By Tunde Olusunle
Sometime in 2016, my good friend, Tunji Bamishigbin, put a call through to me. Bamishigbin, more popular for his role in the long-running television soap opera, “Palace”, and I were good friends, classmates and roommates at the University of Ilorin. Since leaving school in 1985, we have kept in very good touch, even before mobile telephony was introduced shortly after the outset of democracy governance.
Tunji explained that alumni of our school were setting up a WhatsApp group as a way of bringing together old acquaintances and schoolmates, most of whom had neither seen nor heard from one another, across the space of time. As at the time Bamishigbin and I chatted, it was already over three decades since we graduated. He listed a number of our mutual friends who had agreed to be on the platform, which made me salivate at the exciting potential of reuniting with many of these old friends.
I need to put my enthusiasm at this initiative within context. Owing to the nature of the occupations of my parents, I had a fairly nomadic beginning. I was born in Kaduna, where I underwent preparatory classes and began elementary education. After my third year, my father was transferred to Benin City in the primordial Mid-Western State. I continued my elementary education and proceeded to secondary school at the Immaculate Conception College (ICC), Benin City. Upon completion of my West African School Certificate Examination, my family had to move once again, this time to Ilorin. Here, I wrote the Cambridge University-moderated Higher School Certificate (HSC) examination at the School of Basic Studies of the erstwhile Kwara State College of Technology. Thereafter, I proceeded to Unilorin, where I obtained my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English.
The itinerant nature of my early life, therefore, ensured I never quite stayed in a particular city long enough after specific phases of my education to build upon the friendships I made in the various schools. While most of my schoolmates in secondary school, for instance, progressed into the University of Benin, which was virtually next door to our alma mater, ICC, I schooled in Unilorin after my HSC. As a young journalist in Lagos, I attended a few ICC Old Boys’ Association (ICCOBA) meetings. Regularly called upon to serve in various capacities in my state of origin, Kogi, however, severed me from genuine bonding with fellow ex-students. It was, therefore, my utmost delight that a virtual medium for reminiscences, interaction and engagement with my fellow alumnus and alumna had been initiated.
A number of friends from the Unilorin fraternity had come together a few months before Bamishigbin reached out to me to set up the chat group. It was led by Ade Adenuga, Ayo Wuraola, Sunmola Bakare, Segun Sanni and a few others. Instructively, these initiators were all friends who graduated from different departments in 1984. The idea started as a suggestion over drinks by the pioneers of the chat room that it would be a great idea to pay a visit to Unilorin in 2016, over three decades since our generation graduated.
Ilorin held a nostalgic feel for those of us in the much older generation of graduates. We schooled in the primordial campus of the university famously called the “Mini Campus.” At its inception in 1975, the University of Ilorin appropriated the facilities of the former Kwara State College of Technology, which is geographically hemmed between the “Agbo-Oba” District in downtown Ilorin and the more urbane “Adewole Estate,” a more modern, purpose-designed community for the Ilorin middle class. That was where our generation started out.
In later years, the university had relocated to its permanent site on ambitiously expansive grounds, straddling three local government areas in Kwara State. It would be fun to “go back to our roots,” as it were. The compact ambience of the old campus, therefore, made for close interaction and integration by students, with potential convergence points being the hostels, the cafeteria, the library, the Students Union Building and the teaching areas on the campus. Many marriages spawned from this experience, culminating in many “fully Unilorin couples.”
As planning for the proposed trip to Ilorin proceeded, more and more old students of the institution expressed interest in joining the newly created WhatsApp group. An idea, which began as a whisper was gaining rapid traction. The enthusiasm of long “lost” schoolmates to savour this virtual reunion was palpable. Roommates, classmates, boys, girls of times past were resurfacing as professors, doctors, businessmen and women, civil servants, politicians, journalists and entrepreneurs. Yes, those old-time friends were now technocrats, military officers, bankers, diplomats, educationists, public communications experts, administrators and more. The platform was unanimously christened “Unilorin 80s Friends For Life,” “FFL” for short
Admissions during the earlier years of the university, by the way, were more broad-based, attracting even foreign students, as against the more narrow-minded selection processes today. Whereas the immediate catchment of Unilorin at the time included contemporary Kwara, Kogi, Oyo, Osun, Ekiti, Ondo and Benue, students also came from Abia, Imo, Anambra, Enugu, Cross River, Rivers, Ogun, Lagos, Edo, Delta, and others. This multicultural pot-pourri was indeed critical to interaction and interrelationships in the institution. This is not forgetting a small numbers of students from India, Sierra Leone and Benin Republic, among others, who were also on the nominal roll of the university.
