5th Columnists and the soul of NISER by Dapo Bruce

5th Columnists and the soul of NISER by Dapo Bruce
Dr. Folarin Gbadebo Smith

The easiest way for falsehood to triumph is to let it run amok unchallenged.

Dr. Folarin Gbadebo Smith’s first term as Director General of the Nigerian Institute of Social and Economic Research (NISER), one of Nigeria’s pre-eminent research institutions was dogged by a slew of unfounded accusations, baseless charges of financial recklessness and sundry falsehood orchestrated by amorphous entities masquerading as interested parties.

His major traducers remain the “Academic Staff Union of Research Institutes headed by Babatimeyin Muyiwa; Senior Staff Association of Universities, Teaching Hospitals, Research Institutes and Associated Institutions headed by Matthew Olagunju, and the Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions headed by Tubi O. Theophilus” as reported by an online publication.

The most egregious accusation as published by the same online medium playing advocate for the traducers is that Dr. Folarin Gbadebo-Smith had squandered “almost N1.5 billion in combined annual budgetary releases without commensurate projects to justify such spending in his four years as head of the institute.”

This charge is laughable and puerile because a quick check of budgetary allocations will establish that NISER’s budget for the four years was a little under N850m. So, how could the Director General have squandered money that was not allocated?

In a dramatic escalation of their protests and allegations the Unions on Monday June 7, 2020 took their issues to Abuja. They printed banners, rented a van and drove round the town in what was a crude attempt to get the attention of government.

Alongside this, an obviously rented crowd purporting to be members of the institute (only one person in the crowd could be positively identified as NISER staff) confronted the Minister of Finance under whose ministry NISER functions. Honourable Minister Zainab Ahmed in her usual calm and distinguished manner granted audience and assured them that their issues would be looked into and that in the interim peace and order should be maintained.

Meanwhile, in Ibadan where the NISER is located, the gates remain locked preventing over 200 staff members from accessing their offices and carrying out their statutory obligations despite it being an offence in law and against the labour laws for a union to deny workers access to a federal government premises. This action by the unions is clearly a cheap attempt to draw the DG into a violent confrontation on the premises of  the institute.

NISER which began life as a center in the University of Ibadan, was made autonomous by the Federal Government in 1977 and so became a full-fledged research institute distinct from the University of Ibadan. The autonomy was granted via NISER Act No. 70 of 1977 (now Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2006 CAP 115). NISER moved out of the University of Ibadan to its headquarters at Ojoo, Ibadan in 1987.

NISER’s mandate was clear from inception; to employ the best and the brightest minds from the academia who would be fully equipped to serve as a think-tank in the field of social and economic development for the country.

Upon assumption of office, Dr. Folarin Gbadebo-Smith focused fully on making NISER a world class research institute in which scholars would have a sense of pride and an institute which grant making institutions would be happy to support.

Educated, affable, well-travelled and globally exposed, Dr. Gbadebo Smith was keenly aware that nothing makes a good impression as the first impression. So he went about improving the facilities at NISER to provide an environment and facility conducive for conducting research. This was critical because a grant making body had visited NISER and seeing the state of their rest rooms and facilities backed out from supporting NISER.

To facilitate research based activities especially in a 21st century research institute, Dr. Gbadebo-Smith quickly connected the institute to, what a group made up of Research Professors, Heads of Departments and members of NISER Management, called “full time,  24/7 functioning internet service within NISER premises. This has been consistent and we have never had it so good at NISER.”

In a May 7, 2021 letter to NISER’s supervising minister, Prince Clem Agba, Honourable Minister of State, Budget and National Planning, the group provided copious evidence to disprove the accusations leveled against the DG while providing proof of measures and actions and initiatives taken to restore NISER to its pride of place.

The letter was signed on behalf of the group by four professors and heads of four departments at NISER. The signatories include Prof F.O.N. Roberts, Head, Political & Governance Policy Dept; Prof A.O. Adesanya, Head, Env. & Physical lnfra. Policy Dept; Prof J.O.Adeoti, Head, lnnovation & Tech Policy and Prof S.O. Odekunle, Head,Human Capital Policy Dept.

The quartet, in their letter, noted without equivocation that: “We the undersigned, having served the institute for many years as Research Professors, Heads of Departments and members of NISER Management, believe that Dr Gbadebo Smith has done a commendable job as Director General of our lnstitute.  A second term for him is in order and most desirable to improve NISER performance and prevent a return to a state of despondency and loss of the gains of almost four years of Dr Gbadebo-Smith’s leadership at NISER.”

The professors went ahead to note, in clear response to the DG’s perceived lack of capacity to lead a research institute like NISER: “Dr Folarin Gbadebo-Smith has demonstrated exceptional brilliance and high intellect in public policy discourse and in various public engagements. Though not a professor, he has distinguished himself in the understanding of development policy research and the expectations of NISER’s mandate. ln our opinion, he eminently qualifies for a second term to advance and complete the good works he started.”

Following Dr. Folarin Gbadebo-Smith’s return for a second term the 5th columnists have risen again with more outrageous accusations backed up by a tissue of lies. This is despite the accusations having been fully addressed in the letter signed by the four professors in which they showed, clearly, that Folarin Gbadebo-Smith’s first term was one of beneficial capacity building as well as research and innovation at NISER.

In the letter the professors noted that aside the provision of high speed internet, the DG has facilitated the “re-establishment of relationships with major international grant makers including MacArthur Foundation, ODI of London, Kings College University of London”  as well as “Reactivation of NISER’s Knowledge Network including MOUs with Ahmadu Bello University, Federal University of Technology Mirtna, University of Cape Town, University of Delaware USA, and INEC lnstitute.”

As DG, Folarin Gbadebo-Smith, the professors averred, has championed capacity building with the “introduction of NISER webinar with attendance by high profile individuals in development policy research and advocacy”, facilitated “Merit based recruitment of 40 research staff.  This has introduced new and fresh rigour into NISER research activities”; enabled “implementation and regular funding of departmental research projects” and the “revival of Individual Research Project (IRP) programme for NISER research staff. Only very few researchers had IRP ongoing when Dr. Smith resumed as Director General in 2017. Almost all NISER research staff now engage in IRPs.”

With these testimonials from eminent academics and researchers refuting the outrageous accusations leveled against a clear reform minded performer, the question becomes: who is to be believed’ unionists who are clearly dancing to the tune of pecuniary interests or professors whose work and research are daily impacted by Dr, Gbadebo-Smith’s progressive policies and initiatives?

Only time will tell but while we await posterity’s verdict we must take a firm stand against lies and outright falsehood.

*Dapo Bruce is a public analyst and writes from Lagos