A loaded survey of Nigeria has conditioned her progress on statesmen as opposed to politicians and the production of statesmen a privileged service of universities to the society. Asserting the distinction this evening in Abuja was His Eminence, Francis Cardinal Arinze of the Vatican while delivering the 10th Anniversary and 6th Convocation Lecture of Veritas University, also known as The Catholic University of Nigeria.
Universities, said the 85 year old-cardinal whose sharpness of voice belie that age, are expensive institutions maintained with resources from the society and it is, therefore, not unreasonable to expect certain services to the society in return. Listing such services to include the right to religious freedom as opposed to proselytisation or evangelism; promotion of genuine pluralism as opposed to what he called “the anonymity and monotony of matches in a box”; the reinforcement of honesty and nobility of character and the production of statesmen, the Cardinal said “universities should not despair on the possibility of clean and far-sighted exercise of power”. He warned against abandoning politics as a lost cause to be left to only mediocres, petty traders, money-hungry people and retired and tired old people. The universities could, in his argument, help spread the conviction that electoral votes should not be sold or bought; that a person who has good proposals should be voted for rather than the other who distributed money, cloth or rice.
Giving universities more specific tasks on this point, Cardinal Arinze insisted that universities could help push that political parties should articulate their programmes or manifestoes; insist that contending politicians be ready to engage in televised debates and expose decampees who hop from one party to another in tandem with their personal calculus as cheap players. For him, statesmen are needed for a country to make progress, describing statesmen as people of high moral stature indisposed to selling their conscience for a mess of pottage or just wanting to win political election.
The cardinal’s list of services to the society also extended to capacity building in the society. Although he distinguished universities from vocational schools or technological institutions, he, nevertheless, does not see how universities could be indifferent to crisis of unemployment and associated consequences such as criminality and misdirected risks. He is, therefore, of the belief that the setting up of business schools in cities such as Lagos, Kano, Onitsha, Nnewi, Aba and Ibadan could be a manner of responding to society’s most needs.
In the lecture which touched on wide-ranging but inter-related issue of a privileged place for the university in social transformation, Cardinal Arinze argued that universities were expected to listen to the expressed needs of the state in terms of what could be done but without losing its identity or allowing itself to transform into intellectual mouthpiece of the state or a political party. He did not see the need for the state to be scared of the thinking power of the university while the university should not degenerate into functioning as if it were an opposition party to the government in power.
Extending his critical gaze to the idea of the university itself, the Cardinal described its object as the “pursuit of the good, the beautiful, the true and the noble”. He put Philosophy at its core, saying that Philosophy provides a more complete picture than some account of what it means to be human that each of the numerous disciplines on offer in a university could provide, be it the languages, Literature, Visual and Practical Arts, Drama, Mathematics, Medicine, Economics, Law, Psychology, etc
In a thinly veiled attack on postmodernist thinking, Cardinal Arinze said that a Catholic university such as Veritas, Abuja is blessed because it has “a patrimony of a respected philosophical tradition, especially as articulated by Saint Thomas Aquinas and other Scholastics”, a tradition he asserts could prepare students on the basis of its moderate realism to engage other systems, from neo-paganism to relativism and “denials of ability of human reason to arrive at objective truth”. The retired Cardinal anchored the logic of ‘Catholic education’ on Pope John Paul 11’s position to American Bishops in 1998 to the effect that it is beyond communication of facts to the transmission of a coherent, comprehensive vision of life such that its students are equipped to face “a growing world culture of non-belief, of agnosticism or religious indifferentism, of giving the impression that the learned person is the one who has no need for religion … as if religion were for people of weaker calibre”.
Titled “The University Today”, the 10th Anniversary and 6th Convocation Lecture was witnessed by, among others, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja and Chancellor of Veritas University; Dr Anthony Obinna, the Pro-chancellor of the university; Dr Augustine Akubueze, the Archbishop of Benin Diocese and Vice-President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria; Monsignor Antonio Filipazzi, the Apostolic Nuncio to Nigeria, Barrister U Onuoha who represented NUC Executive Secretary, several members of the governing council and, of course, Professor Mike Kwanashie, the Vice-Chancellor of the university.
According to Prof Mike Kwanashie, the Cardinal came from Rome for the express purpose of delivering the lecture which the VC who was speaking before the lecture was delivered, was certain would motivate and stimulate every member of the university. In his closing comments, the Most Reverend Dr Anthony Obinna changed that by saying that Cardinal Arinze had provided a framework not just for Veritas University but for the entire Nigeria. Few people would disagree with that comment in that there was something in Cardinal Arinze’s lecture reminiscent of the inconclusive 1981 debate on “The Responsibility of Political Science in Nigeria” at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria between Professor Sam Oyovbaire and the late Dr Bala Usman. Subsequently, the late Professor Eme Awa and then Professor Bayo Olukoshi entered the fray.
One implication is that Cardinal Arinze’s lecture might bring back that debate. The question is what is the university all about? What does it mean to be in the university, whether one is there as a student or as a teacher. The strength of Cardinal Arinze’s intervention is that it grips whoever listened or reads it, irrespective of one’s religion, ideological or analytical persuasion.