‘Kúnlé Adébàjò was here — or my last words to the University of Ibadan

As a young boy of fourteen, I had always dreamed of life a student of Nigeria’s premier university. Those of us back at my secondary school who dared to dream and dared to work would not settle for less. I remember one of my buddies used to say once I leave the hostel for classes, he would lay my mattress above his, invite female friends and enjoy his newfound freedom. We would laugh over his fantasies. But University of Ibadan did not consider me qualified for the post-UTME the first time I applied. Mom and I checked the list over and over to make sure there was no mistake. Eventually, we were told at the Admissions Office that my WASSCE result was not good enough. As we exited the school’s main gate that day, I told her I was going to come back — for good — the following year. And come back I did.

Six years after this incident, I sat with a company of friends at Klazz Restaurant following my penultimate paper. As always, we discussed — mostly lamenting — the situation of the country, and that of the school we all enthusiastically applied for half a decade before. In a twist of events, everyone was startled when one of us mentioned that he hopes a certain structure is completed by the time he gives birth, that his children may benefit from it.

“Why on earth would you do that?” we asked.

“Oh, but University of Ibadan is still the best among all available options,” he answered, reluctantly.

Many disagreed. Those with first-hand information mentioned examples of federal and private universities that are doing arguably better in many respects. In passing, University of Ghana, Legon, was said to be incomparable to our soon-to-be alma mater. We were ashamed to admit this, but we could bear the feeling as what may be insult from an outsider is but advice from a kinsman.

This disillusionment, I bet, has been the fate of many Uites for the past couple of decades. We come in expecting to see the best Nigeria has got to offer, and we leave realising that best is not good enough — yet. Just last month, I received a message on Facebook from a lady who described herself as “an aspiring law student.” She asked “how slow is the University of Ibadan’s calendar?” and said she is “a bit bothered about the delay in the admission process”. I assured her that it will be regulated soon. But it soon got trickier.

She asked if I would have considered going to a private university at the start, and I said “not at all.”

Why?

“Couldn’t have traded a federal university experience for anything else in Nigeria though some private universities, as Covenant and Afe Babalola, are coming up fast.”

She agreed, and asked what I was after when I insisted on UI as my school of choice.

“I was after being away from home, being at Nigeria’s best, the name, and the perceived quality of learning. Though, once admitted, I’ve seen many things that aren’t very likeable, I do not regret that decision,” I said, hoping I had not started to sound like a whiner.

She asked what those “things” are. And I tried to brush off the question with “it’s inevitable as this is still Nigeria; you can’t avoid such experiences.” But she insisted, so I mentioned “inadequate power supply, congestion of rooms, crackdown on student unionism etc.” She can cope with that, she said. The next question was, “Are there cases of insect infestation?” I had to admit there are. She was disturbed.

“Just started this session,” I said, trying to play down the problem. “We’ve been living with it successfully for some time.”

The conversation trailed off not long after because I had examinations to attend to. But one thing is clear: things are not as good as they are meant to be, as good as they can be. Even if we successfully mislead JAMB candidates into thinking otherwise, they will get into the system, see for themselves and live to tell the stories. They will tell the stories of inadequacy, of hardship, of oppression — as opposed to those of abundance, liberty and fulfilment told to them by their parents and grandparents, beneficiaries of the same system.

There are those who say those of us who complain day and night, in public and in private, ask for too much. “What else do we want?” they ask, unable to understand our appeal and aspirations, unable to see something, anything, wrong in the system. After all, “We are only lucky to make it into the university in the first place.” But they get it wrong. We are not ingrates whose tongues know only the vocabulary of complaint. We are merely dreamers; people who desire something better not just because they want it, but because it is possible. And isn’t that how mankind has traversed the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Dark Ages to get to where it is today? — through an undying thirst for more and an unwillingness to accept fate.

Having been privileged to occupy little leadership positions myself, I know managing a university as big as this is no easy task. Through a visit to the Vice Chancellor’s office and distant observations, I have smelt the stress that accompanies that position, I have set eyes on the pressure and tasted from its worries. But we must understand that direction is more important than speed, and though we may think we deserve praise for doing so much and achieving so little, it is the man who achieves much with little whose tracks will endure on the soil of history. This is true for leadership at all levels in the university. Good intentions are never enough to make a good leader. Perceptive actions are needed too.

I do not claim to know the ultimate solution to many of our problems — or all, but I may have stumbled upon the fundamental problem. If we acknowledge this problem, seek to understand it, discuss it, and actively and collectively work towards eradicating it, we will be closer to Utopia than we ever envisaged.

That problem is the lack of mutual respect.

We are a people who say sorry before any question or request, but who are never truly sorry for any wrong done. We are a people of “with all due respect”, but are we ever truly respectful? In the Nigerian society at large, the problem is that the people — at least, a great number among them — respect the leaders too much, even past the point of idolisation. On the other hand, the leaders have no mustard seed of respect for them. But in the university, it is a two-way street, an entire food chain, of nothing but disrespect.

