into it. But at a time, because of too many vested interests, the brewery failed to back that project. And the project could not be sustained.
As an academic that have also served in government, what is your take on recurring wrangling between government and academic unions? Do you share the notion that ASUU was unreasonable in their demand or blame government for not keeping to its agreement?
It takes two to tango. The government had its own blame on the issue; the universities also have their own share of blame. When you reach an agreement with someone, you are expected to make your word your bond. Having regard for personalities on the government side; a man like Gamaliel Onosode was chairman of the committee. He is not a frivolous person, he is responsible enough. And I am sure that while negotiation was going on, he must have been briefing the government on the issue. And government signed that agreement without ever complaining or making a fuss. But when it came to implementation, government failed.
ASUU on the other hand were right to stand their ground because things were not getting better in the universities. We must admit facilities were deteriorating, hence the academic bodies decided that they must do something to force the hands of government. Strike is not usually the best but there is no other way labour can assert its rights.
Facilities in our schools have deteriorated greatly; yet we were establishing more and more universities. The rate of production of manpower for the university is not commensurate with the rate at which we are establishing universities. So, we don’t have enough staff and  facilities, including electricity and water. If you’re carrying out a research, particularly in the sciences, medical and engineering, those things are vital. If they are not available, it creates a lot of problems. Chemistry experiments require a lot of water and sometimes water is not available or sometimes you start your experiment and in the middle of it, suddenly power goes off. These were the things that force d the academic union into the strike.
As a former vice chancellor, we had gone through all these processes but we tried as much as possible to be reasonable in our reaction. Having made your point, at a certain level there should be a halt, but it depends on the reaction of the other party. So, if one side is determined not to honour an agreement it willingly entered into, then the other side would stick to its guns to down tools. It was a considered agreement, it wasn’t something that was sprung on either the government or the academic bodies.
What does the strike portend?
Government tells Nigerians and the world that education is a priority and that they would invest as much as they have. Take for instance, the UNESCO recommendation that about 25 per cent of the budget should go to education, and in particular, university education. Our government comes out and pledge it was determined to fund the universities or education generally. A few days after saying that, the budget is released, you notice that the allocation to the education sector falls short of what they promised. This makes you wonder how serious the government takes education. Rhetoric can catch many people and sweep them off their feet, but when it comes to implementation now the government falls short, thus disappointing the people.
What should universities do to cushion the six months lost to strike?
The scheduled programme of universities must have been disrupted by the strike. All they have to do is to settle down and see how they can recover from the strike. In fact, they must not try to rush through the semester by compressing lectures they are supposed to do in one year, into two days, otherwise, we would be producing half-baked graduates. If I was in their position, having lost six months, we would recover it by extending the semester, cutting down on the holidays. You can’t eat your cake and have it.
How would you rate science and technology in Nigeria?
I think we haven’t done too badly. We made success of many programmes in the scientific field. In some of our universities, the researches have been positive. And having been a member of the Academy of Science, I would say that we have done fair enough.
At a time, we were importing heavily; almost all we needed in this country were imported. So, when I was a minister, I charged my staff that all we should do was to ensure that all our productions contained a high proportion of local content, instead of  just throwing up our hands and depending on imported materials. And the research institutes rose to this challenge. That was why in my time, we set up Raw Material Research and Development Council. We also thought of the Nigeria Pharmaceutical Research and Development Agency; all were geared towards making our raw materials useful in our manufacturings.
In the wider field, let say engineering, we have also done very well. I gave a lecture in Boston about 20 years ago, and the topic was, ‘Nigeria’s achievement in Science and Technology: Are we really in the right direction?’ We were once at the same level with the Asian Tigers, but they have gone far ahead of us because of their heavy investment in science and technology. We are lagging behind because we didn’t do that. You find on our streets, the latest model of any car. Even before they appear on the roads in the country of production, we are already driving it in Nigeria. So, there seem to be a false impression about what we do as per manufacturing; the manufacturers association complain that they have not been given necessary encouragement to match the exploits of other countries.
What should we be doing to catch up with other countries like the Asian tigers?
