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I am over 80, but still busy – Engineer Musa Abdullahi

After schooling in Katsina and England, Engineer Musa Daji Abdullahi, who was born in 1941, became a science teacher in different secondary schools in Katsina…

After schooling in Katsina and England, Engineer Musa Daji Abdullahi, who was born in 1941, became a science teacher in different secondary schools in Katsina and Sokoto states. He moved to Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria after a postgraduate degree, as a lecturer in engineering. He subsequently headed many educational institutions, including College of Arts, Science and Technolog( CAST), Zaria, Hassan Usman Katsina Polytechnic and the College of Aviation, Zaria. Eng Abdullahi after then switched to the Federal Civil Service, where he was director in both the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Works. In this interview, he shared his experiences as a teacher, administrator and inventor.

 

How would you describe your early days?

I started Primary School in 1948, from there to Katsina Middle School, Barewa College, Zaria, then went overseas.

Normally, one would have expected you to go to Katsina College, which was nearer to you; was it unusual to go to Barewa?

No. After primary four you would go to a middle school, where you may spend two or three years. Some would take examinations and go to Barewa College while others would proceed to Middle Four, which was the highest qualification. Few would pass the examination and go to Barewa. I recall that seven of us went to Barewa College in 1954.

How did you win a scholarship to England for further studies?

There was a Northern Education Development Fund started by the Sardauna of Sokoto, Isa Kaita and others, where northern students who did very well in the West African Examinations Council were picked and sent to England to train, mainly in professional fields. I think we were the second or third batch at that occasion.

There were people like Mohammed Ali, Ahmadu Soba and others. In fact, when I reached England, I found two other northerners who won the same scholarship. They were from Kabba Secondary School, and we went to the same college for GCE advanced level; and eventually, each one of us went to different universities, but we all did engineering. Unfortunately, all those are late now.

You were a young man from Katsina, and Zaria a little bit, suddenly you found yourself in Manchester for your degree programme; how was your experience in England?

I first went to Dundee, Scotland for GCE, A level. I don’t know why, but I think the arrangement was between the chief education officer in the northern region then,  a Scottish man. So, most of us went to Scotland for GCE A level for one year, two years. I did one year and proceeded to Manchester, and that to the university of your choice.

You were young when you found yourself in that environment without any family; how was your experience in Scotland?

In those days, there was an arrangement where they kept you with a family. We used to call them ‘digs’. In fact, we are still in communication with the children or grandchildren of the lady I stayed with. So you really didn’t have any problem of family, especially if you had a good landlord or landlady who looked after you.

Engineer Musa Daji Abdullahi

 

Did you experience any discrimination or alienation from the society at that time?

Yes, especially in the neighbourhood where I stayed. For example, I was often asked to speak my language, especially by the children who got the impression that Africans had no language until the white men came and taught them how to speak, let alone writing. But most of it was out of curiosity rather than discrimination.

So you didn’t feel any hostility?

It was there but very rare. I can recall going through a park and suddenly I was called names. But we tolerated it. Generally, in those days the people were quite good and accommodating, especially in Scotland. It was immediately after independence and I must say that in those days, northern Nigeria was held in high esteem.

I can recall an occasion when we were in a group and there was a thief but Nigerians were excluded from any examination because the reputation was that a Nigerian would never steal. There was an identity parade but we were excluded, about five of us who were Nigerians. Eventually, they found the culprit and he was not a Nigerian. Unfortunately, you can see how times have changed. It is a question of leadership.

I believe you read Physics. How was your experience in Manchester during your degree programme?

Yes; all my life, even from secondary school, I always wanted to teach physics.  We did Pure Maths, Applied Maths and Physics for the GCE A level. I read Physics at the University of Manchester, which was very famous for the course. That really stimulated us. And I wanted was to be a teacher and that was what I came back home to do.

You got a second class upper, which normally allowed you to go for a postgraduate degree and become a university lecturer, but you came back to be a secondary teacher in Funtua, why?

I really wanted to come home after four years, so nothing could have stopped me. I actually got admission to do a postgraduate diploma in education,  but I preferred to come home.

In fact, we were interviewed by the then chairman of the Civil Service Commission, Kazaure and I was offered a job as a signal officer in navy, but I had no intention of joining the military. I came home and did what I wanted to do – teach.

Is it true that you taught in Funtua and Sokoto?

