Professor is the CEO, National Library of Nigeria. A former lecturer at the University of Ibadan, University of Ilorin and Federal University, Minna, Prof. Aina spent a greater part of his teaching career at the University of Botswana before returning to Nigeria. In this interview with Henry Akubuiro in Ibadan, the septuagenarian admitted relocating to Botswana was a turning point in his academic career. The national librarian also sheds more light on the moribund National Library edifice in Abuja, the intellectual battle with Boko Haram in the northeast and his life as Mr Integrity.
You have just celebrated your 70th birthday. Did you ever think you would come this far as the CEO, National Library of Nigeria, considering your first degree certificate was in chemistry?
When I was a young secondary school student, most of our teachers were called tutors, and they had cars and lived in school quarters. They came to class neat and well dressed. That was in the 1960s. So my ambition was to become a teacher. The secondary school I attended had a science bias. The principal of the school, Molusi College, Ijebu-Igbo, ensured we studied science. Of course, I was interested in science. When I finished my A level —I studied physics, chemistry & biology — and the universities didn’t resume until the following year, I decided to work as a library assistant. My schedule of duty was to buy two copies of newspaper for my head of department daily; he would mark some areas, and my duty was to cut those areas and file them as clips.
But before I would cut the papers, I would read them. So I started getting interested in information. Then, there was a local programme running on NTA Ibadan every Saturday. The station would invite people and ask them questions; winners were given prizes. Each time I went there I always won, because most of the questions they would be asking were connected with things that happened during the week, which I would have read in the papers. So my interest in information grew. One day, I told the chief librarian that I loved the profession, but I studied chemistry, physics and biology at my A level, so could I become a librarian? He said yes, that they were even encouraging those from science backgrounds. So my interest arose for the course. When I got to the university, though I was studying chemistry — enjoyed it —I knew after that, I would switch over to librarianship.
After my youth service, I was sent to Abuja. In Abuja, I was sent to teach in a secondary school. So I was going back to my first love. Suddenly, two weeks before the completion of the national service, government was going to establish what they called Food and Drug Unit in the Federal Ministry of Education, and they selected about twenty of us from chemistry and microbiology backgrounds from those graduating that year to go for training at the University if Ife (then Obafemi Awolowo University). After training, we were given automatic employment. But I was confused. Already, I had applied for a diploma in librarianship at the University of Ibadan, and had been given admission. That Food and Drug Unit later became NAFDAC. At the end, I chose to study librarianship. Afterwards, I went to work at the University of Ibadan as a librarian. I worked there for two years before moving back to that department as a lecturer.
You spent 18 good years teaching in Botswana following a wave of brain drain in Nigeria, do you see that a watershed?
The brain drain in Nigeria then was really serious, and I don’t pray Nigeria should ever experience that, because salaries were so poor. It was during Babangida’s regime. I was a senior lecturer, step 3, but my salary was 1000 per month, an equivalent of 100 US dollars per month. But something happened. There was a conference in Malaysia, and I indicated interest to attend the conference. We were supposed to write papers ¬because that was my area of specialisation. I wrote a paper, it was accepted, and they said they were expecting me to come down. I told them we were not sponsored for any conference, so I had no money to attend the conference. But the organisers felt my paper was very important, and decided to sponsor me. It was in 1988. It was the first time I was travelling to Malaysia and an east African country. When I got there, I saw it was more beautiful than Nigeria. I was put in a good hotel and was paid 500 US dollars at the end of the day.
And your salary was 100 dollars in Nigeria?
Yes, 100 dollars. Then the CD rom technology had just come out, and it was brought for exhibition at that conference. They would tell us to mention the name of any academic, and, once you did that, his published papers would appear. I asked them to put my name, and my papers came out. Everybody was surprised to see the number of published papers I had, because, at the University of Ibadan, research was very paramount, and you had to be prolific in order to be promoted. Somebody said to me, “Why don’t you come to Malaysia because of my specialisation?” I asked how much I would earn as salary. He said a minimum of 3000 US dollars; it could be up to 5000 US dollars. I asked myself, was I dreaming?
But one thing I noticed while in Malaysia was that it was difficult for me to buy anything, even to buy a bottle of Coke. The cost of living was high. On my return from Malaysia, I only brought home a small box of souvenirs, unlike what happened whenever I travelled to Europe. I had already converted the 500 dollars I was given in Malaysia into naira, so when I brought it home, my family shouted. It was a lot of money. We were all excited. There and then, I made up my mind I was going to travel out of the country but only for a few years. So I started applying, first, to Jamaica.
