Despite the general outcry against the diminishing fortunes of the education sector, especially at the tertiary level in contemporary times, certain developments in some quarters in the academia give cause for cheer and hope in the possibility of Nigeria forging true nationhood in the near future. To some observers, the downhill movement of our universities began when the twin elements of ethnic rivalries and religious bigotry started creeping into the academia, with academic excellence and integrity being relegated in the affairs of the citadels of learning. This problem festered so much so that academics within universities situated in their localities began to jostle for positions of vice chancellor, deputy vice chancellor and register, among other principal offices, based on primordial cleavages. It was perhaps to stem this tide that the law of 1993 came into effect countenancing the appointment of chancellors of universities from the clan of tested, experienced and wise elders principally from the traditional institutions of ranking royal fathers. Perhaps it was in order to maximise the benefits derivable from this gambit that the Olusegun Obasanjo government (1999 to 2007) extended the frontiers by deciding to include former heads of state of Nigeria, without discrimination, in the appointment of chancellors for universities. Understandably this created some furore among certain sections of the polity, especially the apex body of the universities’ academics (ASUU) who had deplored the tyrannical and corrupt exercise of power by some of those former rulers, and thereby argued for their disqualification from such an oversight, if ceremonial, roles. In my article of May 23, 2000, in The Guardian, I had commented elaborately on that niggling issue. This is why a revisit of that touchy subject almost two decades after that seminal essay strikes me as necessary in order to determine the advances made, if any, from that period to the present moment. The maiden convocation (combined for 2017/2018 amd 2018/2019 sessions) of the Federal University, Gusau, Zamfara State, held from January 23 to 25, 2020. I had attended the activities in company with the chancellor of the university, His Royal Highness, Ezeogo (Arch.) Ewa Elechi, Isuoha 1 of Ohaisu, whose installation as the pioneer chancellor of the institution was to hold within the period. And what I saw was a sight for sore eyes! Of course, that was not the first time I had witnessed the inauguration of a chancellor but just to cast my net far afield to ascertain the workability of the Nigerian experiment. At the Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Ebonyi State, where I ply my trade now, I have over time watched the fructification of this policy in the smooth relationship between the chancellor of the university, Oba Michael Adedotun Aremu Gbadebo, the Alake of Egbaland (of the Yoruba stock), and the vice chancellor, Prof. Chinedum Nwajiuba of the Igbo stock, and other principal officers of the university. Indeed, during the last convocation (fourth) of AE-FUNAI, as the Federal University is fondly called, the chancellor lauded Nwajiuba for his impartial and non-parochial policies and relationship with Nigerians of different ethnic backgrounds in the university. So, there is clearly a glimmer of hope at AE- FUNAI.
The convocation in Gusau afforded one the opportunity to view the implementation of this policy from another vantage position. At AE-FUNAI, this idea has borne fruit in the relationship between Igbo and Yoruba, so to speak, even though there are Nigerians of different ethnic colorations in-between. Would it also work between Igbo and Hausa? This question is pertinent given that the new chancellor, Ezeogo Ewa Elechi, is of Igbo background, from Ebonyi State, and the vice chancellor, Prof. Magaji Garba, was of northern (Hausa) region, among other principal officers of the Federal University, Gusau (FUGUS), and in the case of this institution, the pro- chancellor and chairman of the Governing Council, Prof. Funmi Togonu-Bickerseth, is of Yoruba background. So, here, you have a triangular relationship between the chancellor, Igbo, pro-chancellor, Yoruba, and vice chancellor, Hausa. And so far, from what one witnessed, the experiment in micro-nationhood seems to be working. Throughout the period the chancellor was in Gusau with his team, there was no lax moment in the depth of camaraderie and confidence that existed among the personalities representing the hierarchy of authorities in the institution. Of particular significance to me was the humility of the vice chancellor and the registrar in visiting the chancellor’s lodge to rehearse the performance for the chancellor’s installation. And, of course, characteristically, the chancellor would never treat anybody disdainfully, even if you want to prostrate to him as a sign of respect as it is in some of our people’s cultures and customs. Interesting to me also was the effusive manner in which the inhabitants of FUGUS praised the pioneer vice chancellor of the university, Prof Ben-Chuks Okeke. Practically on the lips of everybody, officially and privately, was a sincere panegyrics in honour of the former VC for starting the institution on a firm footing. Even the university orator, Prof. Mayanchi, in a private discussion with me, elaborated this feat, explaining the sacrifice Ben-Chuks Okeke made just so the university would come into existence despite all odds. Meanwhile, the former vice chancellor is Igbo and the university authorities largely of northern stock. Who says this is not good news from unexpected quarters?
Other universities and institutions of higher learning where the authorities have been running a divisive system racked by rancour and acrimony should learn from FUGUS and shape up. When the government of former President Goodluck Jonathan established the nine federal universities in 2011, different reactions trailed the appointment of pioneer vice chancellors for them. Of particular reference was the rousing reception that heralded in Ebonyi State the appointment of Prof. Oye Ibidapo-Obe as VC of then Federal University, Ebonyi State. The same may not be said for the cold shoulders, which the appointment of Prof. Chinedu Nebo received as VC at Ekiti. That is, without cramming the entire Yoruba race into a strait jacket, as one has met a number of affable Ekiti indigenes, especially at Afe Babalola University. It is hoped that, over time, the Zamfara example would percolate the system and become a standard barometer in determining our readiness to work towards peace and unity as a people of common destiny.
•Dr. Otu writes from Abakaliki