Chief Afe Babalola(SAN)

By Adekunle Adekoya & Dayo Johnson

This is the second and concluding part of the interview Vanguard had with Aare Afe Babalola, legal luminary and founder of Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti, ABUAD.

The university, situated along the road to Iluomoba-Ekiti and Imesi is a marvel, given that it is the product of just one man’s vision.

The physical development dwarfs that of many federal and state universities, while the equipment and facilities available trump one’s imagination.

The teaching hospital at ABUAD is a show-stopper; among others, it has eight modular theatres, CT-Scan and MRI scan machines, 16 kidney dialysis machines and an ICU ward that the most popular teaching hospitals in the country don’t have. 

The managing director of a top Lagos medical establishment remarked in the Visitors’ Book that facilities and equipment at ABUAD Hospital make it the best-equipped hospital in West Africa.

The accommodation for nurses and doctors is another wonder in terms of quality. Like most tertiary institutions,  the university has a hospitality unit, the ABUAD Guest Inn which is a 3-star facility.

Aare Babalola also spoke about his stint as Pro-Chancellor of the University of Lagos, an experience he says inspired the ABUAD project.

Excerpts:

You started this university at  a time in your life when people who attained that milestone don’t take risks, they don’t go into new ventures. What was the driving force?

You’re welcome to ABUAD, an institution established about 11 years ago, purposely to teach others how a university should be run. It has been a pacesetter in all areas and today we have the best hospital which has been described as the best-equipped hospital in the whole of Africa.

Few days ago, we carried out our first kidney transplant and the two patients are in the hospital.

You can talk to them. We have carried out several brain surgeries, heart surgeries and so on and so forth.

Our Law department is reputed to be the best in West Africa, and our College of Engineering was described by the Nigerian Society of Engineers, NSE as the best-equipped engineering college in the country.

According to them, 75 per cent of what we have in the laboratories are not available in any university in the country.

Well, I was 80 when I started this university, but that was after I had seven years of committed service to education at the University of Lagos. Before I accepted to serve in the University of Lagos, I was in active practice and late Head of State, General Sani Abacha had invited me to take the position of Attorney-General of the country. I turned it down.

When Obasanjo took over, he invited me, I again turned it down. Later, President Obasanjo was besieged with problems in the University of Lagos, there was corruption there, but that was not all.

The Vice-Chancellor at the time had established an outfit in South Korea where he was dishing out doctorate degrees of the university. There was crisis in the university; it was polarized and the President called me and said: “Look, you are the Chairman of Transparency International in Nigeria, can you help us to look into that place?” By the way Transparency International is based in Germany.

I agreed on certain conditions. The condition was that I will not take any salary or allowance, and he agreed.

My UNILAG experience

On getting to the University of Lagos, I saw that it was not being run as a university; it was a market. Many things were wrong with the University.

Fortunately, I had a number of members of council who are also dedicated and committed to quality.

First, we set up a committee to look into the allegation of corruption and the setting up of an outreach in South Korea. At the end of the day, we found out that the allegation was correct, and we recommended that the Vice Chancellor be dismissed.

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Before we got a reply from Aso Rock, I was invited by President Obasanjo. I went with one of my lawyers, Lawyer Adenipekun, a Senior Advocate. He is still in my office now.

In the morning, at about 8:30 we were at breakfast with the President. The President said: “Chief, don’t you think what that man did was a mistake?” I kept quite for a while, I dropped my fork, and I called on Adenipekun to let us go. I didn’t say a word.

We were walking away to the gate, the last exit in Aso Rock when a minister ran to me and called me and said, sir, the President wants to see you. I turned back. When I got to him, he was still at the table eating.

He said: “You Ekitis are always stubborn. What did I say that annoyed you now? If you didn’t like my suggestion, all you would have done was to say no, sir.” I said, of course, I don’t like it.

