In January 2012, when former President Olusegun Obasanjo arrived the Nsukka campus of the University of Nigeria (UNN) to deliver the institution’s 41st convocation lecture, he was palpably fazed at the scale of construction and rehabilitation works going on at the country’s first indigenous university. As he mounted the podium to kick off the lecture, the former President, one man not given to adulation, least of all flattery even at the best of times, looked towards the vice-chancellor, Prof. Bartho Okolo, and said very audibly: “When I arrived here, I thought I was in the middle of a big construction site.”
Prof. Okolo’s tenure as vice-chancellor of UNN, without doubt, left indelible footprints on the vision of the founding fathers of the institution. Such was the scope and magnitude of Prof. Okolo’s impact that no sector of the university was not affected positively by the catalytic endeavours that he brought to bear on the duration of his tenure.
Propelled by a single-minded determination to turn the page and write a new chapter in the history of Nigeria’s first indigenous university, Prof. Okolo, from the outset, defined the challenge before him in terms of having to continuously think outside the box, aware that the universe of the university as we knew it has dramatically been altered by the rampaging forces of globalisation. The Nigerian university of the 21st century was expected to think globally and act locally. Under Okolo’s conscientious watch, not only did the institution record remarkable progress and milestones, it was able in the main to achieve transformation in almost every facet: physical infrastructure, learning/instruction, research, concentration of faculty talent, competitiveness, etc. Without gainsaying, the university was in the throes of a new awakening, heralding a renaissance. The introduction of a modern learning and teaching architecture formed an indispensable component of the institution’s vision and blueprint to becoming a strong brand on the global stage.
By harnessing the complementary potentialities that the private sector, international donor agencies, foundations, alumni, etc, offer in mobilising the requisite funds to drive the transformation initiatives, Okolo was able, during his tenure to attract private funding for a number of landmark projects in the institution, including the N6.4 billion Centre for Excellence in Financial Studies, located on the Enugu campus, funded by the Central Bank of Nigeria; the N1 billion Africa Development Bank-funded Vocational Teaching Education building at the Nsukka campus; the N260 million Centre for Sociology and Anthropology building in Nsukka, funded by an alumnus and pioneer president of the institution’s students’ union, Prof. B.I.C. Ijeoma; the N.6 billion Ifeanyi Ubah Data Network Centre building, Nsukka Campus, sponsored by the managing director of Capital Oil Limited; the N580 million Clinical Diagnostic and Wellness Centre, sponsored by Chief Cletus Ibeto; and the Centre for Environmental Management, sponsored by Shell Nigeria Limited, to mention but a few.
Much of what the university has been able to achieve in terms of institutional reform owes in the main to the imaginativeness, drive and strong leadership of this inimitable change agent. It was consistent with the institution’s historical summons to restore the dignity of the African man. His successor, therefore, had his job already cut out for him, namely, to continue with the ongoing transformative agenda, to deepen and broaden the base of academic reforms and build a critical mass of change agents that would ensure the irreversibility of these crucial reforms.
This ennobling milestone ought to have been translated into an institutional vision owned by the UNN itself and made irreversible had the university been fortunate to have a successor who did understand his position beyond the depraving cynicism of rampaging prebendalism.
Nearly five years after, the university has become a wasteland, stymied by unnerving predilection such that it needs a comprehensive surgery. There are legion of staff recruited over the last two years and more who are yet to receive even a month’s salary! All the building projects initiated by the former VC that were not completed are left at the very stage they were. For the first time in long years, staff of various cadres have had to picket the management of this great institution, while basic facilities have been mindlessly left to decay beyond redemption. Needless to say that, in the face of all these, scholarship has taken a disturbing back seat such that most courses are reeling under the imminence of de-accreditation.
It would be important for the federal government to deeply look into UNN and discover what actually might be the possible explanations for these. We are therefore left with a clear choice of who ought to be chosen to lead the institution. With more than 75 academics in contention to ascend the throne, this number is, to say the least, unsettling. Even more so is the unsettling primordial blackmail being infused into the race by the Nsukka indigenes in their quest. I do not deride their aspiration, not all! My contention is that this indeed is not the season to reduce the race to such destructive blackmail.
The university is in dire need of rediscovery such that such sentiment of a so-called son-of-the-soil is not permissible now! On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with such an ambition, but it has to be remembered that there is a laid-down procedure for the appointment of vice-chancellors of Nigerian universities. Besides, the University of Nigeria is a pan-Nigerian university and not a state-owned or senatorial-owned university. Its motto is “to restore the dignity of man” and the restoration of man’s dignity is only possible in a climate of excellence and pursuit of meritocracy as opposed to clan hegemony. The average Nsukka man pursues insularity with a pathological passion that inevitably blinds him to the feelings and sensitivities of other people around them, including those who may duly perceive themselves as stakeholders in commonly shared projects. Nobody seems to remember that the two successive vice-chancellors before the present, Profs. Chinedu Nebo and Bartho Okolo were all from Enugu State. None has yet to be produced from Ebonyi, Abia or Imo states, assuming the university was to be regarded as a South East institution. But this is Nigeria’s first indigenous university and not a state university, for crying out loud!
I think the task before us all now is to select the best among these distinguished scholars who would bother about his place in history rather than the weight of his pocket. As an alumnus, my bias rests on finding an old student academic who would feel some shame if this great edifice were to be compared to some of her peers even within Nigeria.
The practice of appointing someone who does not share in the emotion and history of this great institution has proven to be counter-productive.
•Dr. Umesie, an alumnus of UNN, teaches at the University of Benin