Aloysius Attah, Onitsha
The outgoing Vice Chancellor, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Prof. Joseph Eberendu Ahaneku is an interviewer’s delight any day. Cerebral and abreast on any issue, Ahaneku who is also the Chairman, Association of Vice Chancellors of Nigerian Universities and the National President, Chemical Pathologists in Nigeria, reflects on his journey so far as the VC in the last five years and concludes that though the university has been taken to a higher pedestal, there is the need for his successor to do more with the support of the university community so that Zik’s legacies would remain sustained in the institution.
Five years down the line in your tenure, I know while striving to get to this post, you had various lofty programmes for execution, looking back now, can you say that you achieved those dreams?
Yes, coming on board and by the time I sought the post of Vice Chancellor of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, I made a presentation to the then Governing Council of the University, what I called my five-point agenda. In the agenda, I talked about establishing peace on campus to ensure that the seeming factions and misunderstanding that existed were put to rest and for us to have a kind of university community with a very congenial atmosphere. Secondly, I also proposed that our university will be a true international university in all ramifications, international outlook both in programmes and scope. I also promised to internalise the proper ethos and culture of the university so that staff will know the real ethos and then the students will pass through the university and the university will pass through them. I also proposed to build a university community where the staff of the university such as the Principal Officers will live on campus and have the true university community where the engagement and all activities will be focalised on campus. I also promised to complete ongoing projects and to commence new ones and also project the image of the university through international research exchange and widening the horizon on the part of the staff by creating more avenues for further linkages. In all these areas, I can look back and say that we have not done badly because we tried our best in this administration. First, coming on board, in order to strengthen the academic environment of the university which I consider very essential and primary; I functioned as a Deputy Vice Chancellor, Academics for four years (two terms) and during that time, I actually identified some of the gaps and some of the areas of relative weakness that needed to be worked on. Doing that, we had to tackle the issue of examinations, both examination to get into the university and semester exams and timely release of results. It came to mind that for one to process the students and be sure of the quality of students you are going to be sending out to the public, one, you have to be sure of the students you admitted and also ensure that the grades given to the students are true grades and then, if they have distinguished themselves at the end of the day, you will proudly say, these are my proud products and you will be proud to say they will represent the institution anywhere they go. In doing that, we drew up a systematic way of approaching our admission exercise. I’m the first Vice Chancellor and the first university to introduce a combination of biometrics and the CBT together in the post UTME in 2014. As soon as I commenced, we introduced the two together and it was so revealing because that was the year we arrested 82 mercenaries who came to do exams for other people, they were handed over to the security agents for prosecution. That actually sent signals to fraudsters, impersonators and those who had been using mercenaries to do exams and from that time, we started the biometrics not just for the UTME candidates but even for the CEP, because even those who were reading part time were aware that the degree of Nnamdi Azikiwe University is same and doesn’t come cheap, rather, you earn it. So we decided to administer exams and the biometrics we used to admit the students, we carried it over to the semester exams and the moment you are identified with the biometrics, we would be rest assured that you are the same student that will do your exams till you graduate. So what that means is that no person can come and sit for exams for another person whether you are regular student or part-time. We did not stop at that but we made sure we introduced that method in the post graduate system. We did not want to make any mistake or to admit candidates who will be problematic to their supervisors and to the system, so we needed to screen the candidates both in written and oral examinations to identify those who could actually defend their first degrees irrespective of where they graduated from. In order to justify our actions, we told ourselves in the university Senate that since we had taken our time to ensure we admitted the best candidates, we should also take our time to ensure that we trained them properly. We put some regulations regarding the timely release of results, percentage attendance to lectures and lectures attendance too. We used all these to strengthen the academic culture, the exam process, the entrance process and currently we have good students that can contest with their contemporaries across the globe. For the past years I’ve been in charge of this university, our students were duly mobilised both for NYSC, in their year of graduation without missing any batch including Law school because there is regularity; the results are released as at when due. And if you are graduating you know it unless you are the one holding yourself. That was how I made sure the true academic culture of the university was brought back; now, we do our matriculation and convocation on yearly basis.
Now, talking about peace on campus, how did you achieve that considering the fractious nature and factions when you took over but today, the university is very calm and peaceful?
