Dr. Kalu Mosto Onuoha was formerly Petroleum Technology Development Fund Professor of Geology, at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN). At 70, he is now Emeritus.Onuoha—who has been president of the Nigerian Academy of Sciences (NAS), since January, 2017—explicated current issues, and highlighted his priorities, during a late-night interview with J.K. Obatala, at Warri’s Casa De Pedro Hotel. An early achievement, was the attainment of a long-sought certificate of occupancy for NAS—paving the way for its eventual relocation, from Lagos to Abuja.
A bill to provide legal backing for the Academy, awaits President Muhammadu Buhari’s signature—and Onuoha explains the ramifications.Other topical terrain explored, include the deplorable state of public schools, the plight of Nigerian universities, too few Northerners in the Academy and the need for a synergy with indigenous oil firms.
A former Biafran army officer, Onuoha also speaks candidly about the leadership of Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu and the underlying causes of current secessionist agitation.He was the pioneer Exxon Mobil Professor of Petroleum Geology at the University of Calabar and held the Shell Chair, at UNN, for 10 years. Onuoha, is from Akanu Ohafia, in Abia State.
How far, with your effort to secure legal backing for the Nigerian Academy of Sciences?
We’ve gone very, very far. I started working on it, almost immediately, after being sworn in.
The Senate and the House have passed the bill. We are waiting for the Head of State to sign it.
What difference is that going to make?
We’re expecting two major fallouts. First, it places the Academy in an officially recognized position—so that it can give evidence-based advice to government.
In other words, we are supposed to be a source of advice, on any science-related issue that comes up…
When they turn to us, our task is to produce experts. We’ve done some things before, such as assisting with the Lassa Fever epidemic.
Then, when the AIDS crisis broke, we were instrumental in setting up protocols for handling blood, and that type of thing.
The second fallout, is financial. When the bill is signed into law, we expect to have a line budget—annually…
Not that Government will pay for everything NAS does. But it should, at least, provide some funds for the Academy to pay staff, and all that.
The signing, it seems, should also boost your effort to get a certificate of occupancy and relocate to Abuja?
Actually, we got our certificate of occupancy, around the middle of last year. What we don’t have now, is money to build!
But there’s no hurry about relocating. Let me say that, as president, I don’t see it occurring in my term—and we still have three years to go—unless something extraordinary happens.
It’s going to take time, because the building is supposed to be monumental—not something that can be thrown up, overnight. So, it’ll cost quite a lot.
We’ll proceed, gradually: Maybe start with a Conference Centre that one can use, then a Guest House, a Museum and ultimately the main building…
The operative assumption has always been, that there are no natural hydrogen deposits on Earth—that all of it has escaped into space. But they’ve found underground hydrogen in Mali!
Mali is not that far from Nigeria. Don’t you think the possibility that there may be deposits here, ought to be explored?
Oh, that’s interesting! I’d like to find out more. If I knew the geology of the area where they found hydrogen, in Mali, I would then have an idea about the feasibility of exploration here.
I’ll read up on it… It sounds exciting…NAS can study the importance of this discovery and document it. Then urge Government to act…
Your predecessor—Professor Oyewale Tomori—once expressed concern, about NAS’s predominantly Yoruba membership.
Yes. One reason, is that the venue for our meetings, is often Lagos. So, it’s easier for Yoruba to attend and make their presence felt.
Then again, funding comes into play. Venues used to rotate—like when NAS held its Public Lecture at Federal University of Petroleum Resources (FUPRE), in Delta State….
What measures are you implementing, to broaden the base of the Academy?
…We are sending Fellows back to institutions that are underrepresented. They will act as ambassadors—to generate interest, among qualified scholars.
We are liaising with Vice Chancellors, telling them somebody is coming. All they have to do, is to receive the Fellow for a Public Lecture …. The Academy will pay for his transport.
We’ll even provide some small money, to help package his presentation. Host universities are mainly responsible for accommodation.
Then, the Guest Speaker will spend 15 or 20 minutes of his presentation, talking about the Academy—how it came to be, what we do, how to become a Fellow, etc. …
Why are there so few Northerners in NAS?
Well, some are reluctant to apply. And there was a time, when they had very few highly qualified people.
Then too, the yardsticks for promotion to the rank of “professor” are not really the same, in all the northern universities…
When it comes to a Fellowship in the Academy, we are not looking at “title”. We’re interested in your contribution to science. And by that criterion, many applicants fall short.
Right now, there are quite a lot of qualified individuals in the North. So, they’re beginning to come in…
Part of my plan, is to see if we can return to our policy of rotating venues, from one zone to another—when financial conditions permit…That will catalyze the process.
Local support is essential. I can recall an instance, in which NAS sought help from the Governor of Abia State.
We wanted to honour one big time Nigerian scientist, who’d published in “Nature” and other top journals. His name was Eni Njoku…
Yes. He was a famous botanist.
Njoku was also the Founding Vice Chancellor of the University of Lagos. We tried to convince Governor Orji Uzor Kalu to sponsor a lecture series, in Njoku’s memory. He promised—but ultimately didn’t…
If memory serves me correctly, Njoku conducted a series of pioneering experiments, to study the interaction of plants with light.
Yes. Photochemistry and that kind of thing. But, getting back to the issue of zone rotation … we’ve held a meeting in Maiduguri, before.
I can never forget it! The Shehu of Borno was there. When we were going away, those who came received a shocking surprise.
Our hosts packaged mangara (dried fish) from Chad and other things, for each Fellow. It was presented to us at the point of departure… Everyone had been happy to see us in Maiduguri.
