I never dreamt of becoming vice chancellor –Esimone, UNIZIK VC

• Says his vision is to make Nnamdi Azikiwe University one of the best 200 universities in the world


By Agatha Emeadi

Prof. Charles Okechukwu Esimone is the Vice Chancellor, Nnamdi Azikiwe University (UNIZIK), Anambra State. 

He is the first professor of Pharmaceutical Microbiology in Eastern Nigeria, as well as a professor of Biopharmaceutics and Pharmaceutical Biotechnology.

His tenure as the Vice Chancellor which began in 2019 has brought about a paradigm shift in all facets of the university as encapsulated in the ACADA Vision and Project 200 resulting in the tertiary institution’s literally leap-frogging in academics just as the institution is determined in pursuing the ultimate goal of becoming one of the 200 best universities in the world. That can-do spirit was imbued in him by his father.

In this interview, he opens the curtain on his journey to success in scholarship and leadership.

How healthy is the Nigerian university system?

Well, this is a system that is sick, has become comatose and the symptoms are very clear. Diagnoses have been made severally about the current Nigerian system, in which its sickness is not hidden, but needs urgent treatment. We are talking about a system where there is gross underfunding, a system where staff and students do not have requisite materials either to teach or to learn. A system where all funds are locked in the Treasury Single Account (TSA) and lumped in the Central Bank of Nigeria. TSA has made the system stagnated. Again, the Integrated Personnel Payroll Information System (IPPIS) did not take cognizance of the peculiarities of the university system. What IPPIS succeeded in doing is to deplete without replenishing. There is infrastructure decadence and some of these things are now brooding different levels of corruption and misconduct. A system where the welfare of the teacher is not taken so seriously. So, the Nigerian university system is sick, therefore, we need to revamp and profile the treatment at different levels. We need to look at the academic level. When we have a system where academic excellence is slaughtered at the altar of insufficient funding, materials, those who are supposed to do practicals even in areas where health or life is important resort to alternatives to practical. There is no electricity to power some of the gadgets or needed machines and equipment. Again, in terms of classroom spaces, there are more students than the space can contain and all sorts of social and academic deficiency that ordinarily should not be found in a university system are found in our system. The emphasis is laid on paper certificates, not on experience and competence. Because of this misplaced priority, the system is very sick and comatose where one is left with terminologies like ‘unemployable graduates.’ If somebody is unemployable, not because there is deficiency in terms of work, but deficiency in aptitude, expertise and experience, there is a problem with a system that is breeding such persons and this is what is found in the Nigerian university system. Part of the urgent ways to cure the university system is that some policies are not supposed to be in the university system. The core civil service has a system that guides it. University is a very dynamic system that must be understood for us to make progress. There are many ways to describe the sickness, but generally we say from the academic to funding and administrative perspectives. The sick university system is begging for healing and treatment. Like I said earlier, the diagnosis has been made by different persons, all that is needed now is the healing because the diagnoses are clear.

Incessant strikes have been one of the problems in public universities. How can this be addressed?

Fundamentally, lecturers or staff in Nigerian universities go on strike because of two basic reasons. The first is insufficient funding and decay in infrastructure. These two put together also have an effect on their welfare. When funding is not sufficient either for personnel cost or for infrastructure and other necessary amenities that should be provided, then the welfare of staff is compromised. That is basically why strikes are effective. So, for these two things, if staff welfare is addressed, infrastructure and learning environments improved, be sure of the quality of graduates that are coming out, and the people who are providing the services will be satisfied, then, nobody will go on strike. What an average university professor earns today is less than USD300 or $400 in a month. Where on earth can one describe it? How can a person working in this clime be in the right psychological frame of mind to teach and share knowledge? It is not possible and it cuts across all the different cadres of staff. If one looks at the teaching environment for most universities today, electricity is not there. Even water to run the basic infrastructure is not there. The classroom seats are not there, learning materials are not available. These things are enough to trigger a strike because one cannot work where his or her welfare is not guaranteed and be happy, gladly doing the job. If these things are addressed, strikes will cease. So, it is important for the government to address funding and look at infrastructure that are necessary.

I learnt that public universities struggle to pay electricity bills. Is it not possible for them to generate their own electricity?

