By Tony Eluemunor
Do you, whenever you visit a city, get magnated by an unknown force to its university, such that if until you achieve what you feel you have not actually visited that place? Some people are simply like that. The universities call out to them with silent voices that enchant their very souls.
While universities aim at recreating beauty, some, such as the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, were designed with beauty in mind; with nature and buildings in harmony, the well-manicured flowers speak to a soul not deadened by materialism.
I visited the Obafemi Awolowo University, just once or twice, in the late 1970s when it was still the University of Ife and Africa’s most beautiful…and I hope that the malfeasance that has afflicted Nigeria for decades and the denudation of wholesomeness even in university education has not affected that beauty of the Ife campus.
Recently, there was the convocation ceremony of Western Delta University, Oghara, Ethiope-West LGA, Delta state. For the first time in my life, I paid serious attention to all the “Processions” of the university’s Visitor, Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Senate members, etc. They were solemn processions designed to evoke the sense of dignity, pride, formality and the very idea of conventionality or orthodoxy in the acts that were carried out. By then, the graduands were already seated, and did not witness the solemn procession of their teachers and administrators. It was the day of the academic gown!
The graduands and their lecturers and administrators wore them; those relics from the dawn of the middle ages have not only refused to fade away but have become so popular that even kindergarten-level school leavers “graduate” with them.
In this series of articles, I will treat the origin of the Academic Gown or regalia or toge (toga) in French, with the hood plus its distinctive square cap or bonnet, the difference between a university and a college, and what the university evolved to achieve.
We will interrogate the university’s place in society and whether it is meeting its agreed prospects in Nigeria. We will prise open the dusty blankets of time to find the earliest universities, trace the growth of this crest of learning etc, always using the Western Delta University, Oghara, as a reference point.
WDU got registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission in 2005 by the Urhobo Advancement Foundation (UAF) and obtained the National Universities Commission’s nod to site it at Oghara. It is the first private university in Urhobo land dreamed up by some Urhobo academics and nationalists just as the Urhobo Progressive Union had started the Urhobo College, Effurun, near Warri, in 1946 when that year the government relocated Warri College to Ughelli to become Government College.
Talking about healthy rivalry, a few Itsekiri people also founded the Hussey College, Warri, the very next year in 1947; naming it after Eric Robert James Hussey, the first British Director of Education in Nigeria who actually competed in the 1908 Olympic Games. Now, you know where the Hussey of the Hussey Shield (for boys) and the Lady Manuwa Cup (for girls) competition for secondary schools in Nigeria in the 1970s came from. The Edo people had utilised timber money to start Edo College in 1939 and nearby ethnic groups felt challenged.
Thus, a “universitas magistrorum et scholarium”, i.e., community of teachers and scholars berthed at Oghara. The Latin phrase was coined by the Italian University of Bologna, which claims to be the first university in the world (founded 1088 AD). Although, many medieval universities originated from the Christian cathedral schools or monastic schools, which appeared as early as the 6th century and were run for hundreds of years as such before their formal establishment as universities in the high medieval period, Africa hosted the world’s first university according to the UNESCO and Guinness Book of Records; .UNIVERSITY OF AL-QARAWIYYIN, which incepted in 859AD. Located in Fes, Morocco, it is the oldest existing, continually operating and the first degree awarding educational institution in the world.
Please, forget The University of Timbuktu for unlike the modern university, it lacked a central organization or formal courses of study. Several independent schools existed under a different principal instructor. Then democratically, students chose their teachers, and instruction took place in mosque courtyards or private residences.
But we must give it some respect because although the Quran and Islamic subjects were stressed, medicine and surgery, astronomy, mathematics, physics, chemistry, philosophy, language and linguistics, geography, history, as well as art. And it boasted of up to 25,000 students out of a total city population of 100,000.
Though every university is the same as it was set up in pursuit of knowledge, they tend to seek to define their raison d’être through their mottos. For instance Bologna claims: “Petrus ubique pater legum Bononia mater”, Latin for “St. Peter is everywhere the father of the law, Bologna is its mother.”
For the first university in the UK, Oxford (1096 AD), it’s Dominus illuminatio mea, Latin for “The Lord is my light” – the opening words of Psalm 27. UK’s second university, Cambridge (1209); Hinc lucem et pocula sacra, Latin for “From here, light and sacred draughts”. In what in the academia is called “the other Cambridge”, in Massachusetts, USA, the first US University, Harvard (1636), it is just one word, Veritas Latin for “Truth”. St. Andrew’s (Scotland) “Ever to Excel”, Friendship University, Russia; “Let Us be United by Knowledge” – Soviet Union founded the University 1960 during the Cold War with the stated objective to help developing nations and advance the cause of Socialism.
The controversy concerning the first university in the world rages on just like the case in the US and even Nigeria. The University of Ibadan (motto: “Recte Sapere Fons” (To think straight is the fount of knowledge) and University of Nigeria, Nsukka (motto: To Restore The Dignity of Man) claim the position. UI came when Yaba College was in 1948 transferred to Ibadan to become a University College of Ibadan, under London University and became independent in 1962. UNN opened shop on October 7th 1960 basking under the euphoria of Nigeria’s political independence as a non-colonial university.
With UNN, Latin mottos ceased to exist: “For Learning and Culture” – Ife (established 1961), “In Deed and In Truth”- University of Lagos. Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, perhaps Africa’s largest, and founded on October 4th, 1962; motto: “The first duty of every university is the search for and the spread of knowledge and the establishment of the nation”. It must rank among the most verbose globally. WDU’s motto: “Knowledge for Human Advancement.”
Every great university has something unique. Harvard offers its library of 18 million volumes the highest. Oxford’s 12 million volumes look puny beside Harvard’s but it claims to be more digitalised. UNN in the early 1980s aimed at having the biggest library in Africa and Prof Frank Ndili embarked on the ten-storey building project that was only completed a few years ago. WDU’s unique offering is that it has started Niger Delta Studies. If that is diligently pursued, it will one day become the global leader in matters concerning the Niger Delta; the largest in Africa, covering 19, 135 square kilometres.
The initial driving force behind WDU were UAF members such as His eminence, Late Godfrey Mene Otubu of Oghara, whose vision is now being pursued by Mr. Dere Otubu, an Industrialist agreed to serve as the promoter WDU’s promoter on UAF’s behalf. Prof. David T. Okpako of the University of Ibadan and a fellow of the Academy of Science began preparing the Academic Briefs to be submitted to the NUC, in May, 2004.
Chief James Erhuero, JP, an engineer and former secretary of the Delta State Government headed the Physical Projects and Allied Matters committee. Now WDU’s main supporter appears to be Chief James Onanefe Ibori. He is the WDU Visitor and his colleague 1999 to 2007 Akwa-Ibom state Governor Obong Victor Attah was installed the Chancellor last weekend. The Vice-Chancellor, Prof (Mrs) Otete Cecilia announced that day that Ibori was the schools “Facilitator”.
It could mean that when Ibori said that he would spend the rest of his life in giving back to humanity, and lifting up the African world, helping WDU grow, could be one of the ways he had in mind.
Tony Eluemunor, an Abuja-based journalist, is a leading authority on the Nigerian Presidency