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Archive for the ‘african universities’ Category


From the early to the mid-1980s, under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund (IFM), African governments, including that of Nigeria, adopted the policy known as the Structural Adjustment Program. The policy required governments to tighten their belts, cut spending, lay off workers. In return the IFM gave them loans at high interest rates. By the end of the decade most African countries had become chronically indebted to the IMF. African economies were in tatters.

Inspired by years of teaching and learning at Ahmadu Bello, John Otim’s latest work is an informative examination of the challenges and possibilities that exist on an African campus. Crippled by its country’s perilous financial state, Ahmadu Bello University, and other Nigerian universities, suffered from lack of funds and supplies, loss of qualified professors, and sub-standard student housing that resulted in strikes and riots on campuses across the nation. This led to prolonged closures. By 2004, when Vice Chancellor Professor Shehu Usman Abdullahi took over the affairs of the Ahmadu Bello, he faced the challenge of restoring a semblance of normalcy and culture of study and work to the beleaguered campus. Through seven sections, Otim recalls the creation of the university in 1962, its rise to fame and glory; discuses academic matters, administrative issues, rehabilitation of physical structures, and the development of a comprehensive, campus-wide network of ICT.

In an easy to read, informative and provocative treatise, Otim portrays the challenges that almost brought to an end one of the most fabled campuses on the African continent with precision and candor. The breadth of his understanding provides insights into not only the university but the nature of higher education itself. Always challenging and never pandering, The Ups and Downs of an African Campus: Five Years of Steady Progress at Ahmadu Bello University 2004-2009 teaches that anything is possible when you believe in a dream.

About the Author
John Otim, literature major Makerere University, graduate school at Indiana University Bloomington and Loughborough University in England. Taught literature and creative writing at Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria. Poet and writer, author of the novel Dream Campus. Both books available at http://amazon.com

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early days on campus at ahamadu bello
by john otim

I joined the Ahmadu Bello University the year I left graduate school in the early eighties. Arrived in the middle of a cold dry dusty season locals call the harmattan. The campus was filled with expatriate academics from around the world. Poles, Indians, the British, Americans, Africans, and others; it was a seething pot of nationalities. It was an exciting moment and place to be.

Weekends were filled with parties. The feeling of being in a new African country far different from one’s own was intoxicating. For a young single male the local women appeared the ultimate in famine charms. But on campus there was work to be done. I was amazed at the number of sharp young academics one encountered on campus. Perhaps because my expectations had been low, I was after all coming to a rural campus. But later I felt I never learnt so much in one single place but then I never stayed longer in any other one place.

"attracted to books"

book corner

            In the humanities and the social sciences where I belong Marxism was the popular mode of analysis. All the good thinkers seemed to be Marxist. When the one hundred anniversary of the death of the prophet arrived they held a conference themed Karl Marx in Africa. Participants came from far and wide. There were good papers, there were bad papers, they were all there. It was an exciting moment. A woman from Portharcourt wrote about male chunism in Achebe; one of the very first to do so, she demonstrated her case well. My own paper discussed the division of labor and the production of knowledge. It was an ambitious if pretentious look at the rise of knowledge from its communal folk origins. At first the common property of all from the common collective labor, but then the split begin to occur along the emerging fault line in the workplace. Soon one strand of knowledge or view of the world grew dominant and was universalized; a long the line that eventually led to the New York Review of Books.

            A few years down the line a new military government came to power in Nigeria. The year was 1986. The new rulers were abrasive and knew what they wanted, and it was not the common good. They proceeded nosily to adopt the structural adjustment program, under the supervision of the IMF while pretending to carry everyone on board. Soon the oil rich country was paying more on interest rates. Which had now grown far bigger than the original debt. There wasn’t a great public service but there was some. Now it began to slump, especially in the crucial areas of health and education. Soon the economy collapsed. And so began the exodus from campus of skilled and experienced academics.