As a matter of fact, that is the way to go – public universities should generate electricity of their own. How do you generate that? The university needs funding to do that. Most of our universities have powerful and good faculties of Engineering that if you give them this assignment, they will be able to do it, but they need funding. Well, we are also glad that the Federal Government recently through the Minister of Education, established an initiative that is coming up. The government has done the necessary needs assessment to power universities independent of Distribution Companies. While that is ongoing, we want to thank the President and the Minister and also the Executive Secretary of TETFUND, all of whom are behind the initiative. If this works, I am sure the issue of electricity which is a very fundamental problem in the Nigerian university system would have been solved.

What makes UNIZIK tick?  

Nnamdi Azikiwe University (UNIZIK) is named after the legendary late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Zik of Africa, who is known both locally, nationally and internationally as a man of uncommon excellence. He is a pan-Africanist, but of great quality. What makes us tick is our crave for excellence and innovation. Even with little or without support from the government or otherwise, we have been able to grow over the years. This is a university that since its establishment in 1992 as a federal university, most of the infrastructure are either things that we got by endowment or one support or the other. This goes to say that the university strives to excel. We do not complain about things not being available for us or done for us. Innovation is key here. Every department and faculty strategize, think outside the box, and seek funding support. We are known for that competitiveness and education as a very powerful business. We do it as a business-man-entrepreneurial thinking as we run our institution. In UNIZIK, we don’t wait for the government, we do things for ourselves and that is one of the strong points that makes Nnamdi Azikiwe University tick.

What kind of university did you inherit when you assumed office as the new vice chancellor?    

I inherited a university that summarily ranked, in terms of global ranking, at 4,937 in 2019; but now, we are below I,500. I inherited a university where the academic culture was not strongly emphasized at that time, because people were pushing for other things. One did not see regular inaugural lectures, academic conferences and grants applications as found in other cultures. From the time, I took over in 2019, we have doubled the total number of inaugural lectures from inception. Then, we were at No 41st inaugural lecture from the inception of the university, but now, we are at 98. So, one can see academic culture has increased significantly. The departments and faculties regularly organize international conferences. Grantsmanship is no longer restricted to the biomedical sciences as it was in the past. Now, Social Sciences and Arts, all are now getting grants. We are also excelling in teaching and learning. The university I met at that time was low in terms of academics and administrative structure. It has been reformed administrative-wise. We have done a lot in infrastructure and social impact like sports. We didn’t have a functional stadium with a full tartan track and a golf course which the state did not have, but the university has it, including social impact. We have a functional zoo, which is the first zoo in Anambra State by the way. Sports-wise, we organized the first South-East University Games and we have put in policies that will encourage sports and social cohesion amongst our youths and development. I am proud of what we have done so far in terms of academics, community service, administrative, discipline, advancement and welfare. With all these, I can sleep with my two eyes closed because I came up with a vision called ACADA, which means Academic Excellence, Community Service, Administrative Reforms, Discipline and Advancement in every other area that my predecessors had worked. We encapsulated what I describe as Project 200, which is the vision to make Nnamdi Azikiwe University one of the best 200-universities in the world, one of the best 10 universities in Africa and the number one university in Nigeria. So, with these five pillars of ACADA, I think the progress we have made so far, our rankings have improved. A university that is less than 50 years old, we are below 1,500 in the whole world and in sub-Saharan Africa, we are number 31; in Nigeria, we have been ranking between 8 and 9th positions. For the past two years, we have really moved. In terms of discipline, it has been enshrined very clearly among the students and staff. Every university that wants to excel puts discipline at the forefront. We have zero tolerance for indiscipline, either by staff or students. We also follow due process to carry out our words. We have made administrative reforms and decentralized a lot of things that were muddled together. Yesterday, we had our matriculation which I decentralized. Matriculation now takes place in the faculties, no longer central as it used to be. My idea then was that students get to know their faculties and lecturers on a closer level. So, matriculation will give them the opportunity to interact with them at a closer level with their faculty teachers. With that decentralization, now it has afforded them the bonding, interaction, joy and happiness that matriculation offers from the very beginning. This is just an example to make sure we are advancing as an institution.

Was it your original plan to become a vice chancellor or a change came in the process of growing up?

