Chief Afe Babalola, founder of Afe Babalola University, Ado Ekiti, believes a great future lies ahead of Nigeria if her handlers look inward and believe in Nigerians by providing the enabling environment for them to excel. In this interview with Adedayo Adejobi, he also speaks on President Muhammadu Buhari’s government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and what his hospital is doing to find a cure, saying the coronavirus pandemic has exposed how careless and irresponsible Nigerians have been over the years. Excerpts:
What is your assessment of the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic?
Let me tell you straight away, I have written many articles on this matter. The COVID-19 is a foreign body unless we import it to this country, we wouldn’t have COVID-19 virus. As soon as we learned of the outbreak, we were supposed to have taken preventive measures immediately.
What I did in my university was to quickly shut down and forbid entry by anybody into the institution, because if you do not import beer into a house, you will not have beer there.
As for me, I think all that the federal government needed to do at that time was to close our borders and deny entry into the country and if it was a must that some people should come in, they needed to set them aside in isolation centres. If that had been done from the outset, we wouldn’t have recorded a single case of the virus.
That was what Tanzania did and today, it is the only country that doesn’t have anything called coronavirus on the continent of Africa. The virus is imported but we allow people to come into the country and spread the disease. See now, we are battling with it.
If you have a house where nobody has been infected by the virus and you do not allow anybody to come in you may never have it. If you have a compound where nobody comes in with this imported disease, you wouldn’t have it. My university never had, even until they asked all universities to go on holiday or lockdown.
Analysts say Nigeria shouldn’t have looked the way of Madagascar for herbal solutions, especially for a clountry blessed with herbs that can cure the virus. Any lessons for Nigeria considering the impact of the decision on the health care delivery system?
My simple answer is, Nigeria was not fully prepared for this pandemic. And, in fact, unprepared in many areas including lack of furnishing universities and hospitals in the country with modern equipment, that was why we found ourselves in the helpless situation we are today. As a matter of fact, all that we needed to do long before now was to make sure that our universities are up-to-date.
There are a very few, if there are at all, Nigerian universities that have level four laboratory, which is like the highest, for now, that can be used for investigation and other medical research. It’s so sad that very few universities in this country have decent laboratories that you can carry out reasonable research and of the few I have mentioned, we are one of them, I mean Afe Babalola University Ado Ekiti.
What are your thoughts on the World Health Organisation foisting their decisions, and approach on Africa? Is there a chance that traditional medicine in the near future could put Africa on the world map and when we will have an African health organisation?
I do not believe that it is right for any organisation to foist their position on everybody. In research, in particular, it can’t happen. Every day I keep on addressing my people and they are ready and willing to work in such a way that very soon, you will know that there is an African and a Nigerian university, in particular, that has what it takes to change the world.
We are leaders in reformation; leaders in quality education; leaders in functional education, and this has been recognised all over the world. So, it is just a matter of time and I bet you, give us a little more time, and time will reveal all of these things.
How will you describe the university’s alliance with the Ooni of Ife in trying to get a cure for coronavirus?
The Ooni of Ife is an uncommon man. The Ooni of Ife is highly innovative and above all, he is a lover of education. He has been here several times, because of the quality that he saw. That is why he has decided to partner our university in a bid to find solutions not only to COVID-19, but also to other diseases that have been humiliating us over the years. He is a philanthropist that has donated so much money not only to this university but many organissations.
You are aware of the motorised modular fumigation machine that his team of researchers and engineers manufactured, which he has donated already to some states in the country. Let me ask you, how many obas and how many non-obas have done or are doing what this great enterprising man has done and is doing? I want to salute him and congratulate him and promise my support.
What really sparked your interest and alliance with the Ooni of Ife in venturing into research for the COVID-19 cure?
My university is founded as a reformist, non-profit institution. I am indeed worried that the university system in this country has not lived up to expectations in many areas and one of those areas of course is medicine and health. So, I started the university, which within two years was recognised by the Nigerian University Commission (NUC) as a model, a benchmark, and a reference point.
My belief is that for a university to be properly so-called, as a modern university, it must have modern equipment and indeed it must be a research institution. Ours is a research institution, a modern university and so we have many arrangements with universities outside Nigeria, including one of the richest universities in the world, Sao Paulo Brazil, in South America, Cologne University in Germany, and of course, the first black African university in America called the Howard University.
One of our objectives is to make use of the numerous herbs we have, which my own grandparents and parents used in those days that cured most of the diseases then. So, I called my lecturers in medicine and in engineering and the sciences to meet together and form a committee, which will make use of these numerous herbs that we are endowed with in this part of the world to produce drugs that can compete with whatever you have overseas and we are already doing so.
How equipped is the university to carry out such research into the COVID-19 cure?
You see, nothing in this world can be said to be qualitative unless you know the standard agreed upon as qualitative and until you see it yourself. Please go round the university campus and see the aesthetic structures we have put in place and particularly the equipment: most modern, most sophisticated, which we have in the faculty of the natural sciences, in law, faculty of medicine, and the multi-system hospital.