Human beings are diverse in nature. Everyone is endowed with certain strengths and weaknesses too and if you have this at the back of your mind, you will know the spectrum is very broad for all of us. It shouldn’t benefit anybody to say that this person is completely useless because if the person is useless for real, the person is not meant to be in this environment in the first place. For the fact that somebody has been found appointable and for one reason or the other the person has been part of this system, there are certain things the person can present in terms of experience that can add to the system in one way or the other. Looking at that, I felt when I assumed duty that the best is to give people certain level of responsibilities and opportunities for them to demonstrate their capacities and competence. It is when you have tried people that you know whether they are capable or not. So, when you do an all-inclusive kind of government or administration, yes, no person will be complaining of not been given opportunity to say this, do this or do that. I advise colleagues, HODs, Deans and those appointed into some various offices to use the committee system in running the affairs and as you do that, one or everyone will be tested in one way or the other, one or everyone will be given the opportunity to express himself/herself. You must try to listen to everybody directly or indirectly and by the time the person finishes, you might not take the advice or the contribution but it has given you an insight. By the time you give your own response, it is also left for the person to take or reject but the person won’t say ‘they didn’t want us to talk, didn’t want us to contribute or didn’t want us to give our own ideas.’ And again, there must be charges. You must charge people and throw challenges to people too. Here, every recognition is given irrespective of where you are excelling; those excelling even in sports or other areas of human endeavour are recognised so there are abilities.
I came on board with the ideology of practice what you preach/teach because in the university, there is no course that is not lucrative or else that course will not be offered. As a person, I don’t see myself as a different person, yes, I sit there as the Head of Administration or the Chief Executive of the institution but in other sectors, just like the way it is in the communities, if you get home, you join your community meetings and that’s the way I behave. Even as a VC, I’ve visited my department and sat at the floor with my HOD presiding. In all areas, we try to deploy same strategy; for instance, if there is a union meeting going on, you will not say because you are the VC, you will not be there to sit-in. The unionism is supposed to give the environment a kind of symbiotic relationship and drive progress in the system and because some people see it as something external, they have problems with them but if you see them as supposed partners in progress, then you will engage them and with that, you make use of those who are good in the system. You cannot make enough impact if you are playing from the outside and that’s why here, I accuse my colleagues saying ‘I belong to every union ooo, so don’t do any meeting in my absence and we laugh over it.’ When I attend such meetings I get motivated and if there are issues, we look at it together. If you see them as enemies, it takes a confrontational stance but if it is debated, you make a healthy decision.
In most administrations, lamentation over paucity of funds to execute capital projects is an everyday thing which people often give as reasons for not doing much. But in your case, projects executed under your watch are everywhere. What was your magic wand so to say?
(Laughs) The job of a Vice Chancellor is not just sitting in the office and turning the swivel chair. A VC must be the image maker of the university; he must go all out to look for benefactors, engage participators and stakeholders in that sector, this time, educational sector. The lovers of learning in the land should also be approached locally and internationally. But I must also say that we are indeed grateful to the Federal government through the intervention outlets like the NEEDS Assessment programme on how to revitalise the university in terms of infrastructure. TETFUND also has been doing wonderfully well in providing support to tertiary institutions in Nigeria not only to universities but polytechnics and colleges of education to upgrade facilities and also support training of personnel. Beyond that, there are other agencies of government that also do what we call the social public or corporate responsibility like the CBN, NNPC and others. So when it becomes necessary, some of these agencies of government support learning. Yes, we didn’t have all the whole funds to come to our permanent site but I tell people that what we have here is the Igwebuike concept – let all join hands to achieve success because unity is strength and we don’t just fold our hands. This university up till tomorrow is one of those universities in Nigeria that we have private-sponsored buildings and donations that you can never imagine and we are not relenting. One of the things that gladden my heart here is what we have today the production line where we produce plastic products. We teach students with a commercial intent too and for me that’s what I call functional research. The production plant we have didn’t cost us any money rather it was a research grant we got from PTDF in 2016. Those grants are available but you need to work exceedingly hard and when the thing started, I supported it because I’m a scientist and I understood why we needed to pursue that. Our Engineering Faculty is also supported by Julius Berger. If you are dormant and fold your hands, you won’t get anything and that spirit was what I pushed our colleagues into.
It was in my first year in office that the Formula One Vehicle was launched from the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Because of the way I promoted that project, those in Industrial Production Engineering had to work very hard to secure this PTDF grant and are now into this production. You cannot continue to theorise, telling us this molecule has done this and that without giving us the practical aspect. Immediately we acquired the machine for the industrial production, we didn’t waste time but to use our money to buy the moles and we were good to go. When the process of delivering the machines was being intensified, we sponsored the leader of the team here in the university to China and he was there for six months with the manufacturers so that he will be in a position to trouble shoot anytime the machines try to develop any fault here. The production line also serves the purpose of industrial attachment for our students too and very soon it will be a full blown production venture.
Among all the projects you executed which one is closest to your heart?