I did not have a dream of becoming a vice chancellor. I am a pharmacist by training. My idea initially was to make medicines, do quality assurance, develop drugs and distribute them. But because I graduated with distinction, my mentor then felt that I should be in academics and I followed. I started with the internship, did the postgraduate and from there I pursued a doctorate degree. I am also a researcher. It just happened that I left University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) because there was a need to establish a School of Pharmacy in UNIZIK. I was called on to do that. I came, started the programme, served as Dean for five years and in the process, I was able to transform the school to one of the best Pharmacy schools in Nigeria. Some other people started seeing that quality in me, and recommended that I should be in the Governing Council, and that was where I also made my contribution and finished well, according to them. I got the accolade and then VC offered me to become the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academics). As usual there was a lot of transformation and they also approved that I could be the VC. That was how I applied and by the grace of God, I became the VC in 2019. It was never my plan to be VC. I was just a busy researcher, getting grants and doing collaboration with many institutions abroad. When I was Dean of Pharmacy, I was bringing visiting professors from the Diaspora to mentor young people and do postgraduate studies in those places. That was what I was doing, building capacity, faculty and getting grants, having PhD students establishing programmes and all that. Now, I am VC today, I return the glory to God.

Where were you when your appointment as the new VC was announced?

I was in my house when it was announced. I rushed to the administrative block and blessed people there and collected my letter. It was a good one.

Today, the majority of students live off-campus. How do you feel about that?

Truly, the way to go is to have students on-campus. Off-campus residency is not good. To start with, the social development of students who stay off-campus is not the same as those who live in the campus environment and that is very important to build their psyche for future integration. However, getting hostels in the campus is expensive and universities cannot fund construction of on-campus accommodation. So, the problem has always been funding to get hostels in the campus. Both the government and the schools cannot do that, so our proposition is that a lot of investors should come in under public-private partnership to develop hostels inside the campuses so we can have many more hostels. That was what I did when I came on board and a lot of these hostels are coming up, but unfortunately, we don’t have anyone completed by now. Many of them were interrupted by COVID-19, and before they came back, cost of materials increased and they needed to go back and look at the MoU which discouraged most investors. Since we have the Governing Council available, the universities should be able to handle it. I am sure it is the same thing with many of my colleagues because we had forum like this and it is the same experience everywhere for this investor.

Growing up, in what significant ways did your parents influence who you turned out to be?

My late father was a businessman who did not go to school, but became a multi-millionaire. He dealt with motor parts and had a transport fleet. I can actually say I was born with a golden spoon. I was born in Cameroon where my father lived. I grew up in Cameroon where I also had my studies. My mother was a teacher who was good. A literate mother and an illiterate father who was very passionate about education and I am the first of eight children. All my siblings are alive except one that died in infancy. I learnt from my father, who was an entrepreneur, a  core value: he never believed that anything was impossible. That belief has made a great impact on me. My father would tell the story of how he started his flourishing business with nothing, became a successful entrepreneur and multi-millionaire, who built big companies there. And this was a man who did not go to school, but could read and write, interpret big government contracts, unlike today’s graduates who might not be able to do so. As the first son of an Igbo man, my father never wanted me to inherit his chains of business, instead he wanted us to go to school. During the holidays, his other Igbo contemporaries would want their children to come to the shop and office; my father would pay for lessons for us to go to school and stay away from the business. He encouraged us to focus on our studies. As a secondary school boy, my father used to send me to America to spend my holidays. I really cherish the value he placed on education and that is the reason we are where we are today. My other siblings are also in different careers, we are a happy family. My mother is still alive. My parents are born-again Christians who made me embrace Christ early enough in life. That foundation I got from them was wonderful, they played their role very well and that is the reason for my success story today. I remembered when I wanted to join academics after my Pharmacy studies, my father called me early in the morning and asked why I wanted to become a teacher. I explained myself and he gave me his blessing and asked me to go. As a young academic  then, I remember my father was still supporting me by paying my house rent. All the cars I drove from my university days until later in life, my father gave me. He gave the support, and paid. He died in 2000 and we thank God for everything.

Give us a snapshot of Professor Esimone?

Prof. Charles Okechukwu Esimone is a pharmacist by training. I come from a village called Uru-Olu in Akwaeze, Anaocha Local Government Area, Anambra State. I am happily married to Dr. (Mrs) Celestina Chinyere Esimone who is an Associate Professor of Music. We are blessed with five children. Interestingly, we have a son, and a set of quadruplets (two boys and two girls) who are all doing very well. I am a born-again Christian and member of the Deeper Life Ministry. I love the gospel, preaching, talking to the youth and mentoring them. I am also a lover of sports which I see as a means of bonding for our youth. I speak and write English and French.