"central campus"

central campus

            Yea there was in Nigeria at the time and there still is in Nigeria plenty corruption and dozens of corrupt and corruptible officials and politicians. On campus many Nigerian colleagues traced the beginning of corruption in their country from the time of the civil war they fought in the late sixties, when all norms broke down and gave way to the free for all dominion. But those of us who had read Chinua Achebe’s earlier novels, especially No Longer at Ease, knew that corruption in Nigeria as a matter of public concern dates much earlier. Nevertheless it seemed to us at the time that the IMF and its Structural Adjustment Program was abating and aiding corruption in the country; knowingly feeding the corrupt machinery of government. But the world is what it is.

            Was excited when I got your mail and regretted that I did not inform you in the first place that I was working on a book on Ahmadu Bello University. How greatly my book would have profited from your rich perspectives.  I was writing at the invitation of the university. And that created complications but I tried to be my own man as a writer should.

            There was a time at the forum when they were boasting that they were going to get you back to help them discuss the other Barack Obama. Meaning the President’s father who was then apparently in the news. But the forum is dead now. It died when you left. Nowadays lucky is the day the forum gets even 2 posts. DrVali still tirelessly counts the number of his pages in his forever forthcoming book.

Greetings and thanks

John


reflections on the post colony
by john otim

The great Hall teamed with postcolonial students in their trademark red gowns. Present were nearly the entire faculty and quite a few members of the country’s political and administrative elite from downtown. The occasion was the debut of the play: Not now sweet Desdemona, written, directed and produced by Murray Carlin. Murray Carlin was a White South African teaching literature on campus. Murray Carlin fancied himself a liberal. And in the dense postcolonial atmosphere at Makerere he was.

"Makerere University"

makerere university (photo James)

To appreciate Murray Carlin’s drummer one had to know something of the politics and the workings of South Africa’s Apartheid Society as it then existed. And one aught to have some familiarity with Othello, the great Shakespearean masterpiece. In the play set in the medieval city state of Venice, Desdemona, a young White woman of  beauty, grace and nobility, marries Othello, a Black General and war hero of  charms, grace and nobility. That Shakespeare’s Othello, though black was in the age of imperialism,  a commanding figure in the small city state, spoke volumes.

The context of Shakespeare’s play differ from that of Murray Carlin’s;  the women differ too. But Shakespeare’s Desdemona suggested Murray Carlin’s Desdemona. Shakespeare’s Desdemona is young, vivacious and ready for life. Carlin’s Desdemona is older; wedded to the State, and one might say over with life. Neveretheless in their private lives both women run into currents of racism at play in their two societies. For the younger woman in the prime of life, matters end in tragically. For the older woman there are frustrations, but in the end it is politics and officialdom that dominates.

In Murray Carlin’s play the white President of South Africa fortunately or unfortunately turns black whilst making love to his wife at State House.  In the eyes of the Apartheid State, of which he as President is the ultimate symbol and representative, his and his wife’s relationship become at that moment, both immoral and illegal. In the confusion the First Lady, a true daughter of Apartheid, reaches for the phone and calls the police, to report the illegal presence of a black man at State House in the bed chambers for that matter. Was he an intruder?

Within moments apartheid police burst into the Presidential Mansion located at an exclusive suburb of Cape Town. Police could recognize the President for what he was. But now they saw only a black man, who was naked and who was in bed with a white woman who was also naked. Police arrest the pair for a breach of Immorality Act. Law and order following its due course. Shocking headline revelations across the land, the President and the First Lady go on trial, charged with the crime of making love across the color line. In the Republic such as it was, this kind of situation had occurred before. But now it was different.

At the trial, perfectly legal according to the laws of the land, the onus is upon the prosecution to prove that the transfiguration of the President from a white to a black person occurred in the heat of passion. If the color change occurred after the act, the President and the First Lady had no case to answer. Although the President, now as a black man, could still face other charges. If  the color change occurred, during the act or before the act, the pair were clearly in breach of the famous Immorality Act and would face long years of jail terms.

