It is an intriguing claim until the details behind it begin to be uploaded. That is the claim the above title captures as well as the added point that even the location of the earliest universities in Nigeria sort of consciously or unconsciously followed an Oxford model: as in Oxford rather than London, so was it then rural Ibadan rather than Lagos. And it went on like that: Nsukka rather than Enugu; Ife rather than Ibadan; Zaria rather than Kaduna. So compelling are the details as to force the question of how a nation which started at such an Olympian height could find its university system where Nigeria’s is today. Controversial as claims about where the Nigerian university system is today could be, only very few might be immunized against the frequency of strike actions by the different components of the staffing as well as the reality of no Nigerian university making the list of the first 200 in any of the numerous global ranking exercises thereto.
Still, the argument embedded in the above title is sustainable. And the entry point is simple: in spite of the show of interactive learning that education professors are staging, nobody is contemplating phasing out teachers as the defining feature of learning. Teachers might no longer be the sage on stage they used to be but, perhaps in the future, teachers are still as key as they ever were as far as knowledge transmission is concerned. That makes the lecturer a spectacle in the typical university. He or she might not be the most intelligent but s/he is critical to every phase of the learning process peculiar to the university. This role is even more complex now that the average learner in the university confronts the ‘threat’ from the social media. A Nigerian Vice-Chancellor is so disturbed by that he recently gathered students to tell them to make a distinction between Facebook and facing their books.
If teachers were and are still that critical to learning, then you can measure the world class status or otherwise of universities in a university system by the quality of the academics on ground. And a survey of the academics on the ground across the first three generations of Nigerian universities can be conducted to show that all those universities were originally planned to be world class universities until the Nigerian crisis wrecked the universities. The rest of this story is that survey.
This report, it must be stated, is biased to the Humanities Complex reflecting the disciplinary location of the reporter who is thus not equipped to extend this to medicine, veterinary medicine, agriculture, architecture, engineering and the physical and biological sciences as elaborately as it should have been.
Talking of the first three generations as the focus of this report also means that this report does not include the universities that came after the mid 1970s. The first generation refers to the first five – University of Ibadan, (UI); University of Nigeria, Nsukka, (UNN); Obafemi Awolowo University, (OAU), Ile-Ife; Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and the University of Lagos, (UNILAG) with difficulty where to put the University of Benin, (UNIBEN) which is a 1970 affair, eight years after the Super Five had taken off. UNIBEN is probably what the second generation refers to along with the University of Jos, (UNIJOS), a 1975 affair but after existing since 1971 as a campus of the University of Ibadan and, by extension, a grandchild of the University of London which brought up Ibadan as a member of that family. The third generation is more straightforward – the seven universities the Nigerian government established in 1975, namely UNIJOS; University of Calabar, (UNICAL); Bayero University, Kano, (BUK); the University of Maiduguri, (UNIMAID); Usman Dan Fodio University, (UDU), Sokoto; the University of Portharcourt, (UNIPORTH) and the University of Ilorin, (UNILORIN).
The University of Jos might not be a bad place to begin from, particularly the Department of Sociology in the early 1980s. All through the early eighties, the Department had no less than academics from nine different nationalities. There was a Polish, German, Ghanaian, Indian, Sierra Leonean, British and an Irish. While the Irish was Norman Perchnock, an excellent Sociologist who moved from the Ahmadu Bello University into Jos, the German was Dr. Hauck who was teaching critical theory which, for the sake of non-academic readers, does not mean theories which criticize but theories which rejected dogma. That should be a journalistically adequate sense of it. Critical theory at the time cannot be what it is today when Robert Cox’s game changing essay had not been discovered but the significance of such a course at the time lies in how the fear of indoctrination of students with foreign ideologies which the Nigerian establishment haboured did not arise at all. It pointed to how theories were being studied in relation to text and context.
In nearby Department of Political Science at UNIJOS were the Isawa Elaigwus and later, his friend, Prof Ali Mazrui. It was to checkmate the rising power of this circle that the radicals in the Department of Sociology convinced their former teachers at UI to berth at UNIJOS instead of returning to UI in the aftermath of the Federal Government clampdown on supposedly ‘subversive’ academics. That was how Prof Omafune Onoge, for example, ended up at UNIJOS instead of Ibadan from where the government sent him packing along with a number of radical academics then. Onoge, of course, had submitted a hair raising doctoral thesis on the Aiyetoro community as a study in Socialist self-organisation at Harvard where he ended up teaching, among other top American universities, before nationalism brought him home.
Still in Jos, there was Robin Theobald, the British Sociologist, one of those who has had a productive engagement with the key issues of social change, development, corruption and leadership, especially charismatic authority. He ended up in a London based university after leaving Nigeria. Prof Zack Williams, the Sierra Leonean Political Sociologist now at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK had moved into Jos from Bayero University, Kano and is a leading authority on several dimensions of the African crisis, particularly the post-colonial state. The late Prof Justin Tseayo was there too, moving to becoming the Director-General of the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, (NIPSS).
