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Nigerian universities? Where are those? (1)

By Obi Nwakanma

ASUU – the Academic Staff Union of Universities – has once again embarked on a strike. ASUU strikes have since become seasonal. You can very easily forecast it now like the weather, or time your watch by it. ASUU’s grievances are old and weather-beaten, and they now seem, frankly, intractable and pointless. ASUU itself is also now showing signs of institutional senility. Its method of organizing is old, poor, and unimaginative.

It is relying on the same dust-blown strategy book that has not quite yielded much since 1987 when Biodun Jeyifo was at its helms, except force down the closure of schools, recalibrate the academic calendar, and turn the Nigerian university into ghettoes. I hate to rain on this parade, but let us be clear, the Nigerian university system is a sick joke.

It does not exist. Or let us say, it does exist, but it exists as a danger to the word itself. I speak particularly of its current situation, and one keenly feels this terrible sense of violation, when that term, “the university” is used to describe the current situation in Nigeria. I have been quite lucky to be educated in both Nigerian and the American universities, and I can very easily draw comparisons.

I will begin right in 1948, when the first university – the University College Ibadan – was established in Nigeria for the purposes of Higher education. Before Ibadan, there had been the Yaba Higher College – not the Yaba College of Technology as most people tend now to imagine it was. The Yaba College of Technology exists now on the grounds of where the Yaba Higher College used to stand, but they are not the same institutions.

The Yaba Higher College was established by the colonial government as something of a stop-gap solution to the quest by Nigerians, under colonialism, to seek higher education, and particularly with the shifts in colonial policies at the end of WW1, and through the inter war years, to recruit more trained local hands to help run the empire, following the devastating loss of English men – the so-called “lost generation” – to that devastating war, man’s first mechanized warfare.

So, Yaba Higher College was opened in 1933: a significant majority of its students were drawn especially from the Government Colleges at Umuahia, Ibadan, and King’s College, Lagos, and it trained Assistant Physicians, Surveyors, Teachers, and many such professionals, who found middle level jobs in government service and the transnational commercial houses. It was always selective.

Graduates from Yaba were employed as Assistants to English colonial officers, and a change to this situation was the subject of fierce nationalist agitation. There had been agitation for establishing the West African university and the equal dignity of African professionals from Blyden, to J.E. Casely-Hayford, and the activism of the likes of Dr. Oguntola Odumbaku Sapara, founder of what later became the Massey Street Hospital, and as the inheritor of that legacy of activism in West Africa, Nnamdi Azikiwe made this struggle for expansion in intellectual and professional opportunities for Africans under colonialism one of the foundational principles of his nationalist agitation from 1935.

It was the basis of his “friendly precondition” with the genial Governor-general, Bernard Boudillion in 1942/43. Thus in 1946, at the height of the anti-colonial struggle, and one year after the end of WW II, Arthur Richards, Colonial governor in Nigeria, invited Azikiwe as leader of the agitation to state his demands for peace: Zik demanded for among other things, including an immediate ten-year transition program from colonialism to independent government (1947-57), the conversion of Yaba Higher College to a university in fulfilment of the long agitation for a West African university for Africans desirous of Higher education, and the expansion of opportunities for Africans in the colonial civil service.

This led first to the recruitment of Simeon Adebo, Charles D. Onyeama, Pius Okigbo, and Abdulaziz Attah, as the first Nigerians appointed to the Administrative Services of the colonial service, and the establishment, following the commission on Higher education, of the University College in Ibadan (and in Legon, Ghana and Makerere, Uganda) in 1948. Three places were surveyed for the Nigerian university – the Yaba Higher College, the grounds of the Government College, Umuahia, and Moore plantation in Ibadan. In the end, it was Dr. Akanu Ibiam’s suggestion that Ibadan be made the site of the university, on the strength of its historic significance that won the day.

Thus the university was established in its temporary sites at the Eleyele military Hospital, and the government of Nigeria procured from, and paid the people of Ibadan for a one thousand-year lease on the land on Oyo road on which the permanent site of the University of Ibadan is now established. The University moved in 1952 to this permanent site designed by the famed English Architects, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew.

One can still see in the architecture and layouts of the campus of the University of Ibadan today, the very essence of a university as a planned and built environment. Not the ghettoes that now claim to be Nigerian university campuses. In the student residencies; the various lecture halls; the bookshop, the Trenchard Hall – the main university performance hall- the various faculty buildings, and the layouts of faculty and senior staff residencies on campus – one sees still, a hint of the idea of the university.

But compare that if you will, with the design of buildings that cropped up in Ibadan from the 1970s to date, and you will see that the crisis of the Nigerian universities is the spectacular failure of the Nigerian mind, and its inability particularly to conceive beauty and order as a primary condition of consciousness.

Between 1948 and 1953, Dr. Mellanby oversaw the foundations of the University College; from 1953-1955, Mr. J.T. Saunders tried to impose an “autocratic will” on the university which failed spectacularly, and this event has been detailed very soberly, in Pierre L. Van den Berghe’s interesting book,  Power and Privilege at an African University. From 1955-59, Dr. John Parry as Principal stabilized the university and oversaw the building of the teaching hospital, the UCH in 1957.

From 1960-1967, Dr. Kenneth Dike, Ibadan’s first Nigerian Vice-Chancellor oversaw the growth of the university, both in terms of the expansion of its academic programs, and its mission. He established the Ibadan Graduate school; the Ibadan school of history became world class, and as its leading historian, Dike placed his imprimatur on it. Dike went round the world recruiting bright Nigerians and international faculty and staff to the university, and knocked on doors of many international and local donors raising money for the university and its programs.

It must be said that Ibadan was basically built under the aegis of four formidable Igbo – Dr. Akanu Ibiam, its first Nigerian Chair of Ibadan’s governing Council (1958-1961), Dr. Okechukwu Ikejiani (1961-1965), and Sir Louis Nwachukwu Mbanefo (1965-1967), who with Dike as Vice-Chancellor (1960-1967) kept Ibadan humming as a world class university. But since the end of the civil war from 1967-1970, the University of Ibadan has been seen as some kind of “war booty” for the Yoruba.

And there is where the problem of the Nigerian university began. According to the distinguished historian, the late Dr. F. Ade-Ajayi, “when Igbo intellectuals left the universities, standards collapsed with the recruitment of second-rate people to replace them” in one of his interviews in the Independent Newspaper. The government of Nigeria originally established two “federal universities” – the University of Ibadan and the University of Lagos.

The regions established their universities in Nsukka (1956/60), Ife (1962) ABU (Zaria) (1962). The University of Benin opened in 1970, while the University of Jos began as a Northern campus of the University of Ibadan in 1971. From 1975, the Federal government, in the boom years of petrodollar began the universities of Calabar, Port-Harcourt, Maidugri, Sokoto, Bayero, Ilorin as “National universities,” and in 1980 opened the first Universities of Technology and Agriculture at Owerri, Akure, Makurdi, and Bauchi.

FUTO was especially modelled after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. From 1981 the state universities were chartered with the old ASUTECH (now ESUT), IMOSU, RSUT, BENSU (now Ambrose Ali), and Ogun state University coming on stream. Two important things differentiate these universities: their facilities – the design of their primary environments and the orientation and mission of these universities – from anything we conceive today as the university.

To be contd…



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