Our Research Institutes Are Lazy – Prof. Okigbo | Independent Newspapers Limited
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Our Research Institutes Are Lazy – Prof. Okigbo

Posted: Oct 4, 2015 at 12:02 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

Professor Bede Okigbo, a scion of the Ezeokigbo family of Ojoto in Anambra state is a versatile academic. When you think you can have the liberty of getting his views on other areas of his life, he  insists in lacing his views with his academic journey. His major in the university is Agronomy. But as he explained, because he would be lonely in that area of specialization, he took two minors: Genetics and Plant Breeding. Okigbo laments that research  institutes in Nigeria are idle and have not continued from where the old generation academics stopped.  In this interview with our Chukwujekwu Ilozue, Okigbo bares his mind on his academic forays and in his service to humanity, especially during the Nigeria Civil War. Excerpts:



Good morning Prof. Happy to meet you once again.

Ah, yes good morning.

How old would one say you are now?

I am just close to 90 years. But you know the problem also is that my uncle had a sworn declaration to allow me enter Government College, Umuahia so that what my mother put as my birthday is some few years earlier so I have been putting my sworn declaration as my professional birthday because he indicated that when I was born there was no register of birth in Ojoto. So, it is causing confusion.

So, you are preparing to mark your birthday, are you?

Yes, they are preparing for me which I cherish so much with humility because the longer you live, the more God blesses you for a longer life and there is nothing you can do against age except to manage it.

In what form are they preparing the predation?

I don’t know what they are to do because they had prepared earlier and it became aborted.

Who and who are involved in your birthday?

The one Emeka told me today is “Ndi be Okigbo” (Okigbo Kindred) because I am their President and Emeka Okigbo who informed me is our secretary, assisted by Samuel Okigbo.

It is like Okigbo is a very large family?

It is a very large family. I don’t have to boast about it. If you follow after here all the way to the hall, almost both sides you have Okigbo family. It is a very large family but most of us are not living at home. In fact it was only in 1980 that I came home. I didn’t use to know here very much. Even when my father died, I just came home for his burial, then I left. But he is the person who arranged to give me where I am settled now, Chief Nnebue Okigbo.

In your view how many would you say Okigbo clan are in number?

 I will be making a mistake if I guess. I have six children. Then if you think of such we may be more than 30 in number.

Ok. Heads of Okigbo families how many are they?

We are about 10. I am hesitant in telling you the number because I once tried to do a census of our families; I got a register to put the names together so that we publish it in a book and we failed each time I tried. So, I don’t want to ever estimate or underestimate.

And you are the eldest now?

I am the eldest. Ezekigbo family is the extended family system. For example, when I took the Ozo title, I became Eze Okigbo the third because my grandfather was the first, my father was the second.

Let’s reflect on your growing up years. How was it like, since you are from a very big family?

Yes, let me tell you, the large size of my family reflects my history because my mother died when I was five and then one of my uncles, Ben Okigbo, a Station Master working at Agyaragu took me along to stay with me. Then when we got to Amawbia, Chief James Okigbo alias Oligolu asked him, ‘you are going with all these children, how can you look after all of them?’ Then he took me to stay with him, then I started at Amawbia. From Amawbia I went to Ekwulobia.

What was he?

He was a Headmaster. He used to be a very early headmaster and he was used to be posted from one place to another. So, I went from Amawbia to Ekwulobia, from Ekwulobia he went to Asaba. I went to Government College, Umuahia. So, that influenced me. I don’t speak any Igbo dialect because I went from one part of Igbo land to another.

To give you an example, I used to have a friend, Nwoye, who is from Amawbia. Each time I speak, he describes me was “you focus and snap” from my dialect because I adjust to every dialect I fall into. I went to school from there to Adazi then to Asaba before my brother took me to Government College Umuahia. Then, I went to Moore Plantation, Ibadan. From Moore Plantation I got Ford Foundation Scholarship to go to America. I went to Washington State University, from there to Cornel University.

But I went to Washington DC which is in Seattle on the Western side of the United States. That time Ekwueme (Alex) was in Seattle, I went to Poman that was when I knew Ekwueme.

From there, I got scholarship for four years, then I was lucky because I went to school of Agriculture and they didn’t know where to put me- whether to put me as a fresh man, or what they call ‘Soforma’- that is, second year in the university since I went to school of Agriculture after secondary school. But they put me in second year and said if I do well, I will continue if I don’t do well, they will put me back to first year.

  So, I started. You know in America, they have a programme for you, if you can finish the programme and get all your grade points, you can finish in less than four years. So, within two and half years, I finished and then went to Cornel University where I did my Masters and Doctorate Degrees.

From there, I came back. When I was at Cornel, the Federal Government sent people round because the country was very close to independence, so as to know those they will support so as to finish quickly and come back but they will sign a bond. When Nwokedi, I think Francis Nwokedi came for me to sign the bond, he said that since I had assistance that was covering my expenses and will finish in a year, he told me not to sign the bond.

I finished and came back to Moore Plantation as an Agronomist. I was Agronomist in charge of Western Region and also of Agege Experiment Station. Then I went to University College Ibadan for about a year and then when they opened University of Nigeria, Nsukka, I also went.

So, what is your area of specialization?     

My area of specialization is Agronomy, dealing mainly with soils and plants. But then I had minors. When I was at Cornel my adviser, Musgrave, who was the adviser to the University of the Philippines said, ‘when you go back, you may not get too many people to interact with in a faculty.’  He discouraged me from specializing too much.

I took Agronomy as my major and had genetics and plant breeding and second minor in Entomology. The reason being that when I was in the school of Agriculture, I was given a scholarship because I was very good in Entomology but during that time, one O.J. Wester from University of Nebraska who came to Nigeria to help Nigeria produce high breed corn, said that I should not take Entomology, that I should take plant breeding because he didn’t have anybody to interact with.

Looking back now what will you say are your high points either as a teacher in the University or as a civil servant?

What I may say as the high point of my career was that when I came back due to the fact that I had a field of specialization, I found myself lecturing in Genetics and plant breeding for Agriculture and Botany students and also for pre-med students because they had to do some subjects before they go to Enugu to do medicine. When I came back, I found that one of the most interesting things was that when you teach Genetics, you teach a fly they call drusontular managaster, they use it in the lab; we call it  ‘Uchicha mgbe’ which lives on alcohol.

They do so because they have short life circle. But when I came back, I didn’t know how to do that, how to get a local material that I can use. What I found very interesting was waterleaf that was having white flowers. Very often, it has purple flowers. I studied it to see if I can use it for teaching. Then I found that the plant that has purple and the one that has white, I crossed them and it is self-pollinated.

So, the off-spring, first generation pollinated each other and when I grouped the seed they give-1-2-1 ratio, that is one purple-purple and one white which shows non-dominance. I published it in a journal and used it for teaching because within a year, you can grow from seed to adult. A student can use it in a genetic class within a year. You can get the result.

You did not end up in the classroom. You were also a consultant with some world bodies?  

What happened was that I went to Nsukka and started experiments to give us basic information on our crops. For example, I started to grow maize on mounds, on flat and on ridges and compared them. I also tried to find out the effect of certain types of manure on maize yield. I found out that when you try to grown maize on mounds, on flat and ridges, the mound is hotter because it has more surface exposed to sunlight.

Also, when you have ridges of course you know that when you don’t have cross-bars the water will go to the other side.  I made the experiment on Nsukka plains; it was close to the civil war and I didn’t know where to publish it. Professor Dike was the Ambassador. He collected them and had them published in France with English subtitles. But then, these experiments and other things are yet to be published.

Nobody has published anything on cassava; time of planting cassava except the one I wrote. I tried to plant cassava almost every month for most of the year when it is rainy season and I analysed the yields and I found out that the best yield is the one after July. Late Prof Njoku has written a work on day length effect on plants and I found out that cassava produce more roots when you plant after from July onwards.

People from International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) were going round and when they found out the kind of research I did, they invited me to come to IITA. When I went there with my wife, they told her that I was doing the type of research they are interested in and that they noticed she had many children; “this is the house we reserve for you. Tell your husband if he doesn’t come, we give you a house here.” That is how I went to IITA. I went there as Director of Farming Systems and then when I was IITA, I was promoted to a Deputy Director General.

And as I was there, I saw a publication of United Nations University trying to open a Research Institute in Africa, but they didn’t know where to place it. They gave me appointment and I went to New York for just two or three years. Then, I was moved to Nairobi because they felt they haven’t got a country to host it but due to the fact that the Deputy Rector of United Nations University in Tokyo was from Ghana they sent me to Ghana.  I turned United Nations University into natural resources in Africa in Ghana in 1990. I was there until 1997 when I retired and then they gave me one year consultancy appointment then from that time, I left. I returned to New York for a short time to see my family and from there I returned here.

You have been here since then. I recall that you played some role during the Civil War?

Yes, I forgot to tell you, during the civil War, I was at Nsukka and you know the Federal troops started at Gakem, near Ogoja and also north at Oboloafor.

The two fronts they started, then I was the Dean of Faculty of Agriculture and Zik started Nsukka with University of Keel and Michigan State which were trying to support Nsukka development because Ibadan then was a College.

It was not a full university. Zik started Nsukka as the first full-fledged university and university of Keel and Michigan State were more or less advisers to develop it because Michigan State was the first land grant university.

It was not just A university that develops agriculture but also responsible for agriculture extension. We are not doing that in Nigeria now.

For example, since I came back, what I noticed is a most deficient thing in agriculture in Nigeria is that many of our fruits are not registered. Yet we have about 40 research institutes – five are located around Ibadan, five are located around Zaria, only one is located in the Middle Belt. It was after J.O.J Okezie asked us to suggest what should be done and we prepared a proposal that we need Root Crop Research Institute at Umudike because not only that Ibo land is more or less centre of the yam zone but in about 1922, the British established a research station there to know what crops that do well.

It was not developed until Okezie raised the issue during Gowon’s regime. And when he said they will start a research institute, Gowon mentioned to him that there was no money in the budget and he said he was going to resign unless they put it there.

That is how Umudike started. And since that time, the institute has been doing a lot of work on the development of different crops. You also know the importance of research is that if you go to buy cow-pea, you will see one brown, one with wrinkled cover.

The one that has wrinkled cover, is very easy to remove the tester because it swells in water and you remove the tester from the cotyledons. Ife brown was produced by university of Ife with the cooperation of Wisconsin.

But I don’t see any other institute develop any research. Also, there is no important crop research institute that is located in the East where you have most of the important traditional crops-tree crops like ube, ukwa, ukpa; no research is being done on them while you have Horticultural Research Institute dealing with tree crops located in Ibadan.  That is one of the things Okezie wanted to improve.

  You find that if you are looking for ukwa (breadfruit) by the time you reach Ijebu-ode you don’t find it except where Igbo people are living and put ‘ukwa’ there and then, ‘ube.’ I was telling somebody that the French produce pomade from ‘ube’ in one of the Congos but we don’t have anything we have done with these crops; like ‘ukpa.’ No research has been done on it but some of them could produce good oil and other things.

When we reviewed research institutes, we indicated criteria they should use in certain places. For instance, before Okezie asked us to do research on ‘Ugwu,’ some 10 years ago ‘ugwu’ (Pumpkin) was not as important as bitter leaf as we have it today. Also during the war, we found that most of the soya beans we used were produced in the Middle Belt and we didn’t have any other material to produce soya beans for sick bays. So, we evacuated 700 tonnes of soya beans that were waiting for export in Port Harcourt and started using them to produce soya bean milk for sick bays and other refugees. That time Biafra has a research institute at Ovim and Federal troops overran it, so we lost all the soya beans we had. We then started work on ‘okpodudu’ (a legume that has a long pod that is woody) and we contacted them in UK and Michigan State because we didn’t know how to compare it to soya beans.

UK people said we should pay for them to do the analysis but we didn’t have the exchange in Biafra at that time, so Pauls Evans who was at Michigan State analysed it and found that with the exception of amino acid, that all the others were almost the same as we have in soya beans. I started doing research on ‘okpodudu’ and then found that apart from the seed being almost as good as soya beans, it also produces tuber which was being eaten somewhere in the Congo but they don’t eat the seed, ‘we eat the seed but we don’t eat the tuber, to show you what was very interesting.

I didn’t publish the article because it was done during the war and immediately the war, I wrote an article titled: “Introducing the Yam Bean’. When I wrote the article, there was not much published on it except that one Duke from United States Department of Agriculture wrote. He did articles on some of these legumes so they sent it to me to review before they publish it.

When I reviewed it and wrote a lot about ‘okpodudu’ and ‘akidi ani,’ he added my name to their papers and published them. That type of publication popularizes these crops.

One of my greatest disappointments is that many of the research institutes we have, close to over 100 universities, what are they doing? We send people for medical treatment to India, yet University Teaching Hospitals that are supposed to be centres of excellence for these things, the same thing as palm breeding, what are they doing? What I go to Nkpor, I see grapes imported from South Africa and then papaw or pineapple variety that is produced in Nigeria. That is very good.

But I noticed from my own experience that you have smooth cane, pineapples that don’t have thorns on the leaves, very sweet but not as big. But I have extracted seeds from pineapple. I have germinated them and they germinate here. If we are really serious, we should be able to help ourselves more in agriculture even though we may say oil is the thing but oil is a diminishing asset, it will finish.

One thing I find very distressing was that when I was at IITA we supervised people doing degrees, we helped universities to produce people doing degrees. J.C. Okafor at Enugu, a professor who is now helping them is a very good taxonomist. I supervised his PhD with one Prof. Okali at Ibadan when I was at IITA and he built our farming systems.

He surveyed important food crops in farmers’ fields from Nigeria from Latitude 40North to 70 North of the Equator and found about 170 crops that are grown, about 70 of them are of minor importance and they were published. Since I left IITA there has been nobody that has approached me to help supervise somebody with my experience here.

I understand that you were active in civil war survival efforts?

During the civil war, I was co-ordinator of Biafran Land Army. I was in Special Food Investigation Group because we were trained to work with the Army but some of them complained that we never did any shooting practice and then when the war started, they said some of us could waylay troops and shoot at them but we said we didn’t have any practice in shooting.

So, those of us that complained were put in Food Production Directorate but when we went to Umudike, the Federal MIG bombed Afo Ugiri market and killed 500 people.  The next week, Ojukwu launched Land Army and I was the Co-ordinator of Biafran Land Army.

Major Alele was our military adviser and support. A.U. Kalu who worked with Pius (Okigbo) was our accountant so we stayed at a place called Umuchakwa and we kept  some of the cattle we evacuated from Nsukka there and trained people in refugee camps so that they could grow food on football fields and how to manure the soil.