Memoirs of times at 50 year old Great Ife
By Niyi Egbe
Here was I in 1979, teaming with the second set of hordes of young Nigerians seeking entrance into institutions of higher learning in Nigeria via the then barely one year old Joint Admission and Matriculation Board. I hardly had any guidance as to which of the nation's universities to attend. I merely looked up the JAMB brochure and opted for the study of Animal Science at the University of Ife. I knew next to nothing about the school, but was satisfied that it would offer reasonable adventure. I didn't wish to gravitate to familiar University of Benin as most of my mates in Edo College, Benin nor the all too familiar University of Lagos, which was barely a stone throw from my residence in Akoka, Lagos. I needed a calculated adventure. Ife offered it and I gladly accepted it.
My unguarded choice of the then University of Ife among the options is one I would relish for life. After seeing my name on the admission list, I decided taking a trip to the school to see how it would look like. What greeted my young mind virtually had me pass out. My eyes were scintillated by the sight of an impressive stretch of well laid lawn garnished with floricultural species carefully arranged and showcasing the beauty that nature has always afforded. My lot was much comparable to the fate of a well mesmerized biblical Queen of Sheba amidst the garnished array of the palaces of King Solomon, the Great.
Was I in Nigeria? No I must be elsewhere. I wasn't born with the silver spoon; and for my social phylum, apart from my foundational blissful village life in Igarra, Edo State, had me regularly exposed to the dung hills that in the 1970s littered the streets of my turfs in Yaba , Surulere and indeed other parts of the jungle of a city called Lagos (kudos to Senator Ahmed Tinubu and Governor Raji Fashola for their redemptive initiatives ) . Benin where I schooled was no better. Despite the impressive modernization initiatives of the then Governor Osaigbovo Ogbemudia, the city despite its international acclaim was largely rural. Irritating ferric red dust choked up attempts at giving the city a facelift.
In journeying to Ife, I had also had a laughable view of Ibadan, the city that stripped the late Aare Alasa, Uncle Bola Ige of his chieftaincy, thanks to his caustic tongue. Ibadan at the time had the acclaim - the largest city in West Africa and arguably, South of the Sahara. Being a city set on hills, from some elevation, one needn't look further to understand what chaos poor urban planning could imply. The city flaunted an ugly sea of rusty weather worn roof tops. How could this historic city be dealt this poor showing? What I was seeing reminds me of the nauseating first impression Onitsha.The ancestral home of the late sage, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe , viewed across the Niger from Asaba â€“ was a far cry from the traditional dispersed housing pattern of the Igbos. The introduction to Onitsha was akin to the well familiar Daddy Shokey ville, our ghetto, Ajegunle. It must different Nigerians that planned this Ife.
After about a ten minute drive on that beautiful road - the famed Road One, we were to be greated another alluring scene, Ife's well laid out and kempt Sports Centre on the left hand side. At the terminal of Road one were gigantic architectural master pieces all linked by lush green lawns, dÃ©cors, walk ways, elevations and subways. I was later to realize that the intimidating architectural array warehoused the famous Oduduwa Hall, the Hezekiah Oluwasanmi library, the Senate Building cum Administrative building and the Humanities faculty.
I kept asking my teenage mind: did Nigerians think this place up? Are Nigerians indeed capable of planning, organizing and creating such wonder? Was I indeed in the same country where confusion is a festering norm? I left University that day fervently praying against hitches with any of my schools' certificate papers which were mandatory for ratifying the admission I had been offered. Gladly, my prayers were answered.
Adorning the gate is a blue coloured shield with a burst of Oduduwa, the acclaimed progenitor of the Yoruba race super imposed on an open golden book, rounded by golden flickers. On the semi circular ark below the shield is motto of the University which reads: "For learning and culture". Every student who wishes to ferry safely through Ife must familiarize him or herself with the message therein, lest he or she falls! In frustration over the rigorous requests of academics in the university, generations of the students find solace in adulterating the motto to: "For learning and torture"!
The Ife university community is sustained by a long enshrined tradition of sanity and decorum expected from inhabitants. Social deviants got roundly condemned and ostracized. If anyone is unreasoning and lousy, like a lady dressing lewdly or noisily meandering across lecture rooms or corridors, shouts of shoemay (meaning cobbler ), shee fo sho ( washer man) or Aro (remember the location of the Neuro Psycharitic hospital in Aro, near Abeokuta?) orâ€¦.
Ife also had no room for ostentatious flaunting of wealth. As far as the community was concerned, all animals are equal and it should not translate to mean that some are not more equal. Should you dare them, they will show you pepper. Reminds me of a Students Union election held in the early 1980s between Chris Fajemifo and Georgie. Georgie dominated campaigns with beautiful posters and handbills as against a late entrant Fajemifo who had less fashionable black and white ones. When it was Speech Nite, Fajemifo made impressive showing always quoting philosophers especially the famed John Locke in response to questions. In the opinion of students, Georgie whose expensive array had won the hearts of the women folk didn't deserve a win. Pronto! They came up with a Yoruba song:
O ba lowo lowo ko joo Gee, Fajemifo nio wole!
Meaning, even if you are so rich and resemble Georgie, Fajemifo is our choice. Fajemifo's victory was landslide.
There were high demands on morals. For Ife, social activities needed by supported by intellectualism. Where there is shortcoming in the respect, the community takes offence. Reminds me of a beauty competition where so called beauty bevies couldn't respond intellectually, to questions about national issues. Trust the campus gossip newspapers and paparazzi. They were awash with headlines that towed the theme â€“ "Beauty without brain". When a lady or man is lewd or suspected to be involved in sexual orgy or escapades with lecturers, the likes of Cobra magazine could be trusted to give them a dressing down.
