A Surfeit of Love at the Fountain of Knowledge

by Obi "Obiwu" Iwuayanwu

When I learned that Monday Mangvwat was the new Vice Chancellor of the University of Jos, I was thrilled and troubled at the same time. On the one hand, thoughts of his family so endeared him to me that I felt somewhat connected with his career elevation. On the other hand, I pitied him knowing, without a doubt, the uphill task that lay in wait for him. I wished he were an overly aggressive man, since only a bulldozer, if not a hurricane, could clean up the unsightly mess that the University had become since the 1990s. The truth, however, is that the greatest of fathers are those who are endowed with an equal measure of the overflowing milk of motherhood and the awesome strength of fatherhood. A first rate university is like an ambitious youth: it learns under the pampering warmth of humane generosity and grows under the dazzling surveillance of the sun.

If Mangvwat, and other Middle-Beltern professors, would come to terms with the reality that the University of Jos is like a tree at a crossroad, half the problems plaguing the University will have been resolved. The University of Jos is much distinguished from Imo State University, Owerri, and Ladoke Akintola University, Ogbomosho, both of which are remotely located in the Igbo and Yoruba heartlands respectively. A tree at a crossroad, of course, suffers from the familiar abuse of wayfarers who daily ply the busy roads. Passersby wipe their hands on its trunk; dogs break their routine runs to pee at its base; weary travelers recline beneath its shed and strew the remains of their lunch in its surroundings; humans, animals, and birds clamber to its top to feed on its fruits and violate its serenity. Conversely, it is evident that everyone who comes to the tree brings along the invaluable bounties of his or her gifts, just as heroic warriors lay their booties at the feet of their beloved.

Everything we love, we first violate. That is why Sigmund Freud notes that shit and urine are always the first gifts of every child to its nurse. Is it not evident that our best expression of love to the objects of our affection is usually the invasion of their most intimate spaces? Did T. S. Eliot not say, in “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop,” that love has shared the place of excrement? Yet every mother, like every lover, knows that though curious, complex, and complicated, love is everything.

I was inclined to write to Mangvwat when the news of his appointment came to me. Since I knew that he would most certainly run into the prevailing problems I have just learned from a friendly correspondence, I wanted to tell him that if the old way of confronting issues at the University failed, he should brace up like a man (as the saying goes) and try a new way. I wished him to know that the historical lore about Mecca being in the East is anachronistic for, indeed, Mecca is everywhere. He ought to know, I believed, that he inherited a whirlwind.

Mangvwat’s predecessor in office, Nenfort Gomwalk, was a career politician in the academia. Gomwalk neither made a landmark as a scientific researcher nor a distinction as a classroom teacher. His best credentials were his notoriety as a state commissioner and his infamy as a college chief executive. In one step, he was dogged by allegations of daunting misappropriation; in another, he was flayed by a high-powered inquisition. Working with Gomwalk was like riding a tiger and hunting a buffalo. It was one of the most dangerous positions in the world, and it was not the place any self-respecting academic would want to be. Unfortunately, that was the exact spot that Mangvwat had found himself.

Mangvwat’s detractors, according to the correspondence available to me, argue that he should not have aspired to succeed the degraded Gomwalk whom Mangvwat had supported in the first instance. If Gomwalk had been roundly indicted by official investigation, they posit, how could one of his henchmen be expected to do any better than the master? That would be like a cataract-blinded Abacha leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, when his radiculitis-crippled boss, Babangida, could only get to the mountain foot. You do not dine with the devil in hell and yet grope for a drink with God in heaven. It would seem, as the Igbo say, that the smell of fart attests to the taste of shit.

To this apparently incontestable argument, however, I say that it is only seemingly so. The sound of the felled palm-fruit is never the same as that of the fallen palm-frond. The Igbo also say that though one mother gives birth to many children, it is not one god that creates all siblings. Unlike Gomwalk, Mangvwat is a scholar in the Ivory Tower. Unlike Gomwalk, Mangvwat is not beyond redemption. I know this to be true because, as the founding editor of Journal of the Arts Forum, I had the opportunity of working closely with Mangvwat for a year.

Mangvwat comes from a family of tested men and women of commendable service to the community and proven commitment to scholarship. His wife has been on the University of Jos staff for over ten years. His daughter has been a young faculty in the University for about ten years. His sister in-law was a respected professor at the University for almost twenty years. His niece is also a junior faculty at the University. For upwards of twenty years Mangvwat himself has consistently served as professor of history from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, to the University of Jos.

