OPINION: Great Ife and the failure of the Gown By Reuben Abati
I have been reading some depressing stories about the state of the Obafemi Awolowo University, formerly University of Ife, which provide an equally depressing metaphor for the state of higher education in Nigeria. Great Ife as that university is known to its staff, students and alumni, is probably Nigeria’s first model university in every respect. Its major competitors were the University of Ibadan, the University of Lagos, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. But Ife was far ahead in terms of the beauty of its environment and the facilities made available to staff and students. Built with Cocoa money (not petro-dollar!) by the Western Region Government, that university was a perfect illustration of the idea of the university and it managed to produce generations of scholars and students, known for nothing but distinction.
I studied at the University of Calabar (Malabites!), and at the time, I took time out to visit all the universities I mentioned earlier. In those days, the top universities in Nigeria were tourism destinations. Ibadan and ABU had the best bookshops anyone could think of, and the bookshop in UNILAG was also professionally run. UNN students insisted that they attended the University of Nigeria! But Ife had the most beautiful campus. It was the only university that had a special publication titled “Ife University in Pictures.” I remember receiving copies of that publication as a gift at different times from my friends: Kola Ogunleye, Akeem Adewuyi, and Kayode Ajala who served in the university as a youth corps member.
Whenever UNIFE students spoke about their university, you would think it was a little piece of heaven that had been converted to a university. They spoke about beauty, excellence, intellect and great scholarship. Every lecturer on the campus was painted like an Oracle at Delphi. So much mythology mixed with tales of absolute excitement attracted other students to the university. Curiousity once took the better part of me also, and I went on a visit to see the marvellous depiction of a campus in physical reality. I was not disappointed. Great Ife was great. I did not go to the classrooms, but my friends took me round. The University had just opened a Bukateria at the time, where everything was available. Driving into the campus itself was a delight; well-manicured flowers at both ends, long, comforting, welcoming drive.
We moved from one hall of residence to the other, where the students felt as if they were God’s special creations, lucky to be receiving education in one of the brightest spots on planet earth. I didn’t like the arrogance of the typical Ife student or graduate, even the girls had a special bounce to their gait, even if less pretty than our girls in Calabar, and I always quipped that flowers and beauty do not make a university, rather it is the intellectual content, but even in this regard, Ife was well-regarded. It boasted of some of the brightest guys in academia: that was in those days when Nigerian universities were centres of excellence, knowledge, discipline and distinction. Let’s add culture, for truly culture matters, and in educational matters, culture is perhaps everything, and there were scholars in Ife who had grown to become cultural icons in their respective fields.
The visits to Ife as expected always ended up at the newly launched Bukateria. Good food. Great ambience. And from the Bukateria Complex, there was a place we always visited for palm wine. I think they called it Old Bukka, close to the theatre. The halls of residence – Awolowo, Fajuyi, Moremi, Angola, Mozambique were exciting too; the students behaved as if each hall was a country unto itself, with each student having a permanent badge of identity. The students had quadrangles in every Faculty, and a Sports Complex, where my friend Akeem ended up with a black belt in Karate in addition to a degree in Architecture. Indeed, the University of Ife that I describe could compete at the time with any top university in the world. I have been to quite a few as a regular or executive student, there is no doubt that the university environment, where the gown is a special symbol, is meant to be a combination of everything that is excellent, to impart knowledge in a friendly environment where the student is groomed to become great citizens in society and for knowledge to be produced for the advancement of mankind. That is the ideal!