Within a month, they appointed me and sent me a flight ticket. I was preparing to go to Jamaica when the University of Botswana appointed me, and I chose Botswana being an African country. From my first salary in Botswana, I was able to send home 1000 US dollars —that’s my 10 months salary at Ibadan! My full salary in Botswana was about 2300 US dollars. My plan was that, after two years, I would go back to Ibadan. But it didn’t work out. The attraction then was that I was on contract, and, once you were on contract for two years, they would give you half of your salaries as gratuity for two years. Everybody wanted that, so I had to resign from Ibadan. That was how my life changed, and I was able to acquire this land here, and started developing the property. I had to move my family to Botswana. I ended up spending 18 years.
One thing that made me stay that long was the conducive environment. It was good for research. At the University of Botswana, once your paper had been accepted, it would be presented anywhere in the world. With that, I was able to expose myself and meet all kinds of people. The second attraction was that there was a research grant. If you wanted to do any research, you would apply, and money would be made available to you. We were lucky to have lecturers from all over Africa, and our university was adjudged the best library school in Africa. But the good thing is that when I returned to Nigeria, because I didn’t retire from the University of Ibadan, I could be employed anywhere. So I was employed as a professor at the Federal University, Minna, by January 2008. By October, I was also employed at the University of Ilorin, from where I just retired in December 2020, having spent 13 years there.
You are regarded as Mr Integrity. This resonated throughout your birthday celebration the other day in Ibadan, how did that sobriquet stick over time?
There were two things I was taught when I was young, around six, seven years: don’t envy anybody. The second thing was: don’t live above your means. If you don’t envy anybody and you don’t live above your means, you will have peace of mind. There is a proverb that says: look at people in the front; emulate them. In my own case, I look at people at the back. There are millions of people who are praying to be in your position. Thank God for that. Don’t say because 10 or more people occupy a higher position in life, I want to become like them. If you look back, you will see many praying to be where you are.
Wherever I have held a position of authority, I have always been transparent. When I was employed at the University of Ilorin, we were going to start a new department, and the VC gave me 500,000 naira to buy things that met the requirements. I called the teaching staff of the department and appointed three lecturers to buy what was required. I gave them the 500,000 naira cash. They were shocked. That was the first time I tried to exhibit Mr Integrity.
Another time was when I became the dean. As dean, we were going to have a boardroom, well furnished, with all kinds of things. The university gave us 10 million naira, it was even paid to my account. What I did was to appoint a staff from each of the five departments and appointed a chairman to oversee their work. I gave them the money based on their recommendations. I tell people I don’t envy anybody.
While working at the University of Ibadan, I bought a Volkswagen Beetle. That was in 1976. We were given 3600 naira to buy a vehicle. Most vehicles were 4000 naira. I told myself I wasn’t going to add a kobo to it to acquire a bigger car. So I decided to go for Beetle which was sold for 2700 naira, and I was left with a change of 900 naira. We didn’t know Nigeria was going to get worse. Normally, after repaying a loan, you were given another one to pay, which isn’t the case anymore. So I used that Volkswagen Beetle till I left Nigeria. All my children were born using that Beetle. I tried to let them know this is what your father could afford, and, with this, we have peace of mind. They also imbibed it.
My colleagues used to tell me, “You are doing this integrity thing, because you haven’t seen money.” Luckily, I was appointed national librarian in 2016, and I was controlling over 2 billion naira, and no kobo would come out of the organisation without my approval. As I am talking to you now, I have awarded contracts worth 10 billion naira. No contractor can say I have demanded a kobo from it. Once their papers come in and they are in order, I sign. All those demands people make from contractors, I don’t make them. I spend government money the way I spend mine. I deliberately didn’t invite any contractor to my birthday party. Nigeria is a country of 200 million people. If you want to count one percent of Nigerians, which is 2 million people, with integrity, I will be part of it.
Sometimes I tell myself most Nigerians in leadership positions need psychiatric treatment. When I heard people have stolen 300, 500 million naira, I said, “What do they want to do with the money?” Maybe because I am content. I always tell my kids: be content; wait for God’s blessing. And God can bless you at all times.
One thing that keeps baffling most of us is why the ultramodern edifice of the National Library has remained uncompleted 15 years after it was started in Abuja, are you not disappointed we have a white elephant project in the making?