I spent one year in Funtua, then suddenly, I got a notice from the Sardauna of Sokoto and the then Minister of Education of blessed memories, Isa Kaita, that Federal Government College, Sokoto had just been opened and there was no northerner as a teacher.

The minister was asked to find a northerner and send him to Sokoto to teach. It happened that Kaita knew me, so he said I should go there. I went and was there for one year.

Eventually, you came back to the Ahmadu Bello University to study for a postgraduate degree. I read somewhere that you are one of the first persons to graduate from the postgraduate school of that university; is this correct?

Yes. It is a record you can check. I graduated in June 1968, as the first person to get a postgraduate degree from the ABU.

And this degree happened to be in engineering?

Electrical engineering.

So, suddenly you switched from physics to engineering, what is the relationship?

There was no much difference, except that in my first degree I did a lot of electronics, so I had no problem in switching.

If teaching had always been in your mind as you said, why didn’t you quite stay long in ABU and probably earn a PhD and remain there as a lecturer?

It is a very good question I have always asked myself. In fact, when I was leaving the ABU there was a lot of pleas for me not to go. I can recall that the late Ahmadu Coomasie, who was a member of Council, called me and said I should not leave.

But at the same time, I had offers from the Ministry of Education in the then North Central State,  especially through the late Yahaya Hamza, who was our house captain at Barewa College.

There was a vacancy for the post of a chief education officer (technical) and they wanted somebody to fill it. I applied and was interviewed and offered the post, so I left the ABU.

Was it an easy transition?

Because I was still in education, I had no problem whatsoever, especially given the fact that I maintained my connection with the academia. I had my books and everything, so I was more or less studying two areas at the same time.

You headed the School of Arts and Sciences; why did you go back to Zaria? Was it a civil service posting or something you asked for?

More or less. This was the time Brigadier Abba Kyari, the then governor and North Central states scored 22 per cent in the West African School Certificate exams and he was very mad and ordered that a school of Arts and Sciences be established for North Central state. So he appointed me and another person in the ministry to work out the establishment of the school in Zaria, which we did. Yahaya Hamza was the first principal of the school.

And when Hamza was leaving, he more or less brought me to apply and take over from him, which I did.

How was the experience?

That was probably the height of my experience because I met students from all over the North Central state who were there for Higher School Certificate and another programme  for university admission.

And we produced quite a lot. In fact, at one time, most of the workers in the civil service of Kaduna State could have been products of the Arts and Sciences school. So it was a very memorable experience indeed. I have maintained connection with my students up till today.

In fact, at a time, the late Umaru Musa Yara’dua when he was governor, told me that he relied mostly on products of the school. We were both teachers.

Was he a teacher or student at that time?

He was teaching Physics. In fact, we moved to Katsina together when The Polytechnic, was established.

So you went to Hassan Usman Katsina polytechnic as Rector?

Yes.

To set it up as an institution?

Yes.

How did that go?

Well, we had every support from the governors. Balarebe Musa gave us all the support we needed.  Abba Musa Rimi happened to be a classmate, so I almost got whatever I wanted for the polytechnic; and later on Lawal Kaita. So we really had everything we wanted. In fact, at one time we were even lending the state money. Can you imagine that?

Were you making enough money from school fees?

No, we were getting more than we could spend. At one time there was a crunch and I think the permanent secretary called and said they wanted some money; and we gave them. When they had money, they returned it. We really had a beautiful institution in The Polytechnic Katsina.

Is the school still beautiful and going well?

Yes, everything is going well because the groundwork was really well done. In fact, most other institutions seem to be based on the plan we developed for the polytechnic. The Umaru Musa Yar’adua University was planned along the line of the Hassan Usman Polytechnic, Katsina .

You also had another interesting experience of heading the School of Aviation in Zaria, which is a federal government-owned institution. How did that come about? Did you get the appointment after you moved to the federal system?

No, I was a permanent secretary in the Katsina State Ministry of Education. Lawal Kaita invited me as permanent secretary when he became governor. I was there for three years.

Somewhere along the line, I think I had some disagreements with the commissioner and found out that I could not stay. There was an advertisement for the position of a principal. It was known as Civil Aviation Training Centre, Zaria. I applied, was interviewed and was offered the position. It was by some kind of accident.

You described it as a kind of accident because up to that point in your career you had nothing to do with flying?

