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Archive for July 2011


intrigues and betrayal on campus
by john otim

By the grounds of Zaria Club the blue Mazda took off. Behind the wheel was Professor Patrick Wilmot of the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria. The College is Nigeria’s foremost Academy. Before Wilmot could join the now scanty traffic on the leafy and usually busy Queen Elizabeth Road he cut the engine. He sensed he was followed and he wanted to make sure.

                At the junction he swung the car to the left instead of to the right which he normally would have done. He was headed home and that would have been the way. It was getting late. At home his wife waited. He needed rest and sleep and he could do with a cold shower. The heat of the day was overpowering. The next day he would travel hundreds of miles to represent the Ahmadu Bello University at a new college in the eastern city of Oweri. Oweri was once the site of a gruesome battle in the civil war that nearly tore Nigeria apart.  

                Now he swung the car as though it had been a piece of cardboard. It roared into the silence of the night waking up ghosts of the long dead. In this town where there had been a massacre during the civil war there were many ghosts. As a child Wilmot grew up in Jamaica watching tourist speed boats and ski artists on the blue waters of the Caribbean.

                He was an intellectual but he fancied himself a sportsman and a dandy. He loved life. Now he pushed the accelerator to the limits. But his pursuers rode more powerful engines and soon they overtook him. Fresh mint unmarked cars piled upon the Mazda like players on a rugby score line. Two cars raved and raced ahead to block his front. Another two raced the Mazda on the sides. They squeezed and boxed it in. The last car pulled in from the rear and blocked the last exit. It was a professional job done to precision.

                A dozen strange men armed with automatic weapons pounded on the top of the Mazda as if to break it. They shouted his name. Patrick Wilmot, Professor, come out!’ He heard their voices as if from a far as if in a dream.

                His car doors were locked, standard precaution from previous experience. He was going to remain inside his car. Let them break the glass, let them reach for him. But his lone front seat passenger, a shy and colorless man, probably scared out of wits, opened the car anyway. A dozen mighty hands reached for Wilmot. They ceased him and yanked him out of the car and threw a handcuff upon him.

                It happened so quickly. At first Patrick Wilmot imagined he and his friend had been set upon by armed robbers. This kind of thing occurred quite often. But from the handcuff he knew this was a government job. Now he indulged himself. Which was better, to be attacked by common armed robbers or to be set upon by government thugs? He could not tell.

                The next thing he knew he was squeezed between two huge smelly men armed to the teeth, at the back of a speeding car in the dead of the night, headed for God knows where. The smell of old sweat mixed with the odor of cheap perfume was nauseating. But there he was. Patrick Wilmot knew that his time had come. The common message inscribed on trucks that ply Nigerian roads, flashed through his mind, God’s case no appeal.

                He thought of his young wife waiting for him in their university house on the Ahmadu Bello University campus. The largest and some say the best school in the country. It was built by one of the founding fathers of the nation in the early days of independence when rulers still cared. There in their book lined rooms, his wife waited, longing for a husband who may never come home again

                He thought of his front seat passenger, a friend and old colleague he had known for years in the same faculty at the university. This was the man who had invited him out that night. Although the reason for the invitation had never been clear. But now he feared for him. If any harm came to the man it will all be because of him. Because the poor fellow had innocently been in his company and had witnessed his abduction and journey to certain death. Poor fellow, Wilmot felt sure they will eliminate him, to cover their tracks. Wilmot blamed himself. He felt sure these men who are now driving him manacled at breakneck speed on these dangerous roads in the dead of the night were taking him to his death. The certainty of death had a soothing effect. Only the handcuff bothered and hurt him. The brutes, they had fixed the chains too tightly. On a man that had taught in their university for years, a man who represented no danger, no threats to their nation. How could anyone run a modern state in this fashion?

"central campus"

central campus

                The car headed south towards Kaduna, the old seat of the old north, where once Captain Laggard held court and administered imperial justice. Today Luggard was still a hero in that city. Just before they could enter the city the car branched off on the lonely road to the airport. This long stretch of land was one of the least inhabited parts of the country.  Patrick Wilmot knew now beyond doubt that the men were going to kill him and dump his body in some groves for vultures to pick. Under the military dictatorship that dominated the country this kind of thing was normal.

                The thought of death melted away the pains on his wrists. His body grew numb, only his brain raced ahead with surprising alacrity. As if the brain knew it was making its last runs and filing its last accounts of life on earth.  He glanced out the window. It was blue dark; marvelous for the job at hand.

                His molesters began to light up. They started puffing in the kind of manner that thieves do just before a grand job in anticipation for the great rewards they knew would follow. The stink and the heat inside the car grew unbearable. In the glow of the cigarette he tried to study their faces. Better to know your enemies. Sweat trickled down their broad empty faces.

