The Director, Directorate of University Advancement, Professor Oga Steve Abah, is committed to bringing together the alumni and friends of Ahmadu Bello University both at home and in the Diaspora, through the different initiatives and programs of the Directorate. In this interview, he said among many other issues, that the alumni of ABU are gradually becoming conscious of their strategic roles in the advancement of the University.

Sir you have been the Director of Advancement for close to two years now, how has it been so far?

Thank you. It has been almost two years since I came into the Directorate. Being the Director here, I will characterize it as a mix grilled. I took over as the Director in February 2013. I think the exit of the previous Director was rather sudden, which made my entry, one without formal preparations. All the same, I came to the Directorate, the challenges that needed to be met were a bit much and then I talked with the University administration and also the staff on ground to ensure that everything within the Directorate was streamlined and worked well. First of all, meeting the staff of the Directorate, I am not sure, I met them in a good mood, because the key and worrying issue at the time was the question of staff status and the Directorate itself, that presented fear because the establishment of the Directorate and the decisions/discussions that went on were that, the Directorate should function as an independent group of persons working as an independent structure away from the University structure. So, that sense of autonomy and exactly what it meant was agitating the members of staff in the Directorate. The main thing, therefore, was how we were going to be autonomous, how we would raise enough funds for the Directorate that became part of the major areas that I needed to discuss with the Vice Chancellor and the Governing Board of the Directorate. So far, that discussion was nice and the Board also has seen that the Directorate should be part and parcel of the University structure. Although that the final decision has not been communicated because it has several layers of approval before the final statement be made, I think the structure of advancement in all universities around the world is completely different from the way it functions in Nigerian universities. Advancement is a new concept and practice for us here, I am not sure we have put in place all the mechanisms to be able to deal with it as an independent establishment to raise that kind of funds to be on its own and to be a source of funds. Of course, that is why the Directorate has been set up to support the Vice Chancellor, who is the chief executive and the chief resource mobilizer for the University. So, you don’t expect us to be that independent if we are acting in this capacity.

Sir, as you rightly said, the Directorate was set up to source for alternative resources and mobilize support for the University. To this effect, how far have you gone since you took over as the Director towards realizing this goal?

Well, this connects to what I earlier said in terms of the challenges of the Directorate whose sole responsibility is to raise funds. The structures through which Advancement can be effective, truly, is the numerous ABU alumni spread all over the country and even outside the country; ABU had large base of alumni which has been estimated to be close to half of a million spread all over the world. Therefore by logic, it means that the University has a very good resource base. I think that resource base at the moment is dormant because the structure of harnessing them to realize the necessary funds is still at infant stage. This is because, if you take the different branches spread across the thirty six states and Abuja for instance, their different levels of activation, strengths and functionalities, you will realize that not up to ten branches in the country are strong. At the moment the Abuja branch is the strongest; in the past, it used to be the Rivers branch, but it is no longer strong if compared with the Abuja branch. This therefore means, if the branches are strong, they are the ones who will identify corporate organizations, individuals and other people that we need to work with to mobilize support, so that a lot of funds can start to flow into the University. These kinds of funds or resources the University is looking for might not necessarily be in physical cash; it can be in projects. So, if anybody says, for example, ‘ABU requires a laboratory within the science complex and I will build it for you’, these are huge resources; or someone says, ‘this is the value of construction you want to do, I pledge to donate so and so amount of cash’, is still a strategy. But I think at the moment, the vibrancy of the branches such that they are able to mobilize resources for the University is not there.

Are there moves by the Directorate to revive the alumni branches to resuscitate the dormant branches into action and vibrancy?

The good thing is that the quarterly meetings of the national alumni body hold and the Directorate is part of it. The plan is that the alumni and the Directorate are working together on what needs to be done for each of the branches to be reactivated. I think it begins with whom you want to elect into positions at the branch levels or the national level. The process of identifying who has commitments and who will give time to activities on behalf of the alumni in both the state and the national levels is key to the success of the alumni being able to work well to meet the vision for which they represent and target or agenda for ensuring that the University has resources through their effort. The alumni association realizes their weakness and they are now discussing it. I think that is the first stage; the Directorate is part of the strengthening process of the weaker branches for effectiveness. In relations to that, the alumni is working out a plan to launch a fifty billion naira (N50 billion) internet appeal fundraising for the University, even though some of the branches are weak. The National Secretariat is trying to do something positive so as to trigger activities at the branches.