Nothing whatsoever, except that some of the courses I had some interest in were there – electronics.

What was your experience heading a flying school?

Well, I was there for one year when there was a coup that removed former President Shehu Shagari. In fact, it was Muhannadu Buhari that appointed me during his military regime; then there was another coup.

The one led by Ibrahim Babangida?

Yes. I think they felt I was part of the thing, so suddenly, somebody, an air force officer, came as a commandant of the school and I had to relinquish everything. I was there for another one year without even seeing a file; I was just reading newspapers.

So you were pushed aside?

Yes. And one day, I got a letter that my service was no longer required.

Was that a shock to you?

I told them that they could not sack me because I was appointed by Mr President.  The Board could not just sit there and sack me. So I went to Abuja and made some contacts, even right to the president.

Who was the president?

Babangida. He asked why I should be sacked and I was reinstated. Meanwhile, a job happened to be available at the Federal Ministry of Education as a Director of Science and Technology. And as God would have it, Yahaya Hamza was the coordinating director, so he invited me. I filled the Civil Service Commission form and was offered appointment as the Director of Technology and Science Education, a much higher position than the one from which I was sacked.

How would you describe your experience in the Federal Ministry?

In those days you could stay as a director as long as your services were required. So I was a director of Science and Technical Education for eight years, before I was posted to the Federal Ministry of Works as Director of Engineering Services. I was there for four years when my retirement came on the basis of 60 years of service.

After that you went back to teaching in a federal university in Minna, which is quite unusual. Normally, many people who reached that level will find it comfortable enough to retire; did you think you needed a job or it was just the experience or pleasure of teaching?

Both. It was just a matter of coincidence. I met the then Vice Chancellor of the university, the late Professor Mohammed Daniyan, who happened to be a friend. He simply asked what I was doing and I said I was not doing anything.

After your retirement?

Yes; just a few months. He said I should see him in Minna. He called me for an interview and I was offered appointment as a senior lecturer and head of the Department of Computer Engineering. I was there for seven years.

Did you relocate to Minna?

No; I would go there from Abuja and spend few days. I could have continued if not for the Abuja-Minna road. It was really what defeated me.

You could have continued teaching?

I could have continued teaching because I had the opportunity. Age wouldn’t have mattered, but I couldn’t ply that road anymore. Anyway, I left but had something going because when Umaru Musa Yara’dua became the governor of Katsina State, I was offered appointment as the chairman of Council of the Hassan Usman Polytechnic, Katsina.

The same school you set up?

Yes. So I had something to do. And eventually, when he became president he also invited me to become the chairman of the National Board for Technical Education. So, it was a matter of one thing leading to another. We had such great relationship with Yar’adua.

In effect, you have not really retired as you have always been moving from one assignment to another; is that correct?

Well, one never really retires. If you are able to move and talk, your services are needed here and there. At the same time I have not made any wealth, so to speak; so one will pick any opportunity to earn a livelihood.

I believe you are still in some innovation committee of the NBTE, but that doesn’t  sound like a fulltime engagement; what are you doing now?

Here again, it was a matter of chance. I simply met Prof Idris Bugaje, through his elder brother Audu Bugaje, you may have heard of him. He was a classmate and we were more or less neighbours in the family house in Katsina. He asked what I was doing and I said I was just at home reading and writing. Idris was then Rector of Kaduna Polytechnic, so he offered me a post on contract as a Chief  Lecturer and I went back to teaching.

I was teaching for two years when he opened a Directorate of Renewable Energy and I was there as a Director for one year, up to April this year when I didn’t renew my contract.

So you have been working up to the time you are 80?

Yes. Prof Bugaje did not leave me alone; he created a Committee on Innovation, Evaluation and Implementation. There are thousands of projects in polytechnics, even in the universities undertaken by students over the years. Some of them are good enough to be commercialised.

What we are doing now is to look at those that can be commercialised. I happen to be the chairman of the committee. That’s what I do now.

So you still have the philosophy that there is no end to working?

Absolutely.

Is it about the money or engagement?

It is about keeping yourself busy, keeping the mind challenged.

Apart from the formal work like science and engineering, do you engage in other economic activities, such as farming, which some people do when they retire?

My main activity now is writing. I have lots of papers, mainly in physics. To be more versatile in this age, I now spend most of my time from morning till night on computer. I have lots of papers in what you call academic journals. I intend to post one tomorrow.

