By Obi Nwakanma
My class at the University of Jos was admitted to the university in the fall of 1985 as the University of Jos class of ‘85. It is thirty years from thence – and time seems to have galloped too quickly. WE arrived on campus in late September 1985, to the clamorous strains of the wind in the leaves, and to bracing mornings, in what would prove to be one of the coldest harmattans ever in Jos. I was eighteen, going to turn nineteen that December, and I had decided to come to Jos to study English, and not to follow in any of the steps towards which my father was nudging me.
My family members had all graduated from the University either from Ibadan or Nsukka. My father, and indeed my paternal uncles, all wanted me to go to Ibadan, and return either to Tedder Hall or to Independence Hall, or at worse, go to Nsukka. “Your uncle Nath, did not do poorly at Nsukka, you know,” my late Uncle Lawrence, always used to say with that amused glint in his eyes. They did not put a lot of store in any other Universities, but those two. But I needed to chart my own course distinctly. I was sixteen and some; when I left high school in May 1983, from the Government College Umuahia, and wrote the first Matriculation exam, with a score of 282, seeking for a place at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka Law School. That year, Nsukka had cut-off its admission list to Law at 290, with later supplementary admissions at 285. Friends said I should have applied to Ibadan, which that year had cut at 272, or at Ife at 270, for Law. We did pick up on these questions about cut-offs and what-not, in those years, when JAMB still had some control on these matters. Nsukka often had, for many years, the highest admission cut-offs into its Law program. I did not get in to the Nsukka Law program, but in hindsight, my mind was really not in Law. Again, one day, my father brought application forms for me to apply for the HSC program at Kings College, Lagos and the Government College Umuahia, either of which could have been shoe-ins. I was young and restless. I wanted a bit of fun.
I did not want to return to the regimented life without girls at these boarding schools for boys. I wanted to go to either the Federal College of Arts and Science (FSAS), Aba, or the Federal College of Arts and Science, Victoria Island, Lagos, where some of my friends were going to, and where I was told, there was a lot of “iboo”- that is,groove. I wanted some adult groove; an unregimented life after high school, and to return on holidays with a little more chip on the soldiers, which certainly earned you some credits in the social life of the town. Well, the upshot was that my father, again reading quite through me said, “if you do not want to go to school, I’ll fit you with a wheel barrow full of pepper, and you’d be on your way selling paper for life at the Umuahia Railways Gate.” In those days, I did not take those words lightly. But as it turned out, I spent the year 1984, especially after, refusing to pass the time at the Federal Polytechnic, Idah, where my uncle, then Head of Science and Technology, had secured a place for me in the Polytechnic’s College of Management, on a real long vacation from everything.
It was my year of freedom. My parents had kindly placed me on a monthly pocket money of Five Naira, which went nowhere in supporting my social life. But it was something. The Buhari dictatorship was in full swing until that August of 1985, when it came to a full halt, with the military coup by Babangida. There was an air, in Nigeria, of something both imminent and inevitable. I had discovered poetry as a means of expression, and wrote a few love poems, which earned me occasional illicit consolations; but it was imitative poetry, which had all the echoes of Okigbo, whose poetry I had only just discovered, and which had seduced me profoundly. My friend, the late Mark Nwachukwu kept most of those juvenilia, and we often joked about the fact that he was the repository of my bad poetry, and that if I ever won the Nobel Prize, he would make a killing by selling my juvenilia.
For my birthday in December of 1984, my father gave me my first copy of Okigbo’s Labyrinths. I think I decided to pursue a degree in English, in those moments, and decided, after reading Okigbo, to be a poet. A degree in English seemed quite appropriate. I applied to Jos because, after all, it was by all I had heard a city made for poets. So, when I was admitted to read English at Jos, my father said, “that’s ok. Jos is Ibadan on the hills.” So, indeed it was. The University of Jos began in 1971 as a campus of the University of Ibadan, and established its own charter as a degree-awarding university in 1975.We of the 1985 class, came as freshmen to Jos, ten years to the day, when the University of Jos was fully established. I spent my first night in Jos, at the home of then young Captain Geo Osuji, who later retired as a Brigadier of the Nigerian Army, who lived in the Army flats just about three blocksfrom the Bauchi road campus, the main campus of the University.
