Oxford of Africa in the Northern City of Zaria Nigeria

John Otim

Excerpts from forthcoming novel Strongman
by John Otm, Executive Editor, Nile Journal

It was not clear which Nigerian campus the Dream Campus man found himself at the end of the day. At the many farewells on the Dream Campus his many friends (African and American) tried to talk him out of the idea of going back to Africa.

“Returning to Africa! All those crazy men prowling the corridors of power! Man you crazy! Common!” they talked to him. But he left anyway.

Nigeria is one huge country. A fact of which for some reason Nigerians are very proud. It had the most number of universities in Africa. It turned out, the Dream Campus man went to the Ahmed Barak campus in Zaria. This was a surprising move. Zaria is a small city in the far north of the country and it is out of the way. Without the smart phone and the internet how was he going to fill the void? How was he going to survive socially and intellectually?


Two years after Nigeria’s independence in 1960, Northern leaders in a moment of self-will set up in a small dusty village a few kilometers outside the walled city of Zaria, the Ahmed Barak University. It was an act of faith befitting a deeply religious people who bow their heads five times a day towards Mecca in solemn prayers. Faith can move mountains.

Those days, primary schools were few in the north. There was scant high school education. This was a vast territory the size of Western Europe with a population in 1962 of 40 million. These were huge numbers. Britain had 53 million.

Zaria was once ruled by a queen whose capital was laid out on top of a low laying mountain range. It was spectacular. But the issue was not estheticism. The point was security. These were slave raiding times. In America the cotton fields of the South flourished, worked by slaves from Africa. On their mountain top, the queen’s patrol could pick out approaching slave raiders from afar and deal with them.

If there had been a Miss World contest, the Queen of Zaria would have won it. Even today images of her printed on postcards and on billboards, still move men.

In the days she ruled, men she fancied, were ferried to the palace for royal duty. When the men were done they were executed. This was not the heartlessness of a young and crazy ruler drunk with power. It was State security. It would not do to have men around that knew the nakedness of the queen. Queen Amina was no Idi Amin.

Zaria under Queen Amina was a prosperous kingdom. It boasted some of the finest craftsmen whose products were popular throughout the Middle East. It had a tradition of scholarship dating back centuries. Africa was good those days. But now at this critical moment in the middle of the twentieth century, the combined output of a handful of Northern secondary schools could not provide a tenth of the intake the new university was going to need. Africa had shrunk horribly.

Northern leaders were determined to reverse the trend. There were people who argued that the north should wait. That the north should first develop a solid base of primary and secondary school education. But Sir Ahmed Barak did not agree.

“What we have in mind is not a community college but a university college. It would be open to all, shall admit only the best students, shall engage only the brightest and the best of scholars and professors.” Years later as a young scholar the Dream Campus man found his way to Zaria with a bagful of books as his sole possession.

One cold windy day, October 1962, the Ahmed Barak University opened its doors for the first time to students under a New Zealand Vice Chancellor, with a faculty assembled from around the world, and a student body selected from all over the Federal Republic of Nigeria and beyond. Despite the remoteness of Zaria, the new college appeared in every way cosmopolitan and urbane.

On that day the huge and towering figure of Sir Ahmed Barak, dressed in the customary white of the north, complete with a white turban symbolic of his aristocratic heritage, presided over the ceremonies. Amidst the blare of Hausa trumpets, he cut the ribbons and solemnly declared the university open. This was followed by a spectacular display of Hausa horsemanship. It was a splendid moment for the north and a proud day in the annals of Nigerian history.

Years later when the Dream Campus man arrived to teach literature at the Ahmed Barack, the great man was long dead, a victim of postcolonial trauma. But his name lived, and was writ large all over the Federal Republic. The football stadium in Kaduna, the longest and busiest Avenue in the brand new Federal Capital City at Abuja, and the equally brand new international airport nearby, all bore his name. Sir Ahmed Barak had become a legend.

How did the Ahmed Barak University come to be? And how was it so soon one of the best in all Africa?

By the time of its founding, a renowned university college already existed in the large City of Ibadan, west of the country. Following independence, all three regions of the country: the north, the east, the west, were competing to open universities of their own. But the real reason for the rise of the Ahmed Barak University must be searched for at Oxford sixty miles west of London.

Sir Ahmed Barak had spent time at Oxford University in the nineteen forties where he was presented as a visiting fellow. In reality he was a colonial exhibit, part of a big propaganda drive by the colonial office in London to cleanse the image of the empire. “See! Empire is good. See what it has done for Africa!”

Exhibit or Visiting Fellow, Sir Ahmed Barak discovered at Oxford a collection of young people being systematically trained to take on the world and run it. The manner in which they applied themselves, the way they studied, the exacting competitive games they indulged in, spoke millions. Observing the youngsters going about their daily routines, Sir Ahmed Barak recalled the colonial officials he dealt with in colonial Nigeria. Without exception, they were all Oxford men.

Regardless, his mind was made up. He was going to build in his native Zaria a new Oxford. Young people from all over Nigeria shall come to Zaria to prepare themselves to serve Nigeria and to take on the world.

At Oxford, Sir Ahmed Barak had been struck by the singularity of its distinctiveness. The University was a city unto itself. A place where history rose and stared at you. The image never left him. Years later when independence came to Nigeria and he was free to act his dream, the university he built in Zaria was created in the image of Oxford.