The interesting thing is that there is no day I don’t get comments and discussions from America, China and all over the world, but hardly from Nigeria; and that really makes me sad.

A lot of us don’t know about these activities. Looking at your curriculum vitae, I can see the citations and papers published in most of these journals, but I don’t think this is common knowledge in the academic circle in Nigeria; why is it so?

You see, in Nigeria we were made to accept not to challenge our superiors. For example, as a postgraduate student in a Nigerian university, if you disagree with your supervisor, you are finished.

In fact, one of the things that still pains me happened during my younger days when a referee rejected my paper on the ground that if what I was writing was correct, it would have amounted to rewriting the books. It was very sad.

I was not supposed to know the referee, but somehow, I got to know and found out that he was a close friend, so I challenged him, arguing that if books had not been written, he would not be where he was. That was one of the attitudes that really drove me away from physics.

Engineer Musa Daji Abdullahi

 

You upturned one of the formulas in physics, right?

Yes. For example, the most important equation in the world, E is equal to MC squared, but I have written papers to showing that it is wrong. The correct equation should be, E is equal to half of MC squared.

No Nigerian called me to say I was talking rubbish; everybody was silent. Of course you wouldn’t expect the outside world to entertain such a thought because to them, Nigerians should start challenging such things. But if something is wrong, then it is wrong, no matter who said it.

The exchange equation that E is equal to MC square leads you nowhere because it doesn’t open other areas other than the thinking that mass is a source of energy, and that is why the atomic bomb comes in, something like that, but academically, it doesn’t lead you anywhere.

But the equation that E equals half MC square opened a lot of areas. I am still waiting for the academia in Nigeria to call me and ask what I am talking about.

I wrote to the National Mathematical Centre some time ago but there has not even been an acknowledgement for a reply. But I will continue until my days are over. Somebody will take it up.

Have you gotten any response from the international community challenging such famous equation?

I have an invitation to deliver a paper in Italy, which I cannot do because I don’t have money to go. Another one is in Czechoslovakia. I was asking them to just turn my attendance to display or something like that. So there are responses from the outside world, not from the point of view of challenging one’s thought but for explanation.

People will expect that you would have done these writings in your younger days to become a professor and be rewarded, but as a retiree you are writing and publishing papers in journals; what is the motivation?

I wouldn’t have become a professor if I had taken that attitude because somebody somewhere wouldn’t have liked that. I am able to do what I am doing now because by virtue of having worked somewhere, at least I have something to keep body and soul together.

Right from my student days, there are things in physics that I did not agree with, but I could not say so, otherwise I would have failed my examinations.

Has any of your ideas been turned into something useful? Have you tried to develop a mechanism or something that would help the society?

Yes. I believe that although they didn’t say so, they are beginning to change some of their designs. You may have heard what is called the large hydron collider. It is a circular accelerator that travels Switzerland for about 22kms before they accelerate protons to the speed of light.

Again, protons are being accelerated to the speed of light, but that mass did not become infinite. And now, they are beginning to say there must be a reason for mass becoming infinite. There must be a reason the mass under velocity reaches a maximum and no more.

I believe they are beginning to look at it, but of course, it will take time before the world can say this is so, especially if it is from an unknown African.

But the scientific community in Nigeria has not challenged or engaged you on some of the papers you have written; is that true?

This is the saddest part of it. But I am still waiting. In fact, the only challenge I got was going to press for some of my claims. Sometime ago, I published something in Daily Trust and the Nigerian Scientific Community did not like it; they said I should have gone through the established channel of communication.

You look like a very comfortable retiree; would you say you are doing well?

Thanks to my students and associates who always come to my aid whenever I need it.

Apart from your work as a physicist, as well as writing papers, do you engage in extra curricula activities; any hobby?

Yes. I do a lot of walking and gardening around the house. I also attend functions like naming ceremonies, weddings and funeral ceremonies. So, one tries to remain with the community.

Are you a member of any socio-cultural group in Katsina, such as Elders Forum or something like that?

It is good you mentioned that. We started the Katsina-Daura Unity and Progress Forum, and I am now the chairman of its Board of Trustees.

What do you do?

We try to keep the people interested in the community. We represent them and things like that.

When we started, the government thought we were against them, but later on, they found out that we were really helping them; they also helped us.