I risked my life, I sent people to South Korea, they came with a report and you said it was a mistake. I didn’t want to answer you, sir.

He said he will set up a committee to look into it. I left. He set up a small committee of his ministers and invited me and the Vice-Chancellor.

Surprisingly, they did not allow me to speak, they also did not allow the Vice-Chancellor to speak. They posed a question to him, is it correct that you established an outreach in South Korea and you were giving out certificates without the Senate’s approval? Do you know that the Senate has to approve degrees before you give out certificates?

He said he was a university graduate and that he knew that no certificate can be issued without the Senate’s approval. The Vice-Chancellor agreed and the committee said go and resign. So we left the place.

The Vice-Chancellor went straight back to Lagos and instigated the students to go and riot.

In the meantime, President Obasanjo had gone to Brazil. So when I got a telephone from Lagos in my office that the students were rioting, I phoned President Obasanjo that the man did not resign, instead, he had instigated a riot.

The President said: “Go and dismiss him now. I will tell the Minister to go and dismiss him”.

The minister phoned me, saying he received a telephone call from the President saying that I should dismiss the Vice-Chancellor, I don’t know how to write such a letter.

I told him don’t worry, I will draft it for you. That was at about 11 in the night. I drafted one, I sent it to him. By 8:00 am, the minister phoned me and said the man had resigned.

I carried out a lot of reforms in the university. I also got my clients, including Julius Berger, Shell, Wema Bank and so on to help improve the place with tarred roads.

We put up new buildings. Julius Berger for instance put up a new College of Engineering and equipped it for them; they are there.

In the third year, the NUC at that time under Professor Okebukola now ranked my university number one, and they gave me an award as the best Pro-Chancellor in the country.

There’s a particular aspect of the story that there was a personality clash between you and the former Vice-Chancellor over commercial interests and you used your position as Pro-Chancellor to exact revenge

I have never heard anything like that. Let me reply to that area. If you were a person like him — a tall, handsome man, a man respected by other professors here and there; he was highly respected; and you were made to resign in those circumstances, normally, you won’t be happy.

He will grudge me naturally. He filed an action against the university. The action was dismissed. It was soon after the dismissal that he died. I do not know the link between that death and the court action.

You see, it was a bad case, honestly. And I took a lot of risk. Do you know at that time, lecturers were dying in the university of Lagos?

For me, during my tenure, I never stayed for one minute in the beautiful lodge put up for the Pro-Chancellor.

I never used the University car throughout. We never had any clash on any business. On the contrary, when I was there, I found out that large number of parcels of land belonging to the University of Lagos had been taken over by people and I made sure that I recovered everyone, including the one in Ikoyi which I reserved for University of Lagos which subsequent people had used their power to take over.

There were those on Lagos Road and Badagry area which I re-collected for them. I’m 100 per cent satisfied with what I am, what I was and what I will be until I leave this place. Anything that I traced that belong to the university whether in his name or not, once it belongs to the University of Lagos, I must take it over.

There were so many I recovered from them. I used police, I used army to recover some.

How did you come about ABUAD?

When I eventually left University of Lagos, I haven’t had the experience of what problems were and are still afflicting public universities. I asked myself, what is the value of me having so much property in England, Lagos, Abuja which I will leave to those who never worked for it and who may never use it well?

I said, let me establish a university and make an example and a leader in the formation. That was why at that age, is not too late. After all, Moses started and took away the Israelites from Egypt at the age of 80.

It was an act of faith and I believed that God will be with me and see me through. I set up a committee of professors and so on. We met at Ibadan and one of them asked me: “You said you want to start a university, don’t you know that it is very expensive?” 

I told them I didn’t tell them to come and advise me whether it is expensive or not, I only invited you to come and advise me how to go about it. I also told them that I want this university to start within 18 months.

They offered their advice and went away. That was how I started the place.As I said, it was an act of faith backed up with two things, determination and faith. I came here, it was a forest. I got the land; farmers were there. But before I left Ibadan, I had put up a drawing of what I believe a university should be like, having experienced what was happening in the University of Lagos.

