Anyone who is even faintly familiar with the history of higher education in Nigeria would already be in the know of the history of the founding of the University of Nigeria, and her land-grant philosophy and ancestry. Between 1960 and 1966, Nigeria was clearly on the path to creating a unique and leading Higher Education Institution like none before it in the entire continent of Africa.

In philosophy, content, outlook and performance, the University of Nigeria was clearly unique and outstanding. It was to leapfrog and boot-strap Africa and Nigeria’s development and was clearly on the path to achieving that. In terms of commitment to its vision and mission, no other Higher Education Institution in Nigeria was programmed to compete with the Lions’ Den. Those were the days of George Marion Johnson, Glen Targat, Zik of Africa and the rest of the visionaries assembled on the soft green hills of Nsukka. The commitment to universality and academic tradition was total, but the foundation was still fragile, after only 6 eventful and fulfilling years. Then 1966 came and Nigeria happened.

Then fast forward to 1970, and the inchoate mix-and-bake higher education policies of Nigeria that tended to create identical secondary schools out of Nigerian universities (well, save perhaps for UI that has tended to hold out against the onslaught of policy makers of suspect provenance). Whether the University of Nigeria is still land grant type, has sustained the philosophy, achieved its mission or is achieving the mission of the founders is a thesis proposal for historians.

For the UNN, post 70s saw sparks and elegance in university administrations and some spirited attempts to reconnect with the head and heart of the University’s visioners. The sign posts were headlined by the JOC Ezeilos and FN Ndilis of this world. These gentle men would obviously be turning in their graves over what has become of the UNN.

History of UNN will ever remember them with kindness and tenderness. Prof Chimere Ikoku who arrived in the aftermath of the crisis that saw Ndili out of the university became the ultimate peace maker and achieved peace of the graveyard by sending the university into a state of somnolence and suspended animation for seven years from 1985 to 1992. Hard as that era would have been for the evolution of the university, it was the arrival of the locusts in the farm, headlined by Professor Ginigeme F. Mbanefo (of blessed memory) following the Oleka Udeala- Umaru Gomwalk years of fiasco that demystified the University of Nigeria.

Under Mbanefo, academics stopped and took flight. During those inglorious seven years from 1997-2004 knowledge creation, hitherto the forte of the university exited by the window; knowledge transfer was left to personal disposition and morality of academics, community service, not yet the strongest selling point disappeared completely.

Everything was up for sale. “Working of results” by students started- a student who had passed all courses could bounce around in Brownian motion, without graduating for 3 years because his result had not been worked. Every conceivable movable assets and stores of the university were auctioned or available for auction. Functional water tankers were sold on auction. Construction equipment and agricultural machinery that had sustained the university, including bulldozers, graders, tractors, jack-hammers, luxury buses and trucks were all sold off on flimsy excuses of being “unserviceable equipment”.

Many only needed replacement batteries to be driven out of the university stores and works sheds. Auctioneers went to the mechanic village in town to sell off vehicles taken for repairs. High capacity diesel power generators, Cummins, Caterpillars, Pet Bows, Rolls-Royces, power transformers etc, many of them acquired by Ndili only a few years earlier were all auctioned off. Kitchen equipment and even hologramed university cutlery were sold. Stores were stripped bare.

It was during that period that members of the community became used to memos from the university PRO announcing to the university that “the Vice Chancellor has GRACIOUSLY approved that staff salaries for the month of x, y or Z should be paid.

Cultists overran the University of Nigeria and everyone who could be intimidated was intimidated. Law abiding students, academics and other members of the community feared for their lives. Academics started leaving office and labs and libraries by or before 4pm for fear. I still remember it like yesterday when Prof Mrs Egonu’s Mercedes Benz car was snatched on campus by gun wielding cultists who shot into the air for like-forever. Some academics practically hid in the booth of their cars!

The decline intensified as what was left of laboratory stores and consumables got exhausted. Laboratories collapsed. Undergraduate students started attending lectures carrying their own private plastic seats. Outsourced research crept into the ‘almighty’ UNN. University of Nigeria had become ordinary over those 7 years. The Lion started eating grass! Few noticed as the decay accelerated. It was at about this period that an international funding agency, after conducting an audit of the university described her as administratively dysfunctional.

It was the arrival of a strong willed Professor C.O. Nebo as Vice Chancellor in June 2004 that turned the tide, albeit momentarily for good for today’s University of Nigeria. Help can come from unexpected places. He was propelled by a mix of both a strong sense of ownership, character and ethics. Nebo is from Udi Local Government of Enugu State.

His performance at UNN and subsequently at Federal University, Oye-Ekiti has remained subjects of fond discussions. Within 5 years at UNN, Nebo took on the challenges of projects abandoned since the days of FN Ndili. These were projects that administrations since after Ndili and prior to Nebo had pretended did not exist. The student’s multi-purpose facility was completed. The massive Nnamdi Azikiwe Library was substantially completed and put to use. The Postgraduate Hostel (Odili Hostel) was completed and occupied. Many more facilities were completed or started, including replacement of burnt and damaged facilities, and the development of 13 mini auditoriums among several others that today constitute the base for academic activities.