This kind of initiative tends to fold up or collapse because there is no fund to run it. How do you fund it?

When we started, we were tasking ourselves. And occasionally, you would see one or two individuals who put in a lot, sometimes anonymously. As I said, the government assists us indirectly, especially when we do some vocational and educational training. We use facilities at polytechnics, universities, entrepreneurship centres, something like that.

So, as long as you don’t give up, you will achieve something. However, there are frustrations because sometimes you find that some of the people among you are just aiming at political recognition or positions. And we let them go, but the few who remain will achieve the purpose.

You have retired but remained in Kaduna rather than settling in Katsina; don’t you think you are a bit detached from your people?

I don’t intend to continue long in that capacity. As long as we are able to get some other people to take over, the important thing is not to give up, even when there are frustrations.

You have been a leader for the past 50 years. Earlier, you spoke about the perception of Nigerians in England when you were a student there and the failure of government in Nigeria, which led to the current negative image of the once respected country. What do you think is responsible for this? Why have we lost it?

Everybody has been asking this question, but we have hardly done anything about it. Money has somehow spoilt everything as everything now seems to be monetised, even with our children. This is something we have to fight, right from primary to secondary school, etc. The level of cheating that takes place in our schools is really threatening.

In Katsina, for example, you can hardly find a primary school where they don’t aid and abet examination malpractice; and nothing is done about it.

In fact, recently I was at a meeting where a commissioner was boasting that in secondary schools, 98 per cent passed with five credits and above, including in English and Mathematics in the West African School Certificate Examination (WASCE) and the National Examinations Council (NECO).

We told him that it was impossible and he took offence. So I took time to examine and found out that he was right. From the records of the ministry, no school went below 98 per cent. Most of them had 100 per cent. So, what happened?

It was learnt that principals were ordered to reach that level or be sacked. Of course they complied, with the collusion of examiners. This is the system we tolerate. It breeds nothing but miscreants. It is too bad.

At a time, I even heard my daughters discussing how the papers were brought to them a day before the examination. I couldn’t believe it, so I called one of them to confirm it and she said yes. Tears came into my eyes. What kind of generation are we building?

More than half of the first intakes we had at the Umaru Musa Yar’adua University failed because they did not go through the proper school system. I think there is the need to look at this issue and do something about it.

The political leadership is aware of this problem but nothing is being done about it; who will do it?

What we are saying now is really publicised; and those doing it will come to shame. Those who are not happy about it will try to stop it because it has to be stopped.

In fact, recently when I went home, I was blackmailed into paying money for one of my nephews to take NECO. After I paid all the expenses, I was again asked to pay some money for examination materials.

When I asked the headmaster of the private school why it was so, he opened up and said they would pay the examiners, otherwise their students would fail. When I asked if the ministry concerned was aware, he said their staff would also be paid.

We parents are also to be blamed.

Given all the years you have spent in the education sector, do you have a suggestion on how we can deal with this problem of examination malpractice?

The Ministry of Education can do it if they wish, but unfortunately, they are the ones who aid and abet the malpractice. If they don’t engage in it, school principals will not do it.

As a contemporary of the former President Muhammadu Buhari, what is your assessment of his performance?

He probably should have remained a military man and not get involved in politics. Now, I don’t know what history would make of him for this misadventure into politics. We can only wish him the best of luck and God’s guidance.

As he said, he did his best, which was not good enough, but time will tell.

Are you hoping that the change of leadership would turn things around?

Yes. Things have to turn around. Nigeria is a very resilient country. And we are more united than we really think. I think we shall survive all these travails and settle to be what is good.

I have every hope that the present administration would do the right thing. We are at the bottom of the ladder, so the only thing we can do is to rise up.

I know you do a lot of writing and computer stuff, but what is your typical day like?

Well, the NBTE is good enough to give me an office, so, sometimes I go there in the morning or evening. So there is something to do.

Do you still have friends you socialise with?

Yes; one or two are around. And of course my wife has a large family, so they keep one busy. My own personal family is very small and we are only in Katsina.

How is family life for you; I mean how many wives and children do you have?

I have only one wife. My first wife is late. I have eight children and all of them are grown up. Sometimes we wake up for days to be the only two in the house, except when we have visitors. The only thing one could do would be to go out to visit people.

And occasionally, God will be so kind to drop in somebody like you who would want to know what we are doing.

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