Professor Abdulllahi Bala is the Vice Chancellor, Federal University of Technology, Minna. In this interview by ADELOWO OLADIPO, he speaks on a number of issues around his office and security in the state. Excerpts:
How prepared are you to resume academic activities after the era of COVID-19 and what has been the challenges?
It has been very challenging, given the fact that no one anticipated this pandemic, it just dropped on us. It was something that nobody planned for. The first challenge is the fact that we had already started the 2019/2020 academic session. The session became open- ended and we continued to incur expenses to the extent that the funds that were supposed to be used for one calendar year were now going to be used for about 20 months. So, financially, most universities would tell you that we are facing a very difficult situation. In terms of the personnel that are being put on ground, what we did was to ensure that we reduce the number of people on the campus. So, since March last year we have people from level 12 downward staying at home unless their services are required on the campus. At any point in time they can be invited. But most of them had to stay at home. That reduces the pressure about the number of people in an office. And where we need to have them we have to organise them and ensure that not all of them are in the office at same time. So, that is how we have been managing the situation.
This is an institution with about 30,000 students, what are the things you are putting in place to observe safety protocols for COVID-19 upon resumption of academic activities?
Well, this is a very challenging situation for us. And we have challenges in a few areas. One of them is at the lecture theatres. Usually you would see that even in normal times they were usually filled up.Another one is the hostels. Now, even though we usually give them specific number of occupants per room in the hostel, students, being what they are, you will still see that there would be squatters. Usually when I go round in the evenings, you will see a room that should have three students with about 10 students because almost every person is having squatters. Some of them even have two squatters each. So, these are the two major problems we foresee in terms of the control of population. So, what we are going to do in the academic area, based on our meetings at Senate, we are advising that each academic staff should split the classes. Normal classes can be split so that instead of having so many students at a go, when you split them into two or three batches you can attend to them in batches. In terms of the hostels, we cannot reduce the occupants because you have already collected their money and you have even used the money. So, the decision we have taken is that we are going to strictly enforce that there is no squatting policy. We are going to make sure that it is the bona fide occupants of the room that are allowed in the hostels.
Do you have an isolation centre for students that test positive for COVID-19?
No, we don’t have an isolation centre. Rather what we have done is to go with one of the requirements which is the non-pharmaceutical intervention, that is the provision of the holding bays because we do not have the permission to operate isolation centre per se. But we have holding bays where you have some suspected cases of COVID-19, to keep such cases until the arrival of the NCDC or medical personnel. So, it is a requirement that we must have those things before the school is reopened. If you go to the two campuses, Bosso and Gidan Kwanu, you will see that we have or created holding bays for that purpose. We are providing them with beds, with altimeters and the other equipment that you will need to manage and stabilize such patients until a time they are evacuated.
Now, NASU and NATS are on strike, when you are getting prepared to resume academic activities on campus. How do you reconcile this?
The university system is used to all these things, but the best you can do is devise how to adapt to it. We have had meetings with the officials of SSANU and NASU, we are pleading for their understanding. But as usual, you know these unionists, when they start their strike, even though we are friends, we eat from the same plate, they don’t listen again. What we are trying to do is to see what measures we can take pending the time they would resume from the strike. I think the major area of concern to us is the clinic, I mean the university’s health services. So, what we are trying to do is to see how we can make alternative arrangements with the General Hospital, Minna and some clinics outside the campus in case of any emergency. We would just evacuate to such places since our own personnel would not be in.
How do you react to the rumour that the university wants to charge students about N15,000 on their resumption to school?
Well, it is not true. We are not charging anything. As part of our consultations when we were preparing for resumption, of course all options were on the table and given the fact that we also had problems of finances, charging students was an option. So, in the course of consultations, I am sure we heard the rumour of charging fees and it must have come from the students because we also met with the leadership of the students union and we made them understand that because of the financial state of the university, we might charge students. Though they went out not out of mischief, maybe they also wanted to consult their own constituency, that was how they put it. Of course, they would go and say that the management said they wanted to charge some fees. But we had met, we had considered that with all the options available, we feel that we can recall the students without charging fees.
With regard to the insecurity across the country, especially in Niger State and its environs, are you not concerned about banditry and kidnapping across the state as the university plans to reopen soon?
We are all concerned. Niger State had been one of the most peaceful states in the country until now when you see cases of banditry all over the place. But we have the hope that the security agents are doing their best in trying to handle the ugly situation. Also, we, as a university, would also try to take our own steps to make sure that we try to provide as much security as possible.
Two years ago, it was estimated that more than 13 million out-of-school children are roaming the streets of the country and majority of the children were believed to have come from the northern states. As an academic and university administrator, what do you think is the solution?
Well, although not that I am aware of it, this might have improved in some states where the governors are making efforts to tackle the problem head-on. In Kaduna State, for example, they have what they call Education Marshals, they are to go round to make sure that children of school age and dropouts are made to join schools. I think that is the right thing to do because we seem to be retrogressing. As a child in the early 70s if you were found roaming about during school hours, the elders around would cane you because you were supposed to be in school. So how come now, about 50 years later, some out-of-school children in Nigeria are out for nothing. It is a responsibility on the part of the Northern state governors, the emirates, chairmen of local government councils to ensure that they take the right decisions to ensure that all children that are of school age, go to school.
There has been fear of food insecurity in the country in the last few years because of insecurity which includes farmers/herders violence in the Southern part of the country. There is terrorism and banditry in the North. As an agricultural expert, are you not also worried about the situation like the rest of us?
It is quite an unfortunate situation. Where farmers are prevented from going to their farms, it is going to have an adverse effect on farm output, there is no doubt about that. What happened last year, you know it was a combination of banditry, the insurgency in the North East and banditry in Benue State and in the North Western part of the country and similar things here in the North Central as well. And then, of course, you know there were cases of floods that have also affected our food production. One way we can actually try to reduce the adverse effect is by promoting dry season farming or agriculture. When you cultivate twice in a year instead of cultivating just once in a season, relying on rain, you can go into irrigation and that allows you to carry out cropping either three times or two times in a year. So, to me, that is the way to go whether or not there is banditry or there is insurgency, or there are natural disasters. Nigeria should seriously go for irrigated agriculture to be able to deal with our teeming population.
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