Omolade Adunbi moved from Sajiyan camp, a farm settlement in Owo, Ondo State, in Nigeria, to be a bus conductor, newspaper vendor, bricklayer’s assistant, and now a director at the African Studies Centre at the University of Michigan in the US.
Growing up in a farm setting under the care of his poor grandparents, the young Adunbi could only dream about a life outside Nigeria. PREMIUM TIMES in this interview spoke with the political and environmental anthropologist and professor of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan.
In this interview, Mr Adunbi shares his experience during his journey from the Sajiyan camp to the University of Michigan, including the challenges of losing his grandfather and failing the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE).
PT: So tell us more about Omolade Adunbi who is now a professor at Michigan.
Adunbi: I am an anthropologist and a political and environmental anthropologist. I started in philosophy in Nigeria. I did my undergraduate at the then Ondo State University, Ado-Ekiti which is now Ekiti State University. I worked in the human rights and pro-democracy space for a while.
PT: Which organisations did you work with within the space?
Adunbi: I worked for the Civil Liberty Organisation (CLO) which was or is actually the first human rights group in sub-Saharan Africa. I served as the national organisation officer and moved up to becoming the head of the human rights education project where I had to work with groups. I designed a lot of programmes such as human rights educational programmes for teachers, Islamic groups, women and students. In that capacity, we organised a lot of programmes across the country from Maiduguri to Jos, Kaduna, Enugu, Port Harcourt, Akure and several other cities.
PT: Tell us about the four years old Omolade
Adunbi: How do you want me to remember four years old Omolade?
PT: Omolade in primary school?
Adunbi: Interestingly, my primary school is no longer in existence. It was called Local Authority Primary School, Sajiyan camp, Owo, Ondo State. I grew up living with my grandparents who were farmers and because they did not want to leave me in Owo with no one, they took me with them to a farm settlement called Sajiyan. There was only one elementary school in the area. It served the children of all the farmers in the camp and other camps located in that area. The camp is between Akure and Owo. I proceeded to Ansarudeen Comprehensive High School, Owo on completing primary education.
PT: How did you leave Nigeria to become who you are today at the University of Michigan?
Adunbi: My secondary school education is the set that benefited from the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) free education in the South West in the 1980s after Nigeria returned to democracy in 1979. That was when I was leaving primary school. The new government took over on 1 October, 1979. I was among the beneficiaries of the free education which was established by the UPN. Some of the programmes of the UPN were free quality education, integrated rural development, free health services and others. Free education was the most important of them. I benefited from that and then left secondary school in 1985. I did not make my WAEC and had to retake the examination in 1986. I made it finally and had to wait for the almighty JAMB for admission for two years. I eventually got admitted in 1988. I was the youngest in secondary school in those days because when free education was introduced, a lot of those who had abandoned school, a lot of those who did not think they would go back to school had to enrol for secondary school education. Then by the time I was in university, the military had taken over and all of those gains of democracy had been sculpted and free education ended and this was the first coming of Buhari and Babangida.
I was in the university when Babangida was still in power. And coming from a background where I had lost a breadwinner, I did not know how I would fund my education. But of course, I loved education and I wanted to go to college or university, so I got admitted. That was when I encountered activism in a much more robust way. The students’ union in the school I got admitted to was advocating for people like me and people from not-so-robust backgrounds to have access to education.
PT: Can I quickly ask why you did not make WASSCE in 1985?
Adunbi: My grandfather died in 1983 while I was going to Form 3. He died and things became difficult for me. I was a newspaper vendor, bus conductor and a bricklayer’s assistant. I did a lot of those jobs in order to make ends meet. My grandmother was just a farmer’s wife and she was unable to sustain us. She could not all by herself take care of me and other family members. So you know I had to cater for myself and support the family.
In most cases, I would skip school on Wednesdays and Fridays. That was when newspapers sold most. I skipped school on Friday in order to sell the newspaper, then I would also sell on Sundays. At times, when I did not go to work on Saturday and Sunday, I would work as a bricklayer and when I was not doing anything, I would help my grandmother to sell palm oil in the market.
As an undergraduate, I was still doing that anytime I went to Owo, I would help her carry the palm oil to the market to sell. All those jobs took their toll on my performance. From Form Three, I was always the best student; from primary one to six, I was always making first position. In the class, no one competed with me, I was always one of the best students in my secondary school. Then things changed and I had to do a lot of menial jobs to survive. While in school I won several awards as best student in English, Business Methods and Accounting. But that did not amount to me passing my WASSCE.
PT: You talked about being a beneficiary of free education at some point and when that stopped you joined the student union canvassing for zero tuition to allow people to go to school. Can you situate that in the current Nigerian educational system? We have been on strike for over five months and tuition has been increasing with little to zero value for tuition fees paid in Nigerian public universities.