In Not now Sweet Desdemona, Murray Carlin was determined to demonstrate the absurdity of Apartheid. Look how stupid it is.  But in realiy Carlin ended up trivializing the horrors of a system that had blighted the lives of so many; the systems whose legacies stood to haunt South Africa for years to come. Of course it is true that many African rulers today by their own deeds have made Apartheid look like child play.

At the trial the President pleaded not guilty. The prosecution listened sympathetically and turned to the First Lady for explanation. Madam at which point during the affair did the President turn black?
Ah it was, it was, it was …it was …
Madam speak up! Tell this Court precisely the moment in which the President turned black? Was it before, was it during, or was it after?
Ah it was, it was, it was du-du-during … Madam was a Stateswoman.

Makerere students and faculty burst into laughter. On stage before them a white woman and a black man stood side by side accused of making love together. The audience could not withhold itself. At that moment it saw only the luscious act of sex, not the scores impoverized or jailed and murded by apartheid.

Murray Carlin nervously paced the grounds outside the great Hall. When he heard the burst of laughter and the prolonged applause at the final end, he was elated. He knew the evening had been a success. Many in the audience of Makerere University students and facul thought so. But in reality this was a sad moment. Few if any in the audience came out of the play better informed or more engaged with the burning issue of the continent that apartheid really was at the time. 

"Makerere Main Hall"

Makerere Main Hall


Not now Sweet Desdemona had reduced the serious business of Aparthied to something as mundane as sex. It directed attention at the outer trappings of Apartheid and hurled insults. The audience for sure had a good laugh. But the play and the performance left no dent in the bulwark of Apartheid. Had the President in reality turned black as the play imagined him to do, he would have been swiftly and smoothly replaced. The system would would have gone on. Apartheid like postcolonial barbarism in Africa today, was a logical system within itself. There was nothing in it to laugh at. Apartheid was not a commedy of the absurd. There was everything in it to be abored and opposed, to struggle against, and to defeat.  as eventually was done.

John Otim
Suncolor Media Consultants
Kampala, June 2011

Copyright john otim 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


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


hope and despair on the postcolonial campus
by john otim

Although Africans were among the the early makers of human civilization the modern African university owes nothing to African genius. It is distinctly the creation of the colonial state.           

          In the contemporary world Africa lags way behind in development regardless of indices we may choose to use. The writer and broadcaster Ali Mazrui has likened Africa to the Garden of Eden in Decay, a place that once had it all but that now has lost all, a king only yesterday but a pauper today.

            Yet in numbers alone, African universities have grown tenfold, churning out thousands of graduates. But numbers though important are not the game here. African universities as they are today betray little of the vibrant traditions that once animated the continent. Despite the poverty and the backwardness these traditions still animates rural Africa today. Take the case of the Acholi of Northern Uganda.

            The emergence of the African novel at Ibadan and the rise of the modern African art in Zaria, both events occurring in the middle of the last century, occurred because the colonial students that shaped the moments found a way to reconnect to their African past and from there drew strength.

            The African university today, whether Senegalese or Malian, has routes not in the rich traditions of Africa, but in Africa’s immediate colonial past. This is the problem.  Because the colonial past is the past of despair. It represented a period when Africa had lost the initiative was clueless.

            Unlike ancient Timbuktu or medieval European universities, the colonial university was not an organic institution. It did not rise out of the land. It could not offer a basis for the flowering of culture and learning.  It was limited in scope and scale. It admitted few students, offered few carefully selected courses, taught by colonial professors. The colonial students were cultural refugees, cut off from the treasure house of their heritage.

            There was little to distinguish between the colonial professor and the colonial administrator. Both were steeped in colonial culture. In colonial times you could not as a white person, live in Africa except as a colonizer. Colonialism as the life of Karen Blixen in colonial Kenya demonstrated, was a collective thing. It was a lived experience that sucked in all persons from the metropolitan countries that lived in the colonies.