The school was always agog with activities. Oduduwa Hall was the rallying ground for film shows, dramatic arts and seminars for ventilating ideas or hosting important programmes of the university. Politicians dreaded that hall like plague for it was hot seat for verifying claims. Former Lagos State governor, Chief Lateef Jakande was grilled when he told a bewildered audience that he would commence Lagos State University with an unreasonable number of students. Lecturers warned that he was going to compromise intellectualism, but the chief put up a stout defence of his programme. The Theatre Arts department always had much up sleeves with several stage plays. A friend ecently reminded me of some of plays staged in those days: Madam Tinubu, Our husband has gone mad again, Ope ra won yonsi, The gods are not to blame, Sogolo, â€¦ especially when our Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka was Head, Dramatic Arts Department and artistes like Funsho Alabi of blessed memory were budding. Capon Wole Soyinka was visible and seemed quite pleased as a personal encounter with him would unfold.
Pointer, a campus magazine that I edited had shown two films: Odesa File and Quo Vadis. We advertised the films immensely and had unprecedented response from students than we had bargained for. Eventually we had problems controlling the surging crowd. Lots forced their way into Oduduwa Hall beyond the accepted capacity to the displeasure of the management. We were subsequently fined N200 which in 1980 / 81 would fetch a student three square meals, daily for four months. For us, that fine was unbearable. I was mandated by the leadership of the magazine to appeal to Prof Soyinka to use his good offices to quash the unbearable penalty. I met him in his simple office, typical of any academic. He expressed displeasure at the penchant in students to show foreign films. â€˜'Why aren't you students creative" he inquired. I labored convincing him that Odessa file was about investigative journalism and Quo Vadis is centred on our faith â€“ Christianity. Convinced, he told me point blank he would not usurp the powers of the manager of Oduduwa and offered paying part of the penalty from his personal means, giving us a cushioning. He advised that I confer with my colleagues and bring a feedback. My fellow budding media men were impressed with his fatherly disposition. The next day, right there in his office, he gave me either N50 or N100 and made our day. I will always relish that encounter with the man we call Kongi!
The early eighties presented challenges of studying in very uncomfortable circumstances. In my first year, we were officially eight in my Angola Hall room, but then squatters (for whatever reason they were then termed pirates) abounded. In some rooms each landlord had a pirate. Most students were quite young and keenly learnt to impress the Vice Chancellor, the erudite Professor Cyril Onwumechili , DSc, Physics and other erudite academicians like the late Prof Sam Aluko, Prof Ige Grillo, Prof Itse Sagay, Prof Biodun Jeyifo, Prof Caleb Adeniyi Osuntogun, Prof Adegboola, Prof Ademosun, Dr Dipo Fasina et cetra. Ife's acclaimed academic programme was introduced by that imposing and brilliant Agricultural Economist, the late Prof Hezekiah Oluwasanmi. He laid the foundation for the programme which was akin to the American Course Unit System.
Learning at Ife necessitated the average student being thoroughly exposed to fields far flung from their core courses. As a science student, apart from mandatory foundational baptism in the place called the "white house" we got exposed to basic physics, chemistry, zoology and botany. We also had courses in the arts, sociology and philosophy. Ditto Law Students, who had to be groomed in basic mathematics, in preparation for would-be witty demands of courts.
Ife as centre of academic excellence contributed much to advances in natural and medical sciences as well as the liberal arts. I may not eminently speak of other departments, but can about agriculture. Research in Agriculture at Ife led to the development of several crop varieties for increased productivity and resistance to pests and diseases. Genetically engineered Ife brown cowpea, Ife plum tomato and maize varieties have gained wide acceptance among farmers nationwide. Ife also contributed immensely to advances in the nutrition of the domestic fowl, the West African dwarf goats and sheep and entomology.
In my opinion, this article wouldn't be complete without an insight into student unionism in Ife. Through unionism, the average Ife student is mobilized to be part of the struggle to free the nation from the manacles of misrule and corruption. Ife students always rose to roundly and squarely condemn social maladies. In the early 1980s, never say die radical students' union activitists like Wole Olaoye, Femi Falana respectively President and Public Relations Officer of the Student Union virtually gave General Olusegun Obasanjo sleepless nights at Dodan Barracks, Obalende, Lagos, then the seat of power. They regularly besieged the city of Lagos with protests. I was glad that decades on, Ife students have sustained the tradition. A few years back, they held Mallam Nuhu Ribadu hostage over perceived selective persecution of opponents of the ruling People's Democratic Party. Ironically, the former EFCC boss had been receiving accolades and awards from students of other institutions, not Ife!
On a sad note, some of those struggles against wrongs could be expensive. In 1982/ 83, four students lost their lives. The Nigeria Police bared its customary fangs and extinguished Wemimo Akinbolu and three others. Ironically, they were part of a protest against the beheading of their colleague, Bukola Arogundade, by suspected ritualists in Ife town. A deceptively understanding Police, teargassed those great souls to early graves, wounding scores of others.
Also, student's unionism wasn't all together clean. There were at times, cases of corrupt handling of funds. The student body evolved a safe formula to circumvent this. They often left the Treasurer post either to Scripture Union adherents (Born again Christians) or women. They will deny the same group election into key positions like the Presidency or Public Relations Officer for fear that they would be too timid. Tribalism also crept in on some occasions. However brilliant a non Yoruba is, the Presidency was in the exclusive preserve of sons of Oduduwa. There were also cases of rigging in elections, however neophyte law students always thoroughly investigated and pressed redress where possible.
Great Ife, as Lagosians would say: A yo fun e, a yo fun ra wa (we rejoice with you, we the alumni rejoice with ourselves)! Aluta continua, victoria aceta!
Niyi Egbe, an Agriculturist and Media Consultant lives in Lagos, Nigeria