In other words, Mangvwat has as much at stake as both his collaborators and detractors in whatever fate befalls the University due to the individual and collective action or inaction of the warring parties. The plague of ethnic faction at the University of Jos preceded Mangvwat’s administration. Gomwalk transmogrified it into a North-versus-South acrimony. Now my correspondent says that an intra-Middle-Belt factionalization has flared up like an Ogoni oilfield, comparable to the mythopoeic tussle between the goat and the skeleton. The Igbo did say that the breadfruit sprouts like the tiny head of an infant and grows like the overbearing head of an adult.

When I read the name of Milcah Dadirep of the Department of Religion on the list of the Kano air crash victims of May 4, I knew it was time for me to write. I recalled how the former Head of English, Ayo Mamudu, suddenly died in his mid-fifties at the University Hospital without proper treatment, because his family did not have the sum of five thousand naira (less than fifty dollars!) on immediate demand by the medical personnel. I recalled how a student had to finance the belated treatment of Zachariah Orbundeh, a young faculty who ultimately succumbed to complications of typhoid fever in his mid-thirties. I am yet to outlive the nightmare of seeing some local urchins thrash a distinguished professor of linguistics with stinging cowhide right inside the precincts of the University in the name of ethnic and religious riot. I still lift through the mails of former students who took eight years to graduate from four-year degree programs due to incessant college closures occasioned by socio-political instabilities both local and national.

I know that the kite may never set the chick free, and the chick may never stop howling for the world to hear its voice. The white-tailed ant may never abandon its resplendent beauty. The leopard may never change its spots. It is my place, however, to say that it is perverse to get so lost in the pleasures of the vagina that the unborn child is stifled in the womb. Inasmuch as it is evil that negligence could starve the communal goat to death, it is equally abominable to kill the reincarnated grandfather with too much food. Ali Mazrui, in The Triple Heritage, notes how a foreigner who was traumatized by the overwhelming corruption in post-independent Ghana, demanded to know from a native why Ghanaians were so intent on milking the young republic dry. The elated native sheepishly answered that the Osagyefo, Kwame Nkrumah, had slaughtered a mighty cow and there was abundant meat for the whole community. The infantile Jack Yakubu Gowon similarly goofed so atrociously at the height of the oil boom era, that Nigeria’s problem was how to spend our vast reservoir of money. Those two enchanted gluttons forgot that a dead cow does not reproduce, which is why the Igbo always prefer the road to the cow. At least coming generations who may not have a share in today’s meat could find their path in life.

The egregious charade at the University of Jos is not our traditional way of making progress. Even if the university is a microcosmic reflection of the scandalous Nigerian polity, the fact remains that a university is better primed to sift between the fantasy of freedom and the bounds of buffoonery. It is obvious from recent reports (relating to the Universities of Ilorin, Lagos, Nigeria, Port Harcourt, etc.) that, indeed, many of Nigeria’s universities are grossly abusing the principles and praxis of university education that they fatuously copy from the West.

Finally, I felt that the Vice Chancellor ought to know that the wanton legacy of his predecessor need not turn a heavy cloak into an unbridled yoke. The climber is never the same as the cuddled tree. It is irresponsible to be chasing after rats when one’s house is on fire. On behalf of the dismayed University alumni, I ask that the faculty and staff rise to their pledge of service in restoring the fountain of knowledge that once charmed us to her luscious bosom. Their perennial infighting destroys the intimate idea of family that foregrounds the university community. There is no doubt that all the competing forces, faculty and staff, Northerners and Southerners, Middle-Belterns and non-Middle-Belterns, Christians and Moslems, love and care about the University. There is no doubt also that too much love, love without purpose, is not only foolish, it is sickening and dangerous. A Solomon must come to judgment before the bedraggled child is torn to shreds. The students for whom the University is established are watching. The Nigerian public whose taxes pay the bills is waiting.

As the chief executive of the University of Jos, it is time enough for Monday Mangvwat to rouse the fervent intellectual in his blood. It is time for him to sit down with his faculty and staff and inform them (perhaps over a cold glass of good beer) that the dreadful python that lurks in the thatch is aiming not just at himself alone, but at all of them one by one.

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