            The colonial university however was a complex thing. There was little doubt about its mission, namely the reproduction of the colonial state and the promotion of colonial culture. In Africa there is a tendency to equate colonial culture with European culture. But colonial culture was not and is not European at all. Europe excepting only a few spots already had democracy.  In Africa the European colonies were heavy handed dictatorships, the type you encounter in many African countries today. 

           The colonial university sprang out of the milieu of the debilitating condition produced by colonialism. The colonial university could never have been a marketplace of ideas in sense Oxford, Cambridge, and the Sorbonne were and still are. But within its framework, the colonial university functioned admirably. Immaculate facade bestowed the grace of a metropolitan campus, radiated serenity, civility, and wholeness. Within its four walls the contradictions that were imperialism seemed far away.

            On the eve of independence the postcolonial state inherited the colonial university, little understanding its complexity. The inheritance was its most prized possession. So acute had been the hunger for knowledge and learning and so limited the opportunities. Chinua Achebe has remarked that the colonial university was the only good thing colonialism did in Nigeria.

            In the immediate post colony, the new President became the new Chancellor of what had become overnight the national university, but it was national in name only. Nothing pleased the President more than when he appeared in full academic regalia and presided over convocation ceremonies. Viewed as a symbol of prestige, the colonial university in its post colony stage was sliding towards outward appearance and further away from substance. During colonialism proper the institution knew exactly its purpose understood its mission and acted accordingly. Now the new managers of the place did not comprehend the dynamics at work but acted as though everything was alright.

           By the powers conferred upon me I confer upon all those whose names have been read the degree of Bachelor of Science. By the powers conferred upon me I confer upon all those whose names have been read the degree of Bachelor of Arts. Those became the litany of the postcolonial institution. Everything in the end became hinged on that. And so was entrenched the regime of marks.

            The ceremonies were conducted in a postcolonial culture saturated with the music and the culture of modern pop. Modern pop was suddenly the new power in the land.

            In time the neo colonial state proceeded to multiply its most prized possession. So acute was the hunger for knowledge. There was a need for men and women of learning in all manner of fields. There was a need for all manner of technical skills. In the postcolonial state everything was in short supply.

            The state genuinely longed for progress and desired development and prosperity for the people. But at the old colonial university, it was business as usual. The old colonial professors continued to do the same things they did before.

          Even as it routinely graduated students the post colony university faced the crisis of identity. What did it mean to be a university? What does it mean to be African? On the post colonial campus the crisis was deep but these questions were not asked. For a society emerging out of colonialism and in search of its own routes and place in the modern world, the program of learning and research at the postcolonial university were laughable. In the late sixties at the postcolonial university in Nairobi it took a fight by determined young lecturers led by the then young Ngugi wa Thiongo, to get African and non European literature on the curricula.

            Five decades on since independence the old question acquires now an urgent tone. How have African universities faired since independence? What goes on there? Is it true what Olugesun Obasanjo  once said according to a Nigerian daily? That all that the professors were interested in were drinks and beautiful girls?

            In the mid nineteen seventies a famous African Statesman famously declared at Addis, during the Summit of the Organization for African Unity, that Africa had come of age. But throughout Africa even as he spoke, it was the age of the coup de tat. He himself had earned his way to Summit by means of the gun.

            How could Africa come of age without its universities? Was that the example of Japan? Is it the example of the new China we saw at the Beijing Olympics? Without its universities where would Europe be? In Russia and Poland the intellectual tradition were well entrenched.

            About the state of the postcolonial university there is a little known novel called Marks on the Run.  It was published at the Ahmadu Bello University (where I taught) in 2002. Written by an Ahmadu Bello university lecturer, the book provides a rare insight as to what does go on in African universities. It is of course a Nigerian book but one can assume that it represents generally the African reality.

            Although its author is far from being a great man of letters and in many ways lacks the gift of a writer, Marks on the Run does manage to let one into the world of the postcolonial university in a way that gives the experience akin to that of an on the site observer.

