In two weeks’ time, Prof. Benjamin Ozumba, the vice chancellor (VC) of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), will have ended his tenure as the 14th VC of the country’s premier indigenous university. The imminent vacancy for the position of VC at the university might have attracted a crowded field but, like similar contests, there are aspirants typically considered frontrunners.
While the factors that presumably place them in pole position might not be immediately discernible to the outsider, it is safe to say such considerations mostly verge on the academic achievements of these aspirants and the institutional administrative positions they had held and the scorecards thereto. With these considered, keen observers familiar with the nuances that underlie the selection process for VCs are all but certain the contest is most discernibly a five-horse race between the following scholars: Professors Cyprian Onyeji, Charles Igwe, James Chukwuma Ogbonna, Polycarp Emeka Chigbu, and E.O. Ezeugwu.
These five candidates (the bookmakers’ favourites), flaunt very intimidating resumes spanning years of distinguished academic practice. They have all previously held varying top-tier academic and administrative positions, which make their pitch for the prestigious job of VC in such a reputable university easily convincing. But sometimes being exposed to such positions of influence that ordinarily prepare the holders for higher future responsibilities might actually, paradoxically, prove to be an albatross, as an analysis of the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses would reveal.
A glaring feature of the present scheming is the primordial sentiment that has been brought to bear in the contest, vis-à-vis the trenchant demands by the Nsukka indigenous people for the appointment of the next helmsman from their zone. This, of course, is in spite of the fact that the last two consecutive VCs before Ozumba happened to have come from Enugu State! It does not come as a surprise, therefore, that Nsukka zone parades three candidates even among these five frontrunners. Whereas the number may be seen as a major statement of intent, it nonetheless betrays an absence of unanimity, which, in itself, portrays a divisive force that hurts the quest for somebody of their extraction. Even more so, there are deep concerns, particularly among lecturers, that such primordial sentiments could breed an untoward tendency in the sense that, should a candidate from the Nsukka zone emerge as the VC, he is likely to feel obligated and, indeed, beholden to his kinsmen, to the detriment of the much broader edifying interest for which universities are noted. Some catchment states such as Ebonyi, Imo and, to some extent, Abia and Rivers states are already ill at ease at the seeming indigenisation of the structure of governance of the university by Enugu State in general and Nsukka cultural zone in particular.
For instance, of the seven principal members of the management structure of the university, three are said to be held by Enugu State indigenes! Of these three principal officers (excluding the deputy vice-chancellors), two, (registrar and bursar) are from the Nsukka cultural zone. A further addition of a VC from the state would amount to a complete indigenisation of this great national institution, especially against the backdrop that some states, like Ebonyi and Imo from the same catchment zone, and notwithstanding their well-known contributions, are yet to produce a VC of the university since its inception in 1960.
Some observers, however, insist that such fears are merely conjectural, arguing that the stellar heights achieved by aspirants in this category make them less susceptible to such ethno-centric views. This sounds quite logical, except that even if that possibility were totally discounted, some past actions or inactions of personalities riding on the crest of ethnic nationalism had stirred controversies that cannot be considered flattering.
Prof. Cyprain Ogbonna Onyeji was born August 26, 1957, and attended St. Theresa’s College, Nsukka, where he obtained his West African School Certificate with distinctions in 1975. He proceeded to Obafemi Awolowo University, where he studied Pharmacy up to Ph.D level. He lectures at the same university, where he rose to become a professor and at some time dean of the faculty. He was appointed VC of the Enugu State University of Science and Technology. He had, about a decade ago, aspired for the office of UNN’s VC but couldn’t get it.
Another candidate whose job experience puts him in very good stead for the coveted position is Prof. Charles Igwe, currently UNN’s deputy vice-chancellor in charge of administration and a member of the governing council. The professor of soil science was also visiting researcher/professor in universities in countries such as Germany, Japan, Norway, Italy and France. There is, however, a petition against him addressed to the pro-chancellor of UNN and signed by one Nkem Nwuruku on behalf of a group that describes itself as “Concerned University Staff for Equity and Transparency.”
Prof. Polycarp Emeka Chigbu is another candidate who had served as deputy vice-chancellor of the university over which he seeks to preside. As deputy vice-chancellor, he oversaw the institution’s academic department from 2013 to 2016, and was as well a member of UNN’s governing council in the same period. With a job profile that also includes stints as dean of the institution’s postgraduate studies and governing council member of the Michael & Cecilia Ibru University, Agbarha-Otor, Ughelli, Delta State, from 2017 to date, Chigbu, a professor of statistics who joined the services of UNN in 1985, flaunts a resume that many academics can only dream about. He is considered an insider familiar with the challenges of UNN, which, in a way, adds to his profile. However, there is a general feeling that he exhibits too much innocence, a posture considered too lukewarm.
Prof. J.C. Ogbonna, the deputy vice-chancellor (academics), and Prof. E.O. Ezeugwu are brilliant academics but they are caught in the intricate web of the fact that, like Prof. Onyeji, they are not only from Enugu State, but also from the Nsukka cultural zone.
It may still be a while until the decision on who becomes the vice-chancellor of UNN is made, but it is sure shaping up to be an interesting contest.