The 114th anniversary of King’s College, Lagos, brings with it an opportunity for reflection and action. To shed light on the significance of this occasion and the vision behind it, The Guardian newspaper of Nigeria sat down for an insightful interview with Attorney Olumide Akpata, a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association and Chairman of the 2023 Kingsweek Anniversary Planning Committee.
In the interview, Mr. Akpata delved into the theme of this year’s Kingsweek celebration: “Dismantling the Barriers: Creating a Pathway for the Emergence of Effective Leaders in Nigeria.” He explored the pressing questions surrounding leadership in Nigeria, especially the challenges faced by educated and capable Nigerians in taking the helm of the nation. The aim was not only to diagnose the issues but also to propose solutions that would have a far-reaching impact on the entire education sector in Nigeria.
As King’s College marks its 114th anniversary, this interview with Mr. Akpata provides a thought-provoking insight into the challenges and opportunities facing Nigeria’s education and leadership landscape. It serves as a call to action for all stakeholders to prioritize education and leadership development in the quest for a brighter future. Here we go:
Q: What informed the theme of the 2023 Kingsweek celebration and how does it impact the Nigeria education sector?
A: At every turn, one is confronted by the myriad of problems that afflict our country Nigeria and there is seeming consensus that, over time, it is the failure in leadership that has brought us to this rather sorry pass. However, this situation appears to be somewhat like a paradox because when you look around, within Nigeria and in the Diaspora, you find legions of Nigerians, trained in schools like our King’s College, who are more than equipped to lead and who are doing precisely that in their respective fields of endeavour, but who somehow never get a look-in or, sadly, have become passive when it comes to political leadership in Nigeria. Why is this so? Why are these sets of people outside, and “looking in” while the ship of state flounders? These and many other allied questions that have agitated our minds for a while now, essentially informed the theme for this year’s Kingsweek: “Dismantling the Barriers: Creating a Pathway for the Emergence of Effective Leaders in Nigeria”.
The plan is to intensely interrogate this issue in the course of the Kingsweek, and hopefully proffer solutions to what is obviously an endemic problem with mortal consequences for our nationhood. There is no gainsaying that the outcome of our deliberations will have implications for the country’s entire education sector. I think, for starters, it will become very obvious to our education policy-makers that, going forward, they will need to be more deliberate and forward-thinking about developing curricula that not only focuses on how to train prospective leaders of this country but also ensures they are future-ready. It goes without saying that the world these leaders will need to thrive in, looks a lot different and far more complex than what we know today. As such, it is paramount that we design the education of our future leaders to ensure they have all it takes to compete with their peers from other climes, especially in view of the global 4th industrial revolution, which is well underway.
Q: What is the biggest challenge facing youth leadership in the country and how are organisations like the King’s College Old Boys’ Association (KCOBA) helping to solve them?
A: I think the greatest challenge to youth leadership in Nigeria is lack of faith! On the one hand, lack of faith among the older generations in the capacity of the younger ones to take charge and actually do a good job. And on the other hand, lack of faith of the younger generations, their trust or confidence, in the intentions of the older generations to serve their best interest and not continue to pursue policies that appear focused on stunting their advancement or policies that could result in disadvantages as they look to compete in a rapidly evolving world. Take my generation for example, we were once proclaimed “the leaders of tomorrow!” Now, we are over 50 and that so-called “tomorrow” has come and gone. Yet, save for a few isolated cases here and there, we are nowhere near assuming leadership in Nigeria, not to mention the generations coming behind us. Actually, it is quite pathetic: the sheer waste of the energy, the vigour, the passions and the potentials of our youth. KCOBA, strives to lead by example, by preparing our younger members for leadership and actually encouraging them to vie for and occupy positions of leadership in the Association. For example, I was the General Secretary of the Association over 10 years ago, when I was still in my thirties. You will agree with me that, for a school that is well over a hundred years old at the time – with old boys who were well in their 80s and who were still actively involved in the affairs of the Association – that was a very welcome development. The remarkable thing is, this was no fluke, because my successor was actually my junior, when we were at KC. The wider society needs to take a cue from KCOBA.
Q: How does KCOBA structure its Kingsweek programmes to ensure that it can mobilize both the private and public sectors to address challenges facing the college in terms of infrastructure?
A: Actually, for many years now, at least since 2007 when we began the countdown to the Kings College Centenary, the focus of the KCOBA, during our annual Kingsweek Celebrations, has been mainly on infrastructure in the college and as a result, in the last 15 years we have been able to galvanize our old boys and, through them, the public and private sector within and outside Nigeria to work with the Association in maintaining, improving and augmenting the facilities and infrastructure at King’s College. This effort has yielded massive results as we have been able, over this period, to attract interventions in excess of N3B from old boys, corporate organisations, agencies of the Federal Government, the Lagos State Government, amongst others.
Q: When it comes to grooming quality leaders, Nigerians increasingly list corruption, godfatherism as obstacles. How can these pressures be tackled?
A: The answer is simple and straightforward. By enthroning merit! This must be our national policy. I have no problems with affirmative action…in its various iterations…zoning; women and youth empowerment; quota system etc. These are aberrations that are sometimes necessary in the life of any nascent nation. However, two key considerations must remain paramount. First: this deviation from the norm cannot remain open-ended and second: merit must never be sacrificed. So, if we agree that an office is zoned to the Northwest or Southeast? No problem. However, we must insist on producing the very best from the Northwest or Southeast, as the case may be, and this must result from an open and transparent process. This is how the continued emergence of quality leaders can be guaranteed whilst ensuring equity and inclusivity. However, when the enthronement of mediocrity becomes the national dictum in the name of affirmative action, it can only result in catastrophic consequences, as has become evident in our polity.