            The old colonial campus is no more. No tears. In its place stands a huge edifice, hurriedly put together. Hundreds and thousands of students attend but many have no idea why they are there. The old colonial professor is gone; nobody there talks any more about spears, bows and arrows!

"ahmadu bello university" ahmadu bello university

            But there are lecturers and professors on campus who know next to nothing about their disciplines, who represent no body of knowledge, that are void of any trappings of culture. to be sure there are exceptions. Living conditions for students are appalling. Rented accommodation in town is worse. Really how anyone could study and learn under those conditions beats imagination.

            The old colonial mission of “for the glory of empire” that in the past guided learning and the curricula, is gone. But nothing has been put in its place. In the vacuum, the regime of marks and grades, and the final certificate at the end takes center stage. It is wielded through the combined dictatorship of lecturers and professors who invoke out of context, the African thing about deference to elders. “Where are your manners?” is a constant refrain on campus.

"ahmadu bello university students" ahmadu bello university students

            The university has become big business. Fake businessmen haunt the corridors of learning hunting fake contracts to deliver fake equipments and disused reagents. A growing number of lecturers find here a place for marking time and making quick dough. For the majority of students the university has become a place for picking easy grades and unearned diplomas, a far cry from the rigor and discipline of the colonial university. “Where has the good time gone?”

            Not long ago, a professor of the Ahmadu Bello University said to me. Here, no one earns their degrees. We dash them. He pointed to a group of his own graduate students lolling under shades in the heat of noon. They included some of his younger colleagues who were pursuing the PhD. Now, to dash in Nigerian terminology is to give away for free.

             In the novel, learning and things intellectual take a back seat; money and sex get to replace ideas as the real mode of academic exchange. In real life you see this imprinted on the face of the postcolonial campus through the attention paid to material possessions and the general lack of reference to academic work.

            But don’t go away, not all is lost on the postcolonial campus. There is present there a band of gifted professors and scores of talented and determined students – young people in love with the idea of a modern and prosperous Africa. There is a battle raging there between the good and the bad. Marks on the Run by Audee T. Giwa is a report from the frontlines.


The Harvard of Africa
by john otim

In the garden city
The city was heavily European and Asian. Its superb tea houses, restaurants, cinemas, including the national theater were almost exclusive White terrain. This was inevitable. Only recently these people had run the show, and even now they still ran most things, independence regardless.
The key sector of the economy, the import export trade, banking, what industries there were, were in their hands. They ran most of secondary education and the whole of higher education. The only spots really African were the football stadiums, the bars and the night clubs. I don’t think the malwa joints that serve local brews had made their way to the city then.
On campus students struggled with the problem of identity. Not that they knew. But the gentleman image in a suit and tie held fast. A legacy from a past when city Africans in the alien and subjecting colonial town, sought to out dress Whites as a way of asserting themselves.
The young and handsome Sir Edward, King of the Baganda, was a splendid exponent of this school. The Baganda set the pace. Sayani, the leading city shopkeeper who happened to be Indian, was a beneficiary of this movement. The bravo of James Bond on celluloid gave the movement unassailable lead.

The invisible student
Students went about the city disguised as gentlemen. Not that they knew. On campus you observed no attempt to create a separate a student youth image that would perhaps be African. Newly liberated from the school uniform they wore for years, most Makerere students were comfortable and happy in the new uniform Sayani had expertly tailored for them. They knew not that it still was a uniform, its style and superb finish regardless. Sayani, and many others like him, smiled all the way to the bank.
The lack of a sense of identity, the invisibility of the student in the neocolonial city easily translated into the poverty of discourse evident on campus. This was inevitable. Discourse required superb self confidence. The colonial experience schooled these guys to follow not to lead.
This was the tragedy of the glamorous and altogether charming Makerere student of the early period of the postcolony. He was glamorous but he was anonymous. It is a paradox but it is true. City babes took after him for he was young and elegant, always neatly turned out. You thought he went to bed that way. And emerged in the morning trim fresh and complete that way. There was about the student a touch of desperation, even something of the tragic. He was so obviously talented but you thought you heard the voice of Elton John serenading over him: don’t let the sun go down over me. But the sun was going down.

