NOUN has an interesting cradle story. And people have their own different perspectives on the story, which makes it to have not a single story but several, depending on from where you are looking. Some believe that the university was started by the civilian government of President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2003, while others say it began during the Shagari administration in the ’80s. The bigger point of divergence is probably on who was the first Vice-Chanchellor. Hitherto, the widely held single narrative was that Professor Olugbemiro Jegede was the first.
On the first point, the truth is that it was President Shehu Shagari who established the National Open University (NOU) in 1983. Its first name was actually Open University of Nigeria (OUN), but this was changed by the National Assembly to the National Open University (NOU). However, the idea of an open university system for this country was actually first conceived by the National Universities Commission (NUC) as far back as 1976 when the inadequacy of facilities in the existing residence-based tertiary institutions was fully recognised. The NUC drew the attention of the then federal military government to that priority and the National Policy on Education, which the government adopted in 1977, stated that “the Federal Government shall undertake to make life-long education the basis for the nation's educational policy.” It expressly cited the importance of self-learning thus: “The education system will be structured to develop the practice of self-learning.”
But the military government was too busy preparing to hand over power to an elected civilian government by 1979 and was therefore not attuned to starting huge infrastructural projects that could not be completed before the time.
The National Party of Nigeria (NPN) keyed into spirit and made the establishment of such an institution, like the one in the United Kingdom (the most popular open university at that time), a key component of its election campaign. It is believed that that campaign promise was built into the NPN's Manifesto by Gabriel Jimoh Afolabi Ojo, Head of the Department of Geography at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). Ojo was then an aide to the party's National Secretary, Chief Adisa Akinloye, and was the one who inserted the bit about the establishment of an open university in Nihgeria in the party's education policies in the manifesto.
And after winning the 1979 elections, the NPN wasted no time in fulfilling its promise. The Shagari government set up a Presidential Committee on the Open University System, effective from May 1, 1980. Members of the three-man consisted of Prof G.J. Afolabi Ojo (chairman), Prof A.E. Afigbo of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and Alhaji H.G. Erubu of Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria. Erubu was later recalled to serve as the chairman of the Kwara State Public Service Commission, and he was quickly replaced on 1st December, 1980 by Dr Aminu Dorayi of ABU, Zaria.
Based on the work of this committee, the government sent the Open University Bill to the National Assembly. After months of debate, the Bill was passed. Before that, however, there were controversies in the media on the merits and demerits of the open education system; opponents of the proposal mostly based their considerations not on the applicability and workability of the system but mainly on political, ethnic and regional sentiments. While the debates lasted, the government, in order not to be seen to be distracted, named Prof Afolabi Ojo as the Vice-Chancellor, Alhaji Aliyu Obaje (the Attah of Igala) as the Chancellor, and Alhaji M.N. Shu'aibu Na'ibi (the Madawaki of Suleja) as the Pro-Chancellor. President Shagari signed the National Open University Act into law at a colourful ceremony held in Abuja on 22nd July, 1983. It was this law which governs the existence of the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) till today.
As VC, Prof Ojo committed himself to the actualisation of the NOU project. He recruited core staff “that were prepared and able to break out of their conventional university background.” He also employed part-time course writers, for whom he organised the first Course Material Production Workshop in July, 1981. Eventually, they produced several course materials. By then, the university had a dozen professors and 15 other academic staff, as well as administration staff, including the Registrar, Alhaji H.A. Erubu.
The university also organised its first Inaugural Lecture on 24th April, 1984. The lecture was delivered by the Vice-Chancellor himself. The event was successfully held in Abuja, with the FCT Minister, Major-Gen. Mamman Vatsa, and the University Council in attendance. Also, Prof Ojo's watershed book, “Distance Education in Nigeria and the Emergence of the National Open University,” was launched at the occasion.
In spite of the blooming success it was recording, however, the NOU was suddenly suspended just four days after its first Inaugural Lecture was held, i.e. on 27th April, 1984, through a statement issued by the Head of State, Major-Gen. Muhammadu Buhari. As no reason for the suspension was given, people like Prof Ojo were left to only speculate on just why. It was discovered, later, that the government had been under immense pressure to take that action by those Nigerians that had been opposed to the open education system right from the days of the Shagari administration. Surprisingly, many of those opponents were vice-chancellors of the conventional universities.