Q: Partnership with the private sector is very critical to maintaining the vision of King’s College. How do you see the role of well-meaning individuals in the quest to enthrone qualified and capable leadership at the Federal and Sub-national levels in Nigeria?
A: This definitely goes without saying. The task of ensuring that there is a steady and unbroken process, call it a factory line, for producing the next generation of leaders in this country is one that must be undertaken through the collaborative efforts of all stakeholders. In other words, the construct for designing and operating this conveyor belt of future leaders cannot comprise and must not be the responsibility of government alone. It requires active and consistent collaboration with the private sector and successful individuals with high achievements across various endeavors. We say in Nigeria, “it takes a whole village to raise a child. By extension, it will take enormous collaboration between government and the private sector to raise, mentor and empower Nigeria’s next generation of leaders. At the KCOBA, we have never lost sight of the Kings College Charter which, essentially, is to train Nigeria’s future leaders and we regularly collaborate with individuals and organisations that share the same vision.
Q: For Kings College to be celebrating 114 years as an educational institution, it must have gone through many challenges. What are some of the high points in the schools’ quest to maintain excellence in grooming next generation leaders?
Having been very involved in the activities of the KCOBA in the last 20 years, I have experienced, first hand, the many challenges confronting both the management of the school and the association in our joint quest to maintain standards at Kings College – with a view to ensuring that the school continues to bring forth the next generation of qualitative leaders for Nigeria and indeed Africa. Top of the list would be what used to be the rather haphazard mode of admission into the college. At a point, it was simply bizarre, with the yearly intake into the college growing in geometric proportions without any corresponding adjustments in budgetary allocation and, more importantly, without any improvement in or significant expansion of the existing facilities. However, I am happy to report that KCOBA has been able to successfully combat this existential problem and things have significantly improved as far as admissions are concerned. Nonetheless, the problem of inadequate and decrepit facilities persists and this is what keeps us, the old boys, awake at night. We are deeply concerned about the present physical condition of our school as this remains a major impediment to the school’s ability to live up to its mandate.
Q: Take a look at economic indices like high unemployment rate, low budgetary allocation to the educational sector among others. What advice do you have for the present federal government to address these issues?
A: All I would say is that governments, at all levels, must prioritise education. We must invest in the continuous enhancement of our human capital if we hope or plan to make any meaningful advancement as a nation. This particular issue is very dear to me. I had the privilege of delivering the 46/47th Convocation Lecture of the University of Benin in November 2021, and settled on the topic, ‘Re-Prioritisation of Education – A Panacea for the Obstacles Challenging National Development in the 21st Century Nigeria.’ It is not rocket science, and I am not saying anything new. Examples abound world-over. The nations that have made significant strides in human advancement have done so on the back of huge investments they made in training, developing and capacitating their human capital. China is currently on the verge of overtaking the US as the world’s largest economy and most advanced country, because it has spent the last 50 – 60 odd years prioritizing the education and up-skilling of its enormous human capital. In this country, we pay lip-service to education and human capital development. Yet, we wonder why things have gone awry and the country appears stuck in inertia. In the last forty years there has been a steady and sustained deterioration of education in Nigeria – at all levels, and this flows from what I characterize as the gradual yet consistent de-prioritization of education. Predictably, we are now seeing, all too clearly, the consequences of this tragic misplacement of our priorities. The answer as I have said earlier is that governments, at all levels, and indeed all Nigerians must re-prioritise education and by extension our overall human capital development. Our greatest strength, and indeed potential, lies in our people. We must, as a matter of priority, up-skill, educate and empower our people.
Q: What has made King’s College different from other colleges?
A: KC is just different. So, it really is not a question of “what has made KC different”, it was created different and it will remain that way. It was set up, one hundred and fourteen years ago, for a specific purpose – to groom leaders. So, we lead. We are in a class of our own. There is no argument about that, and there cannot be.
Q: From your perspective as a King’s College Old Boy, what critical steps would you recommend to make the education sector better?
I think I have addressed this issue in a previous question. The task of improving the education sector in Nigeria starts with government at all levels. Government must as a matter of deliberate policy prioritise education. Funding is critical, so also is strategic planning. We must educate our people with a view to ensuring that they are not only able to significantly add value to the economy, but as well, sufficiently equipped to compete and thrive in a world currently making quantum leaps in technological advancements. Look at India: see how they have become such a formidable force in technology. It didn’t happen by accident! Read about the Indian Institutes of Technology set up in 1961 pursuant to an Act of Parliament. That is the sort of intentional strategy you want to see implemented in Nigeria – along with the political resolve to ensure its success and sustainability. Recently, the Minister of Education set up a committee to fashion a roadmap for the education sector in Nigeria with emphasis on funding in tertiary institutions. This is a welcome development. However the government of the day and successive administrations must demonstrate an unusual political will to implement, sustain and institutionalize the positive recommendations of the committee.
Q: What are some of the projections of KCOBA in the next five years?
A: I think this question is best suited for those at the helm of affairs of the Association. Suffice it to say however that the ownership and/or management of the College, by the KCOBA, remains a matter of primary concern and I would imagine that this is something we would like to achieve within this five-year time frame.