By Comrade John Odah
John Odah, former General Secretary of NLC and current Executive Secretary of the Organization of Trade Unions of West Africa (OTUWA) puts pen to paper on the 60th birthday of fellow traveler in student activism 40 years ago at the University of Jos in Nigeria.
As young and impressionable fresh entrants into the world of the undergraduate, 40 years ago in 1979, one thing that stood us out was our hunger for knowledge. Compared to the first generation universities, our university – the University of Jos – had many challenges. The most persistent of these challenges and our most constant source of worry was it being a “university on the wheels”. With hostels scattered around Jos town; with the temporary (now Permanent) site located in Bauchi Road while the Permanent site where the Students Village and Naraguta hostels were located on Jos and Bauchi roads respectively, hustling from lectures to the cafeteria and then hostels was an ever present snag.
Partly as a result of the very temperate weather condition in Jos, UNIJOS then attracted some of the best lecturers from around the world. In our Sociology class of 1979-1983, we had lecturers from the UK, Germany, Poland, India, Ghana, Sierra Leone, to cite a few, and some of the best Nigerian sociologists, anthropologists and criminologists trained from Ivy League universities in America, Britain and other parts of the world. The situation was hardly different in other departments and faculties of our UNIJOS. This was why in the ’80s, ’90s and even later on, its products excelled in virtually all areas of human endeavor – from the arts to the sciences, nationally and internationally.
This was the setting in which we spent a very productive and fruitful four years together with Seun Salako, being molded to play our role in the national development of our country. We left UNIJOS at the end of our course as eager young Nigerians ready to put what we had learnt into practice. Our teachers, the Onoges, Alemikas, Adelakuns, etc., ensued that we didn’t think anything of our ethnicity or religious backgrounds. We were Nigerians in the purest sense of the word!
With Seun, our paths crossed early. Apart from being in the same class, we became ideological soul mates and our world view on a range of issues agreed substantially. Based on the above, we collaborated to transform our Sociological Students Association, and made it a radical platform that was organizing distinctive radical programmes in the Faculty of Social Sciences and, indeed, the entire university. Seun and I, mid-way in our stay, served the association as Vice-President and President respectively.
Our class of ’83 provided three members of the students’ union executive council in the 1981/82 session under the radical Musa Yelwa Presidency. Seun was Public Relations Officer (PRO), Festus Osayi (who later went on to read Law after our graduation), was Treasurer and my humble self was Welfare Secretary. Without being immodest, we were at the heart of the profound changes that were brought to the student union leadership during that era. This included abolishing some of the privileges that students’ union executives used to enjoy.
Of course, we were thorns in the flesh of the university leadership led by Prof. Emmanuel Emovon and late George Korgba, Vice Chancellor and Registrar respectively. The students’ union leadership then insisted on improvement to the living and learning conditions of the students against the background of some of the challenges peculiar to the university highlighted at the beginning of this tribute. Mrs Emovon, a princess of the Benin Kingdom who taught us Nigerian Ethnic Relations as a course unit in our Third year which also coincided with the year three (3) of us were in the students’ union EXCO, staged several walk-out from our class. It was always her reaction to our critical engagement with her husband who was the Vice Chancellor. She always brought up our critical standpoints in our lectures.
I also recall the disappointment of the Registrar, Mr. Korgba, who had singled out Seun with the hope that he, (Seun) would talk us out of a boycott of classes we had ordered as a result of deteriorating welfare conditions on the campus. As a result of Seun who remained usually very cool and calm disposition, many administration officials toyed with working through him to weaken the leadership. In one instance, Seun was told how important it was for him to work with the university authorities to bring about sanity in the radicalism of the leadership of the students union. The propaganda was that, he, a southerner, had come to the university clearly to study in contrast to most of the members of the EXCO from the catchment areas of the university who were said not to be in the university to study but to foment trouble. But the ‘divide and rule’ trick failed and when that happened, one of them muttered to Seun: “you are just like them”. It was followed by the officer literarily chasing Seun out of his office!
At the more personal level, myself and the ‘Lagos Boy’, (Seun) used to travel to my community in Edumoga in the heartland of Idoma during holidays where we relished original pounded yam prepared by my peasant mother.
After National Service in 1984, Seun joined the teaching service of Lagos State Government. In 25 years of service as a teacher, Seun’s legacies in the three secondary schools he taught are the scores of young graduates that passed through him, who are now men and women in their own right, many of them PhD holders, making waves in their respective fields. The ‘can-do’ spirit and the progressive thought he had inculcated in his teachings and bringing up of these youthful Nigerians are part of the lasting legacies of our Seun.
Happy Diamond Jubilee Seun!