Vice-Chancellor of The Technical University, Ibadan, Prof. Ayobami Salami, tells ADEMOLA BABALOLA about his childhood, his job as the pioneer VC of the university and how he could not assume office after he was initially appointed as the VC of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife, Osun State
Can you describe your childhood days in Ibadan?
My childhood days were very exciting. I was just a young innocent boy then. I remember that I enjoyed trekking from my house at Adeoyo in Ibadan to my school in Agugu sometimes, maybe twice in a week. Sometimes, I would go in the morning by bus and walk back home in the afternoon, while playing with my colleagues and my friends. It was very exciting, we were very young and we didn’t see it as if we were suffering at all. It was just normal to either walk to school or walk back from school. Then, boarding facilities were available.
You went to the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), what was the experience like as an undergraduate?
I still remember my days at Angola Hall and Awolowo Hall in the university; they used to be very naughty in Awolowo Hall. Awolowo is a special hall in Ife, and every young student likes to stay there. If you never stayed in Awolowo Hall in those days, then you have not really gone to Ife (the university). So I had heard about Awo Hall before I got to the school and I was glad eventually when I was able to stay in the hall. It was really fun. It’s only that when you look back now, you wonder how you survived those days as young men were very adventurous. Of course, we were all serious about our education but then, the social life we had at the time is not the kind you have today. There was nothing like thuggery and there were no gangsters. You could actually argue with your colleague and there would be no fight. You would respect superior arguments and when somebody actually had better points, you would respect him for that and accept it in good faith. So we settled matters through robust intellectual debates, and we actually tried to outdo one another. There was no way they would degenerate into physical combat, so we really enjoyed such moments.
Why did you choose to study in University of Ife (now OAU)?
If you asked me when I got in as an undergraduate, I would tell you that it was a product of accident, but now, I will attribute it to divine purpose, divinely arranged by God. My first intention was to be a civil engineer and I was very good at in physics, mathematics and geography. Later on, I just changed my mind. I felt I wanted to be an economist so instead of choosing civil engineering, which had been my ambition, I chose to take geography, economics and mathematics in the University Matriculation Examination (now Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination). But somehow, by the time they sent my admission letter to me, I found out I was given geography.
The first thing that came to my mind was to reject the admission. I told myself that geography was not the kind of discipline I wanted; I felt that I needed something better than that. But somehow on second thought, I told myself that if for whatever reason I was given geography without me asking for it, I would go there and give it my best. And I told myself that I was going to do very well in the course. I told myself I would be the best in that field.
Did you achieve that?
By the grace of God, I did. I was a prize winner in my department. I was awarded the prize for the best graduating student in Urban and Regional Planning courses, and it was there I discovered that geography could be used in many ways.
While I was an undergraduate, I developed an interest in the environment and from there, I did environmental sciences and then Geographic Information System. Today, if I were to choose again, I would choose my profession.
Most parents have influence on their children. Did your parents try to influence your decision at the time?
My parents were not well-educated, so as a result, I lacked that kind of guidance or mentorship. I was free to do what I wanted to do and actually I had to be self-driven. I had to decide on my own.
At what point in your career did you decide to become an academic?
The decision was actually taken while I was undergoing my National Youth Service Corps programme. But in the university, everybody in my class and my close friends, always told me I was cut out to be a lecturer and I thank God that’s where I belong. Right from the time I was an undergraduate, my colleagues thought I was coming back to the university, but I didn’t quite decide to do so at the time. I was a Muslim before I went to the university and along the line, I became a Christian. During my service year, I decided I wanted to consult God. There were offers, actually I was offered a job in Lagos after my first degree and there were other options for me but I said I would ask God to know what he would want me to do. In the course of praying, the Lord specifically told me that I should go back to the university. So, I shunned the offers and went back to the university. After I concluded the NYSC programme, I went back to the university, I didn’t even go home. I just packed my things and resumed at the university.
What is the relevance of your field of study to Nigeria’s environment?
Let me cite one good example. When Nigeria joined the space club in 2003, Nigeria launched the first satellite called Nigeria SAT1. At that point in time, Nigerian government was looking for experts that could help the country to validate the data because we were using other satellites before to teach, and we never had our own satellite. I was one of the people that were asked by the Federal Government of Nigeria to validate the Nigeria SAT1 for environmental application. And after that, I was invited by the United Nations to give a report on that before the United Nations committee on outer space. You can see from that example how important the job is and at that point in time, we had very few people in the field. Geographical Information System came later. As a matter of fact, as of the time I was doing my programme in Ife, remote sensing was there, but it was relatively new and GIS had yet to be introduced. It was actually an emerging field at that time. And by the time I was trained, I was able to assert myself in that discipline. After the launch of the satellite, National Space Research and Development Agency became very vibrant and was well known in the country.