Don’t let the sun go down
A steady supply of government bursaries ensured that the Makerere student was well off. Better off than the neocolonial worker on the streets downtown with his hordes of wives and kids. With his riches the student was the pure image of the young man about town. His appearance and mannerisms were far from the portrait of the scholar as a young man.
The student enjoyed his new riches and powers immensely. It took his time, it took his energies, and in the end it nearly consumed him. He vacated something.
In the vacuum that was created, the gifted and young Paul Theroux moved in and flourished. With a little bit of help from his friend Rajat, the creator of Transition Magazine now issued from Harvard, and a node from the great Naipaul, he celebrated Tarzan on the pages of Transition and launched his amazing career. In his latest book about Africa the famous American writer pays tribute to this period, Uganda was the making of me.
Recently I came across a piece on a web blog in which a Makerere student of the early years of independence enthuses that he got away with a two one without ever setting foot in the library. In those days the Makerere library was something. It was the pride of the college. It was the pride of the city. It was a stopping place for North American and European visitors who marveled at the wonder that was created in the heart of Africa.

Brilliant journalism
After years in the Diaspora the student had no regrets over his past delinquency. There were bound to be others like him who walked away with good degrees and unread minds. These were the glamorous lot for whom Theroux said the body had taken over. These were East Africa’s elite who novelist Bahadur Tejani calls the uneducated conscience.
You are about to ask, well, what about The Makerereian, that marvelous piece of student journalism of the time. How do you explain that? The Makerereian was a minority affair. Created, produced and sustained by a set of gifted highly motivated students, the brightest and the best.
But the fact remained most Makerere students approached the paper in consumer mode. The same way they approached their lectures. They would delight over favorite quotes of their famous professor. Mankind should neither at once nor entirely depart from antiquity. They thrilled at the language but they would not engage the quotes much less the professor that dished them out like so many barbacues. They sounded nice.
The lack of student city presence ensured that the wonderful student newspaper never got going beyond the sparkling green loans and flowering shrubs of the campus, in those days a paradise set in a colonial garden city. Physical restrains imposed other limits. Of course the President and some of the Cabinet and the diplomats read the paper. But it did not grip the uneducated consience of Kampala.

Beyond the gates
When the sun did come down as it was bound to do. In the coup that introduced General Amin to the world, a coup that was as much directed at the university and at the students whose lifestyle the soldiers envied and craved, the postcolonial students found themselves down and out. They were without a voice. They stood in a void. They were like a people expelled from paradise.

The first act of the soldiers upon seizing power was to drive in a convoy round the paradise that had exculded them. And in their eyes belittled them. They drove round shooting in the air looking for campus babes to rape.
Once in a lecture at the University’s Main Hall before a packed audience of students wearing their trademark red gowns a distinguished personality of the period warned the students. While you are here study as much theory as you can. Beyond those gates are practical problems awaiting practical solutions. Practical problems now breached the gates of the city of learning.
East Africa’s famous poet p’Bitek once teased the students as they sat before him in the Main Hall wearing their trademark red gowns. You wear red gowns but you are not revolutionists … you are exploiters. I feel like shouting a revolutionary slogan . The uneducated of Africa, unite. You have nothing to loose but your chains.
The soldiers such as they were, were most of them unschooled and uneducated. But they were not the uneducated of Africa. They were the group that Captian Lugard had found stranded and starving in the Sudan desert. They were a desparet lot waiting for death. Lugard had rescued them and turned them into instruments of imperial conquests. Lugard who was himself stranded without an army had called the encounter God’s providence. Now almost a centuary letter, the coup leader, using the same desparate bunch or their decendants as his crack troop, had called his own encounter God’s providence. God was everywhere.

john otim
ahmadu bello university
zaria, nigeria

Copyright John Otim 2008