By Reuben Abati
President Umaru Musa Yar'adua dropped a bombshell at the last Founders' Day anniversary and Convocation ceremonies of the University of Ibadan on Monday, November 17 when he declared that the sixty-year old university is a local champion, which is yet to be ranked among the best 20 universities in Africa.
Thank God he didn't go as far as dismissing the country's apex university as a glorified secondary school! That would have been disastrous. Speaking through the Minister of State for Education, Hajia Aishatu Dukku-Jibril, ( I wonder why the President stayed away, UI is important enough for him to attend its 60th anniversary in person!), the president noted that his administration's Vision 2020 would be "a mirage" if the country's higher institutions are not involved in it. So he told the UI authorities: "the university is therefore challenged and encouraged to shake off the toga of a local champion and put on the garb of continental or better still, global champion. This institution, no doubt possesses the wherewithal to achieve the feat".
That the University of Ibadan will be dismissed as a glorified local champion by the Nigerian authorities sixty years after its establishment is most unfortunate. If this is true, it is a comment not on this particular university alone, but the entire Nigerian education system: its collapse and failure, and the role of government as undertaker. President Yar'�dua was mouthing what sounded like a nunc dimitis. Considering the once glorious history and traditions of the University of Ibadan, it does not lie in his mouth to sing such a song. The failure of the Nigerian education system, the inability of our universities to rank among the best 20 in Africa, is a direct consequence of the failure of the Nigerian state and government. He says the University of Ibadan has "the wherewithal". How much of that has his government provided in the last 18 months? What quality of support has his government provided in the education sector? These questions are not rhetorical. They are meant for him.
When the University of Ibadan was founded in November 1948, the colonial authorities wanted a university whose products would be as good as any other graduate in Britain. In 1943, the Secretary of State for the Colonies had set up two Commissions to advise the colonial authorities on higher education in the colonies. There was the Asquith Commission which focussed on the colonies generally and the Elliot Commission focussing on West Africa. Both Commissions made similar recommendations on the need for greater investment in higher education in the colonies, but it was the Elliot Commission that recommended specifically the establishment of a University in Nigeria, and it chose as location, the city of Ibadan, with a population, at the time, of 400, 000, the fourth largest city in Africa and the largest in West Africa.
Kenneth Mellanby, the first Principal of the University has told a story of the early years in his book, The Birth of Nigeria's University (Methuen and Co, 1958). Mellanby was appointed Principal-designate in 1947, and it was his call to help lay the foundation for Nigeria's premier university. Before then, there was the Yaba Higher College, the highest educational institution in Nigeria; many Nigerians studied here although the products were discriminated against in the colonial service which gave preference to British graduates. Those Nigerians who did not attend Yaba Higher College travelled to Sierra Leone to study at the famous Fourah Bay College. The new university in Nigeria was not just another higher college, it was a College of the University of London, and so, it was known as the University College, Ibadan (UCI). In 1962, the university became autonomous and adopted the name University of Ibadan, as pronounced in the University of Ibadan Act of 1962. In later years, graduates of the university would seek to draw a difference between UCI and UI. Whereas did not matter for a long time, and was only jocularly referred to, in more recent times, UCI products would rather not be mistaken for the later years products of a University of Ibadan that has lost its glory.
The university started out at a temporary site with students of the Yaba Higher College, before it was later moved to its permanent site, many of the original buildings constructed around this period remain till today some of the major buildings on campus. Mellanby and his team and their later successors sought to build a university that would be a global champion and whose products will play a major role in the country's future. From the beginning, the history of the University of Ibadan was linked to Nigeria's political and economic development. The original mission was "to encourage the advancement of learning throughout Nigeria and to hold out to all persons, without distinction of race, creed, or sex, the opportunity of acquiring a liberal education".