How did you apply the validation to the Nigerian environment?
We have a lot of things that we do not know, and information is power. You cannot grow beyond the level of your knowledge, it’s when you have much knowledge of something that you can talk about what to do with it. We talked about our natural resources now, when we want to talk about what is happening in the country. We used to depend a lot on data by international organisations. We want all these people to give us data; data that are based on just global simulations without empirical evidence. But with the advent of GIS in Nigeria, we are able to quantify in real terms, the kind of resources that we have. We are able to analyse them, we are able to know where they are and we are able to relate them to what is happening in other parts of the world and from there, we are able to project what we need to do if we want to join the developed world.
Without this, others will be the ones to give us all the information, sending parameters to us. And if we don’t have any way to make verification, we just take it like that. Let me give you an example, we talk of climate change. Now, when we talk about climate change, people will talk about global circulations. But if we are talking about global circulations, the scale is so coarse that taking information of that will not really be applicable to our environment. But you need a tool to downscale it, to be able to do your own regional and national analysis, but if you don’t have the wherewithal or the techniques, all you will continue to do is to look at what is done globally without looking at your own national, regional or local scale.
Your wife is also a professor; how did the two of you meet?
I asked myself – what do I really want in life and what is my own path in this world. After deciding on what I wanted and knowing the path I needed to follow, I knew I needed somebody that would be my partner, somebody that would share my vision, mission and purpose. After knowing what I wanted, then I asked God to guide me. I was able to find somebody, who I think is the best for me. I couldn’t have found any other person better than that. She was also a student of the University of Ife. We met through a Christian fellowship. I discovered that we had the same kind of passion, vision and drive. And beyond that, I had divine conviction that she was the person I had been waiting for. I didn’t get engaged until after I finished my master’s degree programme. Not because I didn’t have people around me but I was not ready before then and I didn’t see the quality I was looking for in any of the people around me. But the moment I saw her, I saw the qualities I was looking for and had the conviction within me that she was the person God wanted for me.
How has it been, reaching the peak of your career and raising a family together with a fellow professor?
Can two work together except they agree? Her purpose is my purpose, my purpose is her purpose. We had a joint mission, so it was really easy for us to plan together. So we were not working at cross-purposes. She also made it clear to me that she wanted to be an academic. So we needed to work on an arrangement so that it would not affect our home. After our second child, we decided that she needed to nurture them for some time, have more time for them at home for me to stabilise in the profession and once I did that, she also continued with her PhD and then we were able to help each other. We always work something out between us because we always plan together.
How did you get to the peak of your career?
By the grace of God, from the outset, I committed everything within me to my profession. And because I was aiming to get to the top, I put everything within me into the profession. I didn’t allow myself to be distracted. I focused on my goal and put everything into it. I committed everything to the hands of God. I bagged my master’s degree in 1989, my PhD in 1996 and became a professor in 2003, seven years later. I became a professor at the age of 39.
You said that geography was not your original choice, yet you challenged yourself to be the best, and you graduated as the best in your department. Did you also have a target to eventually become a vice-chancellor?
Life for me is not just about ambition, it’s a matter of mission. I knew within myself that I was bound to make a change. I’m bound to generate a silent revolution in the sector which I’ve found myself, and you cannot bring about a change if you are not within the territory of control. So, by the grace of God, I knew I would not just go to the university to only be a lecturer, I knew I needed to put my mark on the sands of time. And for me to do that, I needed to direct my efforts towards bringing about purposeful leadership in our education sector. So that for me is not a matter of ambition, it is a matter of mission that things must change. Things must not continue the way they are. We deserve to have a better educational system and structure in Nigeria. And so, everywhere I find myself, I try to make positive impacts, whether directly or not. When I became the Director of the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Studies (in OAU), the story of that institute changed. And by the grace of God, I’m here to pioneer this university and I will leave the judgment of that to the public and maybe later on to history.
Since you became the first Vice-Chancellor of The Technical University, Ibadan, how has it been?
I must give credit to the Visitor to this university, Oyo State Governor, Senator Abiola Ajimobi, who conceived the idea. I keep on saying that he’s the dreamer, the person with the vision, while I’m just the one interpreting the dream. So, he had a dream and I am here to interpret the dream. When we started, not too many people gave us a chance. People thought it was not going to work. One, they were wondering where we would get facilities from. And we came at a point when the economy was not too good so people wondered how we would pay salaries and so on. I was appointed in May 2017, within two months of my appointment, the National Universities Commission was already in this university to do its verification exercise and by August, it had already approved 15 programmes for this university. Within six months, we had brought in our first set of students and apart from that, today we have been able to pioneer a new model of tertiary institution. This university is today the only self-sustaining public university in Nigeria.
