The soft-spoken Prof. FOLA LASISI, former Vice Chancellor, University of Uyo and Crescent University, Abeokuta has made a mark for himself in the engineering profession. He cuts his teeth in structural design before venturing into teaching. In this rare conversation, the new president, Nigerian Academy of Engineering relates his life experiences with VICTOR GBONEGUN.
I was born on February 23, 1943 in Odosenlu, Alaro, near Ijebu-Ode in the now Ijebu North-East Local Government area of Ogun State. I had my Primary School in the village. My father was into auto-part business. He was originally the secretary of a cooperative society, which specialised in Cocoa and Palm kernel. The cooperative had a series of haulages where they store their produce. When they found out that my father was able to write well, they made him their secretary. He was briefly educated; he had standard six and anyone that has that qualification in those days is usually celebrated. If he had been alive today, he would have been over 100 years old.
My mother was a very tough woman. She is a disciplinarian. Of course, my father was always traveling, my father is simple going but focused and principled. He said you have to go to school and this is what you need to do. My Father always pay my school fees. Some of my siblings, who didn’t stay in school, became the looser at the end. Women always make impact on your children and I realise it from my experience later in life, my mother was so firm. She was the third wife of the four.
There was a time when I was staying with a relative who sells fish called Mama Aladura (A prayer woman). I used to help her sell the product and one day after selling, I ate part of the remaining fish. She was furious as she didn’t give me permission and so reported me to my mother. My mother called me, during that time in the kitchen. Then there used to be a small stool made of wood which women sit on to make food. My mother just took my right hand and sat on it and started asking me, do you want to spoil my name and want people to call you a thief?
Throughout my life, I never applied to be a VC or to even work neither at Ife nor to become the president of the Nigerian Academy of Engineering, they just mentioned my name somewhere and they give me the job after looking through my records and achievements.
Was it easy for you to enroll for your primary, secondary and university education?
I went to technical school and by final year, I had a very good result and one of my teachers was the younger brother to one of the ministers in the western region then and wanted me to enrol into in Kings College.I wrote the exam and came first but the principal said no we don’t give scholarship to non-indigenes and so I didn’t continue there. But within the year, I got fellowship to the United States and within three years, I had gotten my first degree so my life was transformed in Lagos. That is why till today, I spend large part of my life in that city.
I got to the U.S at the age of 19 to study civil engineering at the University of Washington Seattle, and graduated in 1966. I was awarded Master’s degree in Civil Engineering of the same university, on fellowship. I later proceeded to the University of Wisconsin, Madison sponsored by the university of Ife and USAID in 1972 where I acquired Ph.D. degree in Agricultural engineering in 1974. Thereafter, I became a professional engineer in Wisconsin USA and a registered engineer in Nigeria in 1974.
I tried smoking but I later gave up on it and the same thing happened to alcohol, I never tasted well despite the fact that we always organising parties.When I finished my education in U.S, I came back, stayed in Ife and was given a job as lecturer II. I decided to settled in the campus in 1969.
The VC invited my wife and one day for a dinner. There, we discussed and I told him about my idea is that I want to make impact in the built environment. That sounds regular now but it wasn’t so then. He responded by saying that is good, we have never thought about it and he asked is it possible to do that in the university and I said its possible but you must give us approval. I then started coming to Lagos to link up with a consulting firm, which I have been collaborating with and before long I got a loan and built a house in Lagos, which is still there till today.
People began to think that I was running after women in Lagos, but many a time, I took my wife along and one Prof. Oguneye who always go to Lagos from Ife. I have three friends and their wives always come down with us to Lagos once in a month in my own car. My constant journey to Lagos changed my outlook. By the time the second Vice Chancellor got there and learnt of what I was able to do, he just started giving me consultancy work and with that I didn’t have to come to Lagos. When they wanted to build a petrol station, he asked me to make input.
I told him, I would design it and contact specialists in building forms. We also started looking at how to improve roads by putting kerbs. I designed road, which has been in existence for 50-years and still solid because we put kerbs and so it doesn’t wear out. I produced the kerbs about three or four thousand of them. We were able to build three roads for the university and with that you could get to the university because the university is an expansive area where you could access depending on which area you were coming from. Once they paid me for my service, I took my wife and children and went for vacation and from there, my life became exciting but you will always meet trials no matter how your life is interesting.From the beginning, I had already selected my mentors who were engineers and that helped me a lot in life.
