Dear Readers and Friends: August edition out , Aug 17 2018

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Surprising Story of a Nigerian Campus

John Otim
John Otim, a nature enthusiast, composer, poet, writer and journalist. Studied literature at Makerere University, went to graduate school at Indiana University and taught at Ahmadu Bello University in Northern Nigeria. Favorite line – I pick no flower that wins the bee

 

 

 

 

You couldn’t mistake the look of surprise in the new student reporting to the Ahmadu Bello University for the first time at the beginning of the new school year. As everyone in Nigeria knows this is the period when the North-East wind blows and the land is drab and grey. Now however, once through the gates of the Ahmadu Bello the new student discovers an entirely new world. Whereas it is dry and dusty outside the gates, within the campus, the eye meets well watered and lovingly tended lawns, shrubs and parklands. Here the air feels different.

Mt. Kilimanjaro

About a decade ago the youth of Nigeria converged on the Ahmadu Bello University campus from across the vast distances of the Federal Republic for the biannual Varsity Games students love to call the Olympics of Nigeria. The visitors, including those from the far south east and south west, arguably the more developed parts of the country, were dazzled by the sight of the woodland campus far in the reaches of northern Nigeria. Where they expected desert and scrubland they found a serene and cosmopolitan campus. The morning after they arrived, the youth gathered at the grand new open air stadium at the edge of the campus. Julius Berger built it. Yes the same company that built the State House in Abuja, the Federal Capital. The facilities included artificial track lane and a modern indoor gym. Needless to say the home side swept the trophy cart as they had in the past always done.  On this campus sports is a religion.

Yet half a century ago the Ahmadu Bello University did not exist at all. The land where now stands this grand edifice consisted of scattered farmlands worked by peasant farmers. On the western edge of the campus, was the medieval mining and iron smelting factory. To the eastern side was and still is the ancient walled city of Zaria. Keeping watch over the city is the mighty rock face. A minor mountain range really, the Kufena is the most striking landmark in the whole of Zaria.  The Kufena once formed a part of the complex of the ancient walled City. Here on its top Queen Amina of Zazzau once built a fortress and held court. Given the breath taking view from that location, it had to have been one of most magnificent of royal courts. It is said that from this vantage point the Queen’s scouts used to spot enemy troops from afar and would dispatch a battalion to meet them. That way the Queen reigned long over her domains.

Fifty years ago or so, the Ahmadu Bello University was but a dream in the mind of one man and a handful of close associates. There was of course already in existence, the Nigerian College of Arts Science and Technology. But this was no university. The man who by shear force of character, willed the Ahmadu Bello University into existence, was Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, Premier of Northern Nigeria at the time of independence. Today the Ahmadu Bello University stands as one of the most prized institutions of modern Nigeria, and one of the largest and finest universities of Africa.

Mt. Kilimanjaro

In the year 1952 when nationalist leaders of Nigeria including Sir Ahmadu Bello began to take control of the affairs of the country, there were but two secondary schools in northern Nigeria. Keep in mind that this was an area half the size of Western Europe, with a population that ran into tens of millions.  Ten years down the line the new leaders began to turn things around. And the number of secondary schools in the region rose from the miserable figure of 2 to 59. But this was still far from adequate. Throughout the country at the time over ninety percent of school age kids were out of school. Less than two percent of the population attended higher institutions of learning. Of which there were only two, Yaba College at Lagos, and the University College at Ibadan. A few years 2 new colleges were added. One of them was the Zaria College of Arts Science and Technology, the institution the Ahmadu Bello University would eventually subsume and supersede.

Back then, amidst the disheartening educational and social backwardness, particularly in northern Nigeria, Sir Ahmadu Bello planned to open a university. Evidently there were at this time far from enough feeder secondary schools that would provide intake for a university in the north. Nevertheless from Kaduna, the seat of the north, word went out. There shall be a university in northern Nigeria; it will be located in Zaria. It will be called the Ahmadu Bello University. Sokoto, the northern most city and home town of Sir Ahmadu Bello was the seat of the Caliphate, but the new university was not going there. Kano was the commercial hub of the north and its most important city. But the new institution was not going there. The university was going to Zaria, the distinguished little town with a long tradition of learning and scholarship.

Zaria stood at the head of the rail line connecting the north and the south of the new Federal Republic of Nigeria. It was already in many ways a cosmopolitan place, a microcosm of the emergent new nation. There is in the autobiography of the late Attorney General of the Federation, Justice Bola Ige, and a lovely portrait of Zaira of the nineteen thirties. Bola Ige called his book, Kaduna Boy. The Zaria of Bola Ige’s boyhood was a vibrant multi ethnic, multi racial cosmos, with huge government departments, big trading and commercial concerns. In those still early days Zaria was already emerging as an educational hub, comprising of a handful of research institutions and soon to come, a secondary school. More importantly Zaria was an old center of Hausa and Arabic scholarship and civilization centered in the famed walled city. In short Zaria, like Oxford was possessed of old traditions of learning and culture. In his sojourn to Britain Sir Ahmadu Bello had been to Oxford, and he came away with great admirations for the distinguished British Institution.

In his choice of Zaria, Sir Ahmadu Bello was sending a message. The new university would be steeped in traditions of scholarship and learning. It would be open to all, regardless of race, religion, gender or culture. Sir Ahmadu Bello had been a teacher by profession. Although coming from a royal background he moved swiftly into public life and eventually politics. Never the less, he remained always interested and focused on education, which he fully saw as a means of social development and individual enlightenment. He had been part of a movement that attempted to fashion out of colonial education a unique model that would blend with the culture of his people, meet its unique needs and be fully modern and universal in outlook. Now that he was the Premier of the North, Sir Ahmadu Bello saw the establishment of a university in the north as part of a drive for rapid development and social transformation. The Ahmadu Bello University arose out of a dire need for rapid progress against a background of general backwardness.