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Prof. Usman: Orphaned @ 8, dad’s family wanted me to learn only the Koran

• How Professor of Maths/Education, Fulbright Scholar and current Provost, FCE (Special), Oyo overcame plot to deny him western education


As an orphan, the highest dream his family had was to see him learn Arabic/Koran and succeed his father as the Imam of Osoyaye community in Oyo town, after the old Islamic cleric died in 1972, when he was still a mere child. But for the intervention and insistence of his maternal uncles, who had a lot of educated people on their side including former National Director of National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), Col. Animashaun Braimoh and Major Gen. Tunde Braimoh (retd), that he must go to school, the world would have been robbed and be in deficit of an outstanding mathematics scholar and administrator, and Olayiwola Kamoru Usman, a professor and current Provost, Federal College of Education (Special), Oyo would probably have ended up a local Islamic cleric reciting the scriptures and at best leading congregational prayers in Osoyaye, a suburb of Oyo town. But, the brilliant young man rode the crest of destiny and rose to the very zenith of the academic career.
The journey began for the former Associate Dean, Faculty of Education, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, who was recently named chief executive of the first and only tertiary institution for training of manpower for special education needs for people with physical disabilities or impairments in West Africa, in the same Oyo town where he was born 52 years ago.
Although the Anglicans had established the famous St. Andrews College as well as other schools only few people took advantage of the western educational opportunities because of the predominantly large Muslim population in this community to which the Usmans belonged. It was thus only natural when the family insisted that the young Olayiwola should simply learn the Koran from an Alfa after his late Imam-father, Usman Olarenwaju Iyanda died.
But thanks to his mother’s family, particularly, an uncle who happened to be a school headmaster then, Alhaji M. A. Ibrahim, who enrolled him at a primary school in Ibadan, where he lived with his maternal grandfather and later Iwo Grammar School, shrugging off a condition by his paternal side that he must stop at the elementary level. He later studied Mathematics/Education at the then Federal University of Technology, Bauchi, now Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University.
Prof Usman’s ambition was to read Engineering and he was actually admitted for the course, but, he said he felt persuaded to switch, partly because of the teething problems of infrastructural training in the then young university and and on the advice of his Physics teacher in secondary school as well as a university course advisor, who believed he would make a good teacher. ‘We had a very interesting Physics teacher who didn’t teach well, but he knew what to teach. After teaching us, it was like I understood the man better than others, so he would call me to take the chalk and teach others at the end of the day. The man happened to be the career counselor for us, so when we were to write exams that time, he recommended I must be a teacher, to which I said no, that he should tell his first son to be a teacher.
“So, I put in Engineering and I was admitted for Engineering in that university, but unfortunately it was a new university so they were just using us as guinea pigs. Along the line, some of us got fed up and we were advised to pick some science courses. I was to pick Mathematics, but there was this my professor who happened to be the immediate past Director of National Mathematical Center, Abuja, Prof. S. O. Alleh. He was the course adviser and he said: “If you read ordinary Mathematics you are still going to end up teaching, why don’t you do Mathematics/ Education?” Looking back, Usman says he had no regrets: “It was like God directed those people to direct me”.
His career also got shaped by his patriotic and independent decision to do his one- year compulsory national service in Anambra, where he was posted, despite the choice of having his uncle, Colonel Braimoh, then National Director, NYSC, influence his posting and initial cultural prejudice and fear of “being eaten” in Igbo land. Initially, the principal of the staff school of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where he was posted to teach for primary assignment, wanted to reject him, because past male corps members slept with the school girls. On a second thought, he was engaged by the school where he proved his mettle, was offered permanent appointment as a Mathematics teacher and went on to do his Masters and Ph.D in the university, where he transferred his services. Usman got a Fulbright scholarship, as a visiting scholar to United States in 1999, completed his Ph.D in 2001 and became professor in 2009.
The FCE boss says his mission is to popularize and mobilize support for the 38-year old college to discharge its mandate, which, he notes, makes it unique among the 21 federal colleges of education in Nigeria, including the 12 that are conventional and eight which are technical. Apart from attracting grants and donations, Usman says he hopes to adopt the creative and enterprising orientation he learnt from living with South Easterners to improve the Internally Generated Revenue of the school. Already, he says, some donors, foundations and philanthropists such as TY Danjuma as well as Governor Al-Makura had shown interest in assisting the school. The FCE provost says he wants to build decent hostels to accommodate the about 6,000 college students, 99 per cent of whom, he says, are forced to live off campus and at exorbitant cost. According to him, a developer has been engaged for the project on a build, operate and transfer basis. On likely students resistance to the fees to be charged, Prof Usman says a study had shown that the fees would be affordable than the exploitative rents charged by the students’ landlords in town. “You know, most of the houses they live in are uncompleted houses, some without ceiling and they still pay exorbitant rent, by the time we bring them in, we will also be able to control them, because they live outside we get a lot of unpleasant reports about them”.
Usman assumed duty at a time of industrial unrest on the campus over alleged financial mismanagement by the past management, which has threatened to cripple the institution. While giving his predecessor a clean bill over the charge of embezzlement, he nevertheless says the college’s financial distress could have been avoided with a bit more exercise of financial prudence. The provost says he intends to build trust and confidence among members of the academic community by being frugal, transparent and providing timely and truthful information about the college finances. He hopes that very soon all dues owed workers and the unions would be paid, as government had promised to cash back the payments. He, however, says, he has made it clear that his administration would not give in to demands for perks not approved by the National Wages Commission, stressing that the era of wastefulness is gone.
Usman says he does not mind if that posturing earns him the appellation of being tight-fisted like President Muhammadu Buhari. He declares that such comparison would actually be an enviable compliment, adding: “I’m very happy that I came in when the music of change is going on everywhere, really my people are not very difficult even they have been showing a lot of understanding as per the financial position of the college”.
Although he missed becoming an Imam as dreamt for him as a child, Usman is a devout Muslim, who does not joke with the five praying hours prescribed for Muslims, a point Daily Sun noted on various visits to the campus. He explains: “In my life, God represents everything; my thinking, my achievements, my beginning and the end. As He is everything, He should be remembered at every time and you know as a Muslim you pray five times daily and we were told God assigned time to every prayer and we should keep to it. That motivates my keeping to time”. But does that not cast him in the mold of a fanatic likely to muzzle the liberal religious environment on the campus? you ask. Usman, who says he has spent 26 years of his life among Igbo, a predominantly Christian community adds: “I can’t remember anytime we picked religious issue, and since I came into office, I have even attended church services even on campus. My PRO is here with me, we went together. To me religion is just a way of connecting you to God and I believe he who cannot serve human being cannot serve God. You serve God through the people you see”.