–Aare Afe Babalola, Founder/Chancellor
Aare Afe Babalola, the Founder & Chancellor of Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti, ABUAD, in this interview explained why he sold virtually all his properties, home and abroad, emptied his bank accounts and even took loans to establish one of Nigeria’s leading universities.
You are first and foremost a lawyer, but you have ventured into so many things so much so that your 10-year-old university is reputed to be among the best in Nigeria. Why did you make a foray into education?
Afe Babalola University is a child of circumstance. During the military regime of the late Gen. Sani Abacha, I was invited to be the Federal Attorney General and Minister of Justice. I politely turned it down. During the second coming as a civilian president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo also invited me to be Federal Attorney-General and Minister of Justice. Again, I politely declined and instead nominated one of my juniors, Chief Akin Olujimi, SAN, to take the slot.
Chief Olusegun Obasanjo thereafter appointed me as the Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council of the University of Lagos, UNILAG where there was corruption, cultism, unrest and indiscipline. I was instrumental to upgrading the profile of UNILAG, contributing immensely to the eradication of corruption, industrial actions, cultism admission racketeering and other ills on the campus. It is instructive to point out that I never took any allowances for my services to the university. Rather, I built a gigantic auditorium for the university after which I used my influence, contact and goodwill to invite my clients like Julius Berger, Shell, Mobil and Wema Bank to assist me in developing UNILAG. Consequently, there was peace and stability in the university. All these led to a most conducive atmosphere for learning as a result of which there was stability in UNILAG.
On account of the reformation the Council under me carried out in UNILAG, the university was rated number one by NUC while I was twice voted the best Pro-Chancellor of Nigerian Universities. I later became the Chairman of the Committee of Pro-Chancellors in the country.
I was determined to raise the standard of UNILAG to a world-class university and I was working towards that without taking any salary or allowances. Suddenly, the then Secretary to the Federal Government, Ambassador Babagana Kingibe, announced on radio the abrupt dissolution of University Councils even when the government did not have the powers to so do.
The Council urged me to challenge the illegal dissolution in court. But I thought otherwise. I believed that if the government no longer wanted my pro bono services, I was not under any obligation to go to court to compel the government to allow me to serve pro bono.
As God would have it, the illegal dissolution of the University Councils announced on radio turned out to be a blessing in disguise for me. With the practical knowledge which I gathered as Pro-Chancellor in a public university, I made up my mind to establish a non-for-profit private university which will teach Nigerians how a university should be run and how it should not be run, an idea that had flashed through my mind right from my days as Pro-Chancellor of the University of Lagos, and which the abrupt disbandment of the Council by the Yar’Adua government had made inevitable for me.
After the illegal dissolution of University Councils, believing that example is far better than precepts, I sold my choice properties in England, Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Ibadan, my shares in banks and emptied my bank deposits to establish ABUAD with the fuller hope of making it the birthplace of educational renaissance in Nigeria.
Today, with the help of God, quality advice from regulatory bodies like the NUC, Council for Legal Education, Ministry of Education, Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE), the Medical & Dental Council of Nigeria (MDCN) among others, the cooperation of parents and the commitment of my staff, the university has recorded spectacular achievements in Law, Medicine, Engineering, Sciences and Accounting among several others.
No doubt, ABUAD is a world-class university. Did you see it in this magnitude when you were conceptualizing it?
Ideas rule the world. Everybody has ideas but it’s only those who are able to translate their ideas into reality that can be called successful. I have always dreamt that sometime I will achieve a lot in life and like I said earlier, my education stopped at Standard VI. I had always believed that I would be a graduate, secondary school education or not, university education or not. Fortunately, through determination, hard work and the grace of God, I studied at home to obtain my GCE Ordinary Level and GCE Advanced Level. I then proceeded to obtain B. Sc (Economics) and LL. B of the University of London also by private studies. After this, I had to travel to England for my Bar examination because there was no Law School in Nigeria then.
At that time, lawyers were children of rich people because you must have enough money before you could send your child to England for the Bar examination. Those who were in practice then were children of rich people.