What has been your secret to sustaining yourself as a public university?
The secret is the grace to work with all the stakeholders. I keep on saying that we should stop thinking that the government is the only arm or the only stakeholder that must shoulder the responsibility in the education sector. We went beyond just depending on government alone; we were able to work with the public and the private sectors, and everybody came on board and the story is different today.
You almost became the Vice-Chancellor of OAU, how did you miss that?
Well, there is this saying by Steve Maraboli that goes: “Every time I thought I was being rejected from something good, I was actually being redirected to something better.” I thought I was going to be Vice-Chancellor of OAU and I did become the Vice-Chancellor of OAU, but due to some circumstances, I was not allowed to assume office. But you see, my story is just like that of Joseph. Joseph had a dream that he was going to be the leader in his family. He had the dream in the land of Canaan, but eventually it came to pass in the land of Egypt. The most important thing is that the dream came to pass. When God says something, no man can stand against it, but today, with the knowledge of hindsight, I am much better here than anywhere else because here, I have the ability, freedom, ambience and support to actually execute all the laudable ideas I’ve always dreamt about without any inhibition or institutional constraints. I’ve been receiving all the kinds of support I need, both from the government and all the other stakeholders, including the private sector.
What is your greatest achievement in life?
My greatest achievement in life is living my dream. Today I am a much fulfilled person. Anytime I go to meet my maker, I can say my Lord; I have come back to you very fulfilled.
What are your dreams that have not been achieved?
Let me be sincere with you; as of today, I don’t know about tomorrow, I’ve not had any desire that has not been fulfilled.
Are you saying you don’t have any regrets?
By the grace of God and I’m not just being diplomatic about it, every dream I’ve ever dreamt in life, God has helped me to ensure it comes to pass.
What will you say is your fondest memory?
That would be my experience in the Netherlands. That is where I believe I acquired the skills that really sharpened the training I received in Nigeria. My exposure in the Netherlands has been a turning point for me. I must also note that I enjoyed my stay in Tanzania; it was where I first had the real practical demonstration of the collaboration between the academia and the larger society, town and gown. When I was in Tanzania, I told myself that when I returned back to Nigeria, I would replicate it and God has helped me to do that. My experience in the Netherlands sharpened my skills; my exposure in Tanzania planted a seed. And by the time I returned to Nigeria, God helped me.
How have your experience helped you in doing your job at the Technical university?
One of the virtues people really want to have to move forward in life is resilience. I picked that up in Ife. So everywhere I’ve been in life, I’ve been able to gain something. And my exposure in The Gambia was my first exposure to be a pioneer because I pioneered the department of Environmental Science, University of The Gambia. I never knew I was going to pioneer a university. So, you can see that different exposures I’ve had have contributed to my life. When I was in The Gambia, I was the pioneer Head of Environmental Science. So my Ife experience built resilience in me, and gave me the vision to be on top of my game in the discipline. And to actually be the best, I picked that up from my secondary school – Lagelu Secondary School, Ibadan. So, all these things together have been the things that have helped me to achieve what I’ve been able to achieve in life.
You seem to be a workaholic, do you unwind at all?
I unwind in my church.
How do you manage your career, family and church activities to ensure that none suffers?
Romans 12:11 says, “Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord.” There is a scriptural basis to all these things. Being a fervent person spiritually is not an excuse to be lazy in your secular calling and also because you’re hard-working in your secular calling is not an excuse not to serve the Lord. And I believe that the essence of spirituality is to serve humanity. What is the purpose of anointing in the church without it having an impact in the world? I believe that we get the anointing in church but we make the impact in the world.
What are the things that bother you about the young generation in this nation?
I think we need to do a lot to orient our youths towards understanding that despite the challenges they are facing, they can still be the best they can be. They must not give up on themselves. We will not throw our hands in the air and say things are difficult. Each time I see a young boy hawking bread, I keep telling myself that it could have been me. This life should not end here because as a young boy I hawked foodstuffs for my mother. So when I see those boys, I don’t see them as people without potential or people without a future. All they need is guidance, opportunity and the realisation that there is something in them that they can tap into to get out of their situation to where they need to get to. And that is why we must not leave them on their own; that is my passion, that’s what drives me, that’s what I’m really interested in. If not that God made me realise that there is something in me that I could tap into, I could have ended up on the street like any other person, but God brought out my potential. There are people with potential all over the streets, in motor parks and everywhere. There is no youth you will see in Nigeria today without potential. If we are able to harness the talents of Nigerian youths, this country will be the best in the world.