For at least 25 years, the university fulfilled this mission, and more. It became a major factory for the production of a new generation of Nigerian elite, who went on to take charge of the new Nigerian nation that emerged. Most of the key members of Nigeria's civil and diplomatic service, the cultural and political establishments, and even corporate Nigeria were mainly Ibadan products. The university equally produced scholars who ranked among the best in the world in their fields. The university was such a global champion that scholars from all over the world came to teach, study and do research there. It was a meeting point for a diversity of cultures and interests, and a social institution which served as a bridge between town and gown.
The campus was beautiful too. As recently as the 80s when I enrolled there as a graduate student, after studying at the University of Calabar and serving at the University of Benin, members of the Ibadan community still used to come to the UI campus on weekends to visit the university zoo, to watch plays at the Arts Theatre, to worship at the Chapel of Ressurection, to take photographs, or to simply lay out on the well-kept grass lawns and have a family picnic. UI was like a town within a town, from Abadina to International School, to halls of residence, the staff quarters, to the dam, to second gate.
UI researchers and departments were among the best in the world too. At a time, its Departments of Political Science, History, Economics, Mathematics, Agriculture, Biochemistry, Medicine and Physics housed some of the best brains in those fields anywhere in the world. The Ibadan Department of History was so richly endowed, it became recognised internationally as a school unto itself: the Ibadan School of History. Nothing happened in Nigeria, or Africa without the input of Ibadan scholars. Its products anchored Nigeria's early development process and its cultural programmes, including FESTAC. The Faculty of Arts produced some of the leading writers, artists and literary critics in African literature and theatre.
The university was so good, if the momentum had been kept it would have ended up producing more Nobel Laureates than the University of Chicago, in more diverse fields. At 60, the University of Ibadan can celebrate all of this: it is the university of giants in all walks of life. Although other Nigerian universities soon emerged: the Ahmadu Bello University, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Obafemi Awolowo University, University of Lagos, and the Universities of Calabar, Jos, Ilorin, Benin, Port Harcourt, Maiduguri, Bayero University, Kano and so on until, the later explosion in the number of universities, UI has consistently remained Nigeria's premier university, in terms of history and accomplishments. It has produced by far more Ph.Ds than any other Nigerian university, such that there is virtually no Nigerian University that has not benefitted from the Ibadan influence. When I went there for further studies, I was surprised by the number of living oracles on its Faculties, men and women we referred to as Baba and Mama becasue they were teaching the generation of their grandchildren. In Ibadan at a time, there were grandchildren Professors in some departments: Professors who had been supervised by older Professors whose own Ph.D supervisors were still on the Faculty!
But today, that old glory is gone, to say that it is fading is to be charitable. Professor Niyi Osundare, delivering his valedictory speech on his forced retirement from the university had lamented about how the ivory has gone out of the tower. President Yar'�dua can refer to UI as a local champion (some younger universities may even contest this) because the recent history of that university is one of teachers' strikes, workers' protest, students' unrest, students' cultism, and the devaluation of all known standards. The Nigerian story, nay the African story has been reproduced in UI in such a painful manner.
It is difficult to believe that this is the same university that produced Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, J. P Clark, Christopher Okigbo, Mabel Segun, Ben Obumselu, Micheal Echeruo, Biodun Jeyifo, Francis J. Ellah, Olagipo Akinkugbe, Femi Osofisan, Niyi Osundare, Odia Ofeimun, Bode Sowande, Franscesca Perreira, Dan Izevbaye, Abiola Irele, difficult to think that it was in these same corridors that some of the best African contributions to thought and ideas were written, that this is the university of Kenneth Dike, Adiele Afigbo, Kayode Osuntokun, Olumuyiwa Awe, J. F Ade Ajayi, Bola Ige, Olumbe Bassir, Goke Olubunnmo, Dapo Adelugba, Tekena Tamuno, Obaro Ikime, Gamaliel Onosode, Billy Dudley, Ojetunji Aboyade, Felix Ohiwerei, Akin Mabogunje, Adamu Ciroma, Jubril Aminu, Ola Oni, Bade Onimode, Omafume Onoge and so on. It has now become the university of cultists, of pretty female undergraduates entertaining lecherous "Aristos", yahoo yahoo boys who spend more time on the internet rather than the library; a decaying library with ancient and dusty books; poor hostel accommodation, distracted lecturers, fading buildings, rusty roofs...
