The collapse of intellectual space at Ahmadu Bello university 1989-2010

John Otim

is executive editor of Nile Journal, writer, poet, music composer, former lecturer at Ahmadu Bello University

It was by all accounts a very good university. Soft spoken Abdullahi Mohammed was taking over as the new head at the department of Library and Information Science. He was replacing the much-respected Ronald Benge, a seasoned academic who headed library schools in Britain, in the Caribbean, in Ghana, and was the author of several books. The year was 1977. A wind of change was blowing across campus. Since its launch in October of 1962 this was the first major change at the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria Northern Nigeria. In the years ahead, it would have profound impact on this relatively still new African campus that was already making waves.

A year ago, a youthful Bala Usman, a prince of the nearby Emirate of Katsina, had taken over the leadership of the department of History. In Africa history is a key department. African history was and is a hotly contested terrain. African scholars were reexamining the entire field of African historiography. For this purpose, the department of history in Zaria had created a unit called Northern History Research Program, with a well-endowed documentation center in the nearby city of Kaduna. In 1981 Arnold Temu and Bonaventure Swai, both of the history department, produced and published their book, Historians and Africanist History: A Critique. Not surprisingly the book met with hostile reception among Africanist historians.

The urbane Dr. Isa Mohammed was taking over the headship of Mathematics. The university’s computer center was linked to the department of Mathematics. In those days it was one of the few computing facilities in the entire country. The quiet Dr. Y. Y. Yahya or triple Y as his friends called him, had assumed the headship of Political Science. Political science was a trendy department. The towering figure of the Cambridge educated Ibrahim Tahir, a man of forceful manners, headed Sociology. A few years from hence, Tahir would write and would publish his much acclaimed first novel, The Last Imam. Set in the ancient City of Bauchi, issued by Routledge Press in America, the novel is a superlative work of prose fiction. Had Tahir continued as a writer he might have gone places.

It was happening. It was real. Students were fired with a new sense of purpose. They could tell from the changes going on around them that something fundamental was happening on their campus. The future looked bright. Leadership positions in their university lately held by white academics, mostly British, were now being claimed by their own people. Here and there, like in the Faculty of Vet Medicine, these positions were held by Americans. Now control was passing over to sons and daughters of Nigeria. None celebrated this campus rite of passage more than the Jamaican born Yale educated academic Patrick Wilmot who taught in the department of sociology and was popular with students. Patrick was a born showman. He together with Dr. Bala Usman, rocked the university with frequent public lectures on topical issues of the day. In the best tradition of the practice these were campus teach-ins. Whenever and wherever on campus the teach-ins were convened, students flooded the venue. It was a marvel to watch.

There was on campus some undercurrent of competition between the British and the Americans. With the British trying to hold the fort and the Americans trying to storm it, just as the Africans were at long last moving in to take possession of the fort. It was a moment to savor. Intellectually it was a robust period. A growing number of Eastern European academics were on campus. They were white but you could see they were different. Their presence added flavor. But they distanced themselves from the Marxism and Leftism that was rampart on campus, and that was strangely championed by a Swedish professor. I once asked one of them why? He said: “You people don’t know the Russians!” There were on campus, Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs and Africans from neighboring countries. But not a single Russian! Except for Russian women who had accompanied their Nigerian husbands back home after their degrees in Moscow.

The Ahmadu Bello University at that time was one of the most cosmopolitan campus in the world. The campus was not exactly a melting pot, but from this mix life roared. Dinner parties, weekend parties, excursions to interesting locations, and more. Campus facilities, in terms of labs, workshops, libraries, conference halls, were more than adequate. They competed favorably with those of many universities abroad. It is a paradox but it was true. Despite frequent military takeover of government, there was on campus an air of freedom. One did not feel there was something one could not say or one could not do. Speaking in Lagos in the context of the country, Wole Soyinka said as much. On the occasion of the Second Black Festival of Arts and Culture held in Lagos Soyinka paid tribute to the Generals that ran Nigeria.

On campus, the business of academia progressed steadily even robustly. In the days when anti-AIDS tests were hard to come by, Professor Haggler of the Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital, developed a working anti-HIV testing kit. Particularly noteworthy on campus, were: the Zaria Field Society and its journal of the same name; Savana Journal, a multi-disciplinary publication; the Mud Theater, also called the Drama Village; and the Writers Club, based in the English department, but with a membership from across the disciplines. The writers club was the place I loved to be. Here I had become somewhat of a folk hero. People looked forward to my presentations. Around this time a feminist movement called WIN (Women in Nigeria) sprang on campus and soon became the foremost women’s organization in Nigeria, with a countrywide following.

The department of Library and Information Science with which we began this story, was never central to the scheme of things at the Ahmadu Bello campus. It could never be, even were it to move mountains. The new African scholar was not interested. He had no knowledge about libraries and their role in scholarship, in culture, in civilization. He had no sense of history, even that of his own family. He was content to live in his ignorance; within the tight bounds of whatever field he called his own. He was Engineer this, Architect this, Lawyer this. Titles appealed to him.

Abdullahi Mohammed, the new head of Library and Information Science at the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, was the son of a well-placed Muslim Judge in the ancient city of Kano. His upbringing and background gave him a thorough grounding in Islam. He started life as a teacher, went on to obtain a degree in Arabic from Bayero University College, then a constituent college of the Ahmadu Bello University. He proceeded to Syracuse and eventually North Western. At North Western he obtained the PhD under the mentorship of John Paden, a professor of political science. In the past Paden had lived for many years among the Hausas in the ancient City of Kano and loved it. In future he would write the definitive biography of Sir Ahmadu Bello, the founder of the Ahmadu Bello University.