As hot as the Department of Sociology at UNIJOS at that time, the focus on it here is also a convenient choice because much of what could be said about the Department in terms of diversity and quality of staff could equally be said about History where the likes of Monday Mangvat were, for instance, or English where Somali writer, Nuruddin Farah was or Political Science where the now late Aaron Gana, Sonni Tyoden, Bala Takaya and a host of others were. The university was simply adequate in those terms then. There are newer scholars but with the departure of those like Sam Egwu to INEC and the virtual exit of Prof Alli, we are effectively the end of an age.
As in Jos, so was it in the Kano-Zaria axis. Bayero University, Kano is often cited as the best evidence of the claim that the founding fathers planned every of the earlier universities to be a world class institution. BUK bided its time to shake off the image of hotbed of Islamic scholarship and explode on Nigeria. In all two cases that it exploded on Nigeria, it chose Prof Attahiru Jega to do it. The first was his leadership of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, (ASUU) in 1993. Under his leadership, the union intensified this tradition of standing eye ball to eyeball with the government. Then it was the slippery IBB regime but it was the first to blink. Thereafter, expressions such “so, BUK has such academics” could be heard. Perhaps, it is too much to expect everyone to know that BUK produced the young guys that shook Oxford, academically and politically in the late 1980s. One is “the first African president” – Tajudeen Abdulraheem who is late and the other is the encyclopedic Yakubu Aliyu. The second time BUK exploded on Nigeria, again through Attahiru Jega was when, as Chairman of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission, (INEC), he and his close circle of intellectuals staged a successful electoral coup against the political elite by introducing the card reader into the conduct of elections. It was a completely new statement from a new generation of Nigerian intellectuals who were moving from purely ideological critique to the ideology of the technological fix. An undisciplined elite disinclined to obeying its own rules was caught off guard. They are still battling with it.
Right from the beginning, BUK had always had more than its fair share of a full blown world class university. Professor James O’Connell, British Professor of Politics whom the Murtala regime sent packing in 1975 was in BUK. It is not clear why he was sent away but it might not be unconnected with “The Fragility of Stability and the Inevitability of Instability” essay he published in 1967. The power elite of a newly independent African state such as Nigeria was bound to be uncomfortable with such an argument because it was open to interpretation as saying that Nigeria was a walking endemic catastrophe. So, they must have put him under watch and eventually deported the priest. But Mr David Attah, one of the eight graduate trainees Babatunde Jose groomed for editorial leadership at Daily Times spoke for O’Connell till both of them died a few years of each other. O’Connell not only taught Attah in ABU, Zaria where he migrated from BUK, he also stayed with Attah when Attah rose to become Group Manpower Development Manager of Daily Times in Lagos. When this reporter asked Attah in 2016 what might have happened, his reply was that O’Connell meant no harm and that he, Attah, remains ever proud of such a scholar, crediting them with being imbued “with what you and I do not have and they provide ethos for humanity”. O’Connell died as a leading scholar of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford in the UK in September 2013.
Aside from O’Connell, there was C. S. Whitaker, the theorist of ‘change and continuity’ in the study of Northern Nigeria. A product of Princeton University in the US, he died in 2008 back in the states, leaving behind the book by which he signified himself in the study of African politics: The Politics of Tradition: Continuity and Change in Northern Nigeria, 1946 – 1966. Poly Hill was here too, the anthropologist who wrote a classic on the Kano peasantry, well regarded by the better known authorities there such as Gavin Williams, M. S Watts and the late Raufu Mustapha. There was John Paden too, the author of Ahmadu Bello just as there was Professor Michael Mortimore who basically set up the Department of Geography in BUK and Tom Forrest, now a retired Oxford Professor of Economics. In Economics too, there was Prof Ahmed who came with a PhD from the London School of Economics, (LSE) and to where he returned as a full professor on leaving BUK. His Ghanaian counterpart from the same LSE was the one who earned the nickname “terror” because of her no nonsense attitude to sloth. The story about her is that it is risky to come late to her class because, once she entered, no student could enter again. For that reason as well as her aura and carriage, she was feared. Not for her any debate about whether it is better to be respected than feared.
The contrast was in the African-American political economist with his ways with neo-Marxist scholarship. Tyron Ferdinand is his name. His students report that he didn’t just teach, he groomed the students. Whether one liked it or not, one learnt from him the culture of bringing all sides to the question; how to engage with journals, taking notes, referencing, how to use the index card of those days, how to summarize and how to develop critical thinking.
