ABU at 50: After the party, what next?
Category: Tuesday column
Addressing a session of the Académie Française in December 1896, the poet, journalist and novelist Anatole France said, “To accomplish great things we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe.” (Twenty five years later he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, but I must admit I never heard of him before coming across this quote.)
I cherish the quote because it reflects a fundamental truth: It is not just acting out a plan that matters; we must believe in our dream and pursue it diligently if we are to succeed.
Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, is a living example of the power of such a dream. It is a tribute to the power of belief that a small emerging elite, who themselves never went beyond a secondary school, would dare to imagine that they could attempt to catch up educationally with the south of Nigeria, and also build a world-class university from rustic Zaria, a town that was undeveloped even by our immediate post-colonial standards. Few thought they could succeed. Well, they did. And the four post-secondary schools hurriedly cobbled together began operating as a single university in October 1962, with only four faculties, fifteen departments and four hundred and twenty six students under a small group of mostly foreign staff. Its most abundant resources were land (over 7,000 hectares), the dogged determination of the pioneering staff, and the unqualified political backing of the regional elite.
Today, Ahmadu Bello University has indeed arrived. It can boast of some 50,000 students (undergraduate, post-graduate and sub-degree) in 12 faculties, 95 academic departments, 12 research institutes and centres, one veterinary teaching hospital. It has a large medical programme with its own A.B.U. Teaching Hospital, said to be one of the largest hospitals in Nigeria. The university’s centres and institutes have outreach stations located in almost every part of the country. Today, the university has blossomed into the largest university south of the Sahara, in terms of physical facilities and student enrolment.
It was critical to the formation of new institutions, through affiliations and staff exchange programmes, such as Bayero University Kano, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi, Kaduna State University, Umaru Musa Yaradua University, Katsina and Gombe State University, as well as several colleges of education, colleges of agriculture and schools of basic and preliminary studies.
Among its over 800,000 alumni have been a president, two vice presidents, governors, ministers, a senate president, some speakers of the National Assembly, as well as justices, generals as well as thousands of “movers and shakers” of industry, finance, the public service and the legislature. For better or worse, ABU, more than any other institution, has left its imprints on this country.
We must also see beyond these physical achievements and raw statistics however, if we are to really understand what was ABU, and what it felt like to be a student there especially in the first twenty-five years. In academia, sports or any other area, it was ABU versus the rest, for we felt we could take on the world itself. It was an integral part of its community and its time, and not just a “manpower” factory or assembly line. It arrived with independence and was part of our national dreams for development and progress. It came also at a time when the whole of Africa was waking up and (along with the rest of progressive humanity) was demanding an end to colonial oppression, racism and exploitation especially in South Africa , South West Africa (now Namibia), Rhodesia (present Zimbabwe), Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau and elsewhere. The mood globally was one of striving for peace, justice and equality for all, and even beyond Africa we were all concerned about, and actively debated, Vietnam, Palestine, Cuba, and all the hot spots, and were influenced by the American Civil Rights’ heroes. Patrice Lumumba, Fidel Castro, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Ho Chi Ming, Mao TseTung , Amilcar Cabral, Agostinho Neto, Jawaharlal Nehru, Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, Josip ‘Broz’ Tito, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Malcolm X; these were some of the champions. The struggle was everywhere and we were all shouting “A Luta Continua”. We were lucky to have some great and inspiring teachers, sure, but ABU was more defined by its time, place and the mission it sought to accomplish. These were times of ferment and the global awakening of the “Wretched of the Earth” and very few were unaffected. Some battles were won, some lost; but it was a far cry from the current mindless, empty and self-centred preoccupations of today’s bunch.
Was it a radical, a sort of a left leaning university? Sure, you may be forgiven for having that impression because some of us in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences made more noise than the rest, and whoever you are, if you ever attended ABU, you would know that you must be part of making Nigeria and the world a better place. Nigerian students, and their teachers everywhere, were informed, committed and ready to dare to think differently. Even then, the radicals as well as the conservative were all committed to scholarship and nation building. We believed in something outside ourselves.
Emerging from the dreams of the founding fathers, and the sweat of those that sought to realise those dreams, we now have ABU as the largest university in Nigeria and second largest in Africa, (after Cairo University, Egypt); it has all the reasons to celebrate its golden jubilee, and we are all proud to associate ourselves with our cradle. These ware no mean achievements. The party is well deserved and we salute the management and staff and all those associated with the bash.
However, as with all festivities, the real question comes the morning after. What next? What sort of university do we wake up to in the next ten, twenty or even fifty years? What are the current realities on the ground and what sort of education are we imparting to the students to prepare them for tomorrow? What impact could it have on our national aspirations in these changing times and ever more challenging realities? These are questions many people I have spoken to have posed.
We cannot rest on our laurels; they soon fade and are forgotten. This institution served the Nigeria of yesterday commendably but is it equipped and positioned to cope with, and positively influenced, the Nigeria of tomorrow? These are questions that all stakeholders should be asking.