‘Why chemical engineers are perceived as real drivers of national development’

Prof Rahamon Adisa Bello

The immediate past Vice Chancellor of the University of Lagos (UNILAG), Prof Rahamon Adisa Bello, joins the septuagenarian club today as he clocks 70. As a result, the Chemical Engineering Professor will be taking his exit from the university system where he has operated since 1977 beginning as Temporary Assistant lecturer on August 16, 1977 and rising to the pinnacle as 11th vice chancellor in November 2012. A double-barrel event has been packaged including public presentation of two books: a festschrift titled ‘Developments in Biotechnology, Systems, Control and Education’ and a biography with the title, ‘Prospects in Retrospects’ to mark the twin-celebration. It holds today at Admiralty Conference Centre, Naval Dockyard, Ahmadu Bello Way, Victoria Island, Lagos, beginning from 11.00am. A native of Iboro, Yewa North LGA of Ogun State, Bello began his educational training at Iju United School (now Holy Trinity School), Iboro from 1954 to 1960. He was at Egbado College (now Yewa College), Ilaro, 1962 – 1966; Technical College (now The Polytechnic), Ibadan, 1967 to 1968; and University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), Ile-Ife where he obtained First Class Honours degree in Chemical Engineering in 1974. He proceeded to University of Waterloo, Canada in 1977 for his post-graduate studies and returned in 1981 after obtaining his Ph.D degree to begin his teaching career as Lecturer Grade II at the Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Lagos. He rose through the ranks to become a professor in 1998. In this conversation held inside his office at UNILAG, Prof. Bello shares life and career experiences. Excerpts: 

How do you feel clocking 70?
I feel a sense of fulfillment. I thank God Almighty for enabling me to have gone through the system and reached the pinnacle of university career. I didn’t expect I would become a VC of this university when I came in. I just wanted to be here, do my bit and serve the country and the university in the best of forms by impacting knowledge and ensuring reproduction of human capital resources for national development. The dream is just to come in, do my bit and rise to become at most, a professor and be able to, at least, make a mark as a professor of chemical engineering. By the grace of God, I was able to accomplish that. But asides, I got into management and also added value as manager of the educational system and one of the best in the country. This gave me big boost and accomplishment as an administrator and an academic in the Nigerian system.

What is your next line of action as you exit the university system?
As a professional and an engineer, definitely, I can’t be idle. I already have commitments to practice my profession and collaborate with colleagues to support the nation in other capacity that comes up as I move on. But primarily, I will be in my profession.

What has been the contribution of chemical engineering to national development?
I always tell people that a chemical engineer is a process engineer. This means that all we concerned ourselves about is to be able to turn things around and change them from one form to another to make them more useful to humanity. That is the major assignment of a chemical engineer. So whether he found himself in the processing, food, oil or manufacturing industry, his preoccupation is to transform raw material to finish product. Chemical engineering has been doing that for humanity for years. Of course, because of lack of development in manufacturing as well as support for basic development, the impact would not have been totally felt by the ordinary man on the street. But if you go to developed economies, chemical engineers are the ones running the affairs of the countries. If you go to China…in fact, the last regime in China, the topmost five or six people in government were all chemical engineers. If you go to America, when we were in school, we discovered that the highest paid engineer is always a chemical engineer, because the manufacturing industry must have to do research and improve your materials and start doing things and produce things for the industry to pick up. That is the basic thing that the chemical engineer does. Sadly, we have not utilised chemical engineering to the optimum in this nation and until we do that, we cannot add value.
We are only at selling crude oil, but it is the chemical engineer in operation that will turn it to petroleum products and other useful products, and until we start doing that, we won’t be able to earn enough foreign exchange. If we continue to just dig from the ground and sell it, we only make minimal money. But when you turn it around, you employ more people in the system and then you can generate all the resources both dollars as well as internal resources that you need for the development of the nation.
You have been privileged in the last 30 to 35 years to be in the university system, turning out manpower, why is it so difficult for Nigeria to appropriate those training for national development in the area of turning crude oil to finished products?
No! The manpower for that is not lacking in Nigeria. The country is blessed with human resources. There is no area you turn to that you don’t have appropriate human resources. In fact, we have turned out to be an exporter of experts in every area of endeavour. So if you go anywhere in the world today, you see Nigerians they are in all areas of endeavour and they are performing and making those economies tick, while our own economy here is slowing down. The challenge is not human resources that training has been given, we have been developing people over the years, and we keep training and the best of the best kept turning out. Just recently, we discovered that one of our students who graduated a year or two ago was the only one admitted into Stanford University in the United States from all over Africa, in a competitive environment. Because of the feat, the people over there had to come and find out what is it about UNILAG. When people talk about the quality of education in Nigeria, I just laugh because they do not understand what is happening. The problem is not the quality of what we put out. Of course, they may be lacking in hands-on things, but when it comes to the actual tenets we impact, it is still the same everywhere in the world, except for the fact that we don’t have enough resources, in terms of equipment to make them have appropriate hands-on. We don’t also have enough manufacturing facilities to be able to have enough exposure to industries.  These are the areas that we are lacking, and that is what the other aspect of the national development must take cognizance of.
Yes there is a competition for resources in the nation, but until we can develop scientifically, academically and add value to the manufacturing sector and improve our manufacturing process, then, we cannot become an independent nation and we won’t be able to really have enough employment created for the teeming masses we are producing. It is a two-edged sword and we need to be able to balance it. We can’t stop people from acquiring education and graduating, but how do we really fill that gap to be able to create employment for them. That is why entrepreneurship is being pushed. We need to refocus the training of students and even graduates, and with provision of an enabling environment as the Federal Government is trying to do through some job creation initiatives, the challenge of unemployment would have been tackled effectively.
Nigeria just clocked 58. You were in the primary school when Nigeria got independence. How was the situation like then? 
I schooled in a local community in Ogun State, and most of the actions were at the city centre. We didn’t know what exactly it means to be educated. How many graduates do we have in Nigeria in 1960? You can count them. The only university we had was just Ibadan, and Ibadan was just producing. As at the time we had the independence, we were just coming up and the government was just evolving.
We could see that at that time people governing the nation were in their thirties. Some ministers were even in their 20s, but because of none evolution of democracy, the way it should have been, we have lost that. That is why you find the same old age group that is still in government. We have lost meritocracy! We have lost everything. We need to recreate Nigeria.  That time it was easy to do everything. In my village, if you wanted to buy a newspaper, you would just go to the vendor’s stand, pick the newspaper and drop the money there; nobody is going to pick it. The farmer would put his yam and prize by the roadside. The buyer would just drop the money and carry the yam. Nobody would touch the money. Life was as good as that. Yes, many things have come up which have changed our lives as Nigerians. It started with the Biafran war. Post-war, problems came up, the issue of armed robbery set in. Then, there were few soldiers in the country and we didn’t even know them because they don’t come to the mainstream, they were in the barracks. But beyond 1966 when the coup came up, we have been militarised and we are yet to get off from that because it is affecting everywhere.