After seeing the rot that characterized public universities in Nigeria, courtesy of my stint as Pro-Chancellor in UNILAG, I was very clear in my mind that I was going to establish a non-for-profit private university which will teach Nigerians how a university should be run and how it should not be run. I had thought then that if I could have a university of my own, I would have the free hand to implement some of the ideas that I had designed for UNILAG but which I did not have an opportunity to implement to their logical conclusion before the illegal dissolution of the University Council just like some others like it.
ABUAD is the first university in Nigeria to commence academic works on its permanent site. To achieve that feat, I had to sit down to draw the plan of how my university will be. I made up my mind that the entrance must be at the centre of the university campus with the roads leading to the Administrative Quarters. There must be a Circular Road with the Hostels on the right hand side and the Colleges inside the Circular Road. This makes it possible for students to walk from their Hostels to the College areas without using cars. And so out of about 10,000 students here, none of them has a car. Those who brought cars kept them outside the campus.
Another advantage of the way the campus was designed is that it enables our students to read until very late in the night. Afe Babalola University is the only University in this country where studies go on in the night. Teachers and students compulsorily work in the night. It is so convenient because of the way the University is calibrated. I had the idea that it will be a great institution. I had the idea that when you enter this University, you will know that it is not a market place. You will know that you are in an academic environment. Have you ever seen anybody selling yam or pepper in the University? No! I have always had this idea that when you go to a good Cathedral, even when there is nobody there and you enter the place, you will immediately feel the presence of God. And so when you enter Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti, you know you have entered an academic environment. So, I am happy that within 10 years of our existence as a University, the NUC, the regulatory authority for university education in Nigeria, described this place as “magic and miracle combined” and later NUC acknowledged it as “a model, benchmark and a reference point as well as the pride of university system in Nigeria”. When I was considering naming the University, I wanted to call it a Model University. But I later said no, that it would be a lot better to allow the university to create a name for itself. Today, courtesy of NUC, it has been known as a model and now many people have come here and said so many good and edifying things about our modest efforts these 10 years.
This leads us into the massive 400-bed Multi-System Hospital. It is on record that many private universities today started off and have stayed for years without even a consideration for that kind of project and what they have is a Clinic or Health Centre. What was the motivation for setting up your Multi-System Hospital even while you are still building the university itself?
It was not my immediate programme to establish the Multi-System Hospital. First, you need a Teaching Hospital before you are permitted to start a medical programme. I approached Ekiti State University Teaching Hospital here but they denied me the right to use their facility. I then went to Ido, which is 50 minutes drive to this place; I was told by Federal Government that I could not use it because it was an ordinary Medical Centre. They however added that if I could upgrade it to a Teaching Hospital, then I could use it. That was why we spent so much money to upgrade the Medical Centre at Ido for the clinical training of our medical students and allied health professionals.
When we completed all that and it was upgraded to Teaching Hospital, our students began to use it as such. Within three months, doctors at the Ido Teaching Hospital embarked on a strike, a thing, which is not in our dictionary here. I pleaded with them that their industrial action will affect the image of our university. They heeded and went back to work. However within one year, they were on strike four times. I knew then the marriage was an incompatible one. I then decided to establish the Multi-System Hospital. By then the money I voted for this institution was virtually exhausted.
I applied to AfDB for loan and AfDB had never given any university any loan in the whole of Africa. They came here several times to see what we are doing. For one, two, three years, nothing was forthcoming and I said this thing might not materialize. Then I took a loan from Union Bank to start construction of the buildings. It was a good thing that I did what I did because by the time AfDB approved the loan, prices of building materials had skyrocketed. If we had waited, that loan wouldn’t have been enough to complete the project. The buildings were ready and we needed to purchase equipment to get the place running so I used the AfDB loan in equipping the place; and the equipment are the most modern in Africa and anywhere in Europe. I thank God for coming to my aid and directing me this way.
The 400-bed Multi-System Hospital is designed to complement our medical training programme. As it is today, the Hospital which was commissioned in an elaborate ceremony on October 20, 2017 is the best around. In our avowed determination to ensure that the Multi-System Hospital stands out as a clear leader and the toast of its peers in Africa, we populated it with the most modern and sophisticated medical equipment and hired the best of hands that has made it the Hospital of first choice in Africa.
To realize its dream of quality medical education and superlative healthcare delivery, ABUAD Multi-system Hospital is in partnership with reputable global players in the healthcare industry including Apollo Hospital and Manipal Hospital, both in India as well as Project C.U.R.E and Bridge of Life (BoL) both of the United States of America.
