Thursday, December 9, 2021 3:19 pm
Since the 8th of June, 2021, the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), otherwise known as Great Ife, has been in a celebratory mood. This is for good reason. The year 2021 marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of this citadel of learning that, over the decades, has churned out brilliant products and impacted Nigeria’s development in many ways.
The University of Ife, as it then was, was founded in 1961 by the Government of the then Western Region of Nigeria under the leadership of Chief LadokeAkintola. This followed the report of the Ashby Commission that carried out a needs assessment of post-secondary education in the country in 1959. It was a timely decision, for the previous decade had seen the exponential growth of primary and secondary school enrolment across the Western Region as a result of the introduction of “Free Education” by the Region’s Government, then led by the unforgettable Chief Obafemi Awolowo. The need to find spots for many of these young minds in tertiary institutions, and to produce skilled manpower that will drive the development of post-independent Nigeria, was especially high.
The University has witnessed multiple changes since its founding. Perhaps the most important of these is ownership. In 1975, the Federal Military Government, with the instrumentality of a Decree, took ownership of the school (along with others) and brought it under its purview. The impact of the nationalization of the Institution is a debate that continues to rage and forms a sub-text of the national debate on the over-centralisation of powers and institutions in the Federal Government. This is, in itself, a legacy of the long years of military rule, the shackles of which remain with the country to date.
The change of name, from the University of Ife to Obafemi Awolowo University, effected in 1987, is another important one. This was done to immortalize the memory of the man that is considered as its spiritual founder. Few quibble with this decision, given the contributions that “Awo” made to the Education sector in the country in general, and in the South West in particular.
Despite the changes that OAU has witnessed in its 60-year history, it retains a number of attributes that set it apart from others and form the basis of its celebrations. Perhaps the most well known of these is the school’s planning and architecture. A drive through the school shows a well thought through and deliberate plan to fuse nature into the school’s ecosystem and to ensure a customer journey that is seamless. All these are accentuated by the beauty of the edifices that form the core of the campus, from Faculty buildings to Staff quarters to Student hostels. It is for this that the School earns its well-deserved reputation as “Africa’s Most Beautiful Campus”.
Hand in hand with its reputation in beauty is the reputation of Great Ife as a hotbed of liberalism and protest. Arguably no institution in Nigeria comes close to OAU when it comes to fighting for human and societal rights. The reputation of its students for Alutadates back to the early years of the Institution and carries forth till date. More importantly, this attribute remains with OAU’s products beyond its gates and explains why many of Nigeria’s most renowned human rights activists, from Femi Falana to Mike Ozekhome to EbunOlu-Adegboruwa (to mention a few), count it as their alma mater. In a country direly in need of citizens who will hold leadership to account, OAU stands tall in producing them.
The bond between OAU on one hand, and its students and alumni on the other, is also worth celebrating. Across the world, and especially in Africa, few schools generate, much less retain, the sort of emotional affinity with their students and alumni like OAU does. Its products express a special pride in their school in ways that is hard for others to comprehend. For example, it has become an unwritten rule that wedding parties, featuring a graduate of the school, are considered inchoate until the school’s awe-inspiring anthem is belted out by OAU alumni in attendance. This generally draws the admiration and envy of others.
Another cause for celebration is the growth that OAU has witnessed over the years. From a student number of only 244 at inception, OAU now serves over 25,000 students annually. Its staff strength has also grown, from less than 100 Academic and Senior Administrative and Technical Staff in 5 Faculties at inception to over 4000 staff in 2 Colleges and 13 faculties today. All these signposts a University that has not stood still, but rather continues to move with the times.
Along with its growth and expansion has been its contributions to national development. Examples of these abound. In the field of Law, OAU is reputed to have produced around a 3rd of all Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN). In Medicine, the first successful separation of Siamese twins in Africa was carried out at the OAU Teaching Hospital, the same institution where Kidney Transplants were also pioneered in Nigeria. Its Faculty of Agriculture, with arguably the largest university farm in the country, has blazed the trail in tropical agriculture. Around the world, its alumni are reputed achievers in various walks of life, from Military to Diplomacy to Governance to Technology to the Liberal Arts. Their strides have helped in keeping the OAU reputation for Learning and Culture alive and well.
In spite of the aforesaid, there is still a lot that OAU can improve upon. Indeed the reality of today is that Great Ife, like its contemporaries across the country, is living largely on its past glories. The famed beauty of the campus is fading. The architectural masterpieces that dot the campus are increasingly looking tired and in desperate need of renovation. Facilities are strained from overuse and poor maintenance. There is so much more that needs to be done so that the worthy legacy of the school is not wasted.
In this wise, it is gratifying that the authorities of OAU, in tandem with a group of reputed Alumni, have set up the “Great Ife Advance Foundation” with a view to raising funds from its teeming alumni scattered around the globe. This is evidently the way to go, as it is quite clear that funds from the Federal Government can no longer meet the needs of the institution. It is to be hoped that the Foundation’s impact will soon start to be felt.
The authorities of OAU must also remain vigilant to the negatives that continue to blight tertiary education in Nigeria. These include issues of sexual harassment, bullying and cultism. Reputations take a long time to build but can easily be wasted in a short period of time. As it commences the hard work of engaging its alumni with a view to getting support from them, it is important that social ills that may hinder such efforts are quickly and decisively nipped in the bud.
All said OAU should be proud of its 60-year journey. It is one for which the impact has been felt in the lives of many. However, as it wounds up the celebrations, this is the time to start thinking of the next 60 years. A Master Plan to that effect, following adequate consultations with relevant stakeholders, will be a good starting point. It is an opportunity that should not be missed.
Happy Diamond Jubilee, Great Ife!
Chris Adetayo is an alumnus of OAU and a Communications Executive