It’s that kind of spirit we need to revive….
Are you going to renew your effort to honour Professor Eni Njoku?
Well, there’s already a biannual Lecture in his honour, at UNN. But he’s from Ohafia—the next village after mine! So, I have a personal interest. More importantly though, Njoku was a great man—a man before his time….
He was a key negotiator, for Biafra. If Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu had listened to people like Njoku, I think things would have been different.
Different,” in what sense? Ah-h-h-h…I don’t want to talk about “Biafra”. I was part of it… I was an army officer, during the war.
But the point is, … if our leader had not been so recalcitrant, restructuring could have been achieved easily…But Ojukwu made a lot of mistakes. Some bordering on ego…
Yes…This is my judgement. The superior person, intellectually, was Nnamdi Azikwe. Zik was the one who composed the Biafra national anthem. He wrote it. [He hums a bar, from the anthem].
Zik was a super intelligent person. But, after a time, he strayed off—because he was not making any impact. Zik just went away. In fact, he landed on the other side. And that was it.
Zik stopped supporting Biafra?
Oh sure. Very close to the end, Zik withdrew his support… [He thought] our leader should have bargained…But Ojukwu didn’t… and we ended up with nothing.
Yet there is a marked resilience among Igbos. Not many people in the world, could have endured what we went through—and bounced back, as we have.
We came out of the war with no money. But if you go to Abuja, half the real estate is owned by Igbos. Go to Lagos and see what they’ve achieved.
Since Igbos have amassed so much wealth, do you think they’d be willing to secede again and leave all that money behind?
No, to tell you the truth. I’m speaking as somebody who knows what is going own. The Biafra agitation and this IPOB and all that…It is because of what the politicians are doing…
Most Igbos are not interested in Biafra. I’m not… In fact, we Elders always say to young people, “We have seen war. We know what it’s like. We don’t want it again”.
But the truth is, people are jobless. Who are the people marching? They have nothing doing. It’s people who are not in school. Those in school, are not among the marchers.
Then, a youth graduates—and, after three years, doesn’t have a job. With a university degree, he has nothing to do. He’s still living with his father. So, they’re angry!
You’re saying that the underlying causes of the agitation are economic?
Yes. Completely. Nobody wants it. They don’t have support. Don’t worry yourself about those who will always come out vocally. Some of them are making money out of it.
I’ve heard that from other sources, as well.
What is your take, on the present state of Nigerian universities? …I’m worried about the present situation, from many vantage points…
Number one, there’s just too much central control. That’s the major problem. Government can decide so many things, about how the universities are run.
Little is happening in the Ministry of Education… Funding is a big problem…The way Vice Chancellors are summoned is another. They have to be scampering to Abuja, on short notice… Exactly the same thing is replicated at state level.
Secondly, the universities were well run before. They had a good mix of staff, from all over the world. When I came to Nsukka, we had Americans, we had Indians…we had all sorts of people on the academic staff.
Now, we’re so ethnically based… How many Yoruba are at UNN? How many Igbos are at Il-Ife? How many none-Deltans are in FUPRE? Or Northerners in Ibadan, studying? You know, that kind of thing….
What strikes me, as I move around to various universities, is that nowadays, nobody carries a book!
Yes. [Laughing] You are very correct! That’s one of the things that’s causing concern. Students don’t own books! In those days, we bought books.
But today, getting students to buy, and read, them is a problem…. Books and articles, can even be downloaded from the Internet. But our students don’t take advantage of this.
Again, they are products of our educational system where, in some schools, people are just promoted, willy-nilly.
As a result, you can see somebody going to the School Certificate class and he or she cannot speak one correct sentence!…
Yes. I’ve seen that.
People in the universities, first year, second year…they can’t read compositions. Out of every ten persons in a class, only three or four are good. The rest are mediocre—or worse!
We have a situation, in which a secondary school pupil can attend only art classes or study only science—and graduate. I have a serious problem with that. What do you think?
I also have a problem with it. Even in our West African School Certificate, we took “history,” “geography” and “literature,” along with “chemistry,” “mathematics” and “advanced mathematic”.
Good schools, will make sure students do many of these subject, up the fourth year.
I went to Hope Waddell Training Institution, in Calabar, for instance—one of Nigeria’s oldest Secondary Schools, established in 1896…
I’ve read about it. It’s a very famous school.
Pupils came from Sierra Leone, Liberia and other places to attend. Nnamdi Azikwe went there. Dennis Osadebe went there. Quite a number of Nigeria’s historical figures, were students at Hope Waddell, including Eni Njoku.
In that school, they require so much. I mean, for School Certificate, we took up to nine or ten subjects! And had to passed all of them…
Being a geologist, are you working with indigenous oil companies?
Well, you know, I’m just starting, as President of NAS. So, some of the things I have in mind are still being worked out. But there are two Fellows working with me, who just came out of the oil industry…
More and more Nigerians are maturing, coming out of Shell and other companies, after 25 to 30 years of work.
So, there are many “small-time big players,” as I will call them, producing 2,000 to 4,000 barrels per day…
Some Nigerian companies are really getting quite big. A few are even beginning to operate outside Nigeria, along the west coast of Africa—getting concessions in other countries.
Have you formulated specific plans?
Well, since the multi-national oil companies are divesting (even Shell is doing so), there may be research NAS can carry out, to strengthen the hands of indigenous firms.
But we’ll have to be very careful, because the Academy is doing science and technology—which is an evidence-based something. We don’t want to be seen, as
We can cultivate a synergy, by encouraging the development of marginal fields—oil fields the majors leave. This is a way of increasing indigenous reserves…