29 November 2012

Nigeria: Abu Shaped Who I Am Today - Kyari Abba Bukar


Mr. Kyari Abba Bukar is the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer, Central Securities Clearing System (CSCS) Plc, a subsidiary of the Nigerian Stock Exchange.

In this chat with Vanguard Learning, the physics/atomic engineering graduate of the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, recalls life at the prestigious institution popularly called the Biggest and the Best, and traces his career path. Excerpts

How do you feel as an alumnus of a 50-year old institution?

Looking back at those ABU years gives me a sense of pride and fulfilment. I believe ABU at the time offered one of the best opportunities in engineering and physical sciences in Nigeria. Honestly, this 50th year celebration is a mark of achievement both for ABU and the alumni.

I remember during our matriculation, a professor said something to the effect that if we were to pull out all the alumni of ABU from civil service at the federal level, the Nigerian Government will collapse. Though, it was in a lighter mood, but looking through these 50 years, I believe the quality of human capital that ABU has produced over the years is a wonderful mark of achievement. I am proud to be an alumnus of ABU.

Nostalgia was the feeling when, less than six months ago, I visited the ABU Nuclear Energy Centre and Centre for Energy Research which houses the nuclear energy reactor of the Physics Department where I graduated from. It was quite emotional to find that everything was still the same even though more students are passing through the department. But for some of us, we still reminisce the good old days of our great ABU.

What can you say of the quality of graduates now compared to your days?

Generally, quality has gone down and there seems to be lack of maintenance as the library is not what it used to be. Those days, we had journals and well equipped laboratories. I remember that even though I was a physics student, I used my first scanning electron microscope for my Physics thesis in the Geography department.

We used facilities across the university. The quality of education we had was fundamentally broad-based and as such, university graduates tended to be well groomed and grounded to face challenges. Today, unfortunately, the story is different. This issue came to the fore in my previous job where we had to introduce pre-employment testing.

When we tested about 20 graduates, we hardly got two or three people that passed. Out of the three, one of them must have graduated from a foreign university. There is, therefore, the need for us to look at our educational system critically and especially the university which is probably the last in the educational process. This improvement should start a

t the nursery/primary level. If a child is well equipped at that level, even if through self-education, he would tend to pick up quite naturally as he advances.

When exactly where you in ABU as a student?

I came into ABU in 1977 and graduated in 1980. Even though we had two strike actions, generally, those were not the days of strikes. One was 'Ali must go' and that was when Colonel Ahmadu Ali was the Minister of Education and General Olusegun Obasanjo was the military Head of State. I think it was about tuition introduction or something like that.

But generally, there were very little interruptions in the educational process. Students were quite active politically in the sense that they were the pulse/heartbeat of the nation. There was extreme awareness probably because we were just coming out of a civil war and a lot of African countries were going through independence and Nigeria was one of the countries that actually supported this African renaissance financially and morally.

I remember some South Africans and Zimbabweans on Nigerian Government scholarship, attending schools with us. I also remember having some of the freedom fighters attending or visiting ABU along with their presidents to give lectures.

I recall seeing Samora Machel and Antonio Agostinho Neto who visited us from Angola. Even the current Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, then a freedom fighter for the UNITA rebels, also visited us. So life in ABU was quite enriching in the sense that it was not just academics but you are generally exposed to happenings in Africa and the world.

This made us actively engaged both spiritually and physically in what was happening around us. Personally, going through ABU was an experience that basically shaped who I am today.

If you are given an opportunity to choose a school, will you still go for ABU?

The quality of teachers and my fellow students who came from various parts of Nigeria and neighbouring West African countries was rich. Of the about 12 physics majors in my department, we had two Cameroonians, one Indian, one Nigeriene and the rest from various parts of Nigeria.

The environment was so enriching that, given the same circumstance; I wouldn't have chosen any other institution. For example, in our final year in physics, we were exposed to a course called Quantum Mechanics which you might consider quite advanced for a graduate course.

I remember Prof. Micah, a Ghanaian gentleman who taught us Quantum Mechanics, gave us a textbook by Merzbacher to help resolve some difficult problems we were working on. One was so difficult that we had to write the author who was teaching in MIT in the US. He replied and also sent additional materials and questions on the topic together with application forms to the university.

Another interesting thing was that for our practical nuclear energy, we went to the Centre for Energy Research in Germany. In our first year, we spent the entire summer doing hands-on experiments in nuclear energy, reactor physics, and health physics which gave us a strong grounding.

So when I went to the US to do my graduate studies, the best course I took was Mathematical Methods for Scientists and Engineers. I scored 100 per cent the first time and the professor said I should actually have been the course tutor. I ended up becoming the tutor, helping my fellow students. Honestly, the foundation is the reason I am here today as CEO/MD of CSCS.

Looking at your career path, how has it been?

It's been quite interesting. I did my youth service with Shell. Before we went for the service, Shell and Schlumberger had conducted what I call IQ test and selected a few of us from ABU to go to the US and the UK for graduate studies. So I left the country and went for nuclear engineering and nuclear physics and I ended up studying nuclear engineering at the Oregon State University.

I developed a simulation programme for physics and during the series of presentations, I ran into some engineers from HP, we had some interactions and they offered me a summer job with HP culminating into a permanent employment. So I made my first career change, from nuclear engineering (designing nuclear reactors) to designing and unveiling computers. It's all about looking at issues and trying to come up with creative solutions.

Do you regret any decision you have taken in life so far?

None that I remember. Before ABU, as we were applying for admission, most of my friends wanted to study architecture, some engineering but I wanted physics. A friend of mine said that there was no money in physics, that I should choose civil engineering or something. I remember he crossed the physics and put civil engineering and then I crossed it again and put physics.

So the choice I made to study physics in ABU was a choice that I contemplated since I was in primary school. I wanted to be an atomic physicist then and I had an interesting chat with my mother at the time because I have seen and believed the picture of Einstein and a UK Professor in atomic science though I didn't even know what an atomic scientist does.

But that was what I wanted to be and I ended up studying physics and going for nuclear engineering. It was an interesting choice that was made quite early in life that I stuck to. That is why I tell parents that if your children decide to do something, let them. Don't insist on them becoming accountants or medical doctors or whatever. Don't put your own expectation on your child. I believe very strongly that the best the parents can do for their children is to support them.

Quote1: The quality of education we had was fundamentally broad-based and as such, a university graduate tended to have been well groomed and grounded to face any challenges on their own.

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