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Professor Grace Awani Alele-Williams (nee Awani)

By Tony Afejuku
22 April 2022   |   2:41 am
Professor Grace Awani Alele-Williams (OFR), Utukpa-Iwere (Light of Warri Kingdom) of Delta State, the first Nigerian female to be awarded a well-earned Doctor of Philosophy


Professor Grace Awani Alele-Williams (OFR), Utukpa-Iwere (Light of Warri Kingdom) of Delta State, the first Nigerian female to be awarded a well-earned Doctor of Philosophy and former first female Vice-Chancellor of the very famous University of Benin, was laid to rest yesterday in Lagos after the completion of her strictly Christian burial ceremonies which began on Tuesday, April 19.

As the very first female Vice-Chancellor that Nigeria produced, as already stated, Grace Alele-Williams, who was maternally and paternally of Itsekiri stock and one hundred percent paternally and biologically Awani, does not need any striking introduction or re-introduction at this point of her gloriously tranquil and tranquilly decorous departure from us. She has answered sedately the call that she has answered as a mortal, who like every mortal must answer the last call at the appointed time of her or his destiny.

Our late Professor of Mathematics Education who General Badamosi Babangida drafted and appointed from the University of Lagos to the Vice Chancellorship of the University of Benin in October 1985 or so meant (and would always mean) many things or a number of things to different persons within and outside the university system.

When military president General Babangida appointed Alele-Williams (December 16, 1932-March 25, 2022) to the Vice Chancellorship of UNIBEN, not many knew that she did not apply for the post. Not many people knew too that she never declared any interest in the post.

The sense of the mysterious appointment jolted the extremely sensitive feelings of all those professors who earnestly wanted the office and applied to be so appointed; of course, their respective acolytes and strategists also did not hide their spotlessly clean miens of disappointment at what Grace Alele-Williams’ genuine followers and supporters referred to at a much later time as the solemn grace and profound phenomenon that offered her to Benin. All these feelings meant one thing: Trouble for the new woman Vice-Chancellor who had entered the landscape and dominion of shankfully wild sharks.

My first admiration for her began from here – from how she tried to navigate her way successfully from the sharks and slaughtered or drowned them. My readers should kindly see eye to eye with me in my feeling and metaphor, which I never intended to offend them or their sensibilities. My metaphor realistically portrays what was at that time – as I rightly or wrongly perceived what it was that I perceived from my landscape of nearness and un-nearness at the same time from the canvas and mat of events.

Shrewdness and courage of sweetness and of eloquence were two of her handy weapons. She had an eloquent way of fitting dialogue to any person, to any character, especially lying and back-stabbing ones, whose characteristics and demeanour most times lapsed into humour and farce. None could destroy any staff before her. She always endeavoured to hear the other side. And there was no one she could not confront eye-ball to eye-ball. Her loyalty to those who were on her side on any issue and matter was never in doubt. She expected the same modicum of loyalty, if not more, from her loyalists as well.

I can say it authoritatively – and I am saying it authoritatively – that those who fought her horribly miscalculated in their stratagem, their main stratagem, which was to employ the press to un-do her in the wrong belief, notion and vain hope that President Babangida would be so embarrassed and embittered by her managerial conduct to the extent that he would ultimately compel her to relinquish the Vice-Chancellorship. How wrong and wrong they were!

That strategy failed woefully. Alele-Williams knew her onions perfectly well – if I may employ this British slang to describe her awareness and consciousness of her colourful imperial carriage which more often than not she used as a tool to hypnotize her audience in any gathering. And this Vice-Chancellor of exact conduct was an outstanding verbal communicator.

Hate or dislike her, she would always draw you to admire her with the beauty of her linguistic eloquence which on several occasions was laced with a wet and dry wit. The second strategy, not really different from the first, was to employ the media to force her to capitulate from her horse of willpower.

But the expected progressive capitulation of her will power never happened. And she even used the media to consolidate her Vice Chancellorship till the very end. She became universally known as Madam Tough Vice-Chancellor or Madam Vice-Chancellor the Tough or The Iron Lady Vice-Chancellor depending on how one admired or did not admire her stern but fair severity. There was no storm that she did not weather especially with the firm support and radically strong spirit of her lively Benin backers who constituted her Rock of Gibraltar whom she equally adored. There were also some Igbo, Urhobo and Edo professors and academics who were solid with her till the end. I am deliberately agreeing with my creative and critical sensibility not to put out names from my nib. I am uttering and writing this now from hindsight. Her imperial reign was imperially successful. For example, in the area of academic achievements she was unmatched specifically in the hiring of highly qualified academic staff.

Several of those who were against her on principles and whom she equally stood up to on principles predeceased her. I knew why certain things that happened took the turn they took. Some of those who were not favourably disposed to her were my elderly and not elderly friends. I also knew why certain students did what they did to her. I don’t wish to go back to those times of fatal repercussions in UNIBEN.

Until Alele-Williams died some of those who didn’t like her but who are still on this sweet side of the divide came to appreciate her. In them grew a genuine and lively sense of the development of sympathy for her. They came to see clearly her sense of fairness, equality and moral solidarity. This truly and passionately patriotic intellectual and Itsekiri super icon was a Nigerian Vice-Chancellor who was completely de-tribalized, who was exemplarily ethnically blind and who did not steal or eat public money.

In my column entitled “Nigeria’s poorest vice-chancellor” on Friday, August 13, 2021, I called her a “holy terror,” among other things. Let me quote myself more pertinently: “More importantly, she might go into the record books as perhaps Nigeria’s Vice-Chancellor who did not eat. ASUU might probably give her this title and award her gold medal to this effect someday – in the present time or posthumously.” What an epitaph! And did I sense that she was going to depart from here soon? In any case, ASUU UNIBEN in particular should heed this submission.

Professor Grace Awani Alele-Williams, the very biological daughter of Awani of Okere’s nobility and gentry in the Itsekiri homeland and Kingdom of Warri that bestowed on her the Chieftaincy title of Utukpa-Iwere (Light of Warri) aforesaid is gone; Professor Grace Awani Alele-Williams, a foremost professor of Mathematics Education and Nigeria’s first female Vice Chancellor who was the very first Nigerian woman to earn a PhD is gone; Professor Grace Awani Alele-Williams, the very first female Vice Chancellor of the University of Benin, is gone; Professor Grace Awani Alele-Williams, Nigeria’s poorest Vice Chancellor, is gone.

The tough, hard but holy academic administrator, who was a withstander of each archangel of betrayal and of the creator of conflict that exhausts, is gone. But her story and history always shall be narrated from generation to generation in the annals of this country’s your country’s my country’s our country’s universities. She was a Vice-Chancellor of Vice-Chancellors and humankind of humankind.

Afejuku can be reached via 08055213059.