Prof. Michael Omolewa is a former Nigeria’s Permanent Ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. He was unanimously elected in 2003 by the 189-member countries of the organisation as the President, 32nd session of the General Conference. The Ipoti Ekiti-born education historian is an emeritus professor of Adult Education at the University of Ibadan and is currently teaching at Babcock University. He speaks with FEMI MAKINDE on the ASUU strike, quality of education and teachers as well as the need for Nigeria to invest more in tourism, among other issues:
Tourism is said to have the capacity to take over from oil as Nigeria’s main source of revenue. Is the country investing enough in this sector?
The United Nations established the World Heritage programme in which they encourage people to identify things that everybody in the whole world can consider as their own property which they should be visiting and enjoying. Members picked places such as Taj Mahal and Westminster. In Africa, we have places where tourists can visit and enjoy including churches built out of stone in northern Ethiopia. Nigeria also decided to join and we have Sokou in the North.
In 2005, they decided to list Osun Osogbo. In addition to that, we have places like Idanre Hill, Kano Walls and many other sites that have not reached the world level like the Osun Osogbo. Africa is very rich in tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Examples of the tangible ones are the Kano Walls. Then, look at the Benin monarchy and the dress of Itsekiri, Yoruba gele (head-tie), greetings and the drumming. Those are the intangible ones. We should use the tangible and the intangible cultural heritage to draw attention to ourselves.
Now, to come to the question, we have not invested much in tourism; yet, tourism is very productive. A country like Mauritius has no oil but its specialises in tourism and use it to generate a lot of resources. When you get to Mauritius, on landing there, you will know they are serious about tourism. They will tell you stories about every tourist site and places of interest. Nigeria should be very rich in tourism resources because Nigerians are very conscious of their history. Tour guides will be able to tell visitors the story of early migration and how cities like Ibadan developed out of the fallen Oyo Empire. How the warriors are assembled at a location and proven military warriors led Ibadan as Baale; later on, the Baale became the Olubadan.
The system has continued and you join the line and progress until you become the Olubadan. That is why there is no succession dispute. The story of Ibadan alone is fascinating. When you look at Oja Oba, you will begin to enjoy Ibadan. When you now know that Ibadan is the hometown of Adelabu Penkelemesi, that is when you will begin to see crowd-pulling Adegoke Adelabu of those years. Then, you go to the University of Ibadan, the first university in the country; from there to the NTA, the first television station; from there to Liberty Stadium. You go to Oke Are where Ibadan Grammar School started in March 1913; and how it moved from there to Molete in 1948 with Cannon Alayande. The same thing with Ife and Benin.
When you go to the East, there is the long juju of Arochukwu; you go to Umuahia, you will get the war bunkers of the Biafran war. Ilorin is where Alimi and Afonja reached a consensus on how to rule the place. We have many places of interest with fascinating cultures. We have to train the interpreters and make sure that the media are heavily involved in publicising these places. Our transportation system must be improved upon. Tourism is a big business. We can even make more money from it than oil. There are many countries that depend on tourism as their major source of revenue.
Don’t you think insecurity in the North-East and other places is a threat to tourism?
Most of the times, the Western nations place travel ban on some countries. They tell people not to travel to such countries because it’s not safe. They can say ‘you are advised not to visit Nigeria’. There was a time people were asked not to visit Rwanda because of the war there. But Rwanda today is the favourite of everybody. When you get to Kigali, the capital of the country, which they call the City of 2000 Hills, you see the undulating hills that will make you to enjoy visiting Rwanda. Don’t forget that was the place where a lot of people were killed during the genocide. But they have transformed it. We can always transform our country. The important thing is that there must be no stagnation; we must keep developing; developing ideas, attitude, orientation and we must always go on our knees in prayer and ask God to crown our efforts with good success.
What is your advice to government on how to tackle this insecurity?
I am sure they are already doing that. Troops are deployed there to make sure the place is safe from the Boko Haram fighters. What we need to do is assist the government in any way we can to win the war. We must participate and be our brother’s keeper and contribute our own quota to the development of our nation.
Power is needed in hospitality business. How do you think we can address the power problem?
We can adopt the Ethiopian experience. In Ethiopia, what they have done is they use solar energy to power their tourist centres. You will just discover that in every tourist site, there is electricity and it is from solar energy. They are blessed with sunshine; that is why power is available there at all times. There are many things that are peculiar to Nigeria, which people will like to come and see from all over the world.
Nigeria’s education sector seems to be in crisis and university lecturers and those in the polytechnics are currently on strike. How can the nation solve this problem?
It is unfortunate that the Academic Staff Union of Universities and Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics are on strike. But the process of resolving it is on. I believe government will consider the demands of the lecturers and government will also share its own view with them. At the end of it all, I believe the education sector will become more vibrant and everybody will be happy because the quality of products coming out of our schools will be better. Parents will be happy.
Lecturers too will be happy; they will discharge their duties better when they are happy. They will come up with better ideas of how to curb cultism, drug addiction and other vices. We need to look at our education in totality and not just one section alone. The dream of those who started the primary school system in 1842 and secondary school system in 1859 and then the university in 1948 was that education would be used to take Nigeria away from servitude, technological backwardness and to good health and economic prosperity. That is the aim as enunciated in the national policy education.
Another vice is sex-for-mark and sexual harassment which have become more common. Don’t you think these will devalue certificates from our schools if they are not curbed?
Sex-for-marks may be restricted to schools but sexual harassment is in all facets of our life, superiors taking advantage of their subordinates at places of work and in other places. This is a question of upbringing. It is not limited to universities alone. It is found in the judiciary, the police, offices and everywhere. Many believe it is a general sickness in our modernism. It is becoming worse because we have neglected God’s way and we arrogate to ourselves the power to do as we like. We need to go back to our original values that guided our forefathers and those who built this nation; and we will get there.
