The glossy packaging of the book tends to trigger an element of intellectual contempt for it on the surface but the content or the message inside invites reflections on the political economy of agency and of leadership. Yes, it is a book rendered largely in superlatives but which still leaves the critical reader contemplating on the very possibility of someone from Prof Michael Adikwu’s circumstances of birth acquiring the much of education he could, the excellence in doing so and rising to become the Vice-Chancellor of the Federal capital city university in Nigeria.
In most climes where power and leadership are not imprisoned by a siege mentality as in Nigeria, the University of Abuja would have been designed and built as a world class university in all regards, a country’s permanent showcase and pride. Unfortunately, it did not and has not crossed the minds of the powers that have been to ask any construction giant to build up the place and bring the bill. Without that, the university has been such that a former Professor of History at the University of Maiduguri who later became Nigeria’s Ambassador to a Western powerhouse could call it a “glorified secondary school” where a former VC went to the extent of pulling down roofs of university buildings occupied by his critics/enemies.
Being VC of the university is thus a part of the Prof Adikwu mystique, what pushed Jenson Okereke, the author of this text to conceptualise him as a destiny child, instances of which the reader comes across here and there. Two of them may suffice.
Prof Adikwu was wasting away at Utonkon, the semi-urban railway settlement in what is today Ado Local Government Area of Benue State where his father relocated from his native Ijege Village in Okpokwu Local Government Area. A former classmate who reckoned with him as a child prodigy in the primary school went visiting was shocked at the reality. He advised the family to let him go and write the entrance examination into the Federal Government College on the ground that he was too good to waste away. He and his senior brother went to take the examination at Otukpo. Of course, he passed in absolutely flying colors. The family barely managed to find the transport money for him to proceed to the Federal Government College, Jos. This was in 1975.
But, at school, he was asked for the school fees. Unfortunately, he hadn’t gone there with any fees. However, he was not sent packing. Mr. Allen, the Principal, took one look at him and asked him to proceed to the class, saying something like the college would ask the state government to pay later. It must have been the most decisive moment in Adikwu’s life. But for that discretion, Adikwu would have been sent back home. In a way, therefore, his story is the story of the average postcolonial Nigerian child in the first few decades of independence and self-management. The paradox in the story is Adikwu’s disinclination to discretionary use of power when he later became powerful himself even when only discretionary use of power as in the above story made it possible for him to acquire education.
But the thriller is not over yet. In 1981, he got admission to read Pharmacy at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. But he had offered French as a school subject. At that time, the French paper was marked outside Nigeria in the French speaking West African member countries within the West African Examination Council, (WAEC). He, therefore, had no results with which to register when it was time to do so at UNN. Again, providence intervened. The Academic Staff Union of Universities, (ASUU) went on strike against the Shehu Shagari government. By the time the strike action was over, Adikwu was set to be the first person on the line to register because his result had come. The philosophical lesson here is how so diffuse the world is that the notion of good and bad can only apply in a contingent sense. In other words, the strike was bad for some people but it did something good for some others.
Along the line, the narrative of a destiny child shifted to the story of a genius and this is also adequately illustrated. Again, two examples of the sort of instances the reader comes across:
“One day, my Professor saw me and said this thing you are doing is very nice but you won’t be able to determine the molecular weight because we do not have the equipment here to measure it. Are you ready to go to Imperial College London? From that point, I had three papers from that ‘Pseudolatex’ a product of Landophia” (P. 253).
Without fetishising Imperial College London, it is not a run of the mill place. This is more so that, at another point, the reader encounters this:
“Following that, my supervisor said No, not too many people have been able to publish in Lancet. As a result, he was going to make me a Senior Lecturer then. From that development, I jumped from Lecturer 2 to Senior Lecturer. I did not experience Lecturer 1 as a rank”, (P. 254).
And these sorts of examples abound in the text. There is thus something intriguing about this subject, a Professor of Pharmacy. Is this a genius that has not been recognised as such by the Nigerian environment where those who do not blow their own trumpet are most likely to be denied reckoning or is this the story of a genius who is, however, socially deficient in striking the national chord for whatever reasons?
If he is a deficient genius, how did he come about a breakthrough in Pharmacy for which the world of science has recognised him? Or, how did he find his way into the Alexander Von Humboldt Foundation in Germany, a place one enters strictly on merit. Beyond the Humboldt Fellowship, he has also been at the Matsumae Foundation in Japan, another space of merit just as he has been at the University of Manchester in the UK. And if all these are foreign, what of him winning the Nigerian Academy of Sciences ‘Outstanding Scholar in Science Award’ in 2006, the same year that he also won the LNG Nigerian Prize for Science? Again, the examples are many.
And what does one make of a person about whom a Chief Audu Ogbeh, immediate past Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development, has no qualms asserting in the opening page that he, (Michael Adikwu) “has demystified the art of leadership and management as if it is simple arithmetic”. And such is the stuff one encounters throughout the book, including that of Alhaji Sani Maikudi, the Chairman of Council for the University of Abuja who wrote as follows in the Preface: As a human, Prof Adikwu is not without blemish. For instance, he is forever your “Mr. Nice Guy” and is sometimes given to trusting too much”, (P. VIII).
‘Mr. Nice Guy’ or the guy who has nothing to quarrel about in an unconstituted society like Nigeria would not be anybody’s model of a great guy but the same Chairman of Council writes later in the same piece on how Adikwu has not only idealized a vision but also demonstrated creativity, drive and will in managing the University of Abuja. We may deconstruct but we cannot dismiss such views because it is an experientially informed view.
This is a 12 chapter book effort, of glossy package. There are elements of superlatives in the narration just as there are elements that can force every reader to think back too. One of it would be the morality behind a VC dispensing with the VC’s List in admission exercise. That list could be corruptly used but it is not inherently corruptive. It is another mechanism by which society makes concession to candidates who would otherwise be blocked by unproblematic mega-narratives on standards and merit. So, if Prof Adikwu, as is well known, was not using the VC’s discretionary list, a practice which partly accounts for his relative lack of popularity, was there a context to it that will sit pretty well with most equalitarian ideologies?
Jenson Okereke, the author of the book tried to do this in his own way. It is up to the reader to unpack and connect them. Whether the average reader will successfully transcend the more riveting details into such philosophical realms is the question. For the riveting details are numerous. Two of them have already been served as appetizer. His VCship tenure has, according to the author witnessed revivalism. A number of such activities have been listed in the book and categorised as feats. Again, we may deconstruct such claims but not dismiss them, not with the sort of consensus across ethnic, religious and gender divides thereto, especially for a departing VC.
It is hoped that the book can be reworked to make it more systematic an inquiry. But it is a good start. The narrative of the destiny child is not far from what the culturally deep folk lyricist, Ada Atama, has sang about Prof Adikwu back home in his native Idomaland: Ijege lo oyibo lee oo!