It all depends on our system. Our system should be geared towards producing a lot of science graduates. Now, if you look at our education policy; we run the 6-3-3-4. I have always said that our universities are saddled with all sorts of graduates, some of whom have no business being in the university in the first place. This further complicates the already complicated problems in our tertiary institutions.
Now, you come to our secondary schools, they have the same problem of dearth of good teachers, lack of facilities and so on. However, to gain admission into an institution of higher education, I have always maintained the university should preserve what they have before in their degree programmes. But that the country should make provisions for students to attend a higher school after completion of their secondary school before going to the university. I mean that instead of the 3-3 we should have a 3-3-2. The two-year  post senior school certificate should be used for HSC (Higher School Certificate) or GCE Advanced Level; people should be admitted into the university from result of their HSC which should be written in the secondary school. In other words, JAMB should be phased out so that universities would not have to set up their post-JAMB examinations.
Have you directly made this recommendation to government?
No, but I have made it known in our private discussions and so on.
So you haven’t really made concrete move to put this in black and white for the authorities?
No, I haven’t. I would do it someday. I am trying to write my autobiography and there I would spell out my ideas to the government and to Nigerians.
With the system we have on ground, do we have the prospect of excelling in science and technology?
Oh, yes. We have the prospects but what is lacking is the ability to harness. Look at the performance of Nigerians in science and technology in other countries like America, Britain and so on; we certainly have a bright prospect. But we must be prepared to fund that sector of development, because if we don’t, of course, we would continue to see our scientists leave the country to other countries for greener pastures. We must be able to encourage them not only by providing the facilities, but we should be able to pay them well to spur them to want to do more for the country.
At 85 what has life taught you?
Life has taught me many lessons. I have learnt that human relationships is vital for one to have a clear idea of what one wants to do, because you cannot live as if you live in an island all by yourself.
I have learnt too, that one has to be honest in whatever one sets one’s hands on. Honestly, there is so much corruption in this country that a good deal of our efforts is being spent on trying to correct the ills of corruption. The monies cornered by corrupt individuals, if channelled towards any sector of development, can go a long way to change the face of this country.
Also, life has made me understand that it pays to have honesty, integrity and hard work as your watchword. These are things I have learnt and I wish we adopt. And our youths themselves should not follow the beaten track. Somebody was saying some years ago that may be our generation was a lost generation, but we were honest. But when I look at this new generation, I don’t just know what would become of them.
What virtue would you want the present generation to learn from Professor Emovon?
One, that mountains are not climbed looking at them, but you have to work hard. Those that have gone ahead have worked very hard to attain the heights that they have found themselves. So hard work is the first thing I would want them to adopt. Others are integrity and humility.
What would you want to be remembered for?
I want to be remembered for my hard work, and that I have set up institutions which are working to ensure that Nigeria excels in the global comity of science and technology.
How do you relax and spend your free time?
I go to the Oba’s palace. Once I am through with this interview, I would head straight to the palace. Years ago, Benin had instituted a certain legal system which ensures justice. That is because the Oba holds a court almost every morning listening to his citizens and he tries with the help of his chiefs sitting around him to ensure that justice is meted out to all.
I enjoyed sports as a young man. I played soccer, tennis and cricket. And I was so good that I was made captain of the university cricket team back then. In fact, I played cricket till my 70s, perhaps that is why I am still fit now (laughs).
But now I no longer indulge in rigorous sporting activities, but I still enjoy playing chess, snooker and being with my friends.
What is your greatest achievement in life? Do you feel fulfilled?
I would say that my achievement is that I participated in the training of manpower for my country as a university teacher. So, I feel fulfilled because in any gathering I go to, I meet my students. Even when I have forgotten their faces many of them would walk up to me and introduce themselves as my students. And I would say, ‘Wow! You are now a huge personality.’ So I feel fulfilled in that direction.
And I have participated as a member of the Federal Executive in shaping certain policies in the country. Also, I have trained my children and they are doing well in their different fields of endeavour. I have six children-three boys and three girls. I first had two girls, followed by two boys, another girl and then a boy.
All these add up to make me believe that I have lived a fulfilled life.

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