Onokerhoraye: Celebrating An Academic Icon At 70
ON July 24, 2015, our indomitable and revered Emeritus Professor Andrew G. Onokerhoraye, internationally acclaimed Professor of Geography and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Benin, will be 70-years-old. This, being an important milestone in a person’s life, and having had the opportunity to study this foremost academic and nationalist over nearly 20 years, I thought it necessary, as a lesson for all academics, to summarise my reflections about him in this short essay.
Professor Onokerhoraye is many things to different people. But to me he is an irrepressible academic who is committed to the universal principles of scholarship, a true patriot, and an indefatigable defender of the ethos and ethics of the Nigerian university system.
For me, one episode imprinted him in my memory for all times and in perpetuity. As a medical student, I often ruminated over what line of professional development I would pursue after my training. I later decided to be an academic rather than a politician or businessman, mainly because of the opportunity academia provides for rationale and objective thinking, for truthfulness and to be oneself, irrespective of the social and political clime. Those were the days when the doctrine of academic freedom was highly revered, when a scholar had the leverage to publish or teach what he liked, and when an academic was often not encumbered by ethnic, religious or other primordial considerations.
In the late 1980s, when I completed my postgraduate education, ready to take up full time appointment in a Nigerian university that best mirrors my idea of an objective institution that would provide me the opportunity to grow, I noticed a systematic departure of most universities from the ideals of a truly universal system. I had applied to four universities at the time, and was indeed, offered appointments. But in different forms in the universities, I noticed unabated in-fighting, systematic ethnic chauvinism, political manipulation and high handedness by high-ranking officials and deliberate favouritism. I remember vividly telling a professor friend of mine, at the time, to tell a Vice-Chancellor of one of the universities who had insisted that I should see him before considering my application that he would wait until the head of a camel passes through the eye of a needle before I can prostrate before him to get an appointment which I thought I deserved.
The University of Benin was one of the universities I applied to at the time, and Professor Andrew G. Onokerhoraye was its Vice-Chancellor. In my determination to test the orientation of the university, I simply forwarded my application to the University of Benin by post and waited to see the results. I did not know the Vice-Chancellor, insisted on not “pushing” the application in any material way possible. To my consternation, I went through an interview process and was appointed a professor after the normal peer review process. I later got to know that Professor Onokerhoraye fiercely battled the usual cabal to get me appointed, and insisted that on the strength of my curriculum vitae, my performance in the interview, and the report of the peer reviews, I was qualified to be so appointed. This was regardless of the fact that I had not known him, neither was I from his Urhobo ethnic group.
My decision to take up appointment as Professor at the University of Benin instead of the other three universities where I had been appointed is one of the most difficult decisions I have taken in my entire career. It was largely due to my rationalization that if a Vice-Chancellor can appoint someone to a position he deserves based on merit and without the usual chicanery, that must be the university where any person seeking objective development can obtain social protection in a country then witnessing systematic morale degeneration in its educational system. The university has since turned out not to be the same, largely because of the ascendancy of conservative ethos over those that deepen progressive thoughts and ideas for the system. Sadly, it came to pass that after years of vacillation on what principles would best grow the Nigerian university system, conservatism and corruptive influences have dethroned more progressive and noble ideas without a whimper of resistance by official regulatory forces. The politicization of all universities has wiped away the real essence of university experience, a harm that will take generations of systematic and purposeful re-engineering by a suicide reformer to revive.
Thus, to me, Professor Onokerhoraye represents an era in the history of Nigerian universities that needs to be re-visited if the university intends to offer its true meaning and results for our national development. The true essence of a university is high quality teaching, research and service delivery. Any university wishing to attain global relevance must deepen its approach to these elements, using the best academics from any part of the world. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Chicago when asked how his university was able to attain high global rating cited the quality and rigour of debates that enable faculties to come up with new ideas and innovations that guide its teaching and research.
Professor Onokerhoraye, as Chairman of the Senate of the University of Benin, is often remembered for permitting unfettered debate, which enabled the university take decisions on knotty academic issues. Those were the days when professors went to Senate with statistics and documents to prove their positions, and when they would not be sure what decision would be taken by Senate until after the session has ended. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case in many Nigerian universities. Professors everywhere have become sorry tales of their former selves and have simply become “rubber stamps” of already decided positions.
I once went as a member of a visitation team to a Nigerian university and we were inundated with stories of how a Vice-Chancellor had simply turned the Senate into his personal kitchen doing what he liked without a word of resistance from fellow professors. The Vice-Chancellor did many unusual things like unduly influencing admissions without members of Senate questioning him on the legality and logicality of the action. Surely, the appellation of “Chief Executive Officer” that has been added to the office of Vice-Chancellors has sometimes led to abuses by people who do not know the meaning of the mandate given to them.
Despite that universities have always prided themselves as being administered under a committee system, our new crop of CEOs have now found it comfortable in their private interests to do away with this system. Unless some sanity is brought into the administration of universities, the achievement of excellence so desired by all stakeholders will be difficult to attain.
In sum, Professor Onokerhoraye has always been a true academic that mirrors what a true university system should be. He devoted substantial part of his time as Vice-Chancellor to teaching and research, and the supervision of post-graduate students. Indeed, as Vice-Chancellor he was reputed to have launched 24 textbooks in his discipline in one day. I also remember that when I debuted the African Journal of Reproductive Health in 1997, he personally attended the launching as chair of the occasion and was the highest personal donor, testifying of his willingness to support young and growing academics. He has supported the journal from that time till now. He is also one of a few former Vice-Chancellors I know who has taken time to document their tenure in a book so detailed and enthralling to read.
But readers should not get me wrong – Professor Onokerhoraye is not a saint, and certainly has his foibles. I have often taken time to analyse some criticisms of his actions, and can only attribute these to reactions that a person gets when he insists on being relevant in a highly competitive and contentious system. Onokerhoraye (fondly called Onoks by friends and admirers) is a recurrent lexicon in the political and academic life of the University of Benin. He is regarded as the Maradona of the university and a dictionary or an encyclopaedia of sorts, as he always has a history to recall in dealing with an issue in the university. Stories are often told daily about what he has done or not done – many of which borders around his perceived political invincibility and deftness. However, to show that he is only human, some of his political calculations have come to pass in the university, while many have not seen the light of day.
I see Professor Onokerhoraye as an academic so passionate about change for a university that he has helped to nurture that he has often looked for purely Nigerian and indigenous ways to push for change.
As he approached 70 years, my analysis is that of a man who has done very well in a system, but who became eager to ensure that he leaves a legacy as robust as he met it. I must say this is a quagmire that many high-ranking academics who are retiring find themselves today. For those of us still in the system, we should be prayerful that our hope for a better and more progressive university system will come to fruition; otherwise we would fail to have a good place in history.
On behalf of all progressive Nigerians, I wish our dear Emeritus Professor Andrew G. Onokerhoraye a most happy birthday and thank him for his numerous contributions to the Nigerian university system.
Okonofua is Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, and Vice-Chancellor, University of Medical Sciences, Ondo State