                In his mind he saw them in the morning grinning and saluting their bosses and confirming the deed was done. In return they would get their petty rewards and go home to their fat wives and hordes of dirty kids in their crump quarters on the poor side of town. These were rural men, poor hungry men; men with little or no education, men who in this country as it is now, stood not a chance. They were men who had come to the city in the bid to make money but could not. They were men who had lost all touch with humanity. They were the kind of men the system seemed to breed in numbers, exactly for this kind of purpose. A few years ago this kind of men did not exist in the country.  

                A thought occurs to him. And he saw before his eyes, the storm troopers, well fed youths in perfect uniforms, admirable to look at, smartly marching down the streets of Nuremberg. These too were death squads. They too were the products of a desperate and degenerate system.

                Thoughts of imminent death receded. But the pains returned to ravage his manacled wrists, biting hard. Thoughts of his forefathers, at no point far from his mind, returned and overwhelmed him. Presently he saw his ancestors before him. So vividly he thought he could reach out and touch them. Men, women and children wrenched from this land, from their homes and farms, shackled and marched through the forests in chains to the coasts, bound for the slave boats and slave plantations of the Americas with no hopes of return.

                Today in this modern world he too was in chains. He too was being hurried to the coasts through the darkness of the night. The truth struck him. Power inAfricahad passed from the old colonial bosses to the children of the old slave brokers who on the eve of independence inherited the old colonial state. These modern men have learnt nothing and regret nothing. Their forefathers treated the people with contempt, using them as slaves and merchandize in exchange for beads and gun powder.

                These modern men treat their own people with equal contempt. They prefer to invest money earned from the vast oil and gas reserves of this otherwise great country in personal bank accounts and mansions abroad while the people remain without the most elemental of services. While institutions collapse, the rule of law disintegrates and corruption takes center stage.

                As the car taking him to his death wheezed through the silent night seemingly singing the song of death, everything came together within his mind. It was this degenerate impunity that put him in chains and now demanded his blood. He was not the only one. There were many in the county who daily suffered the same fate. His crimes had been to work in the interests of the young people he taught in the university. He had worked as diligently as a man could. He had tried to develop young minds and to cultivate in them the love of ideas. He had tried to point the way and to show them what they could achieve for their country if they applied ideas. In return the authorities accused him of subversion.

                Five hours had gone by since government thugs seized him from the leafy suburb of the northern city ofZaria. From that moment on it had been a maddening race through the night, and for him a journey to oblivion. The thought of his colleague who had witnessed his forced departure and who for his pains may now be dead, returned to plague him. Presently memories of those moments spent in the company of his young wife returned and soothed away all pains. Those happy hours that we once knew …   

                The car sped, singing the song of death. He looked out the window and saw the dawn hour slowly emerge out of the firmament; the most beautiful he had seen. The play of colors, of indigo, of purple, red and orange across the green valleys, over the simmering springs and streams of Africa, was breathtaking. The thug on the wheel stayed on the accelerator, oblivious to the burning beauty of the dawn.

                Despite the pains on his still handcuffed wrists, the life within him stirred, and he found himself enjoying the morning breeze. Silently he hummed a tune. No woman no cry. Yes good old Bob Marley. They approached Lagos, the amorphous and frightful metropolis where millions live in appalling conditions. They entered the teaming city of ten million. He knew now that here they will kill him and his body will never be found. It will disappear like a needle in a barn full of hay.

                Instead they took him straight to the airport where they paraded him still handcuffed, before the mid morning crowd at the departure lounge, in a bid to inflict maximum humiliation. Wilmot could see the horror in the faces of total strangers as they looked at him. Those that recognized him who knew who he was, including his old students from the university, were dying with shame, as only Nigerians can. Afterwards they bundled him on to a plane bound forLondon, tired, hungry and penniless after eighteen years of tireless service at theAhmaduBelloUniversity.

                In London Wilmot learnt he need not have worried so much about the fate of his front seat passenger. The shy and diffident academic, had been sent from Lagos where he now worked in a top Government job, specifically to lure him from his house to a spot where he could be quietly picked without anybody being the wiser.  

                That proposed trip Wilmot was to make on behalf of the Ahmadu Bello University to the city of Oweri had been a ruse. The University Vice Chancellor was aware Patrick Wilmot would be picked up on the eve of the trip. The Vice Chancellor’s role in the game plan was to make sure Wilmot stayed in Zaria to be picked. The year was 1988. Four years after George Orwell.

copyright john otim 2011

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the rise of one african college
by john otim

There it all is! plain in the gaze of the freshman student reporting to campus for the first time at the beginning of the new school year. The look of consternation, for here in northern Nigeria, it is the period when the land is grey and drab. Now however, once through the gates of the Ahmadu Bello University, the new student will find himself  in a new world. For outside the gate it is dry and dusty. But there within the gates, are well watered lawns, shrubs and parklands, neatly laid out.

rush hour

About a decade ago the youth of Nigeria converged on the Ahmadu Bello University campus from across the vast distances of the Federal Republic for the biannual Varsity Games students love to call the Olympics of Nigeria. The visitors, including those from the far south east and south west, arguably the more developed parts of the country, were dazzled by the sight of the woodland campus far in the reaches of northern Nigeria. Where they expected desert and scrubland they found a serene and cosmopolitan campus. The morning after they arrived, the youth gathered at the grand new open air stadium at the edge of the campus. Julius Berger built it. Yes the same company that built the State House in Abuja, the Federal Capital. The facilities included artificial track lane and a modern indoor gym. Needless to say the home side swept the trophy cart as they had in the past always done.  On this campus sports is a religion.