You know there two gates. In this case, I said there will be only one main gate here and the main gate will lead straight to the administrative office,   there will be a circular road. Inside the circular road facing it, there would be colleges and immediately after it, would be all the hostels, cafeteria and so on.

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This was done to enable students to be able to move easily from the hostel to the colleges. The set-up made it easy for you to read in the evening, morning and at night without any fear or problem.

So today, here, students must go to class at eight compulsorily, break at 1:00 pm, eat and come back at 3:00 till 5:00 pm, break for exercises and sports and so on, then come back to class at 8:00 pm till 10:00 pm compulsorily.

That is why they are doing very well.

That sounds very strict; why did you institute that regimen?

Good question. When you enter my university, you will see that it is like when you enter a cathedral. If you go into a cathedral when there is nobody there, you will feel the presence of God inside it.

When you enter Afe Babalola University, you will feel the presence of academics reading. It is meant exclusively for academics, not for any other thing.

When you leave your house and you are coming here, you are not coming here to play, it is not a tea party. But at the same time, we have places here where you can relax on weekends and so on.

So, we have succeeded in that area and the University of Lagos taught me a lesson of how university can be run.

It was like a preparatory class for me and I’m very happy.

In an economy like ours, especially importing equipment for the hospital and the colleges, how have you been coping with logistics, more so that Ekiti is far from the closest ports?

I’m not surprised you were able to ask this question in a way that I have little to add. At the time I started the university things were fairly better than what they are now. But I never thought that things would be this bad in Nigeria, but I believe in one thing that whatever I want to do, I want to start and compete it in good time.

Secondly, I knew age was not on my side, so I decided to rush things as much as possible. The first thing, I built four colleges, two cafeteria, four hostels and eight staff quarters all in two years. One of my professors who was formerly the Vice-Chancellor of Babcock called me and said why are you putting up so many structures at the same time.

I was in Babcock, we used to do one of two a year and I laughed. I said thank you for your advice and I said first, I’m an Economist.

My first degree was B.Sc Economics. I told him today is the day you know, you don’t know tomorrow. Things may get worse tomorrow. I have the money to spend while should I keep it in the bank anyway.

How much interest are they going to pay to me? Those buildings which I constructed at that time for X naira, today, would cost me 10x naira.

And the last that I have just done too, let us look at this building today, If I have to put it up today, it would cost me five times what I spent.

If you go round, you will see the structures we have, they run into several billions of naira. I do not know anybody who can start a university like this one in Nigeria today. When I built the hospital, I had to equip it and made sure I had the best there.

I approached the Africa Development Bank, AfDB to give me loan. Three, four years, we were still going around with papers. We quickly put it up again and the loan was approved, only $20m.

I found out that the interest was more than what I expected. We have naira here and we have to pay in dollars. Instead of spreading the payment for about 10 years, I knew that Nigeria’s economy was going down the drain.

Then I went to the local bank, took loan from there, bought naira at N497. Naira today is at N570 and I can assure you that by December, it will be more than N700.

So, if I had left the debt unpaid only God knows because eventually, the university may run into bankruptcy. If you want to do any business, you have to think about the future as regards the country where you are.

My experience, therefore, is one that teaches me more than anybody else that timing is of the essence in everything you want to do. The other part of my experience is the society in which I live.

Everybody believes that once you start a business, you have a lot of money and everybody wants to come to you to make money.

Contractors will inflate prices of the supply of almost all the building materials, and when they work with you, they want to make money.

That is another lesson I learned. What I learnt is very useful to me and that is, you have to be personally involved in the purchase and supervision of your property or the contract.

The first set of buildings which I put up, particularly the colleges taught me a lesson. I still stayed at Ibadan in the first few months.