This is why it is particularly tragic that the same Great Ife is now a shadow of its former self. These days, more than 30 years after that glorious era that I describe, students of Obafemi Awolowo University, are now reported to be protesting over dilapidated halls of residence and terrible facilities. That bad? There was even a picture in the newspapers of OAU students fetching water from a stream! And I read one columnist calling on the university’s alumni to hurry up and rescue their alma mater. Please, is it that bad? But the story of this tragedy is the larger story of the Nigerian education system. My generation (waoh, man don dey old oh) went to school in this same country, and from kindergarten to doctorate, we can only recall in comparison with emergent realities, good memories. Once upon a time, our secondary schools were like higher institutions, but today our universities, with a few exceptions, are no better than secondary schools, and the secondary schools are no better than poultries. In those days, there were school principals who were more famous than state governors, commissioners, and traditional rulers, because they were known for their ability to manage schools and produce excellent students. There were government schools, there were mission schools, there were private schools, but there were standards, competition and quality.
A whole generation of students has now passed through the Nigerian education system without any memory of those good old days. What they know is the story of distracted teachers who sell handouts or beg for money from parents. What they know is the tragedy of a school system where teachers are perpetually protesting about lack of pay, lack of facilities and the inadequacy of everything. What they know are lecherous male teachers asking for sex in exchange for marks. What they know are ugly campuses, with no toilet facilities, no water, no light. When they hear about the gown, what they imagine is a gown in tatters, now terribly disconnected from the town. In our time, companies and government departments came to campuses or the NYSC camp to recruit staff, the school-to-work transition was so smooth and certain that even nurses and midwives upon graduation were sure of a decent future.
As an undergraduate, our room was cleaned, our beds were laid, and the cafeteria fed us well at cheap rates; we had water, we had uninterrupted electricity supply, our teachers were smart and committed, life was good. There were students in Nigerian universities from all parts of the world; the ones from Southern Africa were even sponsored by the Nigerian government and they were happy to be here, so happy some of them focused on our girls and caused problems each time they got drunk. But today, who will send a student to Nigeria?
Everything changed the moment government went mad, and till date that madness has not been cured. That madness started in 1984 with the removal of education subsidy. My point is: the present administration must see the need to properly define the role of government in the education sector, and further work out the details about sustainable development. The rot of past decades is so deep, the crisis so bad, as has been described, and the marks are still evident, only sustained intervention can make the difference. And if I may say so, this is one sector where government subsidy will be a good idea.
It is of course clear that President Buhari in his second coming wants to be remembered as the man who fixed Nigeria. He tried it in his first coming but he didn’t have a definite mandate. Now, he has the people’s mandate, plus extra-ordinary goodwill, and he is still determined to achieve his original objective. He wants to catch thieves. Fine. The only irony is that even General Sani Abacha did exactly the same thing, but other governments came and rewrote the narrative. Thief-catching is certainly okay! Perfect. It will excite the mob, extract vengeance, and may be promote justice, but President Buhari must begin to look to the future and build his own concrete legacy. His record in Nigeria in the long run, will be his legacy, but it must be that kind of legacy that cannot be re-written by revisionists.
So, what then, is his legacy project? I believe he can capture the society at the younger level: by investing in the historians of tomorrow and making their today better; by re-creating the future of Nigeria, by atoning for the past, by using public funds to secure the future of Nigerian children. Those young boys and girls in Nigerian public schools who are being poorly served, sitting in badly shaped classrooms, being taught by unpaid teachers; those undergraduates in higher institutions who graduate and have to be re-schooled by their employers before they can be found manageable; those graduates who learn research and science by simulation and who cannot compete in the international arena of skills; those unhappy teachers in our schools who are busy looking for other jobs on the side; all the children in special schools who have been forgotten by government, all the Nigerian children who are out of school, all those boys and kids who graduate from university but know nothing – they all need President Buhari. And time is not on his side. And he cannot do it alone. Many state Governors have shown that they take their cue from him: most of them refused to appoint Commissioners, until he appointed Ministers. They should be part of this legacy project.
The President should launch an aggressive restoration programme in the education sector that takes off from where the Jonathan administration signed off. The rot is so age-long, so deep, that no Nigerian President in many years to come can ever have enough time to fix all the problems with Nigeria. But every President that comes along can either leave a scratch, a mark, or a legacy. It is up to President Buhari to make his choice. Salaam.