Fahamu (Oxford)

Nigeria: Stand Up for Great Ife at 50

analysis

Obafemi Awolowo University is celebrating 50 years of service to the people of Nigeria through teaching, research and community service. But strangely, the university administration banned the students union last year.

In the oncoming week, Obafemi Awolowo University will celebrate the grand finale of its 50th anniversary. It would be recalled that in 1962, people of like minds spearheaded by the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, decided to embark on massive investment in the development of human intellects in the then Western Region of the newly independent Nigeria. Arguably, the greatest feat recorded by these set of focused individuals is the establishment of a great citadel of learning at Ile Ife, the generally acclaimed eponymous home of the Yoruba.

It is noteworthy to celebrate this 50th anniversary because as a student of history I have learnt that if we do not live long enough to tell our story others who did not experience what we went through, who are not equipped with the facts of history and who, therefore, would not situate actions properly in their historical context, may do it for us. The result will still be history, but it will be incomplete, inadequate and ill-informed. Therefore, it is exemplary to appreciate Providence on behalf of Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) that after 50 years of rigorous intellectual activities, the great institution is still very much around to recount its personal story.

Since its inception, OAU has made major strides in upholding its triple mandate of teaching, research and community service as well as its tradition of maintaining a cordial and harmonious relationship between the Town and Gown. A cursory peep at its students' enrolment statistics is a clear demonstration of five decades of unstinting dedication and commitment. At least 81,212 students have graduated from OAU with first degrees, master's degrees and diplomas. 950 doctoral graduates have also been produced within the period. Currently, the university has a student strength of 33,000, with over 1,400 academic staff and 3,500 non-academic staff. And if one added this to the academic excellence which OAU Ile-Ife is noted for, which has led some students to jokingly turn the motto of the institution from 'Learning and Culture' to 'Learning and Torture', just because Ife cannot compromise on its benchmark of academic and moral excellence for anything, then one can now see why the students and alumni of the institution strongly believe that OAU's 50th anniversary is indeed worthy of celebration.

As we celebrate, however, OAU must not forget its past and the long way it has come. For indeed, the greatness of OAU is neither in its architectural ingenuity nor in the exquisite magnificence of its major edifices, but lies rather in the longtime tradition which the institution has continued to hold on to in the past 50 years. For it to survive the oncoming 50 years, these traditions that have distinguished OAU from other institutions in the land must not be jettisoned for whatever reason.

It is on record that OAU has a long tradition of affordability; this also explains why the institution has the largest concentration of brilliant students from poor homes. Someone like me would not have been a university graduate if not for the affordability of OAU. Even when I was admitted, without anybody to foot my academic expenses, I found it very easy to pay the low cost which was charged as our fees at that time and for this I will forever remain grateful to the institution which gave me an unfettered access into the world of intellectuals. My experience with other colleagues also told a lot about the poverty level that is prevalent in OAU. In a country where the living standard has fallen below expectation, in an environment where 71.5 percent are living below $1 per day, and in a nation where millions of students are roaming the streets simply because they cannot afford the astronomic fees that are being charged by the Nigerian institutions, OAU gave, and continued to give, people from 'downtown' entrance into the world of success. Till date, OAU still holds the records as the cheapest institution in the land. By maintaining this tradition, larger percentage of the poor Nigerians had and has continued to have access to Higher Education. This is by no means a mere achievement.

As OAU celebrates, it is pathetic that the institution is presently without a students' union which had contributed in no small measure to the greatness of OAU in the time past. It has always served as an avenue where critical minds were trained. A mere glance at the Nigerian political, social and economic landscape will attest to the above facts, as the majority of OAU alumni who are making waves in the country presently had at one time or the other passed through the tutelage of ever-vibrant structure of Great Ife Union. It would be recalled that the Students' Union was proscribed by the erstwhile Professor Faborode's administration following the peaceful protest it organized to show its disagreement with the imposition of N20,000 acceptance fees in February 2011. To the then OAU management, the students may murmur but they must not express their grievances loudly. But this is alien to the tradition of OAU. Unfortunately, the new management, under Professor Tale Omole, has not made a concrete effort to reinstate the Students' Union.

After all, from its inception, OAU has been designed to create critical minds not simpletons or dogmatic species. In fact, it is on record that the establishment of OAU itself by the then ruling Action Group was to protest at the recommendations of the Ashby Commission. The first Nigerian university had been established in 1948 at Ibadan, in the Western Region as an external college of the University of London. However, the needs of Nigeria (then a British colony) far outstripped the productivity of the only university. In particular, the University College at Ibadan had no Faculty of Engineering or Technology; no Law School, no Pharmacy School or Management Training. The Ashby Commission, set up by the British, was to review tertiary education needs of the soon-to-be-independent nation of Nigeria.

In 1959, the Ashby Commission recommended additional (regional) universities in the northern and eastern regions of Nigeria and another federal university in the Lagos Protectorate, but none in the more educationally advanced Western Region which had a free and universal primary education programme. The government of the Western Region did not want to rely on the federal universities or those of other regions to admit its numerous secondary school leavers.

The protest which led to the foundation of the university at Ife was not only a rebuttal of the perceived politicisation of higher education opportunities in Nigeria and the Western Region but was also designed to fill the gaps in the manpower needs. OAU started the first Faculty of Pharmacy in West Africa, the first Department of Chemical Engineering and the first Electronics component in addition to Electrical Engineering. Its medical school started with an integrated curriculum and community orientation (which was later adopted by the World Health Organization). How come then, that the same institution established on the tenets of agitation will continue to remain at the forefront of opposition to unions? If the greatness of OAU will continue, unionism must be allowed to thrive at the institution.

According to a 20th century philosopher, Max Aikten: 'Institutions of great intellects have passed away and left no traces, and history gives the naked cause of it -- one single simple reason in all cases: they fell because they were unmindful of their past'. As OAU trudges into another 50 years, therefore, let the great institution not forget where it is coming from: let it always consider that it shall continue to be as a city upon a hill -- the eyes of all brilliant and promising children from poor homes are upon it. Let it ever remain mindful of the fact that if Nigeria will be rescued from the imminent doldrums she is heading to, there will be need for OAU to train more critical minds who will succeeded in diagnosing and analysing the challenges that are assailing us from different directions. Restoration of a vibrant students' union will be useful in this regard.

These are the legacies of the past 50 years, indelible inheritances that must be carried into the future. If OAU will aid Nigeria in surviving the next fifty years, let its past legacies not be jettisoned on the platter of capitalism's entrepreneurship and it must always remember that its future lies in its past. Once again, I shout 50 hearty cheers of vibrancy to my Alma Mata!

Adewale Stephen is based at the Department of History, Obafemi Awolowo University Ile Ife, Osun State.

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