Professor Adebowale Omole at 80
26 August 2022 | 4:10 am
Dark days of the military era left a lot of morbid memories that not a few will forget easily. There are civilians that laid their lives on the line to become heroes and heroines of democratic rules.
Dark days of the military era left a lot of morbid memories that not a few will forget easily. There are civilians that laid their lives on the line to become heroes and heroines of democratic rules. A lot more, armed with principles and courage, fought behind the scenes to push back against repressive dictatorial policies even at the risk of personal tragedy. Among those unsung heroes belong Prof. Adebowale Omole who turned 80 on Saturday, August 13, 2022. His contributions to academic
activism, frontiers of university autonomy and the making of the ‘Great Ife’ are legendary chapters in the remarkable life of an activist.
Indeed, Omole’s life revolves around the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) that was established in 1962. He arrived at the institution two years after, though by accident, or miracle as he called it because he never wrote an entrance examination or applied for studentship. But since their paths crossed, the landmark interactions that occurred till his voluntary retirement in 1999, did elevate the first encounter beyond an accident of fate. At 80, he reckons that his life at the university has been full of methods, magical moments with twists and turns that are sometimes akin to madness, yet divine purpose always prevails.
Born into a Christian home with a mishmash of Anglican, Jehovah’s Witness and Cherubim and Seraphim doctrines, the young Omole was nurtured in values of honesty, discipline, hard work and selflessness in the formative years. At Ilesa Grammar School between 1956 and 1962, he was indoctrinated to be an Omoluabi or quintessential – to live in honour, integrity and dignity. At adulthood, those values proved decisive in shaping the persona of a subtle activist for a better university setting.
In 1967 and final year student of Agricultural Sciences at the university that was still struggling to find its footing in a new enavironment, he led a protest against poor services in the hostels – having endured 75 days of eating rotten chicken, contaminated bread and several students falling ill from food poisoning. Omole felt displeased and felt the urge to do something about it. Other students agreed with him and tension wafted across the campus. The Students Union Executives were the first casualty. Next was the cafeteria as the student went on hunger strike. Meanwhile, alternative food supplies were arranged as supplements with Omole personally contributing resources at least to show the university authority how best to feed its undergraduates. It proved magical. The students went into a frenzy, celebrating victory over hunger and starvation around the campus. The university was temporarily shut down and all students had to reapply to be readmitted – except for Omole and two other enfant terrible.
To contest his expulsion, he took the university to court and got an injunction to write the final examination though in precarious circumstances. Yet, he graduated with one of the best results in his set. Indeed, he was too bright to be ignored by the University Senate that had stormy sessions to eventually approve his result and subsequently appoint him as an Assistant Lecturer. About 23 years later, he became the first alumnus to be the Vice Chancellor of the university.
Enamored with strong will and self-belief, executing ideals of university autonomy in a government-school and during a military rule was rarely going to be a stroll in the park. Omole had the conviction of what a university should be – an autonomous universal city of problem-solving academics that is devoid of influences of non-academics, especially the civil servants and even government of the day. He initiated sweeping reforms that made Great Ife what it is. Under his leadership, the university resisted the order of the military administrator against payment of university lecturers. The university generated better revenue internally and paid its staff more. The VC braved the consequences, refusing disciplinary summons, citing the statute that both the Minister of Education and the National University Commission (NUC) had no such powers to summon a Vice Chancellor.
Though his tenure was full of struggles and trials, the university made progress and Omole finished on a high. Landmark in the university is the Computer Centre championed Information Communication Technology Development in Nigeria, which facilitated the establishment of National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA). Also, the Centre for Energy Research Development acquired a functional 9FN Tandem Accelerator, the most dynamic of the three in Africa, to jumpstart development of Nuclear Technology for energy and peaceful purposes. In 1994, the beautiful campus of Great Ife was declared as one of the 25 best institutional real estates in the world.
Today, not much has changed about the university system and the country has taken steps backward. Omole regretted seeing a modern Nigeria where universities would be shut down for six months of strike. The pains and anguish of his colleagues did well up tears from his eyes at the meeting of The Guardian Editorial Board, of which he is currently chairman for more than ten years. He, however, remains a firm believer in the ideals of knowledge-driven society and a viable educational system, especially higher institutions as the engine room of modern development. He was spot on when he said Nigeria has to go organic and revamp the educational system to drive its socio-economic growth agenda. He believes that the education system and its academics are too sophisticated to be led by civil servants and reckless politicians. And on the flip side, the academics should do less of the biddings of the ruling elites, to stand out and be respectable.
Prof. Omole is indeed an exemplar of courageous activism and a change agent worth emulating. He radiates the imperatives of high moral grounds and consistent principles. He has shown that being displeased with a state of affairs is not sufficient but one has to make informed and courageous efforts to improve the situations while seeking the grace to bear consequences that may come with freewill. Ruminating on this exemplarity of our chairman, we at The Guardian Editorial Board celebrate with Prof. Omole at 80.