I won’t say I am disappointed, because am part of the people in charge of that building. The contract was initially awarded in 2006 for 12 billion naira. But, by 2014, the place was abandoned. When I came on board in 2016, I tried to see what I could do. I met several people —ministers, National Assembly members, and they said let’s see how much it would cost us to finish the project. It was a huge amount, about 50 billion naira. Fortunately for us, the permanent secretary, Dr Sonny Echono, is an architect. So he recosted it and brought it down to 37 billion naira. Even 1 billion naira is a huge sum of money. Those in the hierarchy in the Ministry of Education have done so well that we are hopeful that the 2021 budget that just came out would ensure it is finished in three years. The first installment of money will be released in 2021, the second in 2022 and the third in 2023. By 2023, we are hopeful it would be finished. To demonstrate the government’s commitment, they said we should budget for consultants’ money. The consultants were supposed to collect 1.3 billion naira. They have already been paid 600 million naira. This year, we are budgeting 250 million naira for them. We intend to budget another 250 million naira next year. I am very hopeful that, in the next three years, we are going to have a befitting National Library.
The sad reality in Nigeria today is that acquisition of knowledge doesn’t seem to count any more, what with constant strikes by university lecturers, lack of job opportunities after graduation and the crave for materialism by our youths. Is there still any hope in reading and education?
Since I came on board, my main trust has been promoting reading culture in Nigeria, and we have done it all over the country. Why am I so interested? There is this statistics that I got from World Museum where they listed the average reading hours in every country. About 18 countries were listed, but Nigeria was missing. Only two countries from Africa —South Africa and Egypt —made the list. What that statistics means is that we don’t even have reading hours.
Yet we have the highest number of schools and graduates in Africa?
Our people only read for exams and interviews. After that, they don’t care, but the National Library has been doing what we call Readership Promotion Campaign, but held in one or two states. But when I came on board, I noticed the contract had already been awarded for 61 million naira. The contractor who got the contract said the reading campaign was meant for two states. I didn’t like that. How can you hold a reading campaign for 61 million naira in only two states? I told him it had to be in 23 states since we had 23 branches then. He said no, that his bill of quantity was meant for 2 states only. I told him I couldn’t defend spending 61 million naira in 2 states. I told him I would cancel the 61 million naira contract and return it to the government. He left and went round, and he was told by those who knew me that I meant business. He came back and agreed that it would hold in 23 states. It held, and everybody was happy.
The following year I said, “No, the National Library belongs to Nigeria; we have to hold it in all the 36 states.” And that money was enough for the reading to be held in the 36 states. We have targeted primary and secondary school students, as well as pregnant mothers, because we have been told to start reading from the womb to the grave. So we tell mothers to read books to their unborn babies when they are pregnant so that, when they are born, they will enjoy reading. We also targeted motor parks, drivers, conductors and passengers. We also went to prisons. We even gave prisoners money to buy books every year. That is probably one of my high points as the national librarian.
Northeast Nigeria has been at the mercy of insurgents who are opposed to western education, what have you been doing to improve the reading culture in this part?
For our reading campaign, we target all the 36 states, including Yobe and Borno, and I have visited all the states in Nigeria. To demonstrate what you have just said, Boko Haram invaded Yobe, and, when we got to Yobe, we saw it destroyed everything educational, including our library, which is in front of the Emir’s palace in Damaturu. So we suspended our services. But this past year, we went to Yobe, met the government officials and the Emir, and we decided to rebuild the library. As a matter of fact, it’s part of our 2021 budget. As soon as money is released, we are going to repair the library so that we can restore services. Boko Haram is anti-education and we are pro-education. We thank the security agencies which have completely secured Yobe State. I travelled by road to the place, and I didn’t listen to the fears expressed by some people on kidnapping. The people were excited to receive us. More than 50 librarians in the state came to receive us. I assured them early this year services would be restored.
Back to what you said about the youths of nowadays and their lack of interest in reading, I would like to ask: Why do you gain from reading? Knowledge! If, for example, somebody asks you to play a lottery and win a car worth about 100 million naira with, say, 500 naira, if you read, you will know your chances of winning is not worth it, considering that thousands of people will be entering for it. If there is anything I want to know, I go to Google to search and get it. We also encourage people to read ebooks on their computers. Fake news is everywhere now. Because people don’t read, they believe everything they read online. If you are well read, the whole world is at your feet.
What has life taught you at 70?
I must thank God for everything I have achieved, because there are many thin lines. The line between success and failure is thin. But, if God says you are going to get there, you will get there. One thing about life is: never attribute anything to yourself. Attribute it to God. See how I was appointed the National librarian! I didn’t struggle for it. I didn’t even know there was a vacant position for a CEO. I just got a phone call: “We are appointing you national librarian.” The network wasn’t even good, and I didn’t even hear well what the caller was saying, because we had cases of 419 all over the place, until people started phoning me the next day that I had been appointed the national librarian. That’s God’s work, something I didn’t apply for! Some people felt I had done so much in my profession, and submitted my CV. I am not saying you shouldn’t work hard. Work hard, but God is in charge of everything. That is what I want young people to know. It’s always nice when you go through a phase. There was a time things were rough for me. We managed like that progressively until God remembered us.