A Glimmer of Hope from an Emerging Centre of Excellence

0

Nseobong Okon-Ekong reports that the Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos is confident that Augustine University which it is promoting will surpass all academic expectations

It was a Sunday. So, there was a likelihood they had been to church earlier. Yet, the group of women in ceremonial white blouses and blue wrappers were markedly set apart by their dressing. The inscription, ‘Catholic Mothers’ on the fabric tied around their waists further distinguished them. There were a handful of priests in clerical clothing, including Archbishop Emeritus of the Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos, His Eminence Cardinal Anthony Olubunmi Okogie and the Catholic Archbishop of Lagos, His Grace Alfred Adewale Martins, leaving no one in doubt that it was a gathering of Catholics.
The hall at MUSON Centre, Onikan-Lagos was packed. Tables were allocated to some famous Catholic parishes under the Lagos Archdiocese. Prominent on the roll call were the likes of St. Dominic’s Catholic Church, Yaba; Catholic Church of the Assumption, Falomo-Ikoyi; Our Mother of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, Amuwo-Odofin, St. Leo’s Catholic Church, Ikeja, Catholic Church of Divine Mercy, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, Victoria Island. Other spaces were reserved for members, like knights of different orders, who have an exalted position in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. The voice of the Master of Ceremony, Mr. Soni Irabor cut through a growing hum of people making small talk and exchanging pleasantries which were competing with melodious instrumentation from the band. His resounding voice was like an instruction to halt the music and wind down the conversations. All attention was now directed at him on stage. He introduced himself again. This time, he curtsied to a lady, Clara Eromosele, by his side, while announcing her as his co-host.
It would have taken a great deal of time to acknowledge every personality at such a stellar gathering of very distinguished ladies and gentlemen. However, the hosts employed the clever gimmick of recognising those who had specific roles at the Inaugural Founder’s Day/Recognition Dinner of Augustine University. Of course, the university was envisioned by Cardinal Okogie and it is now the duty of Archbishop Martins to carry on with the work of building a world-class citadel of learning. The dinner organising committee had Sir Steve Omojafor who is also chairman of the university’s board of trustees and its fundraising committee. Chief Sena Anthony worked as chairperson of the dinner organising committee. Governor Willie Obiano could not make it in person but sent a representative. Other persons of distinction at the event included the chancellor of the university, Monsignor J. K. A. Aniagwu, the Pro-Chancellor of the university, Chief Gilbert T. Grant, the Vice-Chancellor, and Professor Steve Olaoluwa Afolami. The Chairman of the occasion was Dr. A. B. C. Orjiako. The Chief Launcher, Mr. Femi Otedola was represented. Messrs Tony Elumelu and Austin Avuru were co-launchers. Chief (Mrs.) Cecilia Shomolu served as Mother of the Day. The gathering honoured the memory of the late Sir Molade Okoya-Thomas who was the first chairman of the university’s fundraising committee.
Augustine University was projected in 2008 by Cardinal Okogie when he set-up two committees to work towards making the dream come true. The target was to raise N19 billion. On March 5, 2015, the National Universities Commission issued a license to the university. On November 30 of the same year, the first set of 54 students commenced classes. Today, there are 150 undergraduate students, pursuing different 13 academic programmes under two faculties-Humanities, Management and Social Sciences and the Faculty of Science. There are two modern hostel blocks; one each for male and female students; each with a capacity for 350 students. So far, the university has spent N6 billion to reach its present state.
The Inaugural Founder’s Day/Recognition Dinner was majorly used as a platform to raise N3 billion to commence the next phase of development of the university which will comprise the Faculty of Law, Faculty of Engineering and the University Library.
Owned by the Catholic Archbishop of Lagos, it is located in Ilara, a town in Epe local government area of Lagos State. While announcing his offer to build the faculty of engineering from-scratch-to-finish, Mr. Otedola recalled that his late father, Sir Michael Otedola, a former governor of Lagos State and an indigene of Epe donated part of the land on which the university started its buildings. Otedola’s offer was greeted with a loud ovation. Other donors like Orjiako, Avuru, Elemelu, Mrs. Shomolu, the different parishes and more contributors collectively pooled over N70 million, apart from a giver who followed Otedola’s example and offered to build and equip the library.
Earlier, Cardinal Okogie had emphasised the resolve of the university to keep in line with the motto of the institution, ‘Pro-scientia Et Moribus’ (For Learning and Character). The Catholic Church in Nigeria has a history of over 150 years of intervention in the educational sector, having an excellent assortment of primary and secondary schools all over the country to its credit. However, it was only in 2002 that it founded its first wholly owned Catholic university, Veritas University in Abuja. Sir Omojafor explained that it was essentially a decision of the Catholic Bishops Conference.
“When they met to look at tertiary education, they said to themselves, let’s start out with one full-fledged Catholic university in the country, which is Veritas. The entire diocese of Nigeria was responsible. Lagos diocese was going to contribute 75 per cent because all the other dioceses didn’t have that kind of funds. It got to a point that people in Lagos started agitating for a university owned by the Lagos Archdiocese. They were still willing to contribute towards Veritas. Parents who had to send their children to Abuja by road, complained a lot. They wanted a place they could reach within one or two hours. Around 10 years ago, the Archbishop bought the idea and put together the planning and implementation committee. Our first chairman of the fundraising committee was late Molade Okoya-Thomas. He was there until his demise. I took over from him as the chairman of the fundraising committee. The Cardinal wasn’t keen on going to the bank to borrow money. He thought the hassle was too much. He preferred to start small, by raising the needed funds from all the Catholic parishes. We have done very well.”