It is easy to heat up the polity and cry, “Leave the kitchen if you cannot stand the heat.” But it is not everyone who will do this. There are those who would rather break the cooker than leave the kitchen. So we must ensure that in heating, we set the temperature just right — not too high and not too low. Everyone is of the opinion that respect is reciprocal, that if you do not give it, then you are getting none of it either. But they have forgotten that disrespect is also reciprocal. This, right here, is the problem.

People often think age is just a number until they grow old themselves. And so our activists see nothing wrong in calling members of the university management unprintable names. Ultimately, however, they end up revealing more about themselves than the management, they end up turning a debate about substance to a debate about standards, and they end up ranting than actually communicating. We saw this during the Mote struggle and we saw it during the #OlayinkaMustGo struggle. Students tried to outdo themselves in abuses and hollow comedy, using no less platforms than Facebook and Twitter. A student even went to the extent of releasing the Vice Chancellor’s obituary.

We do and condone these because we are made to believe all is fair in love and war, but we forget that even actual wars are regulated by humanitarian laws. Like it or not, there are ethics guiding the conduct of war. We say we want fundamental human rights but we constantly abuse the little psychological liberty these struggles afford us. We fail to realise that regardless of who is in power, positions of leadership deserve a minimum level of respect. This is the only road to stability; and stability is the only way to progress. We must never go below the belt, whether in a street fight or a word fight.

A diagnosis of the university administration shows that even they suffer from the same condition. But they exhibit it in a different, more subtle, manner by virtue of their political high grounds. How come I know this? To start with, the Chairman of SSANU, University of Ibadan Chapter, Dr Wale Akinremi, captured the fact perfectly in his recent interview with Correspondents of the Union of Campus Journalists. He observed that while members of his Union see students as “intellectuals”, the University Management sees them as “small boys”.

But I also know because students are not integrated into boards and committees where their contribution is key, though the handbook so provides. The Welfare Committee is a classic example. I know because a part of the management sees students as being up to no good. To them, we are just a bunch of rascals whose medicine is the Student Disciplinary Committee, or a scent of it. I know because students, including their elected leaders, are hardly consulted on issues that directly affect them. I know because of the distasteful language deployed against students, both when the atmosphere is tensed and during the calm that follows. I know this is the norm because I have seen it play out for five good years.

The paradox is that students behave the way they do because the management behaves the way it does, and the management acts the way it does because of the way the students behave. In psychology, this is known as the self-fulfilling prophecy. With this in mind, some of us proposed a new slate for unionism when Ojo Aderemi became Students’ Union President. We knew we could not keep using the same methods while expecting a different result. We knew no man has ever built a house by hammering the same spot. So we proposed at a particular stakeholders’ meeting that we employ new methods, rebrand unionism and convince the management that our primary goal isn’t to fight but to achieve results, through collective efforts. But soon, mobocracy hijacked the wheels and things degenerated.

The good news is: it is not too late. Not now, not ever. We can start again, from the scratch. We can reinstate the Students’ Union and start afresh, placing partnership above persecution, understanding above undertaking, unity above unionism, and progress above propaganda. We can start with a roundtable that is truly round, because only then can we reach a square deal. We can start by opening our doors to the power of ideas and shutting them to the intoxicating idea of power. We can start with opinion polls, a referendum, a town hall meeting, an account of stewardship, or anything at all that promotes a sense of belonging. We can start by healing old wounds and by doing all we can to prevent new ones.

If we do just this, then I can beat my chest and say the line is drawn not just for a new beginning but a great ending. There shall be no limit to what we can achieve if we break away from the shackles of aggression, negativity, distrust and, most especially, disrespect. Together, staff and students, academic and non-academic, we shall rewrite the narrative of this glorious citadel, re-chart its trajectory. Our house, free from division, shall not fall, neither shall it falter. It shall rise — against financial malnourishment from the government, against bullying from cultists, against the inadequacy of methods and the inefficiency of men. We shall rise; but first we must pay the price: our dear ego.

As these are my last words to the university as a student, I run the risk of saying too much while fearing also that I — perhaps — have not said enough. If you find my contentions agreeable, please put them into practice. My joy is not that you read and applaud, but that you feed and apply. And if you find otherwise, let me know, let the world know, and let us discuss what really are the problems and what really is the solution. Be free to doubt because, as a philosopher remarked, by doubting we arrive at the truth. But be bold also to try, try and try anew — because by trying, giving all we can in good faith and with sound judgment, we arrive at the Promised Land.

There are those who will be disappointed I have written this. “Why don’t you just graduate and make something out your life?” they might think. I wish I could say I am sorry, but I am not. I cannot be sorry for having the interest of my University at heart, and by extension that of my country. I am indebted to this place for the man I have become, for the little weight my name carries. I know this and have always admitted it. I owe this community a lot. And, it is why I ache to see it soar, to see it rise above national constraints onto the dais of international significance where it belongs. I yearn to see it pull the country upward during this magnificent flight. I yearn for my children to relive the “lucky generation” of Achebe and not ours, labelled by Soyinka as the “endangered generation”.

Secondary school students have a habit of writing on school walls as they graduate: “forget me not” followed by their nicknames or so and so was here. Rather than do that — and just maybe this is an attestation to the instillation of learning and character — I have decided to do what I know to do best. Write. From my heart. I hope this leaves a bigger mark.

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