By Kennedy Onyenma
It all began three months into his second term as the deputy Vice-chancellor of Abia state University; Professor Eleazar Uchenna Ikonne was called upon by then Governor of Abia State Chief Theodore Ahamefula Orji to come to Abiapoly on a rescue mission.
At the time of this auspicious call, Abiapoly was in a dire strait; staff was owed nine months’ salary in arrears. As a result, they embarked on an industrial strike.
In addition, a two billion naira bank debt was hanging on the neck of the school with a whooping monthly interest deduction of 42 million naira. The environment had degraded so abysmally that the school gate was typical of a market square. Worst of all, the morale of the students and staff was at its lowest ebb.
Desirous of remedying the situation, Governor Orji dissolved the management of the school and quickly sought the intervention of Professor Ikonne as the Rector.
Undaunted by the apparent debilitated state of the school, Professor Ikonne accepted the clarion call with poise and immediately took up the school’s reins with an uncommon sense of duty.
As soon as Professor Ikonne assumed the Rectorship of the institution, he swung into action. First, he activated some measures to restore the staff and students’ dignity. That was made possible because he regularly interacted with the union and staff. He further requested a thorough reassessment of the institution’s debt exposure and financial profile. His findings revealed evidence of mismanagement of the loan portfolio. A query to the bank would result in restructuring the credit facility, followed by some reprieve that lessened the burden of the loan repayment.
Notwithstanding, the loan exposure with its daunting prospects remained baffling. Thus, the need to approach the newly elected Governor, Dr Okezie Victor Ikpeazu, for possible intervention became expedient. With their prayer granted, the Abia state Government absorbed the loan facility with its attendant liabilities. According to Professor Ikonne, “because the government absorbed the debt it gave us a breather to be able to collect our Internally-Generated Revenue and utilize them effectively.”
Ostensibly, Professor Uche Ikonne’s deft moves ushered in a new dawn in Abia state Polytechnic Aba. With a firm commitment to sustaining positive developments, Prof Ikonne designed some programs aimed at blocking cash leakages. This proactive measure would enable him to shore up the institution’s revenue and consequently help offset the backlog of salaries and other necessities associated with running an institution. But Professor Ikonne would not settle for spasmodic solutions; he needed sustained windfall so that salaries and wages would come regularly.
Against this backdrop, Prof Ikonne set up the online portal system, ensuring minimal human interface is maintained in terms of payments and revenue collection. The result was that the school’s IGR increased while reducing the chances of possible fraud and misappropriation.
Efforts to defray about nine months’ salary arrears must not be mere wishful but strategic and pragmatic. Therefore, Prof designed what he called “a pro-rata” payment pattern; “If I earn N10 million, I pay staff, to reduce my indebtedness”, he said. By that option, he didn’t wait until he got all the money but paid salaries in instalments based on the inflow. His argument was, “If you leave the money in the bank, other social services may take it. So, I don’t wait until I get the total monthly subvention before I pay.”
Professor Uche Ikonne’s pragmatic approach to redeeming a rather precarious situation paid off, as he could clear the nine months’ salary arrears before he was called back to ABSU, fourteen months after, for higher responsibility.
Payment of salaries and liquidation of the two billion naira indebtedness was not only the achievement of the Prof Uche Ikonne-led administration in Abiapoly. He equally saw the rehabilitation of dilapidated infrastructure, mainstreamed environmental recovery, and aesthetic landmarks still visible in the school to date.
For instance, the school campus was transformed, which was below par. He trimmed the overgrown bushes within the campus while the illegal street trading that degraded the institution’s visual quality and physical dignity was stopped. Even when it seemed that the school’s security men were complicit in the nefarious trading activities, Prof Ikonne courageously led the onslaught to disperse the recalcitrant traders. Resulting from his brave confrontation of the anomalies in and around the school and in an evident appreciation of the audacity of change championed by the quintessential Rector, SLOT, a private business investor that operates around the school, offered to build a new school gate for the Polytechnic as its corporate social responsibility. Of course, that is the story of the gigantic gate that prominently adorns the entrance of Abiapoly to date.
His tenure at Abaipoly saw the construction and asphalting of the major road leading from the school gate into the premises. The oversite concrete (German Floor) laid in the Admin block was also carried out by Professor Ikonne. Generally, the aesthetic touches seen in the school, from the fence to the school building, were done during his fourteen months’ stint at Abiapoly.
Prof Ikonne engendered a functional and conducive learning environment in Abiapoly. He was as concerned with the pursuit of academic excellence as he was with character formation. He uplifted students’ lot through intentional astute leadership.
Explaining the logicality of Prof Ikonne’s approach to governance, a former student of the school, Geoffrey, was unequivocal. “In fact, Prof was able to change the orientation of students in that place. He used to come down from his office and walk into the classrooms, it was so habitual. He doesn’t sit around in the office. He would enter a class and, on seeing people study in a very dirty environment, stop the teacher instructing ask the students to sweep that place. He made us to be responsible. He would say ‘please, don’t come to learn in a dirty environment we are training you both in character and learning'”. That is vintage Elaezar Ikonne and the extent he went in restoring the dignity of Abiapoly students.
Of his love for capacity building, it was not difficult for Prof Ikonne to discover the potential human resources replete in Abiapoly. Instead of spending scarce resources hiring outsiders for specific jobs, the school, Prof would deploy the services of some skillful staff and students who would do the same job at a far cheaper rate.
For example, he used the college workforce to carry out cement lettering on the school’s fence. Because the labour was directly sourced from the schools’ human resources, it drastically reduced it and saved funds to run the school. Essentially, Abiapoly, within the period Prof held sway, became a sufficiently endowed academic institution with dedicated teaching staff and students trained in academics and skill acquisition.
How Professor Uche Ikonne overturned the forces impeding accreditation of new courses or how he improved the infrastructures to vacate TETFUND restrictions on funding more projects are better left for subsequent epistles, but let’s crown it by noting that Prof came, saw, and conquered. No wonder, while his former colleagues at ABSU demonstrated their desire to have him return as their Vice-Chancellor, his ABIAPOLY colleagues, on the hand, simultaneously protested his likely exit from the institution he had transformed.
Indeed, Professor Eleazar Uchenna Ikonne is a trailblazer and game-changer whose tendency to turn bad situations into good is unarguably unique and contagious. Perhaps that was the reason why the National President of Academic Staff Union of Nigeria Polytechnics, during their National Convention held in Abiapoly, enthused, “before this time, Polytechnic teachers in Nigeria would protest a Professor from a University being named the rector in a Polytechnic but if professors are in the character and mould of Professor Ikonne, they can start sending professors.” It is verifiable that since the successful fourteen months’ reign of Ikonne in Abiapoly, university professors are now frequently sent to the polytechnics.