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Nigerian Universities (2)

By Obi Nwakanma

In the first installment of this essay, I tried to put in some context, the stages of the evolution of the Nigerian university using the history of the University of Ibadan as background.

My intention in drawing attention to the history of Ibadan was (a) to point to the level of thought necessary in developing a university, and (b) to show a pattern in that development of the disjunctures that have crippled the evolution of the idea of the university in Nigeria. The University College Ibadan was for fourteen years, a college, or campus of the University of London, and awarded the degree of the University of London.

Though Ibadan was the first university established in Nigeria – it was but a satellite of a colonial university. In other words, it was not self-governing. It became a full university with its own instruments only in 1962.

Its original mission was basically limited to providing the needs of the colonial administration, to train purely “English men” who would basically serve imperial purposes – those that Franz Fanon would describe as wearing “White masks” over “Black skins” – a reflection of the radical fissures in the identity and consciousness of the African indoctrinated or socialized under the empire.

Admission and recruitment to Ibadan was very selective and elitist. Ibadan graduates, small, in-bred and self-contained, lived in a sort of fantasy world of privilege and self-regard; closed-off and alienated from the rest of society in an oasis of prosperity and entitlement. It was as a result of these contradictions that Dr. Azikiwe offered his blistering critique of the mission and orientation of the Ibadan idea, describing the university as a “One Million dollar baby” in his column “Inside Stuff” in the West African Pilot.

The university Zik envisioned was different. In Azikiwe’s opinion, Ibadan’s model of elitism was unsustainable in a decolonizing nation in a hurry to develop and catch-up with the rest of the modern world. At that point in its history, Nigeria’s major problem was a very glaring need for highly trained technical and specialized manpower.

As a result of Azikiwe’s own ideas of the university, he pushed for the establishment of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, passing the charter of the University through the Eastern Nigeria House in 1955. The University of Nigeria, Nsukka in other words was established in 1955, but it opened its gates for the first 280 students on October 7, 1960, just one week on the attainment of Nigeria’s independence from Great Britain.

Thus the University of Nigeria Nsukka became Nigeria’s first fully established university: that is, the first indigenous, independent degree-awarding university in Nigeria. Aside from Azikiwe, the next most important figure in the establishment of the University of Nigeria was Dr. I.U. Akpabio, minister for education in the government Azikiwe led in the East. Akpabio and Zik traveled around seeking funds across the world for the proper establishment of the University of Nigeria.

Nsukka was conceived as the “New Sankore” – a place where every global black intellectual, scientist, and social theorist might find a home in the modern era. That’s how come Dr. Eluemuno Chukwuemeka Blyden, Grandson of Dr. Edward Wilmot Blyden became the first orator of the university and Director of the Hansberry Institute of African Studies. Azikiwe’s plans for Nsukka were of course radically abridged, first with his removal as Chancellor of the University in 1966 by the military governor Odumegwu-Ojukwu who replaced him with Ado Bayero, Emir of Kano; and this was followed by the radical diminution of the university, from 1970, when it was taken over by the Federal government, at the end of the civil war.

As a matter of fact, UNN was nearly closed down, when on seeking their opinion on what to do with the university post-war, some western Nigerian intellectuals who ironically had taught at Nsukka before the war, advised Gowon to close down the University of Nigeria, and distribute its faculties and students to already existing universities at Ibadan, Ife, Lagos, ABU and the then newly established university in Benin. But this move was seriously resisted, and it took serious lobbying, and the intervention of the late Emir of Kano, Ado Bayero, as quondam Chancellor of the university to dissuade Gowon. Nsukka’s role in Biafra was pivotal.

For a while, Nsukka harbored the “returnee” intellectuals from Ibadan and Zaria, alongside the short-lived University of Technology, Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s first Technological University established by Ojukwu in 1966, with Dr. Kenneth Dike, who had resigned and fled from Ibadan as its first Vice-Chancellor. These universities became the fulcrum of Biafra’s war production and resistance.

The scientists that gathered in these two universities, experimented with energy, fashioned new weapons, calculated the ranges of Biafra’s rocketry and Missile production under the mathematician Ezeilo, Produced Rocket Fuel under Mang Ndukwe, Alchohol and Chemicals under Garrick Leton, and food production and preservation under Bede Okigbo, and so many more.

For the first time in postcolonial Africa, the relationship between the university, research, and social need found a terminus. And this was the mistake that the Federal government made after the civil war: it did not utilize the experience of Biafra and her war industry as the template for connecting national industrial production to a national university system.

The University of Technology, Port-Harcourt was dismantled. Nsukka itself became the perfect example of a more profound contradiction: it became an eagle that forgot how to fly. When you bring highly talented and egotistical men together with limited opportunities, the instinct for self-preservation and survival drives them ultimately to incoherence and self-destruction, particularly in the absence of visionary leadership.

The removal, and spiting of Professor Eni Njoku as the Vice-Chancellor of the university, and his replacement with the anglophile Professor Herbert Kodilinye, was a fatal mistake. Igbo intellectuals at the end of the war had also become very cynical. They had lost a war and a nation. And they did not find the new environment welcoming.

That’s precisely what happened with Nsukka: it became weighed down by post-war cynicism, and in-breeding; its growth was stunted by the kind of in-fighting ignited between Professor Kodilinye on one side, who wanted to restructure Nsukka to follow the Oxbridge collegiate model, and the opposition on one side of Achebe, Nzimiro, Eteng, Ikoku, and the entire Nsukkascope group. Nsukka did not survive that fight. The University of Nigeria, Nsukka suffered from the vicious and deadly petty rivalries that made intellectual and collegial life difficult and unproductive, and it has remained so. From a global university – the leading African university of the twentieth century as envisioned by Zik – Nsukka increasingly became a very provincial, Igbo university: the faculty, the administration, an overwhelming number of the students were Igbo. Great universities seek diversity.

As a matter of fact, self-respecting universities across the world hardly employ the students they trained at the Postgraduate schools, and only in few cases, when they have first proved themselves elsewhere. But one of the greatest tragedies of Nigerian universities is a deadly kind of “in-breeding.” There is something called the academic or intellectual tradition – a culture of the university. These have been destroyed in Nigeria. Nigerian universities have no culture. There is a certain savage impulsion that currently drives the universities. In the American university where I teach as Graduate Faculty, one of the greatest measures of success is to register with proof, how quickly within the given time of research, that the graduate student under your supervision completes their program and defends their ideas successfully.

In Nigeria, there is almost a maniacal, almost masochist pleasure in making students suffer. It is the mark of the power of university faculty to delay, subvert, deny, and destroy the prospects of students simply as a means of protecting one’s presumed territory, or asserting blind power. The problem is, over the years, the universities no longer attract quality faculty, whether in terms of junior faculty, or in terms of specialized faculty. The stock of the current academic staff in Nigerian universities is of very low quality.

There are still some good ones. Very few indeed who could pull their weight anywhere in the world, but I have read the writings of full Professors of English in Nigerian universities, including one, sadly, who is currently a Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Humanities, who submitted a review full of howlers, the kind that would make the devil of printers blush with embarrassment, to one of the international journals on which I serve as editor.

I was nearly decapitated not only by bad grammar, but also by the mediocre writing, and elementary-level thinking, that it struck me that this fellow should not be allowed in a classroom in a decent secondary school. But how did he earn an English honours, not to talk about becoming university faculty, then a full Professor and then Dean of the Humanities? That’s the conundrum.

(To be continued).


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