How time flies! The National Open University was resuscitated two decades later by the government of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo during the first quarter of 2003. In a speech to the National University Stakeholders' Consultative Forum, the then Minister of Education, Prof Abraham Babalola Borishade, a former colleague of Ojo's at Ife, announced that the President had reopened the university since 1st October, 2002. This followed a lot of lobbying by those who believed in the system, especially Prof Afolabi Ojo (the apostle of open university) who had committed himself to a subtle, untiring campaign for resuscitation of the university. The lobby had led to the formation, by the Federal Ministry of Education under Obasanjo, of a high-powered committee to revisit the resuscitation of the National Open University. The committee was chaired by Prof Olugbemiro Jegede, who was eventually appointed as the Vice-Chancellor of the renamed National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN).
The rest, as they say, is history. The university is now under the leadership of its fourth Vice-Chancellor, Prof Abdalla Uba Adamu, who was appointed last year by President Muhammadu Buhari. The third VC was Prof Vincent Ado Tenebe, the current VC of the Taraba State University, Jalingo.
Prof Adamu had been hearing about a certain Prof Ojo who was reportedly the first VC of NOUN but had never met him. In fact, few in NOUN had heard about Ojo. Indeed, there were whispers that no one had served as VC before Jegede. This was in spite of the fact that Ojo had chronicled the history of NOUN in his two books, the second being his autobiography titled “A Life of Surprises: Autobiography of Gabriel Jimoh Afolabi Ojo”, published in 2010. Chapter 7 of the book is devoted entirely to his tenure as the first Vice-Chancellor of NOUN.
Recently, an old man walked into the office of the VC, Prof Adamu, in Lagos. The octogenarian, who was accompanied by his son, was there on invitation of Adamu, who had been eager to meet him. His name was Prof Afolabi Ojo. Homely, all-smiles and even self-effacing, he struck those present as a self-satisfied man. It was an emotional meeting between the first VC and the current one. Adamu had been wishing to fully recognise Ojo for his pioneering work as the man who ran from pillar to post to see to the establishment of the university and its resuscitation. They chatted for about an hour in the presence of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic), Prof Patrick Eya, the former Head of the Media and Publicity Unit of NOUN, Dr Ronke Ogunmakin, and others.
Before he left, the 88-year-old Prof Ojo granted an interview to IBRAHIM SHEME and ABIODUN AKANMU for NOUN News. We were excited to have him share his insights and views on a project he loves so much because he, more than many of his peers, had seen its potentials of changing the fortune of millions of Nigerians who yearn for higher education through the Open and Distance Learning (ODL) system. His coming to the VC’s office and this interview will help change the old narrative. Here are excerpts:
Can you tell us the very moment you were told about starting this university and where you were at that time?
I was all along at Obafemi Awolowo University as the head of Geography department, then Faculty of Social Sciences there, and even held other positions. I know that there were other people there who were thinking that sooner or later they would push me to become the Vice-Chancellor of the Obafemi Awolowo University. But all those people who were wiser than them moved quickly to snatch me to the National Open University, which I had to grab because of my own background in the Open Education, in a private university, which it rates high even before this one was raised up in this country.
When I found out that it was doing well in other countries, I made up my mind that it must do well also in Nigeria. And this is how I channeled my energy to the assignment given to me, to look into the formation of the National Open University.
Can you tell us some of the initial activities that you did in order to start it?
Yes, the presidential committee set up by the president, that was the most important thing. President Shehu Shagari, himself, was very interested. The person in charge of Ministry of Education was so interested. And as for me I was being taken round the universities that were existing then to give the message on what was going on and discharge my own assignment.
What was the official title at that time to start this activity?
I was the Chairman, Presidential Committee on Open University.
Were you named as Vice-Chancellor at any time?
Not at the beginning. In fact, we did not know how soon the Open University would begin until we started the work. But the Ministry of Education thought that it was something they could be waiting for ages, can be done within the period of some few years. They gave us a period of three years to put everything in shape. Within that time, we gave them all the issues that must have gone through. We were moving faster than them. Everything was moving smoothly.
How many years did you spend in that committee?
It was three years, before being appointed the Vice-Chancellor.
So you were appointed the Vice-Chancellor eventually.