Members of the platform come from all over the world: Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, everywhere. Nationalities have changed in a number of cases, with several people having adopted the citizenship of their host countries.
The sheer quality and diversity of the human capital, which the University of Ilorin has gifted Nigeria and indeed the world, cannot be glossed over. Abdulfatah Ahmed (immediate past governor of Kwara State); Ishaq Oloyede (professor and incumbent registrar of the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board); Olusegun Adekunle (immediate past permanent secretary, General Services Office, PSO, in the Presidency); and Fatai Buhari (senator representing Oyo North Senatorial Zone) bear the imprimatur of the University of Ilorin.
Parliamentarians like Dave Idoko (who represented Okpokwu/Ogbadibo/Ado federal constituency of Benue State in the House of Representatives); Abayomi Sheba (also a former Member of the House of Representatives) and incumbent congressman, Tunde Adejare, were also bred in Unilorin.
The late Prof. Aize Obayan (who was at various times vice-chancellor of Covenant and Landmark universities); Professors Dapo Asaju (immediate past VC of Ajayi Crowther University, Oyo), Yemi Akinwumi (incumbent VC, Federal University, Lokoja, FUL), Francis Oyebade (former deputy vice-chancellor, Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba) and Abdulrasheed Na’Allah (VC of the University of Ilorin) were all nurtured in the same institution.
Jimi Olukoya (former registrar of the University of Ibadan); Sunnie Ododo (professor and chief executive of the National Theatre); Gbenga Ayeni (professor of communications, East Connecticut State University); Tunde Ogunnaike (professor of medicine at the South West Medical Centre, Dallas, Texas) and the late Pius Adesanmi (former professor at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada), all trod the soil of the University of Ilorin.
For the avoidance of doubt, the human capital contribution of the University of Ilorin to the healthcare system in the U.S., across medical specialties and states, include Layi Olagbegi, Segun Apoeso, Tunde Agoro, Tunde Dosu, Olu Fakiyesi, Victor Igbokidi, Harold Longe, Gboyega Adesokan, Dapo Oduwole, Toyin Bamgbola, Niyi Oni, Ajike Ogunsulire and Yomi Ige. Dele Abegunde, medical doctor and health systems economist, formerly of the World Health Organisation (WHO), and Ade Abanida, consultant epidemiologist with the WHO, Harare, Zimbabwe, are also former Unilorin students.
Eminent media professionals from this same university would include Ayo Akinkuotu (executive editor with Tell magazine); Eniola Bello (managing director of Thisday newspapers); Hakeem Bello (longserving media advisor to Minister for Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, SAN); Tunde Rahman (media advisor to Asiwaju Bola Tinubu) and Franca Aiyetan (director of public communications, National Broadcasting Commission. Younger media professionals like Seun Okinbaloye of Channels Television, are products of the University of Ilorin.
Unilorin alumni in the military and security services over time have included Major General Alexander Mshelbwala (former commander, Brigade of Guards, State House); Brigadier Generals Nurudeen Husseini and Folorunso Jegede (formerly of the Nigerian Army Medical Corps); and Brigadier Generals Ibok Ette, Ayo Fayehun and John Obasa (formerly of the Nigerian Army Education Corps). There are, of course, many very senior serving military officers, including major-generals, several commissioners of police and top shots in the internal and external arms of the secret police, from the institution.
Josephine Obiajulu Odumakin, fiery human rights activist and wife to the departed Afenifere spokesman, Yinka Odumakin, earned all her degrees, from bachelor’s to doctorate, from the University of Ilorin.
