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University of Ibadan and primordial sentiments

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A group of Ibadan elders the other day requested for a Vice Chancellor of Ibadan descent for University of Ibadan (UI). Their proposition is not entirely strange, though a complete disservice to the premier university brand. Ideally, the Visitor, President Muhammadu Buhari, should not only ignore the ignoble request, his government should begin to clean the Augean stable of ethnic chauvinism and other primordial sentiments depriving the public university system of its universal status.

Indeed, this is obviously not the best of times for public institutions of higher learning in Nigeria. For more than four months now, their students have been on lockdown and already squandered a semester. Their counterparts in private universities are already rounding off summer holidays after their efficient authorities moved classes online to beat COVID-19 disruption and complete the 2019/2020 session. Curiously, instead thinking outside the box and being a beacon of hope at this critical time, the public institutions are getting drowned in the groundswell of petty internal crisis and self-engineered implosion. Now, it is the turn of University of Ibadan to share in the series of ignominy.

Like a thunderclap on a sunny day, Ibadan elders under the auspices of Central Council of Ibadan Indigenes (CCII) requested of Buhari to appoint a son of the soil to the seat of the Vice Chancellor of University of Ibadan. They also want an indigene appointed the next Chief Medical Director (CMD) of the University Teaching Hospital, (UCH) Ibadan. On the face value, it looked like a fair request, though a dangerous one, unexpected of the apex socio-cultural group. One of the four contenders for the coveted position is an indigene. A new VC is due to take office in December. The university in its 72-year history has produced 14 Nigerian Vice Chancellors, but none of them has been an Ibadan indigene. The foremost tertiary hospital, UCH, has also never had an Ibadan indigene as CMD. The elders alleged that qualified indigenes of the ancient city had been marginalised for too long and now, it is their turn. Unfortunately, such chauvinism is becoming all too common in Nigerian university system and antithetical to the idea of a university.

University worldwide is the citadel of knowledge where the best and brightest talents are refined based on merit. University is conceptually universal, an ivory tower, and a conclave of knowledge production and its dissemination. In the words of Paul Baran, university is a place to search or pursue the truth no matter where the enquiries lead. The end products are the finest of minds and solutions to societal problems of the general human race. The seeming local research in places like the University of Ibadan is, therefore, of global interest, and its best brains soon become global citizens. That is what makes the university an international enterprise and why it is called the university.

It was such a drive to contribute to global solutions – both in human capital and societal development – that led to the first set of universities in Nigeria, some of which began as an extension of prestigious foreign universities. And they enjoyed international status as much as they benefited from local diversity – not ethnic or religious sentiments. The first Nigerian Vice Chancellor in University of Ibadan was Prof. Kenneth Dike. Prof Tekena Tamuno was also a Vice Chancellor in UI. Prof. Cyril Onwumechili was at the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), as its VC. Prof. Oladipo Akinkugbe was VC at Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, after his tenure in University of Ilorin. The second and first indigenous VC of ABU was Prof. Ishaya Audu, a Christian from Kaduna. Prof. Adamu Baike, a Christian from Kano was UNIBEN’s VC. Prof. Kwaku Adadevoh was VC in University of Lagos, to mention a few brightest that led the way in universities far away from their state of origin and region.

Today, it is almost an abomination for non-indigene to aspire to top seats in our universities, irrespective of qualifications. It has become a trend from ABU to University of Nigeria (UNN), Ife and now University of Benin. Sadly, only Yoruba people can be VCs of federal universities in South West; only professors of core northern extraction can be VCs of ABU; there is no way at this moment any non-Igbo can be VC of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN). It began years ago. In 1976/77, Prof. Akinkugbe was chased out of ABU and had to escape on okada to avoid being lynched. There was agitation against Prof. Eni Njoku when he was appointed VC of University of Lagos. The mindset of the founding fathers of universities was an institution that towers above tribalism and religion. That we have continued to derail is regrettable and a disservice to the intellectual commitment of the enterprise.

As it is often said, the ant feasting on vegetable leaves, lives in its enclave. The poor quality of recruitment process of both students and personnel into the university system is instrumental in this wayward sense of entitlement among the indigenes. More often, the skewed process substitutes excellence with mediocrity. We cannot keep having people who clamour for ‘‘son of the soil’’ to be admitted or employed in the university as it is done in local councils and expect refined thinkers and world-class products. And for a long time, mediocre persons with only book knowledge, without moral finesse, character or commitment to nation building, have colonised the prestigious training system. Now that they have amassed in numbers and attained the pinnacle of audacity, they are calling for the indigenisation of leadership positions in the university. It is most unfortunate.

Like everything that goes wrong in the country, the bulk stops on the table of President Buhari, who is also the Visitor to all the Federal Universities. It is therefore incumbent on Buhari to rescue the international status of our citadels of knowledge from prehistoric sentiments. He should sound a note of warning that the university system is not a local council, village square or political congregation that is exclusive to the aborigines. Fair enough, the standard is for a university to elect their Vice Chancellor designates in an election, and has the Governing Council present the top three front runners to the Visitor to choose one. The president should keep to this succession standard – in the absence of a better alternative or amendment to the University Act – and pick only the best, based on merit not indigeneship. It is the only way to stop politics and ethnic divides encroaching into educational lines.

For anyone to do otherwise is to give credence to the low premium currently placed on quality education in this part of the world. One should ask: how many of these elders would insist that only Ibadan-born doctors, nurses and pharmacists attend to them when critically sick or dying? Or can they insist that their pilots and crew must be of Ibadan descent or fulfilled other mediocre considerations than dexterity in the art and science of flying aircraft? If not, why demand one of a university that should train and rate all skill-sets according to merit? The like of CCII must be told that the University of Ibadan is a university in Ibadan and not university for Ibadan people.

The world is counting on universities to be the solution rather than victims of COVID-19. Instead of these ethnic, class and religious distractions, the concerned parties in Nigerian universities should rather focus their strength on pragmatic solutions to revamp the university system, and enable it to engineer solutions to existential problems. It is almost certain that nations and institutions that will survive this pandemic are those that learn from it the most. It begins with putting our best foot forward and not the village one did or did not come from.


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