The place of the Multi-system Hospital has been corroborated by top rate medical educators like Prof. Isaac Folorunso Adewole, former Minister for Health, who said: “This hospital will offer us what we hitherto believe cannot happen in this country. It will also improve the poor health indicators in Nigeria. With what I have seen here today, this hospital matches the best in the world and it will certainly put an end to medical tourism outside Nigeria.” Also Prof. Temitope Alonge, CMD, University Teaching Hospital, UCH, Ibadan, had said: “I have worked in many hospitals both here in Nigeria and in Europe. This hospital beats most hospitals where I have worked in Europe. This surely will be the answer to outward medical tourism. With what is here in this hospital, there is no reason why any of our doctors should want to go abroad for their Sabbatical. All they need is here”.
On his part, the Chairman, Medical & Dental Council of Nigeria, MDCN, Prof. Abba Waziri said: “With the Helipad which is being commissioned today, March 21, 2020, your Multi-system Hospital will now be able to take care of patients from far and near as patients can be evacuated from everywhere.”
The CMD of the Multi-system Hospital told us that former governors, top VIPs are now part of their patients, these are people who ordinarily would have gone to UK, US, India for medical services. Does that give you some sense of satisfaction in contributing to ending outward medical tourism for our elites?
Yes, I have a sense of satisfaction that what we are doing in our Multi-system Hospital will go a long way in assisting to put an end to outward medical tourism. I am satisfied that we are about to stop medical tourism. As a matter of fact, African Development Bank, AfDB, which is the biggest Bank in Africa, has put a plan in place here that all their staff all over Africa should use this place as a result of which people come from Cameroon, Cote D’ Ivoire and other places. Fortunately we have the equipment, which are not available in other hospitals in the country. My only worry is the Airport; I knew the importance of an Airport and so when we wanted to start the University project, Governor Segun Oni and myself approached the Federal Government which approved an Airport for this state alongside those in Delta, Bayelsa and Gombe. While all others have been completed and functioning, the government in Ekiti has not been supportive enough, so we don’t have an Airport yet. That was why I had to go all out to get a licence to build a Helipad right on this campus. Left to me, I wouldn’t have put up the Helipad here, but in order to help patients who want to come for treatment. Let me say this, Nigerians lack the culture of giving.
Look at me for instance. If I remember where and how I started, I will not give anything to anybody. The Yoruba will say, if the hunter recalls the suffering he went through before killing an animal, he won’t give anybody part of the meat. Now, the greatest universities all over the world are not established by government: the Harvard, the Yale, even Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge of this world are not established by government. I am not the richest Nigerian, there are many very rich Nigerians and everybody that comes here says he wishes this university is replicated in the other regions. But why not replicate in every state, why not? The state universities are the poorest all over the country. Like ASUU said, many don’t have toilets, there are some where males and females have their bath openly, some pass faeces inside the bush, there are some where students in their large number will crowd round windows for lectures because there are no sufficient seats, no electricity, no water. We started with 240 students and in 10 years my students were over 8,000 and we have students from all the states in the country. Now, I mentor more than six universities in the country including those that have been in existence for more than 30 years before us. I thank God that has given me the strength, determination, vision and the ability to also translate the vision into reality.
God sparing your life sir, in another five years, where would you want to see ABUAD?
We are already working with reputable international organizations for ranking. In 2013, when the university was barely three years old, it was ranked the Second Best Private University in Nigeria and 17 of 136 universities in Nigeria and some universities were unhappy that a new university was highly rated. I am surprised today that the same Webometrics which rated ABUAD as Second Best Private University in Nigeria and 17 of 136 universities in Nigeria is now rating us as Number 26 now that we have grown bigger and with more colleges, achievements and reputation.