This is not forgetting alumni in the oil and gas sector, notably Babs Omotowa, former managing director, Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas Company; Dr. Victor Tunde Adenira, former group executive director, ventures, Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC); Isiaka Abdulrasaq, former chief finance officer, also of the NNPC; Francis Osasona, Shell Production Ltd; Idowu Lawanson, formerly of NNPC; and Segun Ilori, director, legal and corporate affairs, Green Energy International Ltd, all eminent former students of the University of Ilorin.
Chika Mordi, former executive director, United Bank for Africa (UBA), now chairman, United Capital Plc; and Segun Ogbonnewo, formerly of Guaranty Trust and Access banks; and Leke Ogungbe, former regional director, Trade Bank of Nigeria, among others, have flown the flag of the university in their respective vocations over time.
Entrepreneurs include Sunmola Bakare, big-time farmer and operator in the marine transportation sector; Segun Sanni, investment and capital market operator; Dapo Adelegan, seasoned marketer and public relations consultant; Basirat Payne, major importer and exporter; Labake Adetunmbi, real estate; George Onwuchekwa, corporate affairs and advertising; and Ade Adenuga, who is in the information technology and hospitality industry.
Oba Michael Ajayi, the Elerinmo of Erinmo, in Osun State, leads the line of traditional rulers of Unilorin extraction. Shiaondo Aarga, alumnus of the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies; Tivlumun Nyitse, communications scholar; Blessing Wikina, Sunday Joshua Adeleke and Abraham T.J. Adavi, all alumni, have retired from the civil service after ascending to the top of their careers as permanent secretaries and directors in Benue, Rivers, Kwara and Kogi States, respectively.
Exchanges on the platform are typically mature, robust and engaging. Subjects and topics include almost everything under the sun. Politics, governance, public policy, economy, education, security, human rights, infrastructure, healthcare, name it, continue to re-echo and reverberate from the platform. Because of the differing time zones of members of platform, the chat room never sleeps. While the Nigerian-African contingent is retiring for the day, for instance, those in the diaspora sustain discourse. When engagements grow heated and tense, edgy nerves are soothed by witty, humorous interventions by self-appointed umpires.
Side by side with the evolution of “FFL”, another platform, “Unilorin SUB”, emerged. The abbreviation “SUB” translates as Students’ Union Building, a rallying intersection in most universities and a major hub of activities on campus. Members of this chat room are slightly younger than those on FFL, much as the ideals are similar in the advancement of interrelationships between erstwhile friends and associates from the institution.
Beyond bonhomie, beyond the chatter and banter of these platforms, however, the platforms have been variously deployed for humanistic and humanitarian purposes. Alumni continue to engage with the authorities of the institution, to give back to the university in various ways. For instance, scholars and academics continue to send academic materials such as books, journals and monographs to their former faculties the University. US-based graduates of computer science from the institution have also gifted their former departments with computers and information technology devices.
A few years back, alumni of the Department of Performing Arts, coordinated by Bamishigbin, George Chekwas and Biodun Abe, commissioned a bust of the respected late female playwright, intellectual and performing artist, Prof. Zulu Sofola, which was mounted in front of the Performing Arts Department. It was their way of paying tribute to Nigeria’s, nay Africa’s, first ever female professor of theatre arts, who taught in Unilorin for almost two decades, before her demise.
Alumni in the academia also continue to leverage the interconnectedness provided by these platforms to expand the frontiers of the exchange of knowledge and education. At the instance of Yemi Akinwumi, who was a former dean of the Arts Faculty in Nasarawa State University, Keffi, Gbenga Ayeni spent some time teaching at the university, away from his base in Connecticut.
Similarly, in as many instances as challenges or incapacity of ex-Unilorin alumni have been brought to the attention of each platform, members have risen in unison to aggregate support for such needy friends. Beyond rallying to conscientiously raise generous fiscal support for such friends in need, the platforms delegate select members to visit and follow through with such friends, re-enacting our age-old tradition as brother’s keepers.
Such is the amity, the new sense of family, fraternity, community and communality, which has been engendered by WhatsApp.
•Dr. Olusunle, poet, journalist and scholar, writes from Abuja