Of All the Saints, Why Augustine?
“Augustine of Hippo is regarded as a Doctor of Liturgy. He is regarded as the most literate. He is regarded as the Doctor of education in the Catholic Church. He has so many publications. When the Implementation Committee went looking for names, St Augustine was prime as the name that will be used for our university. Then, of course, in registering the university, we had some issues with the NUC. They don’t want ‘saint’ to appear in the name. They reasoned that ‘saint’ immediately makes it a religious or sectional university. We had to drop ‘saint’ and called it Augustine University,” Omojafor, later told THISDAY.
The emerging reputation of the university is one that is tied to high moral standing. On this, Omojafor said, the institution is not likely to compromise.
“We are not treating it as a Catholic university meant for just Catholics and Christians. The first student that came on campus was a Muslim and she is still there. But we do a lot of screening of students. We want to know who their parents are and what they do. Let us know if you are from a stable home where discipline already is.  We want to see their parents and they come. At least, we are able to decipher from such interventions, who they are, what they are and we put the rules down. This is no secret. Even out of the 54 we had in the first year, we dropped some of them because they didn’t keep to the rules. Rules are very important.”
Though probed further, Omojafor preferred to skirt around the subject. “The few expulsion, we had effected were mostly on moral grounds. I would just want us to…these students are into a lot of things. They broke some rules. Once you come in and there are funny behaviours, our medical centre is there to carry out these tests; do the blood sample and check anything necessary. As soon as anything funny is noticed, we send for their parents. Or you go out and conduct an alternative test, you are free to. But as for morals in terms of relationships between male and female, they are adults, we are not monitoring them or running after them, but when certain things come into the open that is likely to affect the majority of other students, we are not going to accept that. We do mass every day, but again, it is not compulsory. But funny enough, all the Catholics and even non-Catholics on their own come to the chapel. We left it open but the surprising thing is that they all attend. You know the Catholic doctrine, we never want to enforce it on anyone. At the university level, we are not saying you must, we are saying it is better for you and us if you all go there to pray. Prayer doesn’t kill.”
It is already looking like Augustine University will become one of the leading centres of excellence in the country. A good number of students are coming within cumulative scores that will earn the first class. To encourage them, the board of trustees has identified these brilliant ones and instituted prizes for them. Omojafor is looking forward to the university’s first convocation in 2020.
As one who made an enviable name in the media, first as a journalist and later as an advertising practitioner and businessman, it may not be too much to expect an institute of media studies in a university that Omojafor has been in the forefront of building right from the scratch.
“Yes, you are right about that assumption.” He explained why it is still in the works.
“As the prime mover of the project, Cardinal Okogie wanted a conventional university that would train children in social and pure sciences. He looked at banking, computer science, and all that. Essentially, it was to pick these core subject areas that would pass easily with National University Commission. We sought advice from some people in NUC and they said what the country is leaning towards more is the sciences- pure and applied and of course management. We certainly wanted mass communications or communications studies. At the time application was being made, I was not involved yet. It was between the Cardinal and his major clerics at the top. Communications studies is one area that I would personally push for as we go into the second phase. We are expecting the National University Commission to come for their inspection in November this year. After that, I think we are ready to be more adventurous in terms of what future steps we take. I didn’t make any noise about it because the ones that are very capital intensive in the second phase is law and engineering. Setting up a school for communications is something that I know that even between me and my friends, we can handle. It’s not something that I want to make all the noise about. If I call all my colleagues at the University of Lagos that did Mass Communications and a few others, we will probably just endow a chair for communications. Between you and I, we have communications at the back of our mind.”
Speaking on the differential fees, Omojafor manoeuvred the subject skillfully, as he considered it sensitive. “Parents are still talking about it and will continue to talk about it. When it was time to get the license, fees were a very strong subject of discussion across the board, even at the parish level. At the upper paying schools are faith-based universities that started quite earlier, some of them charge fees that run into a million plus for certain courses. At the low-end are the state universities and even federal. We said to ourselves that we are not going to go that low because we have so much to offer to these students. We have the lowest at N450,000, that is for Religious Studies, Art subjects. Then we move up to N700,000 which is the most expensive- Computer Sciences, banking, finance and stuff like that. They are going to buy books, use laboratories and all that. Honestly, I think it is fair. There are secondary schools in Lagos that charge one million Naira plus. But we want to encourage even people from poor homes. That’s why we encourage people who want to give us donations, to consider giving a scholarship to these students. A lot of good students are from such homes, and you don’t want such students to rot away. Sometimes we get parishes to pick bright students and bring them on. Because we believe that education should not be something that parents have to kill themselves to send their children to school.”