His daily tune goes like this: “I wake up in the morning hoping to create a new knowledge … What is it that I can discover today that will change the world” He is Professor Ilesanmi Adesida, the interim dean, college of engineering at Urbana Champaign campus of the University of Illinois and he spoke with our editor Joseph Omoremi, on his moves to elevate the country’s forth-ranked engineering school all the way to the number one.
Inquirer: How did you get here?
Adesida: It is through hard work. I left for Nigeria with my family after my education here but had to come back when the need arose. It’s been 18 years since I came back and the university saw my hard work and gave me the opportunity.
Inquirer: What is your goal as the interim dean, college of engineering?
Adesida: We are rated number four in the nation and my goal is to take it to the first position. I’m putting the mechanism in place to attain the goal. It is attainable and I’m working assiduously towards that. I just came from a meeting, all we are discussing is how do we become number one in five years.
Inquirer: So what are you planning to attain that?
Adesida: How do we hire the best people in the country or anywhere to come to our college? How do we raise our standard so that all the professors see these standards as the place we want to be? And if they cannot do it, they are gone. That is what China is doing. That is what Singapore is doing and that is what India is doing. And that is what Nigeria should be doing. I heard the dean of American university of Beirut in Lebanon graduated from the department of electrical engineering here. He came here to talk to me on how we could collaborate.
Inquirer: Are you saying Nigerian university administrators have not contacted you for collaboration?
Adesida: I’ve had some but the problem is how do you collaborate with the people who don’t have the standard? It is very difficult.
Inquirer: So what did you tell them?
Adesida: I told them I’m a Nigerian true and true but I work for the state of Illinois and when I go to Singapore and China, the first thing I look is: What does the university of Illinois benefit from this. If what I’m going to do for you don’t contribute to me becoming number one, forget it. If what I want to do with you doesn’t enhance my status in the world, forget it. When you go to the Olympics, the winner only get one gold medal. The organizers don’t give gold medal to everybody. It is very selfish but that is what you need to some point to be at the point.
Inquirer: Technology is one of the problems limiting the black continent. Is it not ironic that you are heading this engineering faculty here?
Adesida: Not really. African leaders at some time lost focus. When I was in form one, (equivalent of first year Middle school) I donâ€™t know if you are old enough to know about redifusion. Those red boxes, we had it in the classroom at 8.a.m. at Owoh. They will be broadcasting from Ibadan teaching us English. What do you call that, that is technology? It was the technology of that era. These people were years ahead of their time. All the English we were learning in those days part of it was spoken English they transmit it from Ibadan to local stuff in the classroom. There was no computer then. That is what you call forward thinking.
Inquirer: How and when did African leaders lost focus?
Adesida: Let’s not go into that.
Inquirer: What is your advise for Nigerians, and Africans here?
Adesida: In this country, things are individualistic to a large extent. What you have to do is to raise yourself up. If you try to raise yourself up, you are raising the society up, don’t forget that. If you want to do anything for anybody else, if you cannot take care of yourself, you cannot do anything for anybody. I always tell my kids that. If you want to help somebody else, you have to be able to help yourself.
Inquirer: What do you mean by all these people helping themselves?
Adesida: If you have engineers that cannot do anything or get into the system here with their foreign certificates, let them go to junior college really. Most of the junior colleges are very cheap. If you cannot do it, if you stay here and say I’m an engineer and I’m not going to do anything else, you will just be driving taxi. Go to junior college, go and learn a different trade. There are Nigerians there who finished English in Nigeria and went to junior college to learn Information Technology; some of them are managers in New York. They are in Wall Street managing computer systems. I know them and I’m not making this up. Nigerians are enterprising. Don’t just say I’m an engineer and stay put. Go to local school, find a way to pay the money, get a certificate. A lot of these kids are earning $60,000. There are jobs in Asia. Stay there for a while to save some money before you go back to Nigeria. It is going to be very difficult for them to find a job as an engineer directly if you are coming from Nigeria.
Inquirer: What about doing their masters and PhD in engineering too?
Adesida: It is very difficult. This is a global market. My students are from China, from Korea and from everywhere. And these guys are first class education. My colleague, Samson Odunuga is the first person that have been admitted directly from Nigeria. I’ve been here 18 years. The news is out that Nigeria education has gone done since the 80s. When I was in California in the 70s, all you need to say is that “I’m from Ibadan or If” you will be taken. If you go to IMT, Professor Akinwande got his first degree from Ife, he went to Stanford. The military leaders say university students as making noise and decided to stave the university of funds. They put people who are second rate as vice chancellors. If you put people who are not respected, what are you going to do? Nothing. If you want education, you cannot sacrifice quality. If you do, you cannot compete in the world.
Some kids from Nigeria called me up too on that and I told them it is going to be very difficult for me to take you here but why not find a small level university and go and demonstrate what you can do there and after that you can apply here. The Nigerian that I have in my group went to a school in Canada-University of Western Ontario and he came here and talked to me and I said ok I would give you a chance.
Inquirer: How is he doing?
Adesida: He is doing ok. But you can see that the background from Nigerian university is not all that great in terms of no first class equipment to teach the students. It is not that these kids are not tough or capable. We are all from there and we know how these students could be but if you don’ have first class equipment to teach your student, it is very difficult to meet world standards.
Inquirer: After attaining all the exposure, training students not just in America but in Asia, Korea etc, how can you help the black continent or transfer some of your expertise there?