For instance, we had 165 Law graduates from ABUAD two years ago. They proceeded to the one-year mandatory training at the Nigerian Law School. When the result of the Bar Examination was released, our students attained the following feats:
• They had a 100 percent pass rate,
• 12 of them graduated with First Class Honours
• The Overall Best Student came from ABUAD, and
• Our students carted home 24 out of the 36 available prizes
These attainments constitute a confirmation of NUC’s earlier position of acknowledging ABUAD’s Law Programme as the “Best Law College in West Africa”. In Engineering, ABUAD has 37 well-equipped laboratories. When the Nigerian Society of Engineers, NSE, visited ABUAD, it endorsed its Engineering Programme as “the template for Engineering Education in Nigeria”. ABUAD has the largest number of Nursing students in this country. The beautiful thing about Nursing in ABUAD is that their students go away with four different certificates upon graduation: Bachelor of Nursing Science Degree (B. NSc.), Nigerian Registered Nursing (NRN) Certificate, Nigerian Registered Midwife (NRM) Certificate and Registered Public Health Nursing (RPHN) Certificate. With all these, one cannot but thank God. I believe that in the next five years, we should be rated among the best 100 universities in the world.
We have seen the infrastructure. You have more than 1,000 staff, you run on generators to get power and the rest. Even if you have 10,000 students, I don’t see you recovering your investments from their school fees. How do you cope in terms of still putting in money when you are not making money?
I can say that when COVID-19 came in March, many governmental and non-governmental institutions either closed down or reduced their staff or salaries and so on. But in our own case, in March I directed the payment of full salaries. The same thing happened in April, May and June. All our staff received full salaries. At that time, I was thinking that the Federal Government would be sympathetic and allow universities like ABUAD which had complied with all the PTF guidelines to reopen. Unfortunately, the Federal Government did not reopen schools for months. We then directed that our non-essential staff to stay at home with 50 percent pay while those engaged in serious work like teaching (because we continue to teach virtually) were retained and paid between 80 and 90 percent of their salaries. We only hope that very soon government will be sensitive enough to allow us to come back. It was because government could not admit all qualified candidates into universities in 1993 that they asked those who could afford it to establish private universities. But the way the Federal Government is lumping private universities together with public universities is grossly improper.
Public universities cannot and do not rank equally with some private universities like ABUAD and few other some other private universities in terms of infrastructures, buildings, laboratories, discipline, predictable academic calendar, quality and functionality of education, availability of electricity, water and some other things. You have seen the facilities; including those we have put in place to combat COVID-19. It is therefore wrong for the Federal Government to lump private universities together with public universities when considering whether to reopen universities or not. As you have seen, this place is safe, hygienic. We have facilities and all that can make anybody here feel comfortable and feel at home, so I don’t know why government should be lumping us together with public universities which do not have these facilities.
It will be unfair to come before you and not ask a question about agriculture. What motivated you into having the biggest farm around here?
My first profession was farming. Indeed, I grew up on the farm and so there is no way I can forget the place of agriculture, my various accomplishments notwithstanding. And so I made a deliberate foray into agriculture through my ABUAD Agricultural Enterprise Centre to boost food production, ensure food security and for research purposes. Indeed, many stakeholders like the Embassy of the United States of America, Japanese Embassy and the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) have visited the flourishing Agricultural Enterprise Centre and unanimously agreed that it is the biggest of its type in any university in Nigeria today.
IITA which has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the university has also designated the university as a Centre of Research where students learn many areas of Agriculture.
ABUAD Agricultural Enterprise Centre has the following Divisions: Cash Crops Division with 110,000 mango trees, 1,000,000 teak trees and 500,000 gmelina trees, the Arable Crops Division with yam, maize, cassava, plantain & banana, pigeon peas, Legume Division with various vegetables, Moringa Division with ABUAD Moringa leaf powder, ABUAD Moringa seed, ABUAD Moringa capsule, ABUAD Moringa hair cream, ABUAD Moringa oil, ABUAD Moringa body cream and ABUAD Moringa tea as well as ABUAD Moringa soap.
It also has the Fisheries Division with five large fish lakes with at least 100,000 fishes in each of them, the Feed Mill Division where various feeds are compounded and Hatcheries as well as the Livestock Division made up of a piggery, snailery, Turkey, Guinea Fowl, Quail and Mushroom as well as an incubator.
In its resolve to provide all-round education for our students and make them job creators after graduation instead of having to be pounding the streets, looking for white collar jobs, they are made to choose two of the above and work strenuously on them in addition to their academic pursuit.
As part of my resolve to encourage the youth to return to the farm, I have reduced the school fees of students studying agriculture by 50%. In addition, I give seed money of N250,000 to every graduate in agriculture from Afe Babalola University.
