It was more than a stroll in the park. We were out for an intellectual fun. The sweet walk was a little of sight-seeing and more of answer-seeking. At a time the Academic Staff Union of Universities was getting set for a warning strike, the natural thing was for a typical reporter to take a walk into the nearest university campus to observe the mood and have a feel of the atmosphere regarding the issue at hand.
Nigerian students in tertiary institutions are used to strike actions by staff of the universities. Such actions have become more of a constant phenomenon rather than an exception. That a strike was being contemplated made no news to them. The real news would have been if an academic session or two had passed and there was no strike or threats of it. That would mean consistent academic progress; and in Nigeria, that’s pretty utopian.
However, our mission in Akwa Ibom State that weekend was not to report strike or no strike action. In fact, it was not really about reporting anything. However, that’s the beauty and one of the several contrasts of journalism. One thing always leads to another. In every assignment, paths cross. Ideas unfold. Doors open. Stories change. Priorities alternate; and a headline emerges. That’s what makes journalism compelling.
We were in Akwa Ibom State for the burial of the 90 years old mother of Senator Effiong Bob. The burial itself was a celebration rather than mourning. Politicians across the country, led by state governors and party leaders, almost turned the well-planned event into an avenue for showcasing their mischievous craft.
As the serving Pro-Chancellor of the University of Benin, Bob drew attendance from the academic community across the country. Almost stealing the show were his classmates from the University of Lagos and the 1983/84 Class of the Nigerian Law School. From the National Assembly where he served for two terms as senator were out-gone and serving senators and House members who turned up to honour one of their own.
That was two weeks ago. Some of the journalists in the team that went for the event were visiting the state for the first time. Others had been there before especially when Godswill Akpabio presided as governor for eight years. For those who had never been there, and even for regular visitors, moving around the city to admire the well-paved roads and bridges was not a bad idea. It was therefore natural to stop over at the University of Uyo as we passed through the age-long Ikot Ekpene Road.
Suddenly, one reporter raised the issue: what has changed in this university since it was established in 1991? That lonely but loaded question changed the original thought of merely walking through the old site of the university while observing the preparation for the impending strike action. An old student among us was on hand to explain what was, as compared to what is, in terms of physical structures and human development.
The first sign of change noticed by the reporters, was the discovery that the previous main entrance located a few metres from the ever busy Uyo-Ikot Ekpene Road has been closed; or rather relocated to the interior of the university. For first time-visitors, the change did not ignite any curiosity or surprise; but for some who schooled there and were used to the old entrance, it was a great surprise.
Walking into the main campus of the university itself was a delight spiced with more surprises. A lot has changed. New structures have been erected. A more serene and better learning environment has been created. Some kind of development revolution has enveloped the once drab academic set-up elevating it to a level of competition even with some of the first generation universities. Beautifully-lined trees that provide shades within the campus could not be ignored.
Before proceeding, let’s establish a little background here in terms of when it all started. What is now the University of Uyo started as the University of Cross River State in 1983. In 1987 when Akwa Ibom State was created, some mild argument and confusion ensued as to what the university would be called because you couldn’t locate a Cross River State University in Akwa Ibom State. It was then suggested that it be transformed into Federal University of Technology. It was a good idea that did not see the light of day due to certain policy summersaults by the military junta. Overnight, it was renamed: University of Uyo. That was in 1991.
Professor Fola Lasisi presided over the young university from inception till 1999. He laid the foundation, watered maiden ideas and nurtured the institution to overcome its teething problems. A young, eloquent and quintessential economist, Professor Akpan Ekpo, succeeded him in 2000 and was there till 2005. Professor Akaneren Essien who took over from Ekpo later handed over to the first female university Vice Chancellor from Akwa Ibom State, Professor Comfort Ekpo. It was when her tenure ended in 2015 that the current VC, Professor Enefiok Essien, was ushered in.
As we move along the well-flowered paths and clean-tarred roads within the campus, we came face to face with the mission statement of the university. The same space also houses the university’s vision statement. What is however more striking is the university’s philosophy which in summary emphasises: “….the development of people to recognise human values,” while the programmes of the university “….seek to achieve a balance between the intellectual values of specialisation and the practical advantages of a broad-based preparation for responsible roles in the society.”
Our adventure would have perhaps ended as we emerged from the school library until someone mentioned that a former British-trained journalist who had worked with the good old Nigerian Chronicle newspaper was now the head of the Communication Arts Department of the institution. Instantly, we unanimously agreed that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to rub minds with someone who would still have been in the newsroom today except for the lure of intellectual adventure.
A few minutes later, Professor Nkereuwem Udoakah, sporting a well-groomed beard, whitened with huge academic content rather than old age, is delighted to talk to those he still refer to as colleagues. It was a privilege to be addressed by someone who has become an institution in the business of political and development journalism both as a practitioner and a teacher. With a wide smile and obvious joy, he welcomed the wandering reporters to the campus and proceeded to engage them in an informal discussion with the permission to be quoted if necessary.
It was from Professor Udoakah that we learnt that the university has five campuses all within the state. Where we were seated however still remains the original campus which had previously housed the State College of Education. As we listened, there was no mistaking the reporter in the old reporter as he tried not to sing praises but couldn’t help stating the truths as he knows them.
Udoakah described the university as a solid academic environment that has refused to compromise standards when it comes to quality. He said the situation has been made better by the serving VC, Professor Essien, whom he described as a thoroughbred administrator and profound academic. Essien, a professor of law, was the longest serving dean of faculty at the university having served 2000 to 2009; and again from 2012 to 2015; before he was appointed the VC.
The newsroom veteran disclosed that Essien’s decision to prioritise staff welfare has resulted in high staff productivity. The priority, he said, is evident in payment of sustenance allowances to staff, timely staff promotions, redressing of injustices done to many of them in the past; among others. Most gratifying, he said, has been the fact that staff members that died while on active duties have been honoured.
He disclosed that recently, what would have resulted in serious face-off between the students and the school authorities was averted when the VC moved to reverse the expulsion of 150 engineering students. This action he said helped in calming the palpable tension in the system and equally endeared the VC to the students.
In addition, the teacher said that in the last one year, there has been smooth operation of the academic calendar in the university; and regular meetings of statutory bodies. Such meetings or interactions, according to him, have helped smoothened rough areas and ensured that the running of the academic institution suffers no hitch. It was his belief that with better funding, the university, under the current leadership, would do a lot to at least build upon the existing structures.
He pointed at various inherited projects and new ones springing up across the campus. Satisfied with the fruitful interaction with the bespectacled professor, the wandering journalists, after a joyful handshake, took one last look at the academic citadel and leisurely walked back to the city. It was an afternoon well spent.
-Akpe is an Abuja –based journalist