Heart of Arts

Obafemi Awolowo University: The Making of a Great University

Toyin Falola


As Obafemi Awolowo University holds its convocation this week, I began to reflect on its long-standing achievements. When the bricks were being set to establish the University of Ife, I believe many would have had high expectations and also lived to see those expectations rise and flourish into the Obafemi Awolowo University of today. Well, one would think that all that is needed is to plan, wish, and build. But the Great Ife has built its tent among the world-class citadels of learning, and today, it has exuded a high rate of integrity, breakthroughs, and many achievements that stand out. At every point, the University must be revered, and its students and research will always have all senses of respect. It is Great Ife, but the greatness is not of its nickname or motto, but for what it is made of and what it has held on to.

Telling the history of this University has always taken us back to the recommendations and surveys of Sir Eric Ashby’s Committee of April 1959 and the educational revolutions that enhanced Nigerian tertiary institutions between 1960 and 1961. Its final establishment in 1961 and full commencement of academic works in 1962 set the pace for the brilliant light that has taken the world in amazement.

The University was not developed like the random seedlings of universities these days; it was evidence of the fight for the survival of education and the reflection of the people’s gravitation towards enlightenment. Great Ife had history embedded in it; it is history on its own, and when the educational history of Nigeria, as well as educational revolutions, are told, not mentioning Great Ife is like building something on nothing.

Obafemi Awolowo University started as a struggle by the Western region to expand the educational opportunities available to already educationally inclined people. In Nigeria, the Western Region served as the epitome of advanced education, and people from other regions trooped in to drink from the streams of knowledge springing out of it. The University of Ibadan was never enough, and the leaders of the Western Region fought and stood their ground for the establishment of additional universities.

Facing the waves of political attacks and opposition in Nigeria’s First Republic, the strength of the University could be told right from its inception. After the initial recommendations of Ashby’s commission, recommendations were only made for the eastern and northern regions as well as Lagos. It seemed then that the Western Region was no more in the Federal Plan; hence, the establishment of the University, with, first, a campus in Ibadan, was a form of protest and a show of self-sustainability. The University of Ife, as it was then called, was a statement, a powerful statement for educational representation, and a call to the fact that people can never be too educated.

So, since September 22, 1962, about a year after the government of the Western Region decided on its establishment, Great Ife has been a touch of freedom of education, culture, and elegance. So, to understand the rough paths to the creation of this University, one would understand the magnitude of the motto “For Learning and Culture.”

Many would agree that it is one thing for ideas to be used as the foundation of something, and it is another for them to be raised and nurtured to manifest in the contemporary representation of the same thing. This is the story of Great Ife. Today, free education and other agitations towards achieving a good standard of education across the country have been strengthened by the contributions and commitment of both staff and students of the University. Throughout the educational struggles that the country has faced at different stages, the University has always been a strong drive that pulled (and still pulls) the energy of individuals together. It was referred to, at a point and by some people, as the “Jerusalem of Aluta” and struggle meeting points for the generals of what we enjoy in the Nigerian educational system today. This is not to make agitation the central point here but to posit that it is unarguably necessary for the democracy of today and to remind everyone that the University’s antecedents and those of its students in their agitation and protest activism form the fundamental ideologies that cement the modern tertiary education in Nigeria.

The university has been able to keep the culture as well as protect excellence in the best way it could. However, one must also note that what brought about the making of the university is its representation of a people. It is the epitome of culture, and as such, its ways, ethos, and logos speak many volumes of these allusions. In the beginning, the culture and representation it exuded could have been attributable to the old Western Region. Although one may not be able to entirely separate culture from educational institutions, it still carries on the conception of education and the representation of the true image of Africans.

The constant sense of belonging that Nigerians and those living around the university have shown was initially a statement voiced by the people, and it has continued to be. Today, the university is made up of academic culture and programs that have not been constrained to reservations of foreign methodologies that sap research of originality. It has blazed the trail in the fight for the Africanization of African Studies as well as the utilization and maximization of African ideas. It is, in fact, a representation of African culture in science, academics, and research. The mere use of the school platforms or being located within the four walls of the university drives home the conviction of Africanity.

The University’s inclination towards a rural health science curriculum model and the utilization of indigenous instructors in a former setting set it one shoulder higher than its peers., not just in the continent but anywhere in the world. Take, for example, the employment of less academic but organic intellectuals like Amos Tutuola or the assemblage of diviners (Babalawo) in providing instructions in the African Studies Program or bringing into the University local oral performers in ritual performances into the Theater and Drama Department in the 1970s, underscore the uniqueness of this University’s superior integrative scholarly vision. This is an empirical display of the notion of “town and gown”, which is rarely seen in our higher education modes of operation.

Setting the pace in heading decolonization of the African educational system would only be relevant and strengthened if the University does not derail from these qualities. The university environment must continue to hold its students as national game-changers who, within the law, influence the minds of decision-makers. It must maintain open doors to students to impact the nation through the name of the university on how the nation should be run. The voices of the students, as the only showcase of the contemporary efforts of the institution, must not be silenced, and we must understand that criticism is not only a game of the academics or lecturers; it is held from the fronts of both the societies and the students, too.

Allowing students to maintain such free minds as well as giving them the needed platforms for transformative growth, one should rest assured that the impact of the university will only continue to grow. This means that what makes Ife great is not just the commitment of the staff or the philosophical foundations upon which it was built but the students who carried on the culture of excellence and resilience. The fact that this culture was adhered to in the past built free-minded individuals like me who have expanded the attributes of the university and carried on with its pride to engage the wild pools of the nation. Such resolute can never be defeated; that’s what made the Obafemi Awolowo University.

But an issue begs the question of whether or not the university, given the impact of the federal government, will be able to maintain the orientation of cultural preservation, right to education, and projection of critical engagement of national issues. Today, the University is taking a share of the gross underfunding of the University system in Nigeria, and every University, including Great Ife, now looks to students with charges in order to make up for their needs. One would then ask: would a hike in fees and charges, which are not in tune with the reality of what the people face, not impact the minds of the students? Would a poor student who struggles with school fees before academic commitment care much about the Great Ife culture of criticism and critical engagements? Would affordable education and access to the same be the mantra of this great citadel as it was from its inception?

As my alma mater, I do want to see the university continue to lead the continent in this effort, but I cry that the national constraint would not let us strain our eyes too much before we can see what made the university. Great Ife!

This is Part One of the Series on Obafemi Awolowo University.

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