Yet half a century ago the Ahmadu Bello University did not exist at all. The land where now stands this grand edifice consisted of scattered farmlands worked by peasant farmers. On the western edge of the campus, was the medieval mining and iron smelting factory. To the eastern side was and still is the ancient walled city of Zaria. Keeping watch over the city is the mighty rock face. A minor mountain range really, the Kufena is the most striking landmark in the whole of Zaria.  The Kufena once formed a part of the complex of the ancient walled City. Here on its top Queen Amina of Zazzau once built a fortress and held court. Given the breath taking view from that location, it had to have been one of most magnificent of royal courts. It is said that from this vantage point the Queen’s scouts used to spot enemy troops from afar and would dispatch a battalion to meet them. That way the Queen reigned long over her domains.

Fifty years ago or so, the Ahmadu Bello University was but a dream in the mind of one man and a handful of close associates. There was of course already in existence, the Nigerian College of Arts Science and Technology. But this was no university. The man who by shear force of character, willed the Ahmadu Bello University into existence, was Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, Premier of Northern Nigeria at the time of independence. Today the Ahmadu Bello University stands as one of the most prized institutions of modern Nigeria, and one of the largest and finest universities of Africa.

"central campus"

central campus

In the year 1952 when
nationalist leaders of Nigeria including Sir Ahmadu Bello began to take control of the affairs of the country, there were but two secondary schools in northern Nigeria. Keep in mind that this was an area half the size of Western Europe, with a population that ran into tens of millions.  Ten years down the line the new leaders began to turn things around. And the number of secondary schools in the region rose from the miserable figure of 2 to 59. But this was still far from adequate. Throughout the country at the time over ninety percent of school age kids were out of school. Less than two percent of the population attended higher institutions of learning. Of which there were only two, Yaba College at Lagos, and the University College at Ibadan. A few years 2 new colleges were added. One of them was the Zaria College of Arts Science and Technology, the institution the Ahmadu Bello University would eventually subsume and supersede.

Back then, amidst the disheartening educational and social backwardness, particularly in northern Nigeria, Sir Ahmadu Bello planned to open a university. Evidently there were at this time far from enough feeder secondary schools that would provide intake for a university in the north. Nevertheless from Kaduna, the seat of the north, word went out. There shall be a university in northern Nigeria; it will be located in Zaria. It will be called the Ahmadu Bello University. Sokoto, the northern most city and home town of Sir Ahmadu Bello was the seat of the Caliphate, but the new university was not going there. Kano was the commercial hub of the north and its most important city. But the new institution was not going there. The university was going to Zaria, the distinguished little town with a long tradition of learning and scholarship.

Zaria stood at the head of the rail line connecting the north and the south of the new Federal Republic of Nigeria. It was already in many ways a cosmopolitan place, a microcosm of the emergent new nation. There is in the autobiography of the late Attorney General of the Federation, Justice Bola Ige, and a lovely portrait of Zaira of the nineteen thirties. Bola Ige called his book, Kaduna Boy. The Zaria of Bola Ige’s boyhood was a vibrant multi ethnic, multi racial cosmos, with huge government departments, big trading and commercial concerns. In those still early days Zaria was already emerging as an educational hub, comprising of a handful of research institutions and soon to come, a secondary school. More importantly Zaria was an old center of Hausa and Arabic scholarship and civilization centered in the famed walled city. In short Zaria, like Oxford was possessed of old traditions of learning and culture. In his sojourn to Britain Sir Ahmadu Bello had been to Oxford, and he came away with great admirations for the distinguished British Institution.

In his choice of Zaria, Sir Ahmadu Bello was sending a message. The new university would be steeped in traditions of scholarship and learning. It would be open to all, regardless of race, religion, gender or culture. Sir Ahmadu Bello had been a teacher by profession. Although coming from a royal background he moved swiftly into public life and eventually politics. Never the less, he remained always interested and focused on education, which he fully saw as a means of social development and individual enlightenment. He had been part of a movement that attempted to fashion out of colonial education a unique model that would blend with the culture of his people, meet its unique needs and be fully modern and universal in outlook. Now that he was the Premier of the North, Sir Ahmadu Bello saw the establishment of a university in the north as part of a drive for rapid development and social transformation. The Ahmadu Bello University arose out of a dire need for rapid progress against a background of general backwardness.

Today it is exactly forty nine years since the University first opened its doors in October of 1962

John Otim
Suncolor Consultants
Kampala

copyright john otim 2011 kampla uganda