50 Cheers to Great Ife – The Obafemi Awolowo University is 50 years old

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The worldwide alumni of that institution of which I had been privileged to be national president, gathered last weekend in Atlanta, Georgia, USA to celebrate their alma mater. It was awesome.

It all looks like yesterday when we woke up to attend congresses called by the students’ union to plan demonstrations that would lock up Lagos and make the powers that be scamper to the reassuring safety of Dodan Barracks, the seat of the military government. It looks as if several decades have not rolled over the time we made the pilgrimage from Ifewara to the Bukateria where we banqueted with pounded yam or amala escorted with vegetable soup or ewedu and obe ata with the inevitable ponmo which we re-christened tolotolo; or when we trooped in single file to keep faith with the “world accountant” who superintended over the world headquarters of the Supreme Comradium, the ‘Pentagon’ of the Palmwine Drinkerds’ Club.

Now Bacchus has lost many of those adherents of yore to Islam and Christianity as teetotaler pastors and alhazai. When I run into some of them I shake my head and mutter, “once upon a time ….”

How time flies. We scale the heights, conquer mountains but when we all look back, it is as if we just began the journey. But for the telltale signs which betray the dozens of Christmases and sallahs we have notched under our belts, we could be tempted to want to melt into the ‘happening crowd’ of today’s Turks, tomorrow’s leaders who are also bound to reminisce as we are now doing in the unborn decades ahead.

Man is a product of both nature and nurture. Nature is given. There is no armor against genetics. But nurture is acquired. There is no better place to enhance the nurture which started from the home than in the forested womb of Africa’s most beautiful university in Ile-Ife. Those were the hallowed grounds that taught us, as Judy Garland would have couched it, to remain our first rate selves rather than being second rate imitators of some other persons.

When the institution’s name was changed from the University of Ife to Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) on May 12, 1987 in honour of its most distinguished founding father, statesman and first Chancellor, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, I was editor-in-chief of Monthly Life magazine and I did write in my column at that time that the culture of Ife would never change. Names are labels; they can change. Culture has deep roots; once established and governed by a vision, it endures.

Time has proved me right. Great Ife has continued to live up to its promise of epitomizing Learning and Culture.

With over 80,000 graduates in various fields, Great Ife has made the world a better place than it met it. Our graduates are self-assured, bold, perspicacious and totally unfazed by the unbeaten track. That is the simple formula behind the excellence of Great Ife products. Not for us the admonition that when you make a great beer you don’t need to make a great fuss. By the fruits of Great Ife you would come to know the great institution.

It couldn’t have been different. The serenity of the OAU environment where modernity hugs nature, where the ancient and the future have an intellectual handshake, where one wondered in the bewitchingly dusky semi-clarity of our thickly forested footpaths whether some unseen gods and godlets from Fagunwa’s world of unseen potentates were silently keeping one company.

I look back with fondness. “To look backward for a while”, says Margaret Barber, “is to refresh the eye, to restore it, and to render it the more fit for its prime function of looking forward.” I look forward with hope that in the many decades ahead after we might have gone the way of all mortals our alma mater would number among the best citadels of learning on Planet Earth. Great Ife wouldn’t deserve its name if it wasn’t founded to aim for the galaxies.

Now at 50, the university is graying at the temples. The large brood of mother hen is scattered all over the world. In Africa when the bush rat is getting old its offspring offer their milky breasts. But our university is not old; it has only matured. Citadels of learning are notorious for defying Father Time. They define it. They refuse to be trapped by it. Like good wine they become more robust with age.

All the same, having given so much to so many all over the world, our university deserves better than the Nigerian system is able or willing to give it today. That is why all of us who have suckled at the breasts of Great Ife must now cast a backward glance in the direction of the institution that molded us and gave us some of our best years in the midst of all the national drudgery and societal glorification of mediocrity. Great Ife honed us to be sharper than razor yet balmy as good ointment. We cannot abandon the citadel of learning and culture that certificated us as worthy of the white collar market.

Over the years many dreams have died. Some have been abandoned or simply suspended as we tried to come to terms with the illogic of the perennial underachievement of our country. But since we have not been trained to accept poor standards we keep our eyes on the ball for the sake of Great Ife. The universal brotherhood sired by our Great Ife heritage is now part of what defines us and our various networks. Perhaps our alumni movement is one of the few fora where the sentiments of our former national anthem ring true – “though tribe and tongue may differ, in brotherhood we stand…”

We therefore return to the portals of OAU, spiritually if not physically, to bless it with our presence and presents. We come to replenish the source of the fount so that coming generations may yet drink from it to refresh their minds. We come to tread those same bewitching paths that filled us with a sense of wonder especially on those moonlit nights several decades ago when it seemed that the future held countless possibilities and that we were only a few years to the realization of our collective potentials as a country.

It is a privilege to be numbered among those who passed through Great Ife.

As the worldwide alumni launch an endowment fund for the sustenance of excellence in Oba Awon University in this 50th year of its existence, perhaps someday soon Great Ife will successfully sail on the river of our collective commitment to the port of world-acclaimed excellence.