How do we move the country forward despite the challenges?
We need a lot of things to step up. We need a lot of changes. I don’t know whether the change we are having is the appropriate one, but we need to change. Of course, corruption has taken over fully and that is another major challenge and that is why we cannot see through even when we have good concepts and ideas, corruption tends to run to weigh on it. From all my years of experience, we try to run away from that corruption, but there is no way we can completely avoid it. There are other countries that also have doses of corruption but they use it to turn around people to help their nation. The ongoing campaign against corruption should be commended, but the fight has to be total. Corruption is from the lowest man to the highest. We have been focusing on corrupting at the top. We have not been addressing the corruption within the system itself- in the civil service, schools, on the streets and everywhere. Most people believe you cannot get a straight admission to the university without bribery. It is as bad as that. They hardly believe there is merit and decent procedures. Really, some people go to exploit without those in authority knowing. There has to be a psyche reordering, because it will affect everybody, we have to go back to meritocracy.
Secondly, we are trying to develop entrepreneurship because without that orientation, going to school wouldn’t just be enough. We need to do things that help and maintain the nation. We need to focus on food security, that is one of the things government is trying to do correctly, because we don’t have to import food in this nation.After that is done, we have to focus on science and technology, which should be advancing the institution and making sure that we indigenize a lot of things and process for the world and then make dollars. But we must have food security because we have so many mouths to feed. If people can’t eat well and food price is high, then we will run into problem. Another issue that I will want to contend with is the issue of population. We cannot continue at the rate we are populating Nigeria without enough arrangement to take care of the numbers we are producing. There must be something done about it. Population is a major challenge to this nation.

Moving forward, we want to see Nigeria that is as peaceful as it was in 1960. Then, everybody goes about without minding what was going on even at the federal level. But today, when they cough in Abuja, it affects everybody even the lowest man on the street. It shouldn’t be that way. If we say we are practicing democracy with true federalism, it will help if it is done in earnest. I remember when I was serving as a commissioner in the early 90s (1994-1996) in Ogun State, one of the peaceful thoughts by the late General Abacha to be able to get the support of politicians and the nation after he took over was a six-point agenda, which included the devolution of power, looking at the structure. Everything was done, there were six main committees in six main areas, all the efforts fizzled out after a while, as nothing came out of it. The concentration of power at the centre is not good for the country. That is why everybody wants to be president of Nigeria. But if the states are viable, people should run for other elective posts at the state levels.