I was sending N100 million to them every week. I gave a contractor this big Obasanjo road. I came over the weekend to see what was happening. He complained to me that his gravel and this and that were used by those putting up building over there.

I said how many lorries, he said oga, you have the money to waste. You would asked them to bring 70 tonnes of sand or gravel, as the case may be. Indeed they will bring a lorry but they will only have 25 tonnes there.

In other words, cheating you of about 50 tonnes or so. Then I set up an inquiry and it was confirmed that people were cheating me in different ways. That was why I abandoned my practice and I said this university must be a success and I stayed here, supervised things myself.

The lesson is that if you want to do any business yourself, don’t even trust your own blood brother, you have to be there with your eyes. The only time you can succeed is when you personally supervise and carry out your vision, nobody can carry out your vision for you.

That is a big lesson I have learned and that is why I’m still here and I work from 8:00 am till 12 in the night. What I do is I break at after three to go and eat and come back. Saturday or Sunday. That is why you see the rapid development you see here.

You are a farmer, a trained economist, trained lawyer, a former pro-chancellor, and now a certified educationist. You’re again going into industrial park, how do you find the energy and time to do all these?

Well, there is the old saying where there is a will, there is always a way. I have said it often and I still repeat it that ideas rule the world. Everybody has ideas, but it is only those who translate the ideas into reality that are successful.

When I plan to do something or when I dream of doing something. I always have a plan of how to carry it into fruition and I have that determination which is very very rear.

I think it is a gift from God, determination to succeed. And that was why when I was drafting the anthem for my university, I told my students that is a university built by somebody, Chief Afe Babalola, a believer in quality education and a man who believes that you can get anything you want to do if you are determined, industrious and if you have faith in it. Have faith, Have determination and leave the rest to God.

I told my students and I still believe that most of them have been carrying it out. Do you know the man who prays most? It is the man who works hardest.

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I do not expect any gift from anybody, the gift I expect is the result of my own work. You look at my own life history, you see that philosophy runs throughout my body.

As you probably know, I grew up on the farm, I was making 100 to 200 heaps before I went to school every day and I found myself to be a bridge between primitiveness and civilization. I never wore shoes, I didn’t know what was shoes.

My father never knew one. There was no electricity in my town, roads were not tarred. When I was born, there were only two cars in the town. One for the district officer, a white man and one for the Oba.

There was no water. Until I left Primary Six I never knew what was called a shoe. Again, I ended in Primary Six, it is by luck I met someone who ordered tuition overseas, as a result I was able to study through correspondence, for Cambridge, GCE, B.Sc, LL.B, all at once. That is a result of determination and coupled with industry.

Please explain the concept of the ABUAD industrial park

The Industrial Park which I have there was based on the notion that if you really want to train people who are going to change the world, education must not always be theoretical.

It must be practical and must be geared towards making each person use his brain and the knowledge acquired to his own advantage and to the advantage of the community.

We have the best College of Engineering, we have the best College of Medicine and Sciences. It is not enough to teach just the theories.

We want to apply the knowledge. Those who change the world are those who applied knowledge to make cars, planes or electricity and all that.

We are the first university to start mechatronics in the whole of West Africa. Now my students are out, I have a link with a German factory called Festo.

We have concluded arrangements that when my students graduate, they must work in Festo factory. So we are building that factory here now.

When we have that, we would be able to manufacture all those equipment which the people involved in the petroleum industry order from overseas.

We would be able to make them here. We intend to industrialise the country. The place will be the hub for industries in Nigeria, and right now I have eight industries almost completed there.

Banks are coming to me now. At that place we will have place for 121 industries there. There is not a single industry in Ekiti.

The only one that was here before was Odua Textile and it is gone. Today, ABUAD is the largest employer of labour in Ekiti, largest tax-payer in Ekiti.

I have been in Ekiti all along and I’m still the largest tax payer. So, this is what education can do. Education is the best catalyst to change life. Would you have known me if not for education?

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