Gharib Bilal, the humble scientist who turned to politics

DR Gharib Bilal, the first nuclear scientist in the country, has made notable transformations politically and scientifically for almost 40 years as a civil servant.

The soft-spoken and down-to-earth, scientist-cum-politician, came up with solutions such as introducing student loans to increase enrollment and accrediting universities to weed out unqualified ones.

However, the idea of reintroducing a cost-sharing policy received strong opposition in the early 1990s from some University of Dar es Salaam students who argued if the policy makers received free education from primary school to university level —why should they pay?

“My first task as a permanent secretary was to increase the number of enrollments at high institutions …,” Dr Bilal recalled in an interview with a TSN team recently at his residence in Masaki, Dar es Salaam.

The scientist was appointed Permanent Secretary of the newly formed Ministry of Science Technology and Higher Education (1990–1995) after lecturing for 13 years at the University of Dar es Salaam. The first minister was Dr William Shija.

According to Dr Bilal, at that time out of 1,000 pupils starting Standard One only two made it to the university.

“This was not healthy for a country with a population of 40 million plus people (by then) …the first question between my minister and me was where to start,” he said.

Luckly, Mr Wilfred Mwabulambo the PS for the Ministry of Education invited them to his office to discuss the way forward for the new ministry. The higher education ministry was created from education.

“We discussed a number of issues including cost-sharing for university students and raising the enrollment numbers,” Dr Bilal said.

“We later agreed to introduce student loans, accreditation institute and Open University of Tanzania.

“It was a little bit challenging for students to accept the introduction of the loans and the amount was only 43,000/- per year. In return, they demonstrated opposing the whole idea of a cost-sharing policy,” Dr Bilal said.

To normalise the situation, he went to face the demonstrators at the university but they refused to listen to him and stoned his vehicle. They marched all the way to the city centre to air their grievances.

“I remember my car was stoned by protesters and put a dent in a windscreen which I used until I left the office,” Dr Bilal said while laughing.

The ministry name in 2005 was changed to Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology (MHEST) and later split and merged under President John Magufuli’s cabinet.

The science and technology remit was combined with the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training to form the Ministry of Education, Science, Technology and Vocational Training.

The communications role became part of the Ministry of Works, Transport and Communications.

Dr Bilal and Dr Shija’s initiative of introducing student loans is today known as the Higher Education Students’ Loan Board (HESLB).

Olivier Provini, writes in his book, remembering Nyerere in Tanzania—History Memory Legacy that between 1975 and 1985, the higher education sector faced a serious financial crisis in terms of both recurrent and capital development budgets. For instance, the number of government fellowships available was very limited.

“The public system of higher education was caught between declining governmental revenues and a growing demand.

The development of primary and secondary education, which had been encouraged by international institutions, had generated a greater demand for higher education,” the Author writes.

In response, Tanzania turned to private revenue. A policy of cost-sharing, whereby costs are shared by governments, parents and students, was implemented in three phases.

In phase one (1992-1993), students and parents were required to cover transportation, application registration, entry examination and union fees; in phase two (1993-1994), they had to pay for food and accommodation only; in the last phase (2004-2005), they were required to pay tuition and examination fees, books, stationary costs and medical insurance.

Nevertheless, in 1995, the scientist-cum-politician, was appointed as Zanzibar’s Chief Minister, and served the post for five years to 2000. One of the great contributions was to formulate the isles’ 2020 vision. He was the Chairman of the National Planning Committee.

“Dr Bilal who during various sessions and especially in his capacity as the chairman of the National Planning Committee gave valuable guidance in the preparation of this report [vision 2020], the then president of Zanzibar Dr Salmin Amour said in the report preamble.

In 1988 Dr Bilal was a project initiator in Zanzibar’s science camp aimed at motivating young people to study science and to help all secondary schools in Zanzibar—Unguja and Pemba—get equipment to facilitate testing of students to understand science more practically.

The project eventually was adopted by the Ministry of Education in Zanzibar. The project encouraged many young people to study science and gave them the challenge of learning many different topics about Zanzibar environment.

However, as a PS in 1990s, Dr Bilal participated in introducing the Open University, along with establishing control over higher education institutions (accreditation council) currently the Tanzania Universities Commission (TCU).

“Over the last twenty-six years of its operation (i.e 1994 to 2020/21) the Open University of Tanzania (OUT) has cumulatively managed to enroll 173,740 students,” OUT’s facts and figures 2020/2021 report unveiled.

 According to Dr Bilal, out of four students who succeeded to get the scholarship in US in 1963, only Dr Bilali managed to return home.

After returning home he joined the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM) in 1976 as a lecturer in physics.

As a teacher of the University Dr Bilal was able to participate in a board far away, such as the Commission of Science and Technology (COSTECH).

Other good memories left by Dr Bilal before being appointed as PS, including participating in the establishment of the departments of nuclear physics, environmental physics, and material science.

“As a lecturer at UDSM and my other colleague including Professor John Mkoma we participated from scratch to form the Protection from Radiation Act No. 5 of 1983, which created the National Radiation Commission (NRC) in 1983, which is currently known as the Tanzania Atomic Energy Commission (TAEC),” Dr Bilal said.

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