I have in the last seven years been organizing an Annual Agric. Festival in Ado-Ekiti called ABAEX (Afe Babalola Agric Expo) with the best overall farmer in the state going home with N1,000,000 while the best three farmers in each of the 16 Local Government Councils in the state will go home with N250,000 in this order: The best farmer (N200,000), the second best (N100,000), and the third best (N50,000),
As a major player in the agricultural sector of the nation’s economy, I have received various awards in appreciation of my contributions in that sector. Such awards include but are not limited to the following:
• President, Forestry Association of Nigeria
• Patron, Agbekoya Farmers Association of Nigeria
• Patron, Fadama Association of Nigeria
• Member, AfricaRice
• Grand Patron and the Distinguished Africa man of the Year in Food Security 2014,
courtesy of the Forum for International
Green Sustainability (FIGS).
Are there endowments here by prominent Nigerians?
I have always known the importance of Endowment. And so when I started this place, I invited my clients, my friends and important people to institute Professorial Chairs and Endowments. A large number of people turned up for the event. I spent about N20 million to organize it with many of them pledging mouth-watering donations. While some promised 1million dollars, some promised two million dollars. Some others pledged in local currency: N2 million etc. The following day, the newspapers in the country published the juicy news stories with such screaming headlines such as ‘Dollar rain in Afe Babalola University’. You know what? None of those who promised million of dollars gave me one dollar. But I was not surprised because Nigerians don’t believe in giving towards funding education unlike the practice in Europe and America where universities thrive on generous donations, gifts, and endowments from selfless individuals and concerned organizations.
Stanford University presents a classic example of the importance of donations and gifts to a university. Stanford, a co-educational and non-denominational institution was established in 1891 by Leyland Stanford, former Governor of and US Senator from California with an endowment of USD 5 million. The present day value of which is $USD132 million. It is one of the top fund-raising institutions in the United States and became the first University to raise more than a billion dollars in one year. Its alumni have founded many companies including Google, Yahoo, Microsystems, Instagram and generate more than USD$2.7 trillion in annual revenue equalling the 10th largest economy in the world. It is the Alma Mata of 30 living billionaires, 17 astronauts, leading producer of members of US Congress and has produced 60 Nobel Laureates etc. In 2014, endowment and donation alone was $336,697,860,000 while in 2015 endowment and donation was $368,147,895,000 which was much more than the total budget of Federal Government for all higher institutions.
The lesson from the Stanford story is that Nigerians, corporate bodies and well-to-do individuals must contribute generously to education in accordance with international best practices.
What makes you happy?
What makes me happy is that I have achieved most of what I planned to achieve. When I look at all the structures in ABUAD, I smile and ask myself how did I achieve all these? I thank God every time for using me to achieve all these. The Ewi of Ado-Ekiti, HRM, Oba Rufus Adeyemo Adejugbe Aladesanmi III, always says that “God threw you (referring to me) as a stone to Ado-Ekiti place to come and develop it”.
Recently, two of my very brilliant students who graduated First Class in Law in ABUAD and at the Nigerian Law School secured admission to run their LL. M Degree Programmes in Cambridge and Stanford Universities respectively. We must appreciate that these are frontline universities where admission is very keen and competitive. But they had a major handicap: their parents could not afford their school fees. I therefore had to write to 55 parents who are wealthy, who had had their children trained here to kindly make partial contributions so that these children would not miss the opportunities offered them by Cambridge and Stanford Universities. Can you believe that not one replied?
Then, I got another 100 wealthy individuals who we had helped one way or the other. Again, none of them replied. I sent reminders, but not one replied. If I were like them, we won’t have this university. Yet many people keep asking me why I am giving out what I have to others bearing in mind that I had it rough when you were young. I hope I can raise people who will think the way I think, who will behave the way I behave, who will give the way I give so that Nigeria can breed top-rate universities. I am building a new Nigeria through my students. I am sure those students who are still finding it difficult to pursue their studies today will remember that I tried for them. In fact, one of them, after she lost the opportunity of going to Cambridge, wrote a letter to me that she wants to give scholarship annually to students because she is working now. She is a lawyer. Am I not changing the world through them?