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In the name of the University

By Obi Nwakanma
I was only just very recently engaged in some conversation with a great friend of mine when the name of the Imo State University, Owerri cropped up. “No,” he said to me with great amusement in his tone, “it is not Imo state university any longer. It is now Evan Enwerem University. EEU, Owerri.”

The government of Imo State under the current watch of Mr. Ikedi Ohakim unilaterally changed the name of the state university apparently without regard for the wishes of the people of Imo State, the historical significance of the founding of the “Imo State University” or of the spirit of the charter that brought it to being through the Imo State University Act in 1980.

The gesture is to honour the late Evan Enwerem, a short-term, colorless, and transitory governor of Imo State under the “a little to the left, a little to the right” joke of Babangida-era transitional politics. I understand the need to honour past or even present iconic figures of the community who make memorable contributions to the development and advancement of the state or nation. Such gestures are well, but only if they reflect an exact and popular will. The question for us all to consider is: honour Enwerem for what?

It is not simply enough that he was once governor of Imo State. That was his privilege. But what was the quality of his service to Imo State for which he must be honoured? I think that as a politician, Evan Enwerem was of not much weight.

He was something of a coaster. He got to the right places, knew how to deal a good hand, fed off the rich table of intrigue and even got to become the president of the Nigerian senate. As a lawyer, he was indistinct and unremarkable.

He neither served the public good, nor do we even have any record that he served his private clients with distinction either. As a businessman, he made no charitable endowments to the service of the university in the furtherance of its mission.

As the governor of Imo state, he was too much of a transient character with no memorable achievement. He was called “mature” I’m told, because he practiced the do-not-rock-the- boat kind of politics which kept things equable and moot.

I think it is the duty of the Federal Government to honor Mr. Enwerem as a former President of the Nigerian senate – which simply meant he knew how to trade horses for his principal. He was not a great legislator.

At the senate, the only colour to his tenure, aside from his attempts to play once again at keeping the engine of incompetence humming without disturbing the executive branch, was of scandal: it was suddenly discovered that Evan Enwerem’s claims to have attended the CMS Grammar School in Lagos in sworn affidavit was a lie.

The shadow over his true academic claims hung around him and was not resolved until he was swept out by the caucus of his party that wanted Dr. Chuba Okadigbo on the seat as President of the senate. I have pointed this particular incident out to remark on the incompatibility of naming a university after such a man whose moral, academic, and political life and affiliations seemed absolutely contradictory and dubious.

It is a terrible insult to the people of Imo state as well as the congregation and alumni of the Imo State University to name the university after such a man. I do not have any personal thing against Enwerem, and I should say, since the late Enwerem gave the current governor his first break in public service, there must be some private, sentimental reason behind this most public of acts: naming a state university after his mentor.

But he should find more appropriate ways to honour Evan Enwerem. Perhaps, build a new, lovely Avenue in Owerri, leading to the center of government offices, and name it “Evan Enwerem Boulevard” or perhaps commission a new, beautiful public square in the heart of the city, perhaps even close to the university, erect a great statue of him, mount it on a plinth in the square and name it “Evan Enwerem Square.” But naming Imo State University after him is overkill.

I hope therefore that, that act should be reconsidered, and Imo State University restored to its true and proper name as “Imo State University” with its clear mission in view. That mission must include building a worldclass university that would attract some of the best scholars and researchers and students in the world to Owerri.

I’m told that the Ohakim administration is also considering relocating the site of the university to somewhere slightly outside the city, and I say, there is nothing wrong with the current site, except that it has to be properly redesigned, built and integrated into urban life.

Some of the world’s great universities are built into the city – the University of London or the Sorbonne, Paris for example – and their presence adds value to the quality of social and intellectual life of the city.  If Mr. Ohakim fails or refuses to restore that name to the school, I hope a future administration will find the necessity to change what is now called “Evan Enwerem University” back to its original “Imo State University.” In any case, these acts of naming public universities after individuals in Nigeria must have to be fully reconsidered.

It was a mark of the quality of character in the great Zik that he publicly rejected the attempt to name the University of Nigeria, Nsukka after him, or after anyone else, preferring for the University to retain its powerful and symbolic name in perpetuity.

Zik it was who laboured to found the university. It is also a reflection of the quality of ideas that currently govern Nigeria that we now have these kinds of aberration in the name of universities – aberrations including the licensing of so-called private universities. It is the final ghettoizing of the university in Nigeria.

I read a couple of weeks ago, a professor in one of this “ghetto universities” arguing that the emergence of private universities had saved the university system in Nigeria. This is a horrendous and unreflective stretch of the truth from a man who should know.

For one thing, the basic concept of a university as a site of scholarship and reflection is undermined by the very environment in which these universities exist: government sponsored universities fare badly in the infrastructural department, but these private universities are eyesores, lacking in all aesthetic basis. I think that parents who send their children to these “private universities” in Nigeria must note that these degree mills have very little recognition outside the shores of Nigeria.

There are assessment and evaluation issues at stake. But of great concern to me is the relationship between universities and the production of the labour force. Why private universities? What is the great need? Nigerian universities produce a great number of graduates annually who are mostly unemployed. Private universities simply max out Nigeria’s unemployment statistics by churning out more into the labour market.

Nigeria’s immediate strategic goal should not be the expansion of the university system, but an upgrade of existing ones with clear ideas of how to absorb the already bloated number of the labour force – in a country where people graduate from universities and ten years later are still unable to find jobs.


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