The UI zoo is virtually dead, the animals having been stolen or slaughtered for peppersoup; the laboratories are empty; the research fields in the Faculty of Agriculture have been abandoned, the weekly seminars of old, a regular feature in all Faculties, have become irregular; picnickers no longer come around; so much has gone wrong; and this is why at the 60th anniversary of this university, the Nigerian government should have been full of remorse for destroying such a once glorious national institution. UI was once so glorious it inspired the publication of books about its pre-eminence and traditions: in addition to the book by Kenneth Mellanby (op. cit.), T. N. Tamuno (ed.) Ibadan Voices: Ibadan University in Transition (Ibadan University Press, 1981); B. A. Mojuetan (ed.) Ibadan at 50 (1948 - 1998) - Nigeria's Premier Univesrity in Perspective (Ibadan University Press, 2000); and Robert M. Wren, Those Magical Years: The Making of Nigerian Literature at Ibadan: 1948 - 1966 (Three Continents Press, 1991).
At the 25th anniversary of the university in 1973, former Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon was said to have removed the hood from Vice Chancellor Oritsejolomi Thomas's head, and turned it into a begging bowl during the fund raising for the university. It may have been a comic gesture but it was symbolic and prophetic. Two years earlier, a student, Kunle Adepeju had been shot dead by the police during a students' protest over poor feeding. Oritsejolomi Thomas would later be disgraced out of office for completely irrelevant reasons. Military rule helped to destroy not just the University of Ibadan but the entire Nigerian education system. Universities provided alternative ideas in society, and the military, with its anti-intellectual bent thought it necessary to destroy the institution. The university system never recovered. Funding became inadequate and irregular and since then UI and other universities have been declining. In 1975, the Murtala Muhammed administration further drove a wedge into the special relationship between town and gown, when he sacked university lecturers and drove them out of the Ibadan campus. Many of them had never lived outside the campus, and they had nowhere to go. In 1985, the Babangida administration removed education subsidy and introduced austerity measures which finally brought the university down to its knees. Civilian administrators have not treated the universities better.
A system that had once been insulated from the limitations of "the town" found itself, students, lecturers and workers, having to learn new skills and to relate differently with the town. This was the beginning of all the ills that ruined the Nigerian university system. Lecturers began to cut corners, they learnt to become businessmen; when they discovered that there were better opportunities overseas, they flocked out of the system in droves, those who stayed behind paid less attention to scholarship and looked for political appointments and consultancies. The rot spread so quickly, that brilliant students no longer wanted to stay back as graduate assistants, they looked for lucrative appointments in a Nigeria that had begun to place greater emphasis on money.
In Ibadan, the worse evil that befell the university was the drift towards religious fundamentalism by the university community. There was a time when the biggest issue in this university was the location of the Crescent of the university mosque and the Cross of the Chapel of Ressurection. The Christians said the Crescent was facing their church, the Muslims said the Cross was overlooking their mosque and there was near-bloodshed. And these were supposed to be intellectuals! At another time, one fellow went to the university zoo and wanted to re-enact the role of Daniel in the Lion's Den.
He entered the Lion's cage at the zoo and he was torn into pieces. Regularly, ritual offerings were found at crossroads and in front of university offices. Many of the brilliant scholars who looked like they were heading for Nobel Prizes suddenly abandoned research and joined the halleluyah and alihamdulilahi choruses searching for religious salvation. They stopped researching and repudiated all that they stood for as the Bible and the Quoran became the reference points for scholarly enquiry. The Christians among them had forgotten that Albert Einstein was a Christian. Thus, the University of Ibadan began to look more and more like the town. Sixty years after, this process of disappearance in UI and other Nigerian universities is near-complete. The duty of government is to reverse the decline, not to mock as Yar'adua did on November 17.