I wouldn’t pick anyone in particular but I must say that the Beautiful Gate and the environment of the Administrative Building are dear to me because they represent a welcome to Nnamdi Azikiwe University. Like today, helicopters land safely in the administrative building compound owing to careful planning and tenacious pursuit of goals. Space and environment for social events which we have provided also gladden my heart; apart from generating revenue for the university, it gives great ambience. Lightening up the system is also good because it made me sad that before now, if you came to campus by 7pm, everywhere was dead. I tell people that there is no dismissal time in the university. What we do is just reach home and come back; it is a continuous work in progress. The medical centre and the vice chancellor’s lodge also gladden my heart.
In the course of your tenure, what can you say were the challenges you encountered?
They are the usual challenges Managing human beings are often difficult because you can’t predict individuals. Fake news and rumour mongering were an issue too. Changing human beings is very difficult and this era of ICT is very much a challenging period. We had challenges where some mischievous individuals decided to give false information in the community using that to distract those very much determined to work hard and distracting their attention in the process. That’s why I say the issue of social media should be a discourse whether it is a curse or aiding our development. Our system here in Nigeria is that we use negative dimension of everything instead of the positive one. Third is the fact that you can’t meet all your aspirations as it concerns what you needed money to solve especially in our society here. Your target might be to do this and that but the means might not be there to solve them. Stakeholders should do more and honestly, this is a time all companies producing in Nigeria and doing business should contribute to the development of human society in one way or the other.
You still have the age so you are not retiring now. And what is next for you after now?
(Chuckles) I’m not retired. I’m still available to work anywhere. Whether in the university, elsewhere, serve my nation or do whatever God wills I should do. I have time also to go on sabbatical because I have accumulated leave to spend and until I’m due for retirement, I’m still available to work in Nigeria.
What can you say about the kind of struggles, tensions and intrigues that trail the selection and appointment of new VCs in universities?
It is only God that gives and makes a vice chancellor just like any other person that aspires to be in a certain position especially this type. But for me, there shouldn’t be any intrigue (and I’m not seeing any in our own here) but the issue is this – this is a process and people should know those who are qualified. For me, there are certain positions I cannot go for even if you tell me to come and take more so if I know I’m not qualified for such. I will gladly tell you no; I don’t think I can fit in, in that kind of environment. People should learn how to do self- appraisal for themselves and know what they are capable of doing or what they cannot do. If you know you have not prepared yourself mentally, spiritually, academically and otherwise don’t venture to contest because a VC is the academic and administrative leader of an institution who must command the respect of his colleagues in the institution. If you don’t command their respect academically, you are not there and this is what the person should ask himself – If I talk to them, will they see me as their academic leader and stuffs like that. That is where to start. It is a process that you have to appraise yourself and see how exposed you have been in the enterprise to know whether you can take the challenges of many people coming from different extractions. Nothing should be alien to the VC otherwise, you run the place down. Any leader you choose for a system will determine how the system will work; it should be prayerfully done so that the system will produce somebody that will move the system forward instead of diminishing what the system acquired over time in a very hard way.
Do you have any regrets as you are leaving office?
Not really because I’m serving my fatherland and contributing my own quota but if there should be any, I think it has to be the fact that I’ve lost my freedom. (laughs) What I mean is that your privacy is invaded most times and there are things ordinarily one would like doing but you can’t do again. Also, I’ve been robbed of the time to practise my professional calling as a chemical pathologist, keeping it in abeyance for so long although I’ve been in touch with them. I’m their national president, now but then, it might go beyond that like environmental health; I’m a public analyst and I’m supposed to be an adviser on narcotics; those things, I have my seal and licence, but they have remained at the bottom of my box since the VC job. These are some of the things I miss, but not regret anyway. But I’ve not missed all because within this period of my tenure as VC, I was able to graduate four Ph D students. I’m also supposed to do my research work in Japan but have not been able to do so because of this engagement.
What is your advice to the new vice chancellor?
I thank God for the opportunity to serve God and humanity. Whoever is coming on board as VC should be broad minded and be ready to impress all shades of human beings and be very patient with people. They will try your person, emotions and so on but patience is the watchword. Give people some room to prove themselves and with that you get the best set of people to work with. The person should not be in a hurry to take decisions but anything that is important for the system should not be ignored too. Everything is important in one way or the other and you don’t have to say it doesn’t matter because at the right time, it will matter. Make some adjustments when required. The university is already in the hand of God and we pray it will continue to be in the hands of God and with that, our future is assured here.
And your advice for the staff too?
The community should be very ready to cooperate and work as a family. I urge every staff member to feel highly distinguished as a staff member of this university in the first instance. We are all co-administrators and contributors to the development of Nnamdi Azikiwe University and no person is a slave driver. And we are all partners in this project. They should use ‘we’ in their heart and mind instead of ‘I or they.’ The idea of “we” should replace “they” so that whoever God places in the system should understand that it is all- inclusive and all-embracing for the good of our university.