In some universities in the country, there used to be a forum for interaction between the management and the alumni to inform them of their expected roles. Does such forum exist in ABU here?

I guess here in ABU, there seems to be a taking-for-granted position, that the alumni know what is expected of them. However, there have been a number of forum where the University management had discussions with the national alumni association. Sometimes last year in November, there was an interactive session among the national alumni, the Directorate, Council Chairman and the representative of the Vice Chancellor, where we talked about a whole lot of needs in the University and the role of the alumni association in helping the University to meet those needs. In addition to that, during the Annual General Assembly of the ABU alumni, there is always a forum a where the management interacts with alumni. Perhaps, what is missing is the structuring of the meetings to say every quarter or twice in a year. Let us meet and discuss what we have achieved so far in terms of what the University expects the alumni to do, what the deficit is, why it is so and brainstorm for strategies to achieve good results. You might argue that the Directorate is the eye of the management during such meetings of the alumni and we do present what transpired at the meetings. Therefore, the management hears what happened in those meetings, but to what extend this is taking forward is another matter.

You said that ABU had graduated more than half a million; what efforts is the Directorate making at tracking these alumni to make them useful to the University?

In trying to track the alumni, we are using a system of creating a database; the Advancement Services unit in collaboration with the larger portal development team of the University is responsible for that activity. What they do is to populate the portal with the names of alumni in the last couple of years. Since I took over here as the Director, one key activity that has been ongoing is trying to track all alumni; some of them, the records were poorly kept. There has been a lot of effort with the Registry and the Students’ Affairs department to harvest information about old alumni way back in the sixties and so on. That is not so easy but I think, relatively, some progress has been made in doing that. It is not enough to just dump their names on the database but you have to make contacts again. This is where the alumni branches become useful in terms of generating the e-mail addresses of their members spread across the state and getting their telephone numbers so that we can reach them. One of the things the Directorate is doing is, creating social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn so that we can reach out to them with the hope of multiplier effects. Another way we are connecting with our alumni is, when we know of alumni who get appointed into positions, we send them congratulatory messages and say well-done. That is supposed to be an encouragement to them which makes them think, ‘my Alma Mater remembers me; they are happy and have good will towards me, therefore, if there are some things to do for them, I will gladly do for my Alma Mater.’

What are the challenges associated with the job as the Director of Advancement?

I think it has to do with the University community itself understanding the concept of advancement. Unless the community understands the concept, buys it and gives support, we will just be functioning as a lone unit and that won’t have effect. Therefore, what we have initiated at the Directorate is to conduct sensitization workshop with different units of the University. We started sensitization session with Deans and Directors. It is in our plan that after this, we will conduct for the Heads of Departments and the management team itself. I think that even within the management, some people don’t understand what the Directorate is about. So, surmounting that first challenge of knowledge of what the Directorate is, what it should do and what are the responsibilities of other members of the University community towards making it successful is a big challenge. But, I believe we are working to address that.

The second challenge is still hovering around the community. You know, previously, it was the Development Office and the thinking was to have Faculty Development Officers, who would sell the idea of what the Development Office was doing. Now the development and the alumni offices merged to form the Advancement Directorate. Therefore now, we have reactivated the Faculty Advancement Officers and these are the people who would sell the idea of what we represent, what I should do and how the faculties and departments can support us.

Another challenge is the mobilization of resources. The culture of giving in this country is very low; we do not have a philanthropic spirit like it does exist in developed countries of Europe and Americas. This University is benefiting from the MacArthur Foundation, which is a philanthropic organization. In this country, we have many multi-billionaires who are not interested in setting up foundations except, of course, the TY Danjuma and the Dangote Foundations, who are doing a lot of good jobs. But these are few amongst thousands of Nigerians who have lots and lots of money. When you try to reach out to people and ask them to give back to the society, they often wonder why you asked them to give. The attitude of most Nigerians towards given is very poor. Then, the other part of it is that when trying to raise funds from various corporate organizations and companies, part of the questions some individuals always asked is, ‘when I was looking for admission in ABU for my child, you refused.’ I think Nigerians should bear in mind that philanthropic giving is not supposed to be tied to any condition; it should be an unconditional support to the service of humanity in order to better the lives of the future generations.

