August 8, 2022

Akin Mabogunje: An African institution

Akin Mabogunje


PROFESSOR Akinlawon ‘Akin’  Ladipo Mabogunje was an African institution established for all-round development. He is also widely accepted as the Father of African Geography. By 2000, the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, was fed up with the National Housing Fund, NHF, which in the eleven years of its establishment had failed to deliver on mass housing for workers. Under the scheme, all those earning the National Minimum Wage and above, contributed 2.5 per cent of their monthly income.

Although workers had contributed about N6 billion to the fund, the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria, FMBN, which administered the fund had disbursed only a paltry N280 million, while the FMBN and its Siamese twin, the Federal Mortgage Finance Limited, FMFL, had become fat bureaucracies by dipping hands into the fund.  Even with this, they were heavily indebted, including owing outstanding pension to their retired workers, totalling N5.5 billion   

The NLC instructed workers to stop paying to the fund. Many state governments also joined in stopping the deductions to a fund that was not even audited. Rather than fight back using its federal might to enforce the NHF law, the Obasanjo administration on  March 6, 2002 established the Presidential Technical Committee on Housing and Urban Development chaired by Professor Mabogunje. The Committee asked the NLC for a meeting to explain why the NHF had not delivered and what was being done to reverse the trend.

I was part of the NLC Negotiation Team. Mabogunje had picked Mr. Tanimu Yakubu as the new Managing Director of the FMBN. Some of us in the labour delegation were familiar with Tanimu because together, we had been student union leaders and knew he was passionate about workers. When we got back to review the meeting and plan for subsequent ones with the Committee, I told the delegation that we needed technical support as this was an unusual government team.

I explained who Mabogunje was, including his being part of a group of intellectuals who in the First Republic had evolved an ideology called ‘Democratic Socialism’ which was adopted by the main opposition party, the Action Group. There was Mr. S.P.O Fortune-Ebie who as head of the Federal Housing Authority, FHA,  had built the sprawling FESTAC Town in Lagos, and  Ms Kare Yekwe, a brilliant lawyer I had known over the years.

The Mabogunje Committee was open and showed so much sincerity that even when it had to lay off some workers in order to bring in professionals through public advertisement and transparent interviews, the NLC could not raise objections.

Mabogunje was a major professional in the building of the new capital of Abuja. He came away with  a number of lessons that still defines Nigeria. He had led a team of scientists to the site to determine the ecological conditions of the proposed capital, how many people were to be displaced, the range of assets and compensation to be paid for them. First, a professional in his team, Mr. Bawa Bwari had to be dropped, not because he was incompetent but because the Emir of Abuja did not find him acceptable.

Bwari’s ‘crime’ was that he had served as the Secretary of the  Gwari Students Association, an organisation that was insisting on the rights of the indigenous Gwari people not to be ruled by traditional rulers from outside.

 When Mabogunje needed a manager for the field station, the Emir brought a man who had not even passed basic school certificate and had zero experience. When he enquired why he could not hire a professional and experienced Gwari indigene, he was told this was not politically acceptable. Mabogunje wrote: “This was historical and derived from the colonial administration’s  obsession with the indirect rule system creating or imposing a traditional ruler even in areas where such did not exist before.”

Then, Mabogunje and his team needed accommodation and the Executive Secretary of the Federal Capital Development Authority, FCDA,  decided to import porta cabins for the purpose from the United States. By the time they arrived, the work was over and the scientists were packing to leave. When it came to building the new capital city, Mabogunje argued that it should be handled by distinguished  Nigerian town planners and architects who would go through competitive bidding assessed by an international panel. But the government rejected this and rather advertised abroad for planners to design the new capital. Subsequently, an American group, International Planning Associates, IPA, was awarded the contract.

The Mabogunje team had to provide the firm all data collected. Despite this, Nigerian professionals had to join the IPA in reworking its basic design to provide a final and acceptable design. Mabogunje said of this sad tale: “ …If we had arranged to critique the design of a group of Nigerian planners as vigorously as we did that of the foreign firm, we could have had as good, if not better, a product  for our money.” In analysing why there is an obsession for foreign contractors, he said:  “It is difficult to dismiss the insinuations that this is because it is easier to secure foreign exchange through graft when contracts or professional consultancies are handed over to foreign organisations.”

One more experience of Mabogunje on Abuja. For a man who was so involved in building the city, all his applications for a plot of land were unsuccessful as plots of land were allocated by officials “mainly to friends”. He said one day, as the Chairman of the National Board of Community Banks, he visited then FCT Minister, General Gado Nasko, to request for land to build its national headquarters. During the discussions, he let it known that despite his choosing the exact site Abuja city was built, and participating actively in its construction, he did not have even a square foot of land in the territory. He said when the Minister confirmed this, he was allocated a plot  in Asokoro. But it took him eight years to secure a certificate of occupancy for the land; the result of a skewed civil service.

Mabogunje traced Nigeria’s problems to the deliberate ploy by British colonialists to “frustrate all serious developmental efforts” and lay faulty political foundations that led to a civil war and three decades of military rule. He agreed that the country, given its diversities, needs an inclusive  system: “But to use  the idea to catapult relatively unqualified  and inexperienced individuals to strategic management  positions  simply   because they come  from a particular  part of the country, is to court  a situation  where every major  institution  of our national life  has failed to live  up to expectation.”

The global, intensely intellectual and professionally-minded Professor Akin Mabogunje held to his positions until Thursday, August 4, 2022 when at 90, he left, leaving us his very rich legacies.