Dr. Steve Umesie’s article (Daily Sun, Thursday, May 9, 2019) offered very interesting highlights of the bitter-sweet memories of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN); the squabbling for the position of vice chancellor (VC) and an incipient clannish tendency that threatens the lofty history of this iconic institution. But like the bikini that ladies wear, what it reveals is quite interesting, even more so, what it hides!
As beautiful as the piece may appear, it is, however, lowered by the apparent indulgent romanticism of the past over the present. He dwelt so much on comparing two distinct administrations of Prof. Bartho Okolo and that of Prof. Benjamin Ozumba, and barely touched on the crucial destructive element that is creeping into the hallowed confines of this great institution – the clannish politics of the Nsukka indigenous group! Methinks there was indeed no need for such comparison as no two administrations could be assumed to have similar focuses. The two would be remembered for their roles at repositioning this great gift that our forebear, Rt. Hon. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe gave to humanity through our clime.
While Prof. Okolo would be remembered for his aggressive infrastructural development, Prof. Ozumba will be remembered for the humanity he brought to bear in the administration of the university. The two are indeed complementary.
While the unprecedented large field of aspirants (75) may be rationalised as an indication of the prestige that the University of Nigeria commands in the academic community, the sense of entitlement inherent in the clamouring for a vice chancellor of Nsukka extraction can in no wise be deemed progressive. That quest assails the culture of excellence and scholarship, ideals, which universities across the world cherish and aspire to attain.
The relationship between universities and their host communities the world over ought to be a symbiotic one, a mutually reinforcing intercourse characterised by inter-dependence and solidarity. It could not be otherwise since, in addition to its core mandate of teaching and research, universities, and in particular Nigerian universities, are charged with the additional functions of national development and community service. The choice of Nsukka, (then) an otherwise famished, dusty community located in the backwoods of the defunct Eastern Region as the host of the first indigenous university in the country, was not without objective merit.
In an article to commemorate the university’s silver jubilee in 1985, Profs. E.O. Odokara and Julius Onah posited: “Nsukka at the time the university was established was an ‘underdeveloped and educationally under-privileged area.’ Nsukka was then a simple and unassuming community known for her traditional hospitality, generosity and honesty. The people were so honest that some other Nigerians described them as ‘stupid’ or ‘ignorant.’ It was this human characteristics, coupled with its natural endowment of cool climate that led to the siting of the university at Nsukka against all opposition and resistance.”
In the university’s nearly 60 years of existence, Nsukka community and environs have more than justified its choice and billing by offering the institution a distinctive, congenial climate that has remarkably stood it out as an ivory tower and a unique experiment in higher education. On the other hand, the university has had a serious beneficial impact on the economic life of Nsukka community and much more so on the educational uplift, quality of life and standard of living of the people. Put differently, the average Nsukkaman or woman is today no longer the stereotypical ‘simple’, ‘stupid’ or ‘ignorant’ being that a majority of the Southeasterners depicted them to be, thanks in large measure to the catalytic presence of the University of Nigeria, which literally placed education at their doorpost. From being barely able to present the lowest cadre of junior staff for employment at the inception of the university, Nsukka community and environs presently boast of top-level manpower in the institution’s employ, including professors, associate professors, senior lecturers and researchers as well as senior non-academic staff in the university’s bureaucracy and ancillary services. Unfortunately, this coming of age, as it were, has begun to breed an uncivic, distasteful culture, which, if not nipped in the bud promptly, is capable of not only eroding and undermining the vision of the founding fathers of this great citadel of learning, but would altogether stunt the future growth and development of the university as a primarily pan-Nigerian higher institution of learning and, in the foreseeable future, a world-class university and a global brand.
In a society replete with ethnic diversity such as ours, it’s understandable that calls for inclusion will occasionally become strident. So, the push for inclusion is in itself not an odious aspiration. But such goal should not be pursued in a manner that undermines merit, the way the Nsukka cultural zone currently seems poised about it. Nor should it be at the risk of perpetuating an imaginary exclusion that proponents of an Nsukka VC are apparently seeking to uproot.
The emergence of two VCs of Enugu State origin in UNN’s recent history (Profs. Chinedu Nebo and Bartho Okolo), has, to a great degree, satisfied the yearnings of indigenes of the institution’s home state for a sense of belonging. This is despite the fact that UNN was established during the era of regional governments, a period that far predates the creation of Enugu State. Implicitly, professors from Enugu State, Anambra or to some extent Abia, are no more entitled to the vice chancellor seat than qualified academics from Imo or Ebonyi, two states similarly carved out from the defunct Eastern Region but that are yet to produce a vice chancellor. The five states of the South-East being products of that region do have, after all, legitimate historical stake, both material and emotional, in the institution. In fact, I dare say that having a VC from either Ebonyi or Imo State makes a more compelling case that better serves the cause of justice. Even if merit were the sole criterion, there’s no doubt they would be no less qualified.
Universities typically attract the best human resources, regardless of their origin. UNN has reaped immensely from that hallowed tradition over the years and the benefits are evident today with the institution’s reputation as a respected centre of learning. Its host town, Nsukka, has also received global reckoning as a result. The question then is: how has the fact that an Nsukka son or daughter had never been chosen as a VC diminished the reputation of the university? In no way that anyone can rationally articulate. Has it in any way hampered the town’s development? No one can claim that. Rather, the clamour for an Nsukka VC actually hurts the university’s image as a globally recognised institution. We should be careful not to import the retrogressive clannish politics, which has attenuated the goals of most state universities, to be the fortune of such a great national institution as the University of Nigeria. Such clannish posturing should be reserved for the politics of the Enugu State Universities and other institutions.
•Nwabuno, a legal practitioner, lives in Lagos