You mentioned corruption even in the academic setting without the knowledge of the management, which is something that is even serious. But while you were there, what decisions were taken to ensure all those were minimised?
In every system in Nigeria, there is corruption within the entire set-up, not necessarily at the top level. What we found out while I was there was that we have to set up security teams that kept monitoring those that come around to scout for admission seekers and extort them of funds, few people were caught and handed over to the police. Up till the last year I spent there, we received calls about people asking admission seekers to pay certain money into certain accounts and asking people if they want their grades to be changed, they should pay into so and so account. They don’t get anything done, as they couldn’t penetrate the system. It was that process that led to some screening in post UTME examination where we got some of the situations and we really dealt with it. And after that year, we realised they were so powerful and so rich and were trying to influence those who are in charge of our operations. So you must be a step ahead of the situation to really fight corruption. It is everywhere, we cannot run away from it, but you must just be one step ahead. 
You have been chairman of YEWA group in Lagos for so many years and next year is election year particularly in Ogun State with the agitation that it is the turn of YEWA, what is the update of this agitation?
We pray that by the Grace of God we would realise that ambition. Ogun State has three senatorial districts and the Ogun West Senatorial district where Yewa is has been the only one that has not produced a governor in the whole history of Ogun State. We just managed to get the deputy governor about three or two governments ago. So the agitation has been alive for long but because of the nature of that region, it is at the edge of the state towards the boundary, not only boundary of the state but of the nation, the Benin Republic. And so you find no major commercial or business activities in that zone that will engage and enrich the community compared to other areas. For example the Ogun East has all those activities going towards the east because that is the access to Benin and all that, they bond and interact with those activities.
Ogun central has the activities going towards the north because that is where the road to Ibadan leads through the north. We are at the corner, the only opening we would have had was the old Badagry-Sokoto Way, which was never completed. So, we have been boxed to a corner. But we have resources, so things are coming up slowly; that is where the Dangote cement plant is and it has opened up that zone. Over the years, we have been agitating to be part and parcel of the political development. The agitation has been that we are equal, we have the number so everything should be equal. When the money politics came in, it almost pushed us off because we don’t have that kind of resource that we could spend money freely for people to vote us.
To be fair to ourselves there is nobody that will go into politics that will not have at least N100m in his kitty to start with, not to talk about what the party will send because by the time you are even agitating to become a governor, you consider the cost and number of posters alone and other logistics you must put up to get even your name recognised. It involves more spending. And that doesn’t guarantee you nomination. There is a lot of money involved, that is why you must get to that level of money politics and get a better people into politics. It is only money people that can get into politics today and that is one of our major challenges.

So YEWA politics has been alive, we resuscitated the YEWA union in Lagos in 1998. I became chairman about 1999 and I was there until I became the VC. Our meeting has been helpful because we are a formidable group and we have been trying to influence decisions. All activities connecting to other groups have been yielding fruits and at least made it up to the point where the present governor of Ogun State has to align himself to ensure that after him he will support somebody from Yewa and which appears to be emerging. We hope a candidate from that zone will get the nomination at the end of the day and the election will come and we support him to win. That is our hope. We know other groups will not say ‘take it and go,’ so we must have someone credible that they can believe in.

Looking back at your days in office as the VC are there any regrets for some of the decisions you took?
I cannot remember of any regrets I have in that office. I think I was lucky to have a core of highly credible, intelligent and serviceable support in the management of the university during my tenure. We had a management that was responsive to all the issues that came, from students’ issues to infrastructural, staff union and others. That was why there were less of crises during that period. The only crisis we had with students was more of issues of greed with the leadership of the students. While I resuscitated unionism which was banned for over 10 years and gave them a new platform to work, but then, just as I said there is corruption and issue of money influence, if you go back and review what brought about that crisis, it was just money. The leadership wants to make money and they did so many things that were on record. That is the only unfortunate incident that could have created some problems within the system. Otherwise, I enjoyed serving the university and the nation and I did it to the best of my ability.

What was your relationship with the UNILAG community like after you left office as VC?
You know, we academics, we have discipline. You know that you’re a professor primarily, so when you go into any assignment, just go and do the assignment and come back to your position. So, leaving office I had to come back to my department as a professor of chemical engineering. I have been here. The best is to encourage and be a motivator for those that are in my environment. I have been here, people come to consult me and they are free. I have not really had any encumbrance because of the office or anything. People freely come to me and I walk around freely.

What is the best decade of your life?
Of course my school days would be the best, because I didn’t have all these challenges on my neck. I only do my things, enjoy myself and go to school. Let me say this, my university classmates formed a unique set and we are still intact till date for those that are alive. We call ourselves the 74 set and I have been the life-president right from school. So come October 6 (today) the group will be there. We support and celebrate ourselves with our families. Then my set from secondary school is there, too. School periods were the most enjoyable periods of my life because the moment we started working, challenges started coming up.

What are your expectations from the October 6 outing?
October 6 outing will be in two folds: one is my birthday, which is the celebration of my life, and I want to give thanks to God for attaining that age. The second will be a celebration of me by my colleagues and friends. A biography is being put up. There is also a festschrift, which is an academic appraisal of my contribution. It’s a double celebration with my colleagues and friends.

How prepared are you to embrace 70?
I have no choice! As one is ageing you must look forward. Of course, you look back to see whatever you have done in the past to be able to move on, but the best is to just keep moving on and looking forward, tomorrow will be better than yesterday!


In this article:
Rahamon Adisa Bello
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