Is it right to return missionary schools to their original owners?
It is right. But I think teachers are not comfortable with that because they believe that with government, their salaries are guaranteed; with missionaries, they will have to make some sacrifices and many of them are not willing to make those sacrifices. They don’t see others making similar sacrifices in other sectors. They no longer want to collect their rewards only when they get to heaven. They now want 80 per cent of their rewards here on earth and the remaining 20 per cent when they get to heaven.
Nobody will blame them because in the past, teachers were comfortable; they had cars and were respected by everybody. But now, parents talk rudely to teachers in front of their pupils. Their pay is not good and that is why they want an increase in salary. When you retire as a teacher, like I have retired now, I want some minimum comfort as well. But with the pension system, that minimum comfort is not there. This is because the pension is too meager; it can’t sustain the minimum comfort required especially by those who have been in the system for a long time.
Are you saying teachers are not well remunerated?
No, they are not. They are also not respected; the dignity that should make us to be proud like our colleagues in Finland is lacking. In Finland, the best paid workers are the teachers. They are so well motivated that they produce the best. But here, what do you expect when teachers are not motivated and they have to do part-time jobs, trade and hawk, and they don’t come to school regularly. That is not going to be healthy for the education system of the nation. If we want increased productivity and improved quality of education, one of the things we need to do is to motivate the teachers very well. The quality of the teachers is important and linked to their welfare. If a teacher is well taken care of, he will be motivated to produce the best. That is what we should be doing because if you give the teachers the best, they will produce people who will do well for the next generation. Other areas should not overshadow the teaching profession.
The number of out-of-school children in Nigeria is alarming especially in the North. Is this not a threat to the future of this country?
If you study the Ministerial Strategic Plan of the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu, you will notice that this is one of his priorities. In fact, he said that was so dear to his heart and he wants to do everything to tackle this problem. He got a proposal and delivered it to the cabinet and did the costing and I believe what he is waiting for is the go-ahead from the government to handle those street children so that the security threat posed by them is reduced. Don’t forget that in his ministerial strategic plan also, he decided to focus attention on the illiterate and wants to make 10 million illiterate Nigerians literate. To do that, he appointed Prof. Abba Haladu, a professor of Adult Education, who specialises in literacy to coordinate that. They want to make them to be literate in their local languages and in English as well. People are not aware of all these and I think that awareness is very important because so much is going on in the education sector.
Is it important to teach pupils in elementary school in their mother tongue?
That is why you find China teaching their children with Chinese. Germany uses German language; and in Finland, they use Finnish. In England, it is English; and France uses French. When you are proficient in your mother tongue, you are proud of your ancestors; you are proud to make contributions. But when you mimic others, you cannot be as good as they are. Those people who think if a child starts speaking English very early, he will be able to speak like English people are deceiving themselves. You must be solid in your mother tongue. Research has shown that once you are strong in your mother tongue, you can master other languages more effectively. I started with Yoruba and then studied English, French, German effortlessly without one impeding the other. I am proud of my indigenous root.
Are you saying Nigerians should learn other international languages apart from English?
Yes, we need to. This is because Benin Republic, Chad, Niger and Cameroon that are our immediate neighbours are French-speaking. And out of the 16 countries in West Africa, 11 are non-English speaking. Only five are English-speaking. We need to learn French for social interactions and for business. Now, Spanish is literally taking over from French. You need at least one additional working language other than your indigenous language and official language, which is English.
Do you support the calls that Nigeria needs to be restructured?
I see so many versions of restructuring which many people have said. I think what everybody is saying is that we should not remain stagnant; we want a change in economy, politics, administration and we want to develop. Look at Brexit; it is a form of restructuring in Europe. People are restructuring and reforming the ways they do things. We need to restructure for better performance.
Can you recall your most memorable day when you were Nigeria’s Ambassador to UNESCO?
The most memorable time I can remember was September 29, 2003 when the Lord helped me to be elected unanimously by 189 countries of the world as the representative of Nigeria to the position of President of General Conference of UNESCO. On that day, I invited Mrs Laura Bush, the US First Lady to come and address UNESCO and to return the United States to UNESCO after an exit of almost 20 years following a disagreement between the US Government and UNESCO. That disagreement ended that day. Also, that day, I read a two-page document of President Olusegun Obasanjo addressed to UNESCO, saying Nigeria was proud to produce the president of 32nd Session of the General Conference. That Nigerian would not let down UNESCO and that Nigeria shared the vision of UNESCO.
How did you come into the teaching profession?
After I did my primary school education in Ipoti Ekiti, I moved to Erunmu, Ibadan. I went to Ibadan Grammar School and then went to Ekiti Parapo College. I later went to Christ’s School, Ado Ekiti, where I did my Higher School Certificate. Christ’s School was always providing academic giants. When I left Christ’s School and came to the University of Ibadan, I had no other idea than to become a giant for the Lord in whatever profession I would then take. I have been a product of the kindness of people like Chief S. O. Awokoya who helped me to the secondary school.
Then Prof. J. F. Ade Ajayi, who was my head of department and my dean at the University of Ibadan. Also, the person that is less known but who was very effective in my life, Prof. S. H. O. Tomori, who was my head of department at the University of Ibadan. It was Prof. Tomori, who saw me through and gave me all my promotions until I got to the professorial level where Prof. J. A. Akinpelu got me promoted to professor in 1982. He was the dean that time and wanted me to succeed him. Eventually in 1985, I succeeded him as the dean, Faculty of Education. That was how I found myself as the dean. So, you can see that it is not me but those people that God used to add extra to my ordinary status to make me extraordinary. That is why I cannot stop thanking God for the miracle of bringing me up in a way I least expected.