What are the roles of the Directorate in encouraging philanthropic attitude amongst Nigerians?

A lot of big people out there are aware that philanthropic organizations give money, so they have a sense of philanthropy. The World Bank, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and many other charitable organizations have been assisting ministries and even the Nigerian government. The global funds for health and other big foundations that are philanthropic organizations give funds to ministries and governmental organizations. So why are they finding it difficult to translate that into given money to society and organizations around them, most particularly, institutions that will develop ordinary Nigerians to have better standard of living? As I mentioned earlier, some good examples of such foundations in Nigeria that support humanity are the TY Danjuma and the Dangote foundations that have given money and lots of supports to institutions and the society to uplift the lives of Nigerians. If we begin to profile such individuals and foundations that support philanthropy, I think that other rich people will begin to aspire also to be profiled. This kind of profiling will serve as a challenge for others to take up the challenge. We will start a chat on our website to profile such people who give to the society; I think this will ginger other people to give, because they have a feeling of being recognized by the society.

What are those achievements that when you look, give you a feel of accomplishment as the Director of Advancement?

I barely spent two years here at the Directorate and within this period, one of the things I thought about earlier is the capturing of the alumni and populating the database. I believe a lot has happened within the almost two years I have been here. At the moment, the Advancement Services unit told me that they have captured about two hundred and fifty thousand (N250,000) alumni in the database. One other achievement is the fact that the Directorate, as resources mobilization unit, is advising faculties, institutes, and other units within the University in the area of fundraising for research and other activities. In this regard, the Directorate is central in writing of proposal for grant to the World Bank on the Centre of Excellence. Luckily enough, the University got one of such centres on Neglected Tropical Disease and Biotechnology. Eight million dollars is what that grants brought to the University and that Centre is becoming a flagship centre for the very many things it can do. It is supposed to work in collaborations with other research centres and institutions outside Nigeria. Therefore, the Centre is placing the University into the biotechnology research maps and that is one key achievement.

The Directorate has also established its system of relationship with internal and external stakeholders through sending congratulatory letters to ABU alumni who got appointed into high positions. It means that we are making sure that people recognize ABU and say, ‘we are valued, therefore, we need to do something.’ The Directorate generates the contents of the letter while the Vice Chancellor signs the letter. Another area of achievement is the ABU web portal that has been developed, especially the one with the alumni, which they want to launch in the fifty billion naira internet fundraising. I think by December this year, the launching will come up. The first launch was an achievement and getting this one in place and making it possible shall be another interesting achievement that I want to be associated with. The reactivation of the Faculty Advancement Officers is also an accomplishment; they were dormant. That will ensure that faculties understand the philosophy of the Advancement Directorate.

What should ABU alumni know towards developing the University to greatness?

My message to the ABU friends and stakeholders, staff, alumni and students is that, ABU is a great institution that has made impact on this country. If you go to any part of the country and become distressed and say you are looking for ABU graduate, you will cease to be stranded. The University is cosmopolitan with graduates from all facets of life, and at the moment, there are several Ministers and chief executives of organizations who are alumni of ABU and even the nation’s Vice President is an alumnus. For me, that is a testimony of great institution. Within the great institution, it tells me that the potentials are still great. For ABU to continue to be great and to have impact on the country and build young men and women who will go out there and be great, its  alumni and friends need to look inward towards contributing their own part to develop the University to greatness. The alumni have a vital role in giving back to their Alma Mater in cash or kind so that the generations yet unborn can benefit from the legacies of the alumni and friends of the Ahmadu Bello University. The alumni in the Diaspora have a lot to offer to their Alma Mater in different perspective; we are planning to identify ABU with the United States and United Kingdom and other parts of the world with a view to building mutual beneficial relations for the University to prosper.

Posted by: Ahmed Zakaria, ON Wednesday 28th of January 2015