For the avoidance of doubt, I have been described by the former Minister of Health, Sunday Adewole, the former Chief Medical Director of University College Hospital, Ibadan, and of course, the Chairman of the Nigerian Medical Association as the best thing that has happened to medical education in this country.
We have some of the most modern medical equipment you can find anywhere in this country, which proves the people I have mentioned earlier right. The African Development Bank, for instance, has directed its people from the whole of Africa to come to us here at ABUAD for their treatment.
So, I reassure you that we have better equipment than any other health facility in the country. The Society of Nigerian Engineers said 75% of the equipment we have in this university are not available in most universities in the country and they said our faculty is a template for engineering education in this country.
How long will this research process last and what are the expectations?
All I know is that we have set up a committee of brilliant researchers including renowned professors and other junior lecturers and even students. They are working on so many areas today. I know that they have gone far and we have got in touch with the National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration Control (NAFDAC) and they are eagerly waiting for the result from us.
You see, it is not an easy thing to make a drug at an acceptable standard not only to NAFDAC, but also to World Health Organisation (WHO). So, it will take time, but I assure you in the next few months, our drugs will be registered by NAFDAC. But it will take more time to get it to the stage, where the World Health Organisation will register it.
How do you preserve and ensure that the legacy of ABUAD is not jeopardised?
If you are asking me how I can preserve the university even when I am no more. I knew real poverty, because I grew up in it. I know what it takes to conquer poverty and education is probably one of the surest ways to conquer poverty and that is why I have and I am still investing in education.
Having invested so much in education, I want to make sure that my institution attains the highest level of achievable standard that is reckoned with globally. It may interest you to know that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) came here and they said our university is a first-class institution but that is not all.
Instead of investing all the money I earned from my practice in other areas, I invested it here because it has a way by which it can perpetuate itself. If you start a company and have your own children be shareholders from experience, most of such hardly lasts. But if you invest in education, there is a way it services itself.
We have a board of trustees that never dies and below that, we have an office of the chancellor, which never dies. We also have the pro-chancellor’s office that never dies and then you have the vice-chancellor’s office too. So, even if I die today, these bodies and offices remain and I don’t need a will to make them perform their statutory functions.
They can elect anybody from my family or from anywhere as a pro-chancellor. You know also that it is the board that appoints a vice-chancellor. So, Afe Babalola must not be around for the university to have a vice-chancellor.
Seeing how the university system works, motivated me to invest in education knowing that when I am no more, my investment to better humanity and all the effort, energy, time, and attention I have put in it will not be in vain. I also want you to know that it was not a small sacrifice I made with my family to invest in education. I had properties in and outside Nigeria, which I sold – I meant, I sold them all to develop this institution.
What measures should the government put in place in the event of a future pandemic?
The earliest recorded pandemic in the world took place in 450BC and ever since we’ve had so many. It is not a bad prophecy from me. But let us know that we are still going to have more pandemics in the future. Secondly, I can assure you that COVID-19, which originated from China, may not leave us fully anytime soon.
I guess it will be part of us for many years and I think it may turn out to be something we would have to live with like malaria. However, what we have to do is to begin to devise means of learning to live with it. Look, the presidential task force says we all must wash our hands, cover our nose, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and so on and so forth.
These are issues of hygiene. So many years ago in Nigerian elementary schools, hygiene was a compulsory subject but we threw everything away and today, we are taught how to maintain basic hygiene? It is a shame.
I want to also say that everything in life has its good part and the bad part or side. Coronavirus has dealt with us but it has a good side. It has taught us to review our health programmes, first at the family or household levels. Secondly, it has exposed the bad state of the health care system in this country and many others.
Therefore, it is important that universities and hospitals be well funded and equipped with modern facilities that are of the highest standard as are available in the facilities of more developed or advanced nations. For individuals like me, the coronavirus pandemic has taught me to ensure that whatever I do must be first class in standards.
Coronavirus has brought hardship but it is in hardship that great ideas are birthed. In fact, nothing teaches and toughens a man better than hardship. I am a beneficiary or better say, a refined product of hardship. When you approached the gate of the university, I am sure you saw those machines put in place for washing hands and sanitizing. We invented them. Hardships bring about innovation.
After coronavirus is gone, we must sincerely not to go to sleep again. We must begin to take responsibility for our lives and our society, because honestly as a people, we have been so careless, so irresponsible. We have wasted resources over the years. Things must change.
I am very optimistic that we are going to have a new Nigeria – a new Nigeria that will be more hygienic, take care of citizens’ welfare, provide a congenial environment for our children, students in schools and that will put them in safe and secure environments.
What is your advice to the government?
The government of Nigeria is under obligation to acknowledge those who are innovative. That’s not been done. In other countries, they don’t take for granted their best brains and innovative fellows. For example, in this country, there are a few Nigerians, who ought to have been honoured or deliberately appreciated by the government of the federation but that’s not been done.
An American came here and after going around this university campus of ours, he said, ‘Is this man,’ referring to me the owner of the university, ‘a Nigerian? If he is, then there is hope for Nigeria.’ That is a foreigner! All I am saying is that Nigeria and Nigerians must learn to value what we have; what is our own and learn also to find local solutions to our local and peculiar problems.