Casting your mind back, how did your upbringing rob off on your career?
When I was the V.C and the bursar was suggesting different ways we could take money, I told her that you don’t know what you’re talking about because my mother said you must never be a thief. God saved me toward the end of my term as VC, she always wanted us to do some deals but I refused. I assigned some people to be paid but she declined saying she won’t be able to pay salary but I said madam you have been my bursary for many months, is there any month that we have failed to pay salary? She will argue that somebody supplied materials to us and we have not paid them. I later found out the only reason why she refused to pay them is because those people are from my area since I am a Yoruba and herself from Akwa Ibom.
The lady was forced to go on leave and when she came back, President Olusegun Obasanjo just got to power in 1999 and they decided to do visitation. God was very good to me because they started calling that we have received a letter to come and see the president in Abuja. I went and a lot of things happened, that day Obasanjo said they must stop discretional admission in the university. Somebody sitting next to me said, you are the most senior VC here because I was about finishing my second term of eight years, that I should talk. I said to him, you said no discretion, what will happen if the president, ministers send anybody to us, do we throw such letters to the dustbin? He replied what does that mean; I told him that it means that we will disrespect him. I told him that what he should do is that VCs should stick to the rules rather than abuse it.
I later called all the heads of units of the university to look at the records and write the report for the past seven years and so we got all those things. but the bursar wasn’t responding. Because of that I sent her on compulsory leave and so I got the deputy to play that role. When we had submitted the report, the said bursar had resumed and she wrote a report to the visitation panel that I sent her away so that I could steal.
She alleged that I stole N16million but I said the good thing is that I don’t sign any cheque. When I appeared at the panel, they replied that the lady should be sacked. The day that they submitted the report, I was in Abuja and the acting VC then told me that they have submitted the report and that the decision was that they should give me the recommendation. The bursar and the director of works were dismissed according to the report.
Nigeria should go back to basis and start producing little things and that is how you develop Small and Medium Scale Enterprise.
If I don’t have money, I buy used car and I live pedestrian with ordinary people because I don’t have the resources to live in Government Reserve Area (GRA) but I am happy with myself and the training of my children. I make my children to understand that you don’t need to be rich to have a good name. Throughout my life, I never applied to be a VC or to even work neither at Ife nor to become the president of the Nigerian Academy of Engineering, they just mentioned my name somewhere and they give me the job after looking through my records and achievements.
What is your advice for young people who intend to venture into engineering?
They should understand what is engineering. Firstly, they should know what they are going into and relate it with their purpose in life. What attracted me was that I saw old people that did engineering and are doing well in life. Anybody going into any profession, he/she should look for a mentor. Do your investigation very well. Some may find themselves in the profession by accident they should not waver just be focused. Find out what they do in the profession before you delve into it.
How do you see Nigeria today with regards to the economy?
Nigeria today is going through a lot of restructuring, not the restructuring that the politicians talk about because most people are looking at devolution of power as restructuring. It is much more than that. Restructuring involves looking at development, how do you embark on development that would impact the lives of ordinary fellows.
Restructuring involves looking at development, how do you embark on development that would impact the lives of ordinary fellows.
If mechanics can put things together, identify what could sell that we are importing. Substitution is the beginning because that is how Japan started. Nigeria should go back to basis and start producing little things and that is how you develop Small and Medium Scale Enterprise. There are some people in China who only produces buttons and they are making it. Nobody in China produces everything, the man who turn the pin in a pen, will give it somebody else who will produce it, somebody will also produce the plastic and so everything is assembled differently and before you know it, ten companies will be producing part to the pen but the man who put them together is the owner.
Today an average car has about 2,500 parts and a thousand companies producing the parts for the company that will eventually lay claim to producing the car. For instance, FORD Company has a thousand suppliers. That is industrialization and those guys involved reside in the small villages and communities. Nigeria needs to start looking into that.
This interview was first published in Guardian