There were then four student residences: the great choices were at the Naraguta campus, and the Students village hostels; then there was the Bank road Flats and the Bauchi Road Flats. We paid the N90 accommodation fee, and the N10 Students Union fee, and generally went to Nigerian Universities tuition free. That is the entire truth: Nigeria gave us, anybody who studied from Medicine, Engineering, to the Humanities, education free. We only fed ourselves, and catered to our distinct appetites as best we could. UniJos (or U-Jay as we called it) had a reputation as a party school where rich kids came to party.
It was not exactly that. There were kids from wealthy and powerful families, and it did not matter, because, in fact, the most distinct students on campus, which sometimes seemed like a daily “fashion parade” in those years were students with remarkable abilities. But we certainly partied. The first two months of the semester were a great time for parties. There were many departmental receptions. It was the years of what we then called the “October rush.”
Various states and Town associations had welcome parties. There were private parties in town, some of which were thoroughly exclusive, and you had to wangle an invitation. Always, the great incentive was to “snag a consort.”The girls, some free of parental oversight for the first time, were starting out wild, but became inexorably calmer by the fourth year. For that period, I even lusted after Yetunde Obayemi in Architecture, but was too distracted to put the wheels to motion. Years later, as a journalist in Lagos, I met her father, the distinguished historian, the now late Professor Ade Obayemi, then Director of the Nigerian National Museum of Antiquities, and told him that if I had better courage, I might have been his son-in-law. He laughed and berated me for lack of courage.
The Marxists were still on campus, preaching scientific materialism; the Pyrates were still at Deck on the “Viking” and lubbers were still lubbers, and happily so on land. Still, it was joyous fun, for the dogs often led the float to town during the carnivalesque “Rag Day,” when students raised money for charity by wearing rags to town – and also kept the peace on Student Union Elections.We had great distinguished scholars on the faculty, many educated in the best foreign academies and at home carefully recruited to the Universities. There were the great Deans: Professor Ikeme was Provost of Medicine, Aaron Gana was Dean of the Social Sciences, Deborah Ajakaiye was in the Environmental Sciences, Ebere Osieke was Dean of Law, Iwuala, who was University orator, in science, Ezeoma in Education; and Ali Mazrui was the Albert Luthuli University Professor, and so on.
When you look round today, and compare all these, with the currentquality of staffing in Nigerian universities, and even with English professors who write atrocious English, we would only begin to appreciate the profound decline of the university in Nigeria. English had some fine scholars: Ngwaba taught African Lit, the late Ayo Mamudu taught the 18th Century and the Victorian novel, as well as Creative Writing. He was a poet, who had studied the Classics at Ibadan, but was far too skeptical and sparing to publish. He took our Senior Creative Writing Classes on occasion to the Naraguta Country Club for class, and fed us beer and Meatpie. I think he wanted to introduce us to the Café life. Abu Abarry, who was my final year Honors Project Adviser and his wife the lovely Nana Abarry later left in my final year to Temple University in Philadelphia;Mac Azuike taught Style, Kanchana Ugbabe was lovely and kind, and was my friend, Okey Ikeobi’s muse; Angela Miri, then a young Graduate Student came in my final year as an Assistant Lecturer. Of all in my class of ’85, my friend, Maureen Amaka Azuike (then Mazeli) was the one who remained in Jos, and is today, a full Professor in the English department.
Time moved too quickly, but of all the things Jos taught, we may look back at, not in anger like Harold Pinter, but with gratitude. I write this both to celebrate thirty years for all those in the class of ’85 in Jos, as well as to summon them all in that generation to their great duty: to give back. I also hope, as I hear Kayode Fayemi insists at his ministerial hearing, that we must, as a nation, embark on a great education reform, and to return quality back to our once great citadels of learning.