Great Ife And The Failure Of The Gown By Reuben Abati

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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.  

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