Memories of a Nigerian Campus

Fred Kamara
One night as I lay in my bed reading, writes Fred Kamara, a text message arrived from John Otim that read: Kamara write 1000 words on Memories of a Nigerian university campus. For many years Otim and I lived and worked in Northern Nigeria at the Ahmadu Bello University in the city of Zaria located in the north central savannah.





Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) campus is a reminder of its founding father, Sir Ahmadu Bello, whose name the university bears. It is a name many Nigerians revere. And a name some Nigerians hate with a passion. There is a lot to know about this prince, Sardauna of Sokoto. He was legendary and modest. Many monuments and streets bear his name. To remember him is also to remember Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe his protagonists and colleagues in politics. The trio were regional primers at the time of independence in 1960. ABU-Z is also a constant reminder of the competitive spirit in Nigerians. With a federal government, Nigeria emerged into independence with three powerful self-governing governments. Without money from oil, each region quickly built its own massive university, T.V. and radio station, marketing board and stadium.

In the north, Sir Ahmadu Bello established ABU at Zaria. In the east, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe had University of Nigeria at Nsukka. In the west, Chief Obafemi Awolowo had University of Ife (now Awolowo University) at Ife. Nigeria’s tripod in the sphere of higher learning attained balance.

ABU-Z campus is about 1000 kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean, yet no so remote from Kano and Kaduna. Kano is on an old trans-Sahara trade route and a commercial city. Kaduna was Lord Frederick Lugard’s headquarters and later capital of northern Nigeria. Most men and women working in government offices and companies in these cities are ABU graduates.

ABU-Z campus is a mini Nigeria. Persistently university authorities recruit staff and students from all parts of Nigeria and among Muslims and Christians and beyond. Long before anybody’s arrival, the stage is set for collision and co-existence in diversity is already set.

There is a constant mingling of Islam, Christianity, feudalism, modernity and learning. The ultimate testament of all these elements interacting is graduation day on campus. Ever heard of Prof. Ali Mazrui Africa’s triple heritage? It is here.

In the early 1980s  academic staff included Canadians and Americans. Bulgarians, Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, Finns and Russians. French, Germans, Italians and British. There were Trinidadians and Jamaicans. Many Ghanaians, Cameroonians and Dahomenians. Egyptians, Eritreans, Ethiopians and Sudanese were part of staff. A few South Africans, Zimbabweans and Tanzanians worked in ABU-Z.

Many Ugandan Christian academics and their families fleeing Idi Amin’s brutality found refuge and work in Zaria. As they were known at the time: Dr. Tindimwebwa, Dr. S. Tibamanywa, and Dr. Mwiru [Medicine], Dr. Okello Oculi, Dr. Kiguwa, Dr. Barongo, [Political Science], Dr.T. Mukubwa, Dr.Okumu, Ms. E. Ibanda [Law], Dr. S. Nahamya [Economics], Dr. Opio, Dr. O.Okiror,  Dr. Bbuye Musoke,[Agriculture], Dr. M.N. Kisekka [Sociology], Dr.Musaazi [Education], Dr.Tibenderana [History], Dr. Katale and his wife Dr. Katale [Engineering], Ms. D. Mukasa [Architecture], John Otim [Information Sciences & Literature], F.J.A. Kamara [Mass Communication], Capt Mutayanjulwa [Aviation College].

The campus is a bee-hive of activities. Politics is everywhere and in everything like the air we breathe. Nigeria has over 350 ethnic groups in a population of 170 million. Many students belong to associations of their ethnic and religious groups. The combined activities of ethnic and religious associations have their focus, agenda, and members championing a cause. In summary hundreds of student associations can be grouped under three labels: politics of ethnic groups, politics of religion and politics of a societal cause or profession.

Posters pinned or glued on notice boards, classroom walls, theatres, hostels and trees announce venue and time of meetings and activities. Here students learn the art of politics outside the classroom and how to be a Nigerian. Religion and ethnicity remain key factors in Nigerian politics. Many older folks still wear the regionalist toga, the younger generation and their children will wear the toga of States in a new Nigeria of their time.

