Professor Don Baridam is former Vice Chancellor of the University of Port Harcourt, one-time chairman of the Committee of Vice Chancellors of Federal Universities, and ex-chairman of Association of Vice Chancellors of Nigerian Universities. Now an influential member of Peoples Democratic Party in Rivers State, Baridam tells Francis Ugwoke the kind of governor the state would want in 2015. Excerpts:
How would you evaluate the strength of Peoples Democratic Party in Rivers State after the defection of the governor, Rt. Hon. Rotimi Amaechi, to All Progressives Congress?
Based on the history of Rivers State since the inception of PDP, the state has always been a PDP state. Governor Amaechi as a free citizen has the right to go to any party of his choice, but his leaving PDP will not affect the fortunes of the party. I do not think that Governor Amaechi is leaving the party because he hates the party that brought him to limelight, and made him what he is. He is leaving the party because of the apparent misunderstanding between him and some people in the party. With a little patience and political sagacity, the differences would probably have been sorted out in the interest of all interest groups in our great party. But one beautiful thing about democracy is that it is the only known political system that confers choice on every citizen. Perhaps, I should add that the programmes which Governor Amaechi is executing in the state are PDP programmes, which goes to confirm our staying power and reach as the largest political party in Africa.
Do you see PDP winning the governorship election in Rivers in 2015?
My answer is an emphatic yes; the PDP will win Rivers State in 2015. Rivers State is predominantly a PDP state, as I have stated earlier. The PDP won in 2011. The absence of Governor Amaechi will make very little difference. It was the party that won and not Amaechi. With an acceptable candidate for the 2015 governorship election, PDP will win by a landslide. The winning of 2015 election will depend largely on party affiliation and qualities of the chosen candidate. This is because today’s voters are very savvy: they are more educated and enlightened. The electorate are looking for a candidate who can bring peace, economic development and verifiable prosperity to the state; a candidate who is visionary, humble, God-fearing, and has a special love for people, especially the masses.
What programme of development do you think the next governor of the state should pursue?
Your question cannot be answered without first asking the question, what should be the vision of the next governor for the state? I see a Rivers State where people will work enthusiastically to harness the enormous resources for our economic development and prosperity. A Rivers State that is industrially developed and prosperous, and driven by a knowledge-based economy, which will be preferred destination for investors from all parts of the world. I am particularly looking forward to the emergence of a Rivers State that will create employment opportunities for all its citizens; a knowledge-based economy that would provide jobs for everybody – especially the youths. Therefore, the programme of development should be in the area of wealth creation, employment generation, decongestion of the city of Port Harcourt, and even development of the state.
What do you think should be the priority areas in terms of project execution in the first few months in office for whoever wins the election?
Considering the vision of the state, as previously articulated, the priority areas in terms of project execution, as mentioned earlier, should include, wealth creation, employment generation, i.e. creation of jobs for the teeming population of unemployed graduates in the state, and decongestion of the city of Port Harcourt.
Furthermore, he should focus on the cleanup of Port Harcourt city. As at today everywhere in Port Harcourt is a market. Goods, including foodstuffs, are sold freely, even on the streets of the GRA. Rivers State is 47 years old and we just celebrated the centenary of Port Harcourt. Yet, there is no business district anywhere and as such, it has become very difficult to distinguish between a residential accommodation and shops. Industrial parks or a well-designed area should be developed outside Port Harcourt, provided with the necessary infrastructure, especially steady electricity, water, access road and security. This will, no doubt, encourage investors to come in, provide the necessary jobs, decongest Port Harcourt, and create wealth.
Port Harcourt is old enough, and Rivers State is rich enough, to build standard shopping malls, the type we see all over the world when we travel. The creation of a dedicated tourism zone should also be a priority. I think we have not taken advantage of the opportunities in the state. Ours is a state blessed with two seaports, and an international airport, with several multinational companies/organisations; yet it has remained rural in development and outlook. This has to change. In fact, in the whole country, with the exception of Lagos State, Rivers State should be leading others in economic and social development.
What is your reaction to the statement by the governor that the next governor of the state will not come from his senatorial zone, as it was the turn of another zone to produce the number one citizen of the state?
From what I have been reading in the papers in recent times, it appears to be the argument by most people, not only the governor. I think equity demands that a position such as that of a governor should be rotated among the various peoples in the state, but again, that is a matter that should be left to the political parties.
How would you react to the fears in some quarters that the Boko Haram insurgency can lead to a breakup of the country?