But it was not just about Western scholars, it was also about African scholars such as Yakubu Adams from Malawi who was very good in the Second year course: African politics. There was also Prof Yolamu Barongo from Uganda. Prof Rasheed Moten produced what, from hindsight now, is one of the best handout on the course: Introduction to Political Science. Unfortunately, this reporter has lost his. Of course, Political Science in Bayero University, just like its Literature Department, has managed not to suffer a dramatic collapse of quality in the turbulence of today. Its elders such as Prof Ahmadu Jalingo and Dr. Mark Igboeli have passed on, with Dr Bawa Gusau certainly now on the verge of retiring but the young of those days have grown: the Attahiru Jegas, the Ibrahim Muazzams, the MMYs and the Kamilu Fagges.
Away from the social sciences, Gladstone Yearwood from the Carribeans was there in Mass Communication along with Prof Chris Onunkwo. Okonkwo in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is not real but Prof Chris Onunkwo saved anyone the trouble of imagining Okonkwo. The way he walked as if he was going to pounce on someone: jauntily, unhurriedly but the most pleasant man ever, enhanced by his bursts of Americanism.
BUK then was about the superb nature of the mix. Apart from the foreigners, Nigerians of every ethnic group could be found. The campus was a hotbed of Islamic activism quite alright but the complexity of Kano itself meant that, very soon, no one cared. At least, they never succeeded in closing the ‘market’, the notorious meeting point in front of the huge, sole Female Hostel then. Where the construction of the ‘market’ as a space of immorality came from is what nobody can say even though nothing harmful by any standard took place there. But even then, BUK without the ‘market’ would have been unthinkable for a large number of the students in the mid 1990s, BUK without the ‘market’ would have been deserted. But what did they do there? There wasn’t anything there that did not fall into gossip, exchange of food, seeking financial succor, show-off and many other but absolutely healthy forms of interaction. It was hip to have been at the ‘market’, even for the radical ideologues. It was that irresistible
If a third generation Nigerian university such as UNIJOS and BUK were parading scholars setting global intellectual agenda by their essays, books and pedagogic practices as well as schools they have attended or depart to doesn’t prove the claim of the all early Nigerian universities planned by the founding fathers to be world class, then what would?. But, perhaps, there is still the need to vary the evidence taking to a different region of Nigeria. Although, there would be evidence taking from the University of Ibadan, Ibadan’s stature in those days was not in question and proving it does not, therefore, arise. For that reason, the UNN would be a better place to go.
UNN was an axis where world class scholarship was flying at a very high altitude. UNN had its high flyers in Prof Okwudiba Nnoli who broke grounds by successfully analyzing ethnicity from a Marxist perspective to produce what now enjoys the status of a classic. That is Ethnic Politics in Nigeria published in 1978 to coincide with a major push for power by Socialists. They rarely went beyond the PRP. Professor Ikenna Nzimiro was there in Anthropology, Achebe in African Literature while Nzodinma Nwala held the forte in Philosophy. It was recently revealed how he and Biodun Jeyifo from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife were the two academics who created what Nigeria knows today as the Academic Staff Union of Universities, (ASUU). They did that by seizing the high ground in reconstituting the National Association of University Teachers, (NAUT) which was dissolved in the process of forming a central labour centre in the late 1970s into today’s ASUU, the same ASUU that can claim credit for what is left of the university system NOW in Nigeria. There is a limited knowledge of UNN in terms of exceptional academics, even in the Humanities Complex beyond those named above and the successor generation of the Asisi Asobies, Ogban – Ogban Iyan and Okey Ibeanu, all in Political Science.
The significance of UNN might lie more in something else that happened. UNN happened to be where Nigerian economists, radicals and conservatives, came to a consensus in 1973 that the way forward for the country is state capitalism, not privatisation. So much have happened in the world between 1973 and 2019 as to raise the question of whether that consensus still makes sense today. But, that is what only those who might not have read the argument at the conference can afford to say. Otherwise, their framing of the issue anticipated the next 50 years from 1973. Nobody who reads pages 318 – 310 of the book, Essential Mahmud would contest the consensus. Without going into details, the economists who took the position at the said conference included Prof H C Kodlinye who spoke not as economist but as the host VC but whom the author correctly credited with leading the position; Professor Ojetunji Aboyade; Mr. Ekukinam; Alison Ayida who was the president of the Nigerian Economic Society then as well as a Super Perm Sec; Prof Pius Okigbo; Prof Bhambri; Mr S.o. Wey.
The point here is the constitution of Nigerian universities then in such a manner that whatever topic was taken to whichever of them was bound to be adequately interrogated. The mandate of knowledge was bound to be discharged to the fullest, a luxury in many of them in the current situation.
The second and concluding part of this special report will take on board all the universities where the high tension intellectualism going on then have not been captured yet. The UNIMAID-UNICAL axis because of the very important connecting door there, the ABU, Zaria and UNIBEN exceptionalism, the UNILAG-UNICAL connection and the basement in UNIPORTH and, of course, the UI would all be accounted for. This report is the product of elaborate interview with three actors, two of them former academics and the third an activist of note. Adagbo Onoja, Ene Achadu and Ogunlade Henry did the reporting.