Many Nigerian academics used the university as a stepping stone to launch themselves in politics. Prolonged military rule and absence of political parties drew many academics in centre stage of military rule between 1983 and 1999. Traditional rulers joined-in and actively assisted soldiers to link them to the civilian population and justify military rule. Unelected academic-politicians kept going and coming back on campus. Of course they included teachers of politics, but they came from all disciplines. ABU’s scenario of academics in government replicated itself in other federal universities. Nigerian academics flocked to and joined Federal, State and Local Government Bureaucracies.

            Nigeria’s political restructuring created 36 states out of three regions, 774 local governments and a federal government at the centre. It is here you find Africa’s largest, richest and most expensive bureaucracy. The formula for allocation of revenue to the three tiers of government is enshrined in the constitution. The back and forth movement of academics between campus and bureaucracy was to tap into these funds. The struggle to gain admission into ABU-Z campus seemed similar and intense as the struggle to get political power and distribute national resources. Old-boy, old-girl influence rooted in ABU alumni is extensive, strong and powerful in politics and economic spheres in Nigeria.

Credit must be given to the federal government for making higher education almost free and wide spread in Nigeria. Unfortunately elites who teach and manage federal universities disobey the National Universities Commission rules and recommendations resulting in institutional decay and failure. Formality is turned into informality.

Corrupt academics and administrators indulge in over admissions of students to help themselves, friends and relations. Student numbers especially in arts and social sciences are beefed and make teaching very difficult. Ratios of science to arts and social sciences remain heavily skewed, yet scientists are more needed to make significant progress in development.

Tutorials to arts and social science teaching are as important as laboratories to scientists. Lectures and reading provide students with information to discuss problems and issues with tutors. A lot of time is required for this aspect in learning. Large numbers of students admitted, make tutorials unworkable. Consequently, standards fall. Universities contribute to unemployment when their students are rejected in the labour market. Often universities are too slow to revise curricula to respond to the needs of the job market. Teaching jobs exist in polytechnics, teacher training colleges and secondary schools. Poor quality graduates feel scared to take to teaching and expose themselves to ridicule.

Participation of academics in government often brought unwarranted demands from government bureaucrats and their friends on universities. Academic freedom and independent decision-making necessary to sustain university work was compromised. Known cases existed of qualified students denied admission, failed students passed and unqualified staff securing employment to lecture. University integrity and standards were seriously assaulted. The campus hosted some ghost or absentee academics with strong political connections, who did not teach, mark, or supervise students. Politics contributed negatively on university work.

To rescue the army from politics and disinfect it of the ‘soldier-politician virus’ common among academics, when President Obasanjo resumed office as an elected leader in 1999 he dismissed all soldiers who had held political posting while serving in the army. Soldiers had to be soldiers. And politicians be politicians. Academic-politicians in universities escaped this corrective disciplinary measure. They need it to restore the university.

Accessing politics to make money and using money to access politics is attractive and big business. Chief Chris Abba and Chief M.K.O. Abiola are good attestation. And there are many others. Late President Sani Abacha kept $4 billion for himself! To his credit President Olusegun Obasanjo succeeded to get Swiss banks return Abacha’s loot to Nigeria. But politics, money and oil remain linked for along time to come.

Prominence of oil led to the collapse of agriculture. Lack of sufficient energy curtailed industrialization. A mono economy dependant on oil emerged. Money concentrated in two places – oil and government.

As a people, Nigerians love their God and religion. They are proud of their culture and individuality. Respect elders. They love education, soccer, dressing, and celebrations. They love freedom and justice. Nigerians are fast, frank, confident, hardworking, enterprising and generous. They are forgiving and capable of violence and soon afterwards return to work.

Prof. Mere N. Kisekka and Ambassador J.B. Onen, former Uganda High Commissioner to Nigeria, mooted an idea to start an association of Ugandans who lived and worked in Nigeria. ABU will have a good representation if the association is formed. The idea reminds me of Nigerians in ABU and their wives and children, who studied and married from the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) and their association. Start area studies a voice tells me.