Wale Babalakin is a man fascinated by the transforming power of education. He is a legal luminary, a visionary and intrepid entrepreneur, but education is his legacy. He believes the mind can absorb knowledge and create magic. If every other thing about him is lost in translation, his activism for quality education will never be. It is the foundation on which everything he has built stands on.
His education philosophy has earned him enemies, insults, even persecution, all of which are mediocre, pedestrian and ephemeral. It’s a curious phenomenon though, because Babalakin’s idea that Nigeria should focus on developing and sustaining quality education is one of the smartest ways to lift the country from its cesspool of poverty and cluelessness. No country – whether to the east or west or nonaligned – can rise without properly educating its citizens. But very few people have listened to him, because many can’t see beyond their noses; many are trapped in the misleading notion of egalitarian mediocrity, evenly distributing half-formed, undernourished opportunities.
Babalakin’s fiercest critics are quick to tag him elitist. As an offspring of a Supreme Judge and a multi-millionaire himself, he is, of course, an elite. But his ideas are not. That quality education would cost more, while talented, financially disadvantaged students have access to an education bank and scholarships, is not even remotely bourgeois; instead, such a system will help to self-correct most of the current inefficiencies in Nigeria’s educational sector, enthrone meritocracy and provide a firm, eternal base on which knowledge – unvarnished, local and cosmopolitan – can flourish.
Still on meritocracy, Babalakin doesn’t believe in an equal, blanket pay for university academics. Remuneration should be tied to the quality of scholarship; this stance has won him the ire of members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities. Babalakin, who has represented the Federal Government severally in meetings with the labour union, is on the side of the diligent scholars, not the quacks and misfits parading what should be the hallowed corridors of this country’s Knowledge Halls.
Meanwhile, Babalakin is not a mere philosopher king. He goes into the world and acts; he grapples with the demons he speaks against. As Pro-Chancellor of the University of Maiduguri, he helped to improve the institution’s infrastructure. Now, as Pro-Chancellor of the University of Lagos, he has continued his activism, quietly contributing to the university’s overall progress, amid the fractious politics that has replaced intellectual curiosity in the majority of Nigeria’s educational institutions.
Babalakin is a product of educational excellence. He attended the University of Lagos when Nigerian universities were still the toast of the world. In 1974, the University College Hospital in Ibadan was ranked fourth among Medical schools in the Commonwealth of Nations. From Lagos, he attended the University of Cambridge and received his PhD when he was barely 26. So it is easy to trace the origin of his worldview, the source of his earnest yearnings when he cries out that Nigeria should reform its educational system.
In 2017, writing in THISDAY, Adeola Akinremi posed a succinct question: Is Babalakin Nigeria’s example of inefficient use of talent? He is. The country is designed to shackle those with beautifully-crafted and rigorous vision that doesn’t conform to the present needs of the bottomless stomach. But Wale Babalakin, as evidenced from the past few decades, isn’t a fan of captivity; he has a voice and, all things equal, he should continue to speak and act against the forces that seek to keep Nigeria in darkness.
Last year, Babalakin gave one of his most emotional speeches while addressing graduands at the University of Lagos’ 49th convocation ceremony. There, he described Nigerian intellectuals as an endangered species.
“The Nigerian intelligentsia have largely lost out in the battle for Nigeria,” he said. “Today I’m making a clarion call to you all that it is not sufficient to earn a living. It is not sufficient to be well paid. It is more important to participate in the development of your country. For having the courage to pursue a subsequent degree, you have already shown clearly that you intend to be part of the intelligentsia, but it shouldn’t end there. We hope we’ll see UNILAG graduates actively participating in all aspects of government and the civil society; and generally found in places where we are seeking to enhance our nation.
“An endangered species is the type of animal that will soon disappear from the world. We have to stop this. Not by running away; not by saying that governance is for those who cannot do better. Governance is for us all. Let us participate. Let us contribute, so that at the end of the day, we will create a great nation. I have no doubt in my mind that UNILAG is at the forefront of making this happen. Be determined. Be ready to turn every stumbling block into a stepping stone for the attainment of a greater height. It is important for you to be change agents in the society.
“The society can only develop if we have a united elite determined to protect the gains of the society. If you look round at all the societies that have sustained their growth, it has happened because of the selfless interest of the elite. The dictionary describes the elite as a body of people who are interested in developing the society with the knowledge they have. That is who I want you to be because fortune will fade away rapidly, generations of good people have passed on anonymously, but those who live for long are the ones who live in the minds of people and those who commit their efforts to changing the society.”
As Babalakin, Atanda, Erinjogunola omo Balogun turns 59 today, one hopes that he never stops speaking and standing for the intellect’s illuminating power and capacity to transform our present condition.
. Ayodeji Olaosun is the Media Manager for Resort International Limited.