Where were you operating from, the office?
You know, before then, I was in the Obafemi Awolowo University, but as soon as the work started, it got movements and it became even necessary for me to move to Lagos. I went to the Ministry of Education, we were about like that. And I didn't have the opportunity of going back to Obafemi Awolowo University.
But before that, the Open University bill in the National Assembly, there was an initial hitch. During the second reading, it was thrown out. Others and I had to do some lobby again before it was eventually passed as the National Open University Bill in 1983. I had an office in Surulere, I think No.1 Adeniran Adesanya Street, VI, which I was using as the Vice-Chancellor. And then I used to go to Abuja, also, because there was an area in Abuja that was known as National Open University, because we had an office there also. I was detached completely from Obafemi Awolowo University. I used to shuttle between Federal Government Guest House at the Bar Beach and Abuja.
Sir, what was the circumstance in which the whole project was stalled?
The whole thing was based on the fact that people were struggling to have the headquarters of the Open University based in their locations, because there was a headquarters even though it wasn't permanent. That is why Lagos was struggling, Abuja was struggling, even Sokoto, Kaduna and Port Harcourt and some two states from the east. It was a real tussle. People struggled even at the presidential level to be the people who started it at their own area. There was a lot of politicking.
Was that before the military took over or after?
That was before the military takeover.
So when the military tookover, what happened?
Again, the whole thing started, in a way. The Buhari/Idiagbon government wanted it in Abuja. But the university was still functioning for about a year and I was being invited to Abuja. They had been asking me what was happening for people to be making such struggles for the Vice-Chancellor's position. I was being asked whether people were thinking the university would be a place to siphon money and all of that, because there was a lot of corruption. And people were already aware of the value of education. They were education-conscious to the extent that they didn't wait any longer for the small-moving existing universities. If you are to study while you are doing your work, why will somebody stop you from that? What is important is that during exam, you can take your exams and you can get your own level of qualification.
But to tell you the specific reason why the university was suspended, I can't, because it came as a surprise. This is a case where we don't want to instincts to other people's mind: some people thought it should be wholly in the north, and then people from the other side were struggling very hard.
So the government could not decide where the university should be headquartered.
At that time, there is no way by which one should decide without hurting the feeling of some people. But the system we brought was that it should be in different locations, the centres, but it did not even go well with some others: Some wanted it more in the west, in the east and so on, until the government of military took over.
Sir, how did you feel when it was scrapped? What was your feeling at that moment? Were you disappointed?
Well, I must say I was disappointed in thinking that the people were not educated enough to allow the system to work in the way it was recommended.
When the idea of Open and Distance Learning was mooted then, how did Nigerians react?
They wanted it to come, the average Nigerian wanted it to come as something immediately. It was people who looked at it from the monetary value and struggled for it to come from their states. Nigerians were thinking of it as something very interesting: working and learning. To stop people protesting because they were thinking it was being delayed as another problem in itself.
Can you recall the number of students you had?
In many of the situations, we had over 200. You know at that time it was selective, just coming gradually. Unlike today it is considered on the level of readiness, when everybody will have to think, Ok, I'm mature enough. But in those times, you were thinking of how many people you could get from your area. Moreover, because there was no internet facility then, it was more thinking how to have some stations, sub-stations and so on. The students' population was not that big. Since we were just staring, you would have a lot of telling people what it was all about. Right now, if an Open University is based in one location, it would be of disadvantage to some people. By being tied down in one place it may not bring all the advantage required. Resources would be made available to me if I am in Lagos. Our level of education then was not too clear to the people
Sir, what is your impression of the National Open University today?
It is one of the best in the parts of the world that I know. It is well organised, pushing ahead smoothly and satisfactorily. People outside Nigeria are struggling to find accommodation in the Nigerian Open University.
Do you feel proud you were the person who got chosen to start this project, looking back at all that which had happened?
I give praise to almighty God that I had that connection, that opportunity. There is nothing that I can say which made me happier than that at that time. It is a lot of opportunity that you on your own you can reach 1,000 people.
The opportunities are still vast. Everyone should be educated. So there is no need to make it difficult for some people to get educated. The best thing you could do for somebody is to give him the opportunity for which he could be educated. But hindering that opportunity for education is hindering the nation and the world.