By AtikuAbubakar

I would like to thank the Ford Foundation for inviting me to share my life experiences and the importance of scholarships in Nigeria. I believe the basic element of a democratic society is the empowerment of people. But that cannot be achieved without providing quality education to all of our citizens.

I have to confess that it is difficult to summarise a life that is still unfolding. Mine is. After all I will only turn 70 this November. Who knows? 70 may be the new 40.

My life’s story began in Jada, Adamawa State but it might as well have begun in Washington DC, where the decision was made by the US government to establish the Peace Corps 55 years ago. The Peace Corps sent many young American men and women to far-flung parts of the world to assist local communities to meet a variety of challenges, including education.

Though he later relented, my father was put in prison by local authorities for refusing to send me to school. Like many parents of his generation, he needed my help in the farm.

My encounter with Peace Corps teachers in the 1960s had a profound impact on my life. It helped to instill in me the virtues of hard work, critical thinking, and commitment to excellence. The teachers encouraged us to develop a “can-do” spirit and never to despair in order to bring out the best in us to enable us to succeed in life. In my young eyes, those Peace Corpers represented excellence. They instilled in me a burning desire to look to a wider horizon, to have a global outlook.

So my encounter with the Peace Corps changed my life. And education is responsible for the modest success I have achieved thus far.

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Because of the education I received, paid for by the Northern Regional Government and local authorities, I was able to rise from a small village in Adamawa to the topmost levels of the Nigeria Customs Service. My exposure to education encouraged me to embrace savings and investment from very early in my career. Upon retirement, I went into business. And when my mentor, the late General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, invited some of us to join politics to help restore democracy to our country, I agreed, guided by that same “can-do” spirit. Since then, both in and out of public office, my commitment to democracy has not wavered.

The influence of Peace Corps on me would come into play when, with the help of friends in Nigeria and the US, I decided to establish an educational village in my home town of Yola, Adamawa State. This educational complex incorporates the levels of kindergarten to university, the American University of Nigeria, Yola. My choice of American-style education led to fruitful relationships with two universities in the US, the American University, Washington DC and later Tulane University, as the AUN strives to maintain excellence.
AUN has been, by far, my largest philanthropic educational undertaking. A twelve years old, thoroughly modern campus, and the only one with 24/7 internet connection in Nigeria, we have the finest e-library in Africa. This university is not merely “American” in name: we stress small interactive classes, general education, student internships, critical thinking, problem solving, and student research. In the midst of the Boko Haram crisis in our region, our students, through a community service program, also unique in Nigeria, have been at the forefront of humanitarian relief and development work. Many of our students, of course, receive scholarships.

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And I have continued with my long-established practice of providing scholarships to needy students across Africa.

I want to stress the following:
i. If the government did not force my father, I would not have been allowed to go to school.
ii. I could not have acquired an education if my parents were required to pay for it.
iii. Whatever modest achievements and contributions I have made, I owe to education.
Perhaps we can draw some lessons from my experience.

1. If, as a society, we deem high quality education important, it must be adequately funded. Our decision about who pays has consequences.
2. Greater local control is critical if we are to achieve universal basic education; an education that is relevant to local communities.
3. Education should be free, accessible and compulsory at the primary and secondary levels so as to give every child an opportunity to acquire education irrespective of family circumstances.
4. If a society opts for fee payments by students and parents at the tertiary level, there must be financial support for the less privileged. Such support should come from government, charities and philanthropists. No desiring and deserving students will be left out.
5. We must pay particular attention to the education of women because of the disproportionate impact it has on the education of children. If my mother was educated, I am sure that the conversation in my house regarding whether I should go to school would have been different.
6. We must make the right investments to ensure that the material benefits of education are obvious to our youth – jobs, support for small business start-ups and other opportunities for social mobility. If we make the right investments, our youth will not shun education with the excuse that university graduates are increasingly unemployed.
7. Vocational education must be critical parts of the education mix because of its contribution toward helping young people acquire skills targeted at specific jobs.
8. Decentralization of our education policy, planning and management will help improve our education. Basic education should be under local control. The power to control tertiary education should be devolved to state or regional governments. The federal government must retain the power to set standards and continue to support states or regions.

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I congratulate the Ford Foundation on the 80th anniversary of its work to develop human capacity around the world. I thank the Foundation for its important contributions to improve humanity, especially through education and research. Nigeria and Nigerians have benefited enormously from your work and for that we are immensely grateful.

I urge the Ford Foundation alumni attending this reunion to imbibe the spirit of giving that has driven the Foundation in its work all these years and to give back to society. Your communities need your help; your alma mater needs the help and your country needs your help. I wish you a successful reunion and anniversary celebration.
AtikuAbubakar, GCON, former Vice President, Federal Republic of Nigeria, remarks as Dinner Speaker at the Ford Foundation Special Reunion to mark the 80th Anniversary of Ford Foundation at the Grand Ballroom of the Eko Hotels & Suites, Victoria Island Lagos.

AtikuA bubakar is the former Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria