Prof Yohana Izam is the President of the Nigerian Institute of Building, and a former Vice Chancellor of Plateau State University. He tells BABATUNDE TUGBOBO about his life, career and other issues
You have a Bachelor’s degree in Building, and a Master’s degree in Construction Technology, as well as a PhD in Construction Management. What informed your decision to study those courses?
I was privileged to know early in life what career I wanted to pursue. First was to either study Civil Engineering or Building, so I studied Building at the University of Jos.
Second, I wanted to be a teacher, particularly at the tertiary level, because of the passion I have for sharing knowledge. This prompted me to get a Master’s and PhD in order to qualify to teach at the university. At the completion of my Master’s degree in Construction Technology at the University of Lagos, I started lecturing in 1990 at the age of 23, thus fulfilling a lifelong ambition.
Many children in the northern part of the country don’t attend school, let alone studying to the point of bagging a PhD. How were you able to break that ‘jinx’?
I never had the thought that my academic career would be limited because I come from the north. That narrative is also rapidly changing. However, two factors helped me all through my academic pursuit. One was a self-motivation that began when I was five years old. I used to hang around classes until the headmaster convinced my father to enroll me in primary one before I clocked six years old.
Also, my parents were ardent promoters of education.
How supportive were your parents of your quest to acquire formal education?
My parents were very supportive. They took personal interest in my school work. My father paid my school fees up to Master’s degree level. I enjoyed government scholarships intermittently, but they were usually not timely. My other siblings are also well educated. As a matter of fact, two of us are professors. Our parents were very supportive of our education.
Did you or your parents face any backlash from people in the community for investing in your education?
There was no backlash. It was more of envy. In the community, people usually make reference to our family when talking about the educational upbringing of children.
At the age of 23, you becmae a lecturer in the Department of Civil and Water Resources Engineering at the University of Maiduguri. How would you describe your experience at the time?
It was quite exciting becoming a lecturer by choice. Then, there was the research space that was waiting to be conquered. I put in a lot of energy into my work long before I established a foothold in my career. I still read some of my published works from that time, wondering how I got such inspiration a young age.
You left the University of Maiduguri in 1996 to join the Department of Building in the University of Jos. What informed that decision?
Going to the University of Jos was more like returning to my alma mater, and core discipline of building. The platforms for teaching and research engagements were bigger for me in Building, than in Civil and Water Resources Engineering. Going to Jos also opened doors for increased community service for me.
In 2000, you were appointed as the provost of the then College of Arts, Science and Remedial Studies (now College of Arts, Science and Technology) Kurgwi, Plateau State. How did you receive the news?
I was in my office at the university when the Commissioner for Education, at the time, came to break the news to me that the-then Governor Joshua Dariye had approved my appointment. He told me that the appointment would be announced on the 5pm news. At that time, I had risen to the position of a senior lecturer, and the prospects of managing an institution and making an impact was quite exciting. I thank God that He helped me to handle that assignment to the best of my ability.
What was your greatest achievement in that office?
My major achievements as the Provost of the institution include the rehabilitation of 12 major buildings on the campus; getting the college registered as an Interim Joint Matriculation Board examination centre; and being part of the list of projects commissioned by the then President, Olusegun Obasanjo in 2001.
The college also came third in its first outing as an IJMB centre. President Obasanjo also acknowledged my pioneering efforts at the college during the commissioning ceremony.
What were the challenges you faced as the then provost?
The major challenges we had at takeoff had to do with infrastructure. My training as a builder came in handy to transform a dozen dilapidated structures into a brand new college campus. We had to go through the rigours of recruiting the pioneer staff from hundreds of qualified applicants through a rigorous process of interviews. Several trips to the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Kaduna State, for registration and accreditation of the institution were also quite demanding.
Between 2003 and 2007, you served as the Plateau State Commissioner for Housing and Transport. What were the highlights of your time in that office?
I think the credit should go to Governor Dariye who considered merit in choosing the people who worked with him in his first and second terms in office. His core team was made up of both politicians and technocrats. I guess I was in between the two because in spite of my professional pedigree, I tried to maintain close affinity to my constituency.
At the Ministry of Housing, we tried to carry out radical transformations of the moribund liaison offices of the state in Kaduna and Lagos states. We also started the Plateau liaison office in Abuja as a mixed development.
In the transport sector, we reformed vehicle inspection officers in both quantity and quality.
Why didn’t you seek a higher political office instead of returning to the academic community?
After my tenure as a commissioner in 2007, I tried to represent Jos South/Jos East at the Federal House of Representatives under the then Action Congress but I was unsuccessful. However, I am usually quite reluctant when it comes to electoral contests; not because of a deficit of goodwill, but because I am more passionate about my career. I believe I would be better if I first develop my leadership skills, and let politics come second.
In February 2018, you were appointed as the Vice Chancellor of the Plateau State University. Did you envisage attaining such height in the university?
The moment one starts a career in academics, the possibility of becoming a vice-chancellor is always there. Some academics might simply want to explore their teaching and research potentials, and might never apply to become vice-chancellor. I had always wanted my career to include being a vice-chancellor. I thank God that He made it possible through the appointment by Governor Simon Lalong.
What was the biggest decision you took as the vice-chancellor of the university?
Many of the decisions taken were great. The university essentially works through a committee system, where the vice chancellor does more of providing leadership at management, senate, and corporate governance levels. I only made critical decisions to deepen the school’s academic quality, and bring about radical infrastructural developments.
Was there anything you wished you had done as the head of the institution that you didn’t do?
It is normal for one to be constrained by resources. But, in the context of our innovation project, all strategic actions were maximally deployed to change the fortunes of the university. I just hope that others would build on our legacies.
What measures did you take to ensure that strike actions by the academic and non-academic unions in the university did not interrupt academic activities while you were in office?
We tried to maintain cordial working relationships with staff unions to minimise friction. As much as possible, we maintained an open door policy. When we were unable to meet demands, we explained to them why certain things could not be done, and we appealed for their understanding.
Before you started lecturing in 1990, did you at any time work in the private sector?
From 1990 to date, my working career has been in the university.
As the president of the NIOB, what measures are you taking to put an end to the incessant cases of building collapses in the country?
The NIOB is a pressure group— an association of professionals recognised by the law to be the training arm of the building profession. Those who are already builders and those who are about to be registered have to undergo constant training in professional ethics, and also update their skills and competencies through our continuous professional development, workshops and conferences. The NIOB is a capacity-building arm of the profession, that equips the builders with relevant skills to practice. Our basic contribution is to ensure that the technology, competence and knowledge that are required for the sound construction of buildings are made available to our members. We believe that any member of the NIOB, who has been part of our advocacies and training programmes, should be able to competently handle any building project. In addition to that, we have been advocating for best practices that we feel state and federal governments can adopt in creating an enabling environment in the sector. For instance, on the issue of the building court, we have been talking about the need for the enforcement of the law; to ensure that the building court has the needed power and force of law. The problem of building collapses is a combination of two major factors— the quackery that is in the industry, and the poor enforcement of standards with respect to building materials in the market. We will continue to speak on those issues, and that is why I said it is a pressure group. All we do through our programmes, capacity building for our members, advocacies, suggestions to the government, and private developers, is to ensure that we minimise the issue of building collapse in Nigeria.
What are the major challenges builders in the country face?
Building sites in Nigeria are one of the most unregulated ‘factories’ because everybody thinks they are builders. The challenge for builders in Nigeria is the lack of regulation of building sites. The industry has largely been left as an all-comers affair. Nobody even bothers to acknowledge the fact that a building site is a factory, and the production managers have to be trained to handle the factory in terms of the health and safety of workers, as well as the accuracy of construction technologists that are deployed. If by working together with the government, we are able to secure functional and enforceable laws that will rescue construction sites from quacks, builders will be happy, and will provide the services that the country needs to construct buildings that will stand the test of time. Although the issue of quackery may not be restricted to just the building profession, we have said that the reform of the professional sector is very urgent, because we cannot be training people in the polytechnic and universities, while untrained people are the ones doing the jobs.
In what ways can the government assist in solving these challenges?
In 2006, the federal government (under President Obasanjo) approved a building code for Nigeria, and that code remains as an exaltation for good conduct and minimum standards for building practice. We need to work with the National Assembly to make a law that will back the building code and make it mandatory. If the government creates an enabling environment and such a law is put in place, it will mean that anyone working outside these laws can be duly prosecuted. If that happens at the federal level, we expect that states will domesticate laws to guide the building activities in their respective territories.
Also, when it comes to buildings, the government is one of the biggest clients. We want to see a situation whereby builders and other professionals are allowed to handle major projects initiated by the government.
Lastly, we need more functional training institutions to be established by the government for different categories of professionals, including craftsmen and artisans. It would build capacity in the industry, so that we won’t need to ‘import’ artisans and craftsmen to handle simple operations.
In what way is the NIOB planning to curtail the activities of quacks in the sector?
We have been doing a lot of advocacy to sensitise the public to the dangers of patronising quacks. There is empirical evidence (that quacks were involved) im the cases of buildings collapsing in the country. Advocacy is an important tool that we have used to caution clients on the need to engage professional builders. We also have the council of registered builders of Nigeria, which is our regulatory arm. They also engage in monitoring building projects across the six geopolitical zones in the country. They have zonal offices, and they go round to building sites to ensure that those who are handling the projects are competent to do so.
Having schooled in the southern and northern parts of the country, what are the differences in the educational sectors in both parts of the country?
From my experience at the University of Lagos, I can say that there is a certain level of exposure that one gets in terms of practical aspects of building construction, as well as the scope of case studies that are available for training students. That is not to say that the curriculum is different from what is in place in northern Nigeria; but in terms of exposure, the training I got in the southern part of the country was more robust. As far back as 1990, Lagos was already talking about skyscrapers all over the city. Meanwhile, in a place like Jos where I had my first degree (at the time), the tallest building was about 12 storey-high. If one studied building in the north, one’s imaginations will be limited, especially in terms of actually engaging the practical reality of construction and engineering possibilities. But otherwise, wherever one schooled in Nigeria or not, there is an ‘average possibility’ that one would get good exposure to the curriculum because the teachers basically teach the same thing.
What are the core values you hold that have helped you to come this far?
I love to lead my life as simply as I can. It is very important for me to maintain a high level of simplicity, and I think it has helped me to shed stress. I take life one day at a time. I do not have tall ambitions that could push me to do crazy things. I learnt early in life to always be content because my parents were strict disciplinarians. They did not allow one to do things that would bring shame to the family.
Those are the things that have helped me to be balanced in my approach to life.
How would you assess the present state of university education in Nigeria?
It is a mixed bag of the good, bad and ugly. In spite of the challenge of infrastructure, we have been able to produce very wonderful graduates. There are many graduates who left the shores of Nigeria and have gone on to excel in their various fields. The Nigerian university system cannot be written off. But, a lot more has to be done, especially in terms of providing an enabling environment for teaching and learning to take place.
Moving forward, the issue of education funding has to be prioritised, because the university is the finishing point in the transformation of young people to become adults that can be change catalysts in any nation. Therefore, the kind of exposure required for university education is huge, so we need to put in more resources, so that we can compete internationally with other universities within and outside Africa.
Who are your role models?
As an academic, there are quite a number of mentors I have learnt from over the years, in the areas of teaching and engaging in research publications. Some of them are people I barely contacted. As a matter fact, I had the opportunity of meeting one of them just once. Early in my career as an academic, the late Professor Eze Amaka, of the Civil Engineering Department in the University of Nigeria, Nskuka, Enugu State, was one person I admired a lot. I fell in love with the way he published, and I started to pattern my writings after him. He started mentoring me without us having any physical contact.
As a Christian, Jesus Christ is my spiritual mentor. My parents were also my role models because they taught me contentment. They did not have so much, but they were content with what they had, and they made sure we (their children) got sound education.
What is the greatest lesson life has taught you?
Life has taught me to accept the reality that one can only be truly happy if one is content. If one fails to appreciate what position God has put one in, one will continue to worry. Even when one gets to the greatest heights possible, one would still be ruled by fear and anxiety.
How and where did you meet your wife?
We got married in 2002. I met her in her house because I had a relationship with her parents. I used to be the leader of a youth movement called ‘Afizere’, in my community. Back then, I did a lot of stakeholder interface consultations, so I saw her on a number of occasions when I went to their house to meet with her parents. Coincidentally, she was a student at the University of Jos, where I was already a lecturer. We would meet in her house, and I also saw her at the university. That was how the relationship developed and within a short time, I got convinced that she was the one for me.
What exactly endeared you to her?
I loved her simplicity. She did not have an air of self-importance about her, and that is very important to me. I am usually touched by people who are simple and humble.
Also, at the time I met her, she was in her third year studying Pharmacy— a course that many ladies shy away from. She was God-fearing and very focused on her studies.
How do you unwind?
I play badminton and golf when I have the time. I also love to listen to music.
What is your favourite food?
My favourite food is ‘gote’; a kind of local porridge common in the north.
Do you cook?
I cook gote (laughs). I can make beverages and simple foods too. I occasionally enjoy being in the kitchen.
How do you like to dress?
I like to dress simply. Most times, I wear either an agbada (flowing robe), or traditional kaftan, and a cap. Occasionally I wear suits, which I’m not too comfortable in.
How often do you go on vacations, considering your busy schedule?
We make it a family affair. At least once in a year, we make out a few days to leave the house and travel. Sometimes, we plan it around Christmas season.
What will you love to be remembered for?
I have actually been very privileged. I have reached the peaks of two important careers, and I am happy that those careers were strictly my choices. They did not come by accident.
Basically, I want to be remembered as someone who God helped to reach the peak of his career. I also want to be remembered as someone who made some level impact, particularly in the lives of young people.
However, my greatest joy lies in the number of young people I have mentored, both in the building profession and as a teacher.