Adesida: The guy who became the president of Singapore Linquan Yu, he was a little bit autocratic but he was a contemporary, from what I understand, of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. They had the same philosophy-education, health and food. When Malaya which became Malaysia after independence, wanted to move faster and was being slowed down by Malaysia. He separated Singapore from Malaysia. Malaysia is copying Singapore now and they’ve moved forward but this guy (Linquan Yu) very fast. Education with absolute standard if you can’t do it forget it. I have their students here all the time. The leaders have to be committed. They have to have a vision and have to surround themselves with people who have a vision and are ready to sacrifice. If you don’t have it, it is difficult for things to bubble-up.
Inquirer: So where do they get the money?
Adesida: From my point of view, the people in the west of Nigeria, what are their competencies? Agriculture and education. Let them go build industries based on agriculture. Forget the oil. As far as I’m concerned, tomorrow if you rule Nigeria, if Rivers people want their oil, let them take it. Are they going to drink it, no they are going to sell it. You guys here, if you are ready to work, let’s go to work. Go back to the farm. There are many products that come from yam, cassava and from plantain. Even if it is just in the backyard first, do it and build it up. The problem is that we want to get their one day and steal all the money in one day. As far as I’m concerned, all the regions -because the states are too small-should get together. Give the Rivers their oil. Oil is going to finish and they are living on water and they have no infrastructure. So give them their oil, let the other part go and create their own wealth.
Inquirer: What about the nascent political structure?
Adesida: I don’t know because I’m not a politician.
Inquirer: Don’t you think things are better off now than when we had military rulers?
Adesida: It’s better to some extent because we can talk unlike in the past when they will just kill you. But they are still killing people. Look at Ibadan, the governor is fighting (Chief Lamidi) Adedibu, but why are they fighting each other? Why are they fighting? It’s because of money. Maybe Adedibu thinks he is not getting enough share of the money. Is it not? Nobody is fighting to create anything. They are fighting to share. The politics of Nigeria is how to share and not how to create?
Inquirer: Do you face challenges here?
Adesida: Yes, I face challenges but I work hard. We are Africans in this environment but one thing that you have to give credit to some extent to America is that if you show that you can do something they will give you the opportunity to do it. I like that sort of society. I won’t say it is equal but if you demonstrate that you can do something, there are opportunities. You know Nigerians have come around and people have risen up. In Nigeria, if you are not from a certain area, you won’t move up. You are on your own. However, there are challenges here. You have to work twice as hard as anybody to make sure they recognize you but Nigerians are known for hard work. All you need to do is take some Nigerians out of the Nigeria country and plant them in different places. I think if they move Nigerians out of the Nigeria structure and put them in separate places, Nigeria will move very fast. You see Nigerians they come here and behave orderly and when they fly back to Lagos, it is a different thing.
Inquirer: Many world leaders including erstwhile President Jimmy Carter of U.S. are saying that Nigerian leaders should tap into the resources of Nigerians outside the country to change the country. If President Obasanjo calls on you, will you heed the call?
Adesida: That is right but will Nigerian leaders listen? If you have people with the same mentality move en-mass from here to contest and win elections, that may be a solution if they demonstrate how governments are run.
Inquirer: Are you available if they call on you?
Adesida: There are better people than me to leave and change things. Even in Nigeria. I only got grade two in my WAEC (West African Examination Council) and my classmates got grade one. However, my education is to prepare people for hard work. In those days, there is a yardstick. The urge is to reach the height. You need a certain class of people who actually think beyond their pockets, not for everybody, to move a country forward.
Inquirer: Can you elaborate on this?
Adesida: Nigeria has a chance. You can never write a country off. You can never say a country cannot rise. As we say in Nigeria, where there is a will, there is a way. Where there is life, there is hope. All the bolekaja (motor park) philosophy is actually very good. The fundamental stuff in Nigeria is if we can return ourselves back to standard; expect people to behave in a very good way, treat them very well in terms of not stealing, educate themselves and their family, look at the what other people are doing and try to raise them up. That is very important.
Inquirer: Who is Dr. Ilesanmi Adesida
Adesida: I’m from Ifo in Ondo state between (old) Bendel and Ondo states. I went to school all over Benin, Oshogbo and Owoh. All my formative years were all over the place but I went to Imade College. Going to Imade made a big difference in my life. I was the first person to go to school in my family from Ifo. Whatever I become today, I had to note all those places. Hard work. Nigerians are known for hard work really.
Inquirer: Did you go to any college in Nigeria?
Adesida: I worked at University of Ibadan as a technologist. They (UI) had something like a technical school which I attended before I came to California. University of Berkeley.
Inquirer: You love America so much, hence your desire not to return to Nigeria.
Adesida: I left for Nigeria with my family. One makes a judgment: Is this a state one can stay under? I love research. I told the kids (students) yesterday that I wake up in the morning hoping to create a new knowledge in that day. I wake up every morning what is it that I can discover today that will change something. At least in my research area. I have papers that my students and I were writing all the time even when I’m in this office.
Inquirer: What is your source of inspiration?
Adesida: A student asked me yesterday what makes me go? Everybody in their lives has their own kicks. I’ve always been in the university environment. The other role model in my life is Professor Ige Grillo of the University of Ibadan. He is dead now. He was the first dean of the medical school at Ife. All the organization structures at medical school at Ife, I drew them with my own hands. I drew them as a worker under Grillo in the department of anatomy in Ibadan. The way he organized was almost like American style. I think they’ve changed it now. All the divisions of health science and divisions where they will have no department, I drew all those things because I did some technical stuff at UI. Those are professors, Ige Grillo, Lambo. Those were the top names when I was growing up. I modeled myself after Grillo. I worked for him for four years. I read in the papers that he died in London at 72 while trying to discover new things at Cambridge.