No. I am not of that view. The Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria cannot break the country. I agree totally with position of the federal government. This is a global menace and it is not only in our country. Many countries of Africa are passing through this same problem and have not broken up. Our democracy has come to stay. The federal government is on top of the situation, and we must all support the government. Long-term solution to the threat of Boko Haram requires the formulation of a comprehensive anti-terrorism policy and plan to deal with the activities of the sect.
What urgent steps would you advise the federal government to take to address the current state of insurgency in the country?
Permit me to thank Mr. President for the effort he has been making to fight the insurgency in the country. I thank God that people now know that Boko Haram is not only a national problem but also a problem that cuts across the whole of Africa. Maintenance of security in any nation is a herculean task particularly, in a developing country such as Nigeria, and even more difficult when you cannot readily identify the aggressor.
I think that the starting point in addressing insurgency is to take a hard look at the root causes of the current insurgency in order to find lasting solutions to them without finger-pointing or scoring cheap political points by individuals and opposition parties. No nation plays politics with its security.
As a former Vice Chancellor of UNIPORT, what is your view on the issue of degree and HND dichotomy, which is one of the reasons why the polytechnic workers have been on strike for close to seven months now?
There are many reasons why there will always be discrimination between the holders of Higher National Diploma and Bachelor’s degree unless steps are taken to address the root causes of the problem. First, the purpose for establishing the two programmes is not the same. The Higher National Diploma is geared toward the training of middle level technical manpower needed for industrial and technological development of the country. Because of this emphasis on vocational skills, the entry qualification for admission into the programme is less stringent. With four credits, one can be admitted into the polytechnic against five credits required for admission into the university system. Nobody should ignore that clear distinction in agitating for equality between Higher National Diploma and degree holders. They are not complementary qualifications, as the agitators tend to imply. One provides a broad conceptual knowledge rooted in the foundation of global knowledge, while the other focuses on application of learning. This accounts for the disparity in salary and potential to rise in the organisational hierarchy. I don’t see one as an appendage of another, except that graduates and lecturers of the polytechnic system appear to give that impression each time they complain.
HND holders have always faced almost the same problem all over the world. When the polytechnics were in existence in the UK, they all awarded the HND in various disciplines. Some of the universities in the UK admitted HND holders into the first or second year of their three-year degree programmes. In the course of time, the polytechnics were also allowed to award what was called the CNAA (Council of National Academic Awards) degrees in some programmes. The CNAA degree eventually became equated to the bachelor degree awarded by the universities. In Nigeria, some universities accept students into either the second year or third year of a four/five- year programme. This means that the training offered by the HND and by the bachelor programmes are different in content and depth. At the University of Port Harcourt where I was privileged to serve as Vice Chancellor between 2005 and 2010, for example, it takes about three years for an HND holder to complete a bachelor’s degree programme in engineering. The programme runs only on weekends. As you can see from the foregoing, the ongoing agitation by HND holders and their lecturers is unnecessary, to say the least.
Fifteen years ago, the UK converted its polytechnics into universities. That may well turn out to be the direction to go in this country. For the moment though, our country needs people with HND qualifications as it needs graduates from universities. We must encourage both to grow side by side until change comes.
What is your suggestion for an early solution to the problem?
I believe that the time has come to end the controversy and disparity existing between HND and Bachelor’s degree. To do this, the polytechnics should be upgraded to universities that will follow strictly polytechnic education. After completing their Ordinary diploma, students who excel can then choose to take the bachelor track and go on to obtain their Bachelor of Technology (B. Tech.) degree, while those who do not meet the mark will end up with the HND.
I think that the problem has lingered on for so long. Collective bargaining is not always a win- win situation. You win some and lose some. Both the Ministry of Education and the union must make some tradeoffs. It is unfortunate that the strike has lingered on for so long at a great cost and inconvenience to all the stakeholders: students, lecturers, parents, and the society at large.
What is your assessment of the education sector in the country; can you identify some of the challenges in the sector and how to address them?
I believe that the educational sector has a very great potential in helping Nigeria solve her development needs in all the sectors of the economy, the teething problems notwithstanding. A good majority of Nigerians who have passed through our educational system are known to be doing very well in foreign universities and in their chosen professions at home and abroad.
The challenges are many. First, the sheer number of students who gain admission into our universities in any given year is frightening. This number is weighing heavily on the basic infrastructure and the manpower requirements of the universities.
Second, inadequate funding is also a challenge. We should recognise that every nation has a limited amount of resources at its disposal and it is getting increasingly difficult for the government to allocate adequate funds to the universities in the face of other competing needs such as health care, transportation, power, security and so on.
Third, one cannot ignore the fact that a good percentage of the students do not apply themselves faithfully to their studies as their attention is diverted to other worldly things.