Adunbi: I think the reality of young Nigerians today is the fact that education is being priced out of their reach, which is very sad. Education should be the bedrock or foundation of any country that wants to develop because infrastructure building is not just about physical infrastructure; investing in the life of the Nigerian youths is also a form of infrastructure development. Unfortunately, a lot of our leaders do not see it that way. They feel that the more expensive education becomes, the more quality it brings. But expensive education sometimes does not bring quality.
But more importantly, it is as if our leaders are mortgaging the future of our youth. The most important thing you can do to develop a nation is to invest in education right from elementary school to higher education. And it is hard to see that things have deteriorated so badly in Nigeria and that public education is being destroyed by our own leaders. Most of our politicians, if they do not have their kids in private schools in Nigeria, they have them in schools abroad and some of the schools abroad which they send their kids to are public schools funded by taxpayers’ money. It is hard for me to reconcile with the fact that they send their kids to public funded schools abroad but have refused to invest in public schools in Nigeria. That is a tragedy.
PT: In terms of the ASUU strike, what lessons can Nigeria learn from the American higher education system?
Adunbi: I am sympathetic to ASUU and I think many of their demands are legitimate and I think the government would have to do something about their demands. But at the same time, I think the way in which higher education is being organised in Nigeria needs a rethink. So I am in favour of autonomy for universities and when I say autonomy, I mean autonomy in all respects. I will use the University of Michigan for example. Like I said, the University of Michigan is owned by the State of Michigan. But the state is responsible for less than five per cent of our annual budget and tuition is roughly about three hundred million dollars.
In 2021, research expenditure was about $1.5 billion and that is because of COVID-19 research projects within the university and around the world; which means without COVID and those lockdowns and those social distances, research expenditure is usually in the region of about two to three billion dollars and that is because the university is autonomous and it looks for ways of generating revenue and we generate revenue, not from students.
Tuition accounts for about 10 to 15 per cent of what the university generates as revenue. So that is the level of autonomy that I am thinking about for Nigeria. We need some specialised universities; right now a lot of my colleagues in Nigerian universities do research but they are actually not being run as research universities. A lot of our universities are being run as what we call liberal arts universities in the US. Liberal art colleges and universities basically teach with little or no research enterprise and Nigeria cannot develop without establishing research.
The autonomy I am advocating for Nigerian universities is such that the Nigerian government needs to rethink the university system and rethinking the system is to categorise the universities as research and teaching universities. That way, these research universities can be connected to the industry. So a situation where university labs in Nigeria are connected to industry and make products that can be marketed, where universities can also generate revenues rather than depending on the government to fund the universities.
PT: The current Nigerian education system and the relevance of the outdated curriculum; what are your comments on this reality?
Adunbi: The quality of education that we have in Nigeria is highly dependent on the quality of funding that we have in the educational system. For example, when I was a student at Yale University, Yale was spending about $200 million in buying books every year. Michigan has over 40 libraries there. So if I see any book anywhere in the world and I tell them I need that book, if it is not in the library, the librarian will look for it and buy copies for the library.
In fact, they will tell us anytime you travel and you see any interesting book, if you can buy it and bring it, we will pay for it when you get back. And we will pay for the shipping and everything. So that is how to run a university.
We can not blame the lecturers in Nigeria who do not have a lot of up-to-date material to teach. So if they have access to the resources, then they will use the resources to teach.
PT: Your new position as the director of the African Studies Centre at the University of Michigan, what innovation are you looking to bring into the system? Do you have plans of building a relationship between Nigerians with the university, seeing that you are Nigerian in that position right now and also the Nigerian community in Michigan?
Adunbi: Part of my plan is to strengthen our relationship with institutions and partners in Africa. And I have three-prong approaches to this; collaboration, consolidation and cooperation. What I mean by cooperation is this: I do not see my position as an avenue to tell Africans what to do. I want to see our partners and collaborators in Africa as equal partners because we have a lot to learn from many of those we intend to collaborate with on the continent. Basically, it is not a one-way traffic that I am trying to establish, rather it is going to be both ways where we see ourselves as equal partners.
The second point; a lot of my predecessors have done a lot to build the African Studies Centre and to build collaboration with a lot of African institutions. So, I want to consolidate on this and it is not just consolidating on them but consolidating in ways that make the relationship much more beneficial to both parties – that is for us at the University of Michigan, our students, our faculty as well as for colleagues in Africa.
One of the programmes we run here is called the University of Michigan African Presidential Scholars Programme which brings early career faculty from African universities to Michigan for five to eight months. We have been running this programme since 2008 and we have had over 200 scholars from Africa and few from Nigeria. One of the things that I have done is to make Nigeria an open application country. Before now, a Nigerian scholar needed to be nominated by a faculty member here in Michigan.
Now, you can just go and apply and see if you make it through. Angola, Botswana, Mozambique and other countries have also become open application countries.
Chiamaka Okafor is a reporter at Premium Times in partnership with Report for the World, which matches local newsrooms with talented emerging journalists to report on under-covered issues around the globe.