INTERVIEW: Why I want to lead Unity Schools Old Students Association – Odinkalu

Prof Chidi Odinkalu
Prof Chidi Odinkalu
Chidi Odinkalu, the former chairman of National Human Rights Commission, NHRC, discusses his ambition to lead the Unity Schools Old Students Association, USOSA, with PREMIUM TIMES’ Samuel Ogundipe. Excerpts:
PT: Why do you think you are the appropriate person for the position you’re vying for in USOSA?
Odinkalu: Leadership is a privilege. I have no right to lead any entity, least of all such a highly enlightened network like the Unity Schools Old Students Association. The leadership of USOSA is elective and, for the first time, we have a genuine contest over where or how the Association should go. One vision argues that we should concentrate on building an organization or society of well-educated people. My view is that is not enough. We can only build such an entity if it presents a mission of compelling social good that is feasible and credible. What I present, therefore, is a platform, a passion and a vision to elevate the gaze of our network and persuade it as to why we need to take on a mission bigger than nostalgia for good old times. My hope is that my colleagues and peers choose to be persuaded when the voting takes place on 23 April.
PT: You’re currently engaged with a lot of things, why are you leaving those to lead USOSA?
Odinkalu: I am not leaving anything to do USOSA. You make time for what you are passionate about. I am passionate about education, violence and climate change. But education is really the centre-piece of my passions. Without enlightenment, we are toast. But it’s also an exciting time to build social movements around education. Modern ICTs have given us new possibilities. And if you look at the new sustainable development goals, there is a goal (Goal 4 around education). It requires us to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education. We can’t achieve this without public education. But our problem is more than fulfilling SDGs Goal 4. It is about whether or not Nigeria survives into the future. We will not without investment in public education. The reason I wish to lead USOSA is to help build a movement that can lead the fight for transforming public education in Nigeria. It’s really that simple.
PT: What is the benefit of USOSA as an organisation? What does it stand for?
Odinaklu: USOSA is arguably the biggest network of enlightenment in Nigeria and perhaps the only network of Nigerians left. The country is endangered. Our diversity that should be our biggest asset has become a huge source of troubles to us. Insecurity is rife and amidst our ongoing hardships, our very existence as a country is challenged. USOSA stands for coexistence founded on enlightenment. We all in USOSA grew up as children who learnt and lived coexistence with colleagues from different cultures and backgrounds from all over Nigeria. Today, insecurity and poor leadership means this educational experience is no longer available to most children around the country. But we can find ways to mitigate the difficulties and constraints we face. USOSA brings reach, footprint and leverage. We’re from and in every village, ward, LGA, constituency, zone, division, state, industry and all over the county. USOSA is a market place, catalyst, kinetizer, partner, network and lots more. But USOSA can also represent the core of a civic movement to drive the reform of public education in Nigeria. That is the direction in which it needs to and must evolve.
PT: You said USOSA is no longer living up to its founding ideals, what are those ideals and how do you intend to turn things around?
Odinaklu: I have not quite said USOSA isn’t living up to its founding ideals. The point I have made is the following. First, knowledge is a privilege and good education comes with responsibility. The Unity Schools in their prime gave us very good foundations. But we can’t live our lives harking back to nostalgia rather than using that foundation to better our future. Second, USOSA’s founding ideals need to be tailored to the challenges confronting us: the challenge of creating a new country built on knowledge. As Charles Steinmetz, the Jewish scientist forced by persecution to flee Nazi Germany to Palestine, predicted “there will come about an age of small and independent nations whose first line of defence will be knowledge.” That age is upon us in Nigeria. We are small relative to our potentials. We can be big if we invest in education. Look at India!
PT: Many people hold the belief that the unity schools can no longer be revived, and we’re hearing that plans are already underway by the FG to sell them off, what’s your position on this?
Odinkalu: Let me be clear: If this were just about Unity Schools, I’ll not be interested. No. Our issue is about the future of public education in Nigeria. We have to force issues on that. Given our present context our position is that Nigeria can’t be sustained without addressing supply, quality, access to and adequacy of public education. No country can be built on private provision of education. We already have as a country the biggest cohort of out of school children in the world, despite the requirement of the UBEC Act to the contrary. Over the next 14 years, our population will grow by over 67%. Government is not building new schools anywhere nor providing for new inputs. Investments in education are stagnated or falling. There is this market fundamentalism that somehow all the labourers in the informal sector will send all their kids to school. But education is first and foremost a public good not necessarily a commodity. It is also an inter-generational investment in competitiveness, productivity and the survival of our country. The market will not deliver supply of education on the scale needed to guarantee our survival and sustainability. I’m prepared to discuss models. We are unwilling to concede that we will survive without public education. We can’t. The sense of urgency is missing in our politicians and policy makers. That is why you say we can no longer revive our schools. That is not an option. If we don’t, Nigeria will not survive.
PT: Lawrence Wilbert, your opponent in this race, is considered highly formidable, what do you have to say about him and the campaign landscape at large?
Odinakalu: We got good educational foundations at the Unity Schools, so you should not be surprised that the candidates are considered – to use your words – “highly formidable”.  It is fitting that we have a contest between candidates offering a competitive vision of how a voluntary organization of educated people can help rebuild education in Nigeria.
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