Abdullahi Mohammed held headship, for the next ten years and more. Ten years is a long time for a man to run a university department. Within that time, the man could make things happen. Equally within that time he could do untold damage to the department. The British had run things pretty much that way, with heads of department staying on for long spells. But the British were careful, and mindful of work and of work procedures. Work was work, family and social life was a different matter.

“We in the department are lucky to have Malam Mohammed take over the headship,” Collin Candy said to me one evening while commenting on the changes sweeping the university. I was new, I was young, but I wasn’t so sure. Collin was a young lecturer in the department. “Other departments aren’t that lucky”, Collin pressed on. I did not know what to say. I lived with Candy for a while, as his guest in his small pad in the middle of the village next to the university. It was a great experience. The village was inhabited by people who worked for the university or provided service to the university. In future the village would be part of the crisis that will continually rock the university.

Collin and I shared many things in common. Many times, we talked late into the night. With Collin going over his experience. Collin was free with his ideas. I liked this about him. But I still wasn’t sure about what he was saying about Abdullahi Mohammed being such a great head of department. Mohammed was gentle and polished, but he did strike me like someone holding something back. Candy was white and British.

A few months later Tony Olden, who was working in the library and teaching in the department, was conducting research for a Master’s thesis on the history of the department of Library and Information Science. Mary Caswell who worked in the public library and was married to professor Caswell and was a friend of Candy, expressed strongly, the view that Tony Olden ought not to be teaching in the department at all. Tony had a third-class degree. Didn’t sound like the most brilliant fellow. But Tony was methodical, meticulous, and hard working. For the purpose of his research Tony was granted full access to the files and documents of the department, and that included confidential files on every one. Here is a question. Would someone, not British, not white, get granted the same privilege the new head of department was granting Tony?

There was on campus, a propensity for gossip and rumormongering. On an outpost like the Zaria campus, this was bound to happen. And it was not necessarily a bad thing. But to provide fodder for the gossip and rumormongering at some people’s expense is another thing. On a different note, on one occasion Professor Ronal Benge stopped me on the corridors of learning. Benge had been friendly and helpful to me and he would remain a lasting friend.

“Tell me John!” I had no idea what was coming. “What did you see in that ugly girl?” I was taken aback. My new girl Ugly? The angel that came to me in the morning. Ugly? Was this a joke? I was confused. But I kept my cool and he had no idea how his words disturbed me. Later I turned the whole episode into one of the most oddly popular verses I had ever written. With folks constantly demanding for it.

The whole thing started this way. I was at the time going with a Jamaican girl.  I turned up one evening at Ronald’s house with the girl. I had to be there for something we were going to do together. The girl insisted on coming with me. For some reason Ronald and his wife, his lived-in woman really, did not warm to the girl. I could see that and the girl saw it too. We hurried away! We were hardly out of earshot and the girl burst out. “What mean, folks!”

Over the course of my stay in the department, twice I had occasion to go visit Abdullahi Mohammed at his home. He lived in a big professorial house. In Zaria if you are a professor you can live like a king. Anyway, Dr. Mohammed had a quotation from Sir Ahmadu Bello, pined against his wall. Sir Ahmadu Bello was the founder of the university and he was one of the four founding fathers of Nigerian Independence. The quote read, “For peace and harmony to reign in this world, all that is needed is for everybody to become Muslims.”

My second visit to Dr. Mohammed’s house was on the occasion of a dinner party he was giving in honor of a visiting British academic. I arrived at the house in the nick of time. It was my style. I would never be the first to arrive. I expected fellow colleagues to be already seated. But I found only Mallam Bida. Bida was a new assistant lecturer in the department. And Bida wasn’t a guest at all! He hardly sat with us and was not part of the conversation. When it was time for diner, Bida ferried and served the dinner. No wife came forward to bid us welcome. Bida was a servant, I could see that. This was apparently a new way of running a university department.

A new academic was recruited on the basis of loyalty. Loyalty was demonstrated through service to the boss. Loyalty was expressed through servitude. It was a model custom made for Dr. Zakari Mohammed, future head of department, who would in future adopt it and perfect. Under Zakari’s headship, anyone who did not fall in line, would soon be on his way out. The old feudal autocracy was reasserting itself. It was penetrating the citadel of learning. We were witnessing on campus the collapse of intellectual space. Staff seminars would gradually disappear. For they generated controversy, whereas the new men wanted harmony, they one they could impose at will.

When Mohammed Zakari, PhD Moscow, made his way to the headship in 1995, it was inevitable that a purge would come. When it came, it descended like a sledge hammer. People were in shocks. In one swift movement, half dozen academics were axed from the department of Library and Information Science.  Victims included the following: Professor G T Onadiran, Professor Michael Afolabi, Dr. Ladele (senior lecturer), Mr. Tony Emetu (lecturer), Mr. Vincent Igwe (assistant lecturer), and Isha Mohammed (assistant lecturer). The department was decimated. Its graduate programs would shortly go under suspension.


As the news broke and spread across campus, Dr. Zbigniew Sikora, head of the department of Building, a man from Poland, drove to my campus house, thoroughly agitated, shouting!

“Your man is a bloody Bolshevik!”

“Which man?”

“Zakari Mohammed!”

It pained him, I could see, to even pronounce that name. In a few years, Zakari (now professor) would present himself as candidate for the high office of Vice Chancellor, the number one spot on campus. Intellectual space on campus had dwindled to a mere dot. Under the guise of a campaign for decent dressing that Zakari and his group organized, female students were molested. A poster displayed on campus read: “As you dress so shall you be addressed!” It was an open invitation for mayhem.