Afe Babalola University Ado Ekiti is one of almost 100 private universities that have emerged from the ruins of federal and state universities in the last 20 years in Nigeria. Founded only in 2009, it has outgrown and outpaced many of the forerunners of such initiatives around the country. Its rise close to the top of the delivery of quality education in this country was punctuated last week, by the signing of a partnership agreement with Aster DM Healthcare, Dubai. It is a partnership which involves the supply of equipment to help the new ultra-modern ABUAD Teaching Hospital in the area of “tele-consulting”, “tele-diagnosis”, and “tele-management”.
What these really mean in a layman’s language is that the medical staff at ABUAD will be able to receive training and support by remote control from Dubai. Senior medical staff at Aster DM Healthcare in Dubai will be able to perform medical services in Nigeria by proxy. In other words, while not being at ABUAD physically, on the ground, they will transmit (live or otherwise) instructions on procedure through ABUAD medical personnel who will be acting as their eyes and ears on the ground, at least, until they too have mastered the trade well enough to stand on their own – unguided and unguarded.
While not being the ideal set up, no equipment, however modern, can replace the necessary touchy-feely human presence, especially in a hospital environment, it is, nonetheless, the boldest attempt any institution has made in this country to domesticate delivery of high quality medical services. It is a commendable effort to slow down (not stop) the pace of medical tourism from the country at large. The benefit to ABUAD and the medical industry in Nigeria, in general, is too much to recount. That said, it needs to be asked, precisely what the benefit is to the Dubai outfit. Is this truly a case of something for nothing agreement in a capitalist world? According to the Chief Executive Officer of Aster DM Healthcare, Dr. Harisha Pillai, the equipment was “donated” to ABUAD in “appreciation of the selfless milestone achievements of the ABUAD founder, Afe Babalola (SAN)”. This is a curious statement indeed, given that it would effectively be setting ABUAD up as a direct competitor in the lucrative healthcare business for the elites and super-rich (who largely do not wish to, or envisage dying) anytime soon. It is illogical to think that the Dubai outfit would wish to promote a venture that would substantially reduce their own profit margin by draining away their customer base in Nigeria in favour of ABUAD or anyone else for that matter. Anyway, be that as it may, this last observation underlines the raison d’être of this piece.
Before drawing the reader more into this discussion, it is appropriate for me to make a declaration of interest at this juncture. I was a senior academic member of staff at ABUAD, briefly, in 2014/2015, where I taught across three disciplines: political science, international relations and law at undergraduate level before going back to private practice. I had no personnel issues with the university, no axe (or other similarly dangerous tools) to grind, and would happily go back there at some point in the future. That said, the critique put forward here is from the vantage position of someone with a direct knowledge of the subject matter, but who is also now well and truly detached to comment on the phenomenon of ABUAD in the best tradition of column polemics. The title of this write up is, ipso-facto, deliberate; ABUAD poses a challenge to education standards in this country for all sorts of reasons.
First, the founder, ‘Aare’ (Ha-reh) (his exalted traditional title),Afe Babalola, Senior Advocate of Nigeria, is a colossal, who straddles, indeed looms large, over the Nigerian political and legal landscape, yet he remains very much an enigma. Second, ABUAD is an institution that models itself on the (liberal) Ivy League institutions of the West, yet, it employs a most illiberal method of upholding order in the university. The laisser faire approach of the Ivy League institutions of the West indulges students to such a ridiculous degree that ABUAD students can only ever ponder with envy. Some of the best leaders the West has witnessed in recent memory include Bill Clinton, and even Barack Obama. Both admittedly drank and dabbled in recreational drugs as they were coming through life as students in Ivy League universities in America. Oxford and Cambridge universities in the United Kingdom are grounds for rigorous academic training, but they are also fertile grounds for hard play and indulgence in all kinds of social vices abhorred by society at large. To them, there is no correlation between a regimented higher education system and good (productive) citizenship in later life. ABUAD clearly differs on this. Third, ABUAD is located in one of the most deprived, rural villages on the outskirt of Ado-Ekiti, the state capital, yet, it is only accessible to the sons and daughters of the rich and the well-heeled across the country. To the locals, the institution is little more than a chimera; it offers a window to a world beyond their wildest dreams, the symbolic effect of which could become dangerously disempowering. Fourth, ABUAD is rightly dedicated to academic excellence and it takes pride in the achievements of its staff at home and on the global stage, yet, handles academic freedom with levity; a fundamental tenet of quality university education.
Having said the above, the proof of the pudding, they say, is in the eating. ABUAD has scaled so many heights in its achievements in various disciplines including hi-tech and engineering, and now medicine. No point running through the list of the prestigious awards bestowed on the founder by established institutions around the world and on the university’s students almost in equal measure. Clearly, something is working for the university. That ‘something’ many people believe, is the founder himself. He is both the university’s de facto Chief Executive Officer and its number one marketing manager at the same time. He is an octogenarian still driven by ambition when others of his ilk are slouching on deckchairs, clamped on the green, manicured lawn, in their back garden sipping Champagne, making merry, and wondering what else to do in the twilight of their years on earth. Not Aare Babalola. He runs the institution from gut feelings, sheer stubbornness and the spirit of indefatigability. Very few people are legends in their lifetime, Aare Babalola is one.
Another critical element in this challenge to education standards is, of course, the parents and families of the students who keep trooping into the university’s gate, clamouring for admission for their children year-on-year. They are not put off by the type of critique in this piece, if anything, it could even be what drives many of them towards the university. They are lured to the institution, I think, by the ideal of the ‘perfect’ graduate walking back home at the end of their endeavour. Whatever it is, the parents, themselves, have neglected (good moral and ethical behaviour) to inculcate into their children from home, they feel relieved to find an institution that literally takes it upon itself to fill the void they have created in those children through their own neglect. If all it takes to have the perfect graduate is pay an eye-watering sum in school fees, then, many of them are willing to do just that. Whether or not the graduates, now in their thousands, turn out to be as ‘perfect’ later on, is quite another matter entirely. In my view, if you enter a university, any university, as damaged goods, there is very little the university can, or should do to repair you beyond providing you with an enabling environment to reach your full (academic) potential.
In the final analysis, the biggest strength of the university is, alas, its major weakness; the university is over-dependent on the presence and ability of its founder. It remains a matter of conjecture for how long the institution will survive his eventual (dare I say inevitable) passing. He is mortal after all, like the rest of us. Nonetheless, Aare Babalola has shown us, in this country, how to run a successful university. He has, in the same breadth, shown us how not to run a successful university. The statement is an oxymoron, sure, but it is the ultimate paradox that lies at the heart of ABUAD.
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