Aare Afe Babalola has more than half a century’s experience as a lawyer in his native Nigeria and is the former pro-chancellor of the University of Lagos, where he is also a visiting lecturer. He studied for his undergraduate degree through the University of London International Programmes and was recently awarded an honorary doctorate by the institution. In 2009, he founded Afe Babalola University, Nigeria’s fastest-growing university.
Where and when were your born?
I was born in Ado Ekiti, capital city of present day Ekiti State in southwestern Nigeria. There was no record of when I was born as my parents were illiterate. However, I believe it was sometime in 1928.
How has this shaped you?
I was born in a community that was predominantly agrarian. I used to trek at least 7 miles daily to a farm where I sometimes had to sleep on plantain leaves. I usually worked there from 7am to 5pm. This shaped my philosophy and belief that hardship and suffering build character, character builds faith and faith never fails.
How important were the International Programmes in getting you to where you are today?
My formal education stopped at primary school. There was no opportunity to attend secondary school as my parents could not afford the fees. The external programme of the University of London enabled me to sit [O and A levels]. This allowed me to embark on private study for two university degrees in economics and law, without which I wouldn’t be where I am today. I would have remained a farmer.
How accessible is higher education in your country and other African nations?
In those days, University College Ibadan, founded in 1948, was a college of the University of London. It was the only higher education institution in the country. Today, there are more than 150 universities, but only about 40 per cent of applicants have access to university admissions annually. My country is better than most in Africa in the area of tertiary education.
What were your motivations for setting up the Afe Babalola University?
The benefits conferred on me through higher education, such as an improved standard of living, and the ability to compete globally and affect the lives of others, led me to realise that the most important legacy I can bequeath to future generations is accessible high-quality higher education. Additionally, my experience as pro-chancellor of the University of Lagos exposed me to the inadequacies of government-run universities, leading me to the inevitable conclusion that I should establish an institution to be a model of what a university should be and how it should be administered.
What were the biggest challenges in creating the university and how do you feel it has developed since its foundation?
The biggest challenges were the lack of basic social infrastructure, such as pipe-borne water, steady electricity, good roads and airports, as well as corruption and poor service delivery. Through personal supervision and dedication, what we have achieved in five years has been described as “magic and miracle combined”.
What needs to be done to make higher education a more significant part of African society?
Private and public universities that demonstrate excellence should benefit from increased funding, as is done in other parts of the world.
Could Africa become a global HE superpower?
When internal conflicts and political tensions are reduced, more attention can be given to modern higher education at all levels and Africa can compete globally. It will then be clear that education is synonymous with power.
What was your most memorable moment at university?
When I received my BSc economics result, posted to me by the University of London. The news went round the town where I was working. It changed my life for the better and made me a much sought-after person.
What keeps you awake at night?
I work an average of 18 hours a day. When I get to bed, usually after midnight, I sleep well and dream about some of the things I did during the day.
Tell us about someone you’ve always admired?
My teacher, I.A. Olowu, who taught me when I was in primary school: a selfless and diligent teacher who did not teach for money but for the progress of his students.
What single policy would you implement if you were higher education minister for the day?
I would improve funding for public universities and advise well-to-do Nigerians to invest in the establishment of more private universities.