UNN came back to life. Nebo, the national architect of POST-UTME, vigorously took on cult activities and flushed out non-university materials from UNN, persons who had found their undeserved way into UNN during the inglorious years of 1995 to 2004. The immediate and low hanging fruit was the near total disappearance of cult-activities from the UNN over just 5 years. Normal life substantially returned, but the damage was deep.

June 2009 came with the man who had the taste and class of the French and the English Princes rolled into one. The era of world class arrived at UNN. Prof B. N. Okolo came with a mind that could have been a graft on the mind and heart of the founding fathers of the university. He had the good fortune of taking over following the extensive repair and restoration work done by his co Udi Local Government and Enugu State brother.

There can be little better than ownership for institutional growth in a clime such as ours. Work of revitalization and restoration started or burgeoned on all fronts. Work seemed to be going on, on all fronts at the same time. Donations, endowments, grants, budgetary provision, internally generated revenue all started working for the UNN. Giant infrastructural facilities started out.

Suddenly, the commonest question on the lips of everyone was- “where could all the money for all these efforts be coming from?” Grasses and lawns and flowers once again started growing on the grounds of the two campuses of the university that had hitherto become scorched earth. Restoration of the external learning environment was important. Classrooms were restored.

Nearly all the top quality furnishing, from air-conditioning to classroom and office seats today in use at the University of Nigeria were installed during that era. Modern teaching tools were procured and installed, from smart boards to audio-visuals. Optic fibre rings and internet radio facilities were installed, even in residences. His language was all-time-up, system-wide internet. Powered by 4x1STM internet connectivity, perhaps the only type amongst peers at the time, the pride on UNN was substantially restored.

Laboratories started showing signs of recovery. Some top end laboratory equipment were procured, as were provisions for digital first year laboratories (a story for another day!). Repairs were implemented. Research started creeping back to UNN.

During that same period, top quality academics from over the world started coming back to UNN or visiting. Foreign students started coming back. Funding agencies that hitherto wrote UNN off as being dysfunctional started coming back. UNN and the Federal Government won hosting rights for UNESCO Category II, International Center for Biotechnology. There were academic activities on all and many fronts at the same time. UNN academics got mobile again. Under Prof Okolo, the lion was clearly on the way to being taken off of the grass menu!

No single addition has been made and no repairs have happened since Okolo left- unless you count overpriced renovation of residences. Even Tetfund structures look like BQ in comparison to what obtains in other Nigerian Universities. Any interested reader may wish to go and verify. The jury is still out on the quality of Prof Okolo’s PR. Many believed that he had insufferable bad PR. He also had beside him someone who was considered a terrible bagman. Incidentally, one who comes from the same state as these current ‘buccaneers’ who now believe the university is perpetually theirs to run on account of sharing the same state of origin with the founder!

The arrival in 2014 of the medical doctor who believed himself to know more engineering than professors of engineering, more mathematics than Chike Obi, and more history than Kenneth Dike, in a jiffy, wiped out nearly all the gains of the ten years of Nebo and Okolo. The locust had matured and descended on the field with a vengeance.

In the twinkling of an eye, merit went out the window and the lion was brought back to supping on water leaf. In a living institution like a university, it is so easy to destroy in months what took years to build. Those who were uncomfortable with Okolo’s PR soon realised they would have given an arm and a leg to have him years more rather than what became of leadership in UNN.

In spite of the stupendous revenue base of the university- over 56,000 fee paying undergraduate and postgraduate students, federal support and remnants of the serially denuded goodwill, the university has relapsed into barren land.

Understandably, mediocres love to replace themselves with worse; that being the only way some light can seem to shine from the disasters they leave behind. It is not surprising therefore that he was replaced in 2019 by the one who he programmed to replace him. The cost will be counted in long years of decadence. Yet, these people are now positioning to replace themselves with one of theirs, while mouthing merit! Ten locust years back to back has all but destroyed UNN. Those who love UNN, education, legacies, history and growth for this institution must come together to ensure that another 5 years of disaster does not find a home in UNN.

The time to act is now. UNN is not a place for selfish and visionless puppets. It is a centre for knowledge creation, knowledge transfer and community service. To aid the work of restoring the dignity of man, we must work to restore UNN. We can ply the sentiment of universality from Lagos to Maiduguri, but if history be our guide, the current set of nannies and the ones they are positioning to replace themselves cannot love the baby more than its mother. Those who are to be worst impacted by the maladministration that is manifest in UNN are best placed to fix her.

Emmanuel Ozoh writes from Anambra State.

Emmanuel Ozoh: Of University of Nigeria and years of the yocust

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