By Femi Olugbile
The events of the past few weeks at the eponymously named Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile Ife would make the real Obafemi Awolowo turn uneasily in his grave.
No, those people in white, carrying calabashes of ritual sacrifice are not actors in a play by Wole Soyinka or Femi Osofisan, playing at an improvised theatre-on-the-street. They are real people, fighting a ‘real’ cause.
They are a body blow, and a source of pain and shame to Yoruba intelligentsia, and Nigeria at large. The ramifications of the drama go beyond the socialized tantrums and poor gamesmanship of a contender adjudged near the bottom on the examination results list who wanted to be preferred above all others as a ‘shon of the shoil’.
More than any other institution in Nigeria, the University of Ife, founded in 1961, was intentionally designed to be both an expression and a facilitator of the aspirations of the Yoruba, the people of the Wedtern Region of the country, to reach for the skies, literally and metaphorically. In 1959, the Federal Government of Nigeria had created the Ashley Commission to look into higher education in different parts of Nigeria and make projections about future needs. Western Region already had Free Education and was producing thousands of youths annually who would need further education. When Lord Ashley and his Commission concluded that the University College, a ‘federal’ institution located in Ibadan, was enough to meet the future educational needs of the region and no additional Universities were needed in the West, the Action Group government disagreed vehemently. Even before the Commission could formally present its final report, the government began preparations for the establishment of its own University. It would be sited, significantly, in Ile Ife, regarded in Yoruba mythology as ‘The Source’. 13,000 acres of land would be donated by the people of Ile Ife for the purpose, as evidence of their passionate identification with the project. At the time of its inception, the sitting government of Western Region, under the leadership of Chief Ladoke Akintola, as evidence of its intent, kicked the project off with a grant of two hundred and fifty thousand pounds of its own money.
What emerged was an exciting new place where the best and the brightest would come to learn and innovate, and an ambience intentionally designed to make students reach for the highest, noblest qualities within themselves. The architecture of the Oduduwa Hall and several other sites in the University were at once mythological and futuristic. The University went on to acquire an early prominence among Universities in Nigeria. Its international reputation blossomed, nurtured by the presence of daunting figures such as Wole Soyinka, Ojetunji Aboyade and Ola Rotimi. Along the way, it also acquired a reputation as a hotbed of radical, ‘progressive’ thinking.
Along the way, it had moved to its permanent site in 1967, a move facilitated and financed by Lt Col Adekunle Fajuyi, the first military governor of Western Region, who would be murdered shortly after in a coup. That detail represents another way in which the institution is shot through with the travails, history and aspirations of the Yoruba.
Ife would score many firsts, including the first Faculties of Pharmacy and Chemical Engineering in West Africa. From the outset, it was cosmopolitan in its staff and student recruitment, despite its ‘local’ origins.
In 1975, the University was taken over by the Government of Nigeria through a military decree, making it a ‘Federal’ institution, and 1987, it was renamed Obafemi Awolowo University.
If some of the idealism has mellowed over the years, and if it has had some of its loftier ambitions such as developing nuclear energy pared down by the practical realities of being in the Nigerian so-called ‘Federation’, it is still a top tier learning institution that has produced a lot of high-flying, high-impact alumni.
This institution woke up recently to the sight of people dressed in ritual white robes and carrying occultic-looking paraphernalia occupying the elegant walkways of the Ife dream-campus, blocking the gates, and generally preventing normal academic activities from proceeding. It was a most extraordinary of sight.
Crisis had been brewing for some time. Some voices in the town were making a pitch for the selection of an ‘indigene’ as Vice Chancellor as the tenure of the incumbent approached an end. Ominous hints were dropped as to what would happen if their ‘just’ demand was not met.
The issue of favouring ‘indigenes’ to head institutions of learning has caused much controversy over time, all over the nation. In facilities owned by State governments, it is generally a given. In the federal institutions, there is a pretension to merit which, historically, has been more apparent than real. The travails of the suave, intellectual Professor Oladipo Akinkugbe when he was made Vice Chancellor of a ‘Northern’ University, and how he barely escaped with his life, will always be remembered as a display of what happens when the merit card is pushed beyond the realpolitik actualities of the North-South divide in Nigeria.
On the other hand, it is true that the desire for a sense of belonging and participation ought to be encouraged in indigenes of host communities. Where you have candidates of equal certifiable merit, for example, a little gentle nudge in favour of the indigene may be in order. It is not an enforceable entitlement, and a person at the bottom of an examination scoring sheet as in the present case would require a total upending of common sense to be selected ahead of better candidates. Such a situation would be a perversion of basic human justice, as well as a total subversion of the meritocracy a learning institution should stand for, especially one with the idealistic ambitions of Ife.
The people associated with the Ife imbroglio, however understandable their sentiments, should be ashamed of themselves.
Hopefully the events represent no more than a temporary lapse of judgement, and good sense will move back centre-stage quickly. The ‘shon of the shoil’ on whose behalf these agitations have been mustered may well wish to redeem himself by playing a central role in guiding his people back to the vision of Awolowo and Akintola that gave birth to the Ife project, and finding a place for his career and his ego in that vision.