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University of Ilorin @ 40: A Tribute

By Dele Sobowale

“Can anything good come out of Ilorin?”  Dele Sobowale 1980s.

Underestimating people and institutions can produce some  startling surprises. Let me confess that I was a pessimist about the prospects of the University of Ilorin back in the 1980s. Despite knowing it was there, it just never occurred to me that I would have anything to do with it. I was forced to consider it when one of my dearest in the world, my daughter Onikepo (Nike) Sobowale made two decisions on her own. First, she was going to read computer science. Second, she was going to offer Unilorin as her first choice.

The reader needs to understand why it was difficult for me to know which of the two decisions was the more alarming at the time. I had enrolled her at Adrao International Nursery and Primary School, Victoria Island, at a time when it was the most expensive school in Nigeria. I was not very rich, but my employer was an American multi-national company, which recruited me from the USA for the job.

That made me one of the highest paid Marketing Managers in Nigeria. I was determined that my kids would receive the best education money could buy. Later Nike was joined by two younger sisters at the same school which collected enough money from me to buy a Mercedes each year.

She proceeded to Queens College, Yaba, on merit, finished as an “all-rounder” and scored close to 300 in JAMB. She could have selected any university and any course in Nigeria and the admission would have been automatic. But, she chose Computer Science and University of Ilorin – and promptly drove me to consume twelve bottles of GULDER non-stop. Computer Science? Unilorin?

How could I go about beating my chest among my friends with these options? It was also an ethical dilemma for me because I left Nigeria for the US promising my Mum to return a medical doctor; then changed course to economics. I had vowed never to interfere with the career choices my kids make. And here was the first one driving me to drink gallons of beer.

My work with two multi-nationals in the US, with large fleets of trucks and delivery vans and sterilized computer rooms, had convinced me that Computer operators were mechanics in air-conditioned rooms wearing white coats, instead of those in the Mechanic Workshop which were greasy and grimy. My brilliant daughter was going to join the “white coated mechanics”. Horrors.

Added to that, she was heading for Ilorin, Kwara State which, at the time, for me, might as well be in the Sahara Desert. Called the “Gateway to the North” by many people, it was, as far as I was concerned, a Gateway to Ignorance in the 19080s. And, if there had been Boko Haram then, it would have been Gateway to Hell. As a born and bred Lagos boy, anything beyond Ikeja was “jungle”. Even Ibadan was barely tolerated and if she chose University of Ibadan, I would have advised her to keep away from the “natives” (ara oke as we called them).

The vital questions were: should I stop her and why? Eventually, the principle of non-intervention in career choices of my kids prevailed. I swallowed more beer and away she went without knowing she left a father who spent the first few months expecting and actually praying she would be fed up with Ilorin and return home to start again elsewhere.

Blessed are the ignorant people acting out of partial knowledge. First, I was totally ignorant of the future of ICT and how it was going to take over all aspects of our lives in more ways than Medicine, Engineering, Law, Pharmacy, and even my own field, Economics could have possibly do. Today, it is virtually impossible to achieve success in any field without a large dose of ICT. So score one for Nike.

It took a bit longer for the University of Ilorin to demonstrate its true grit. I must confess that in the early days when friends ask me which university Nike was attending, I would pretend not to hear the question or change the subject. How could a “real Lagos boy” like me announce that my intelligent daughter was attending a university in the “bush”. The first person to whom I gave the honest answer actually told me, “Dele you must be mad.

U.I, Uni-Ife, UniBen, UNN are there and you sent your daughter to Ilorin” – making it sound as if I sent her to the gallows. And, mocking me further, he reminded me that I once said “Can anything good come out of Ilorin?” Sure enough, I said it. And I was ashamed that Nike was at Ilorin.

Nevertheless, life continues to teach all of us lessons we refuse to learn. Among the enduring lessons of history is “Nobody can be certain about the future”. But, most of us, especially adults, think we can predict the future. If anybody had told me that University of Ilorin would be ranked along with the University of Ibadan today, I would have told the person to “go to hell”.

Given the gap in everything, at the time, it looked absolutely impossible that Unilorin would catch up to the first generation universities. Today Unilorin sits at the top of the pile. The university had in one generation, defined as thirty years, worked its way to the front ranks. The great Napoleon Bonaparte, 1769-1821, said that the word “impossible” doesn’t or should not exist, Unilorin has made me to agree with him. Now I can beat my chest. Onikepo attended University of Ilorin.



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