Nigeria, March/April 1978. The Minister for Education, Col Ahmadu Ali under the Obasanjo Military administration, had just announced that the Federal government of Nigeria intended to increase the cost of feeding for University and other tertiary institutions’ students. At the time also, students pay about 98 Naira per year to secure accommodation on campus. The room is shared with one or two or three other students, depending on the size of the room. Postgraduate students often have a room to themselves.
Previously, the cost of eating at the institutions’ cafeterias was as follows: Breakfast, 10 Kobo; Lunch, 20 Kobo and Dinner, 20 Kobo, making 50 Kobo in total to get a full three-square meal a day at our institutions of higher learning in those days.
Now Minister Ali wanted to increase it as thus: 20 Kobo for breakfast and 25 Kobo each for lunch and dinner, making a total of 70 Kobo per day. The National Unions of Students tried to negotiate with the government but Obasanjo’s government was adamant, and later talks broke down.
The students took to the streets in protest shouting “Ali Must Go”. The protests, I believed started at the Universities of Ibadan, Lagos and Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) and spread to others, including Ibadan Polytechnic, and most other tertiary institutions in the South West and Bendel State.
I was at the forefront of the demonstrations at the University of Ibadan, although I was not a member of the Students Union Executive Committee. Those were the days. We fought running battles with the Mobile Police stationed outside the gates of the University. Throughout the over a week that we boycotted classes, throwing stones and taunting the “godo-godos”, as we called the ferocious mobile, anti-riot policemen, not once did they enter the University. I guess that was their orders. And not once did the students destroy any building inside the campus.
After about a week of this standoff, the universities were closed by the Federal Government and every student advised to leave the campus. It was painful and inconvenient for students who came from afar to study at the various universities and polytechnics across Nigeria. At Ibadan, students from the South Eastern part of the country had to hurriedly charter luxury buses to take them back home to Aba, Enugu, Port Harcourt and the rest, leaving behind most of their belongings, because eventually the universities will be re-opened.
I would like to add that in those days, no matter what valuables you leave behind in your room, and no matter for how long, you are sure to come back and meet those valuables intact. Nobody, not even the room-cleaners taking care of our rooms, will loot your room – those were the good, honest old days. Even me who happened to come from and live in Ibadan itself left my stereo set behind in the room I shared with two other roommates. An Igbo friend of mine, not absolutely sure, asked me to take his expensive stereo equipment home with me for safekeeping.
My mother, on hearing the news of the closure, came to the campus gates with her car, but the mobile police would not let her thrive her car in, so she and my Aunt who accompanied her had to walk the almost one mile from the University gates to my hall of Residence, Independence Hall. Luckily for them, they met me in my room, but I told them I was not leaving with them, but will join them later. I never told them of my involvement with the activities, or else the poor women would have had heart attacks.
Eventually we all evacuated the campus, and I headed for Lagos, driven by an uncle of mine. I did not know Lagos was on the boil. The moment we reached Ikorodu Road, specifically between Palmgrove and Yaba, all hell was let loose, with a full scale riot going on and police engaged in running battles with ordinary citizens who decided to sympathise with the students, especially when the news was broken to the nation that several students had been killed by overzealous policemen who fired into their demonstrations at Ife and Lagos Universities (I forget the specifics, so please pardon me)
The people of Lagos had risen. And there were people on the Ikorodu Road engaging the Nigeria Police Force in battle. What was amazing was that some policemen actually joined the people; all shouting “Ali must go”. It seemed at the time to be the beginning of a popular revolt. As we later learnt, the Obasanjo regime was much shaken, very shaken indeed. I think that was the first time a military government in Nigeria was ever so shaken. Col. Ali was later removed as Minister for Education and certain reforms were announced.
Our vehicle was stopped by some demonstrators and on a hunch I just decided to show the angry people my student identity card, and before I knew it, these people started clearing the road for our vehicle, letting us pass. Two of them sat on the roof of our car and started shouting £Hey, make way, he is a student leader” and I had not even said anything to them about being a student leader, just merely a student of the University of Ibadan.
It was at Onipanu, where all hell broke loose again, because right in front of my eyes, I the four-storey building that belonged to the Nigeria Customs Service erupted, go up in smoke and collapsed. Everybody scattered. The building was levelled. Till today, I never knew what was kept in that building that made it collapse, but luckily, nobody was said to be hurt, at least that was what was said afterwards.
At Yaba, when we managed to get there eventually, aided by my self-appointed guardians, there was roadblock mounted by several men of the Nigeria Police Force, all red-eyed and looking wild and ready to shoot their guns. I asked my guardians to stop taunting the police, and I got out of the car and timidly approached the policemen. I calmly explained that I am a student from Ibadan, our university has been closed and I am in Lagos to be with my family.
What happened next remains in my memory till my death. The Officer in Charge, a young man too, told me that he supported the students, after all we were all fighting for the people of Nigeria, and fighting a military regime (and believe me, Obasanjo’s military regime, I consider to be one of the better military regimes to ever rule Nigeria), and that maybe the government would listen. He asked me where I was going, and I told him Surulere, whereupon, this young and noble officer asked two of his men to escort our vehicle with a police car in front blasting its siren. I was aged just 21 then.
This was how I got to Surulere, unmolested by the many violent demonstrators and gun0totting policemen on the way. My other guardians had disappeared at Yaba, presumably to join further still in the anarchy.
That was sometime in April 1978.
A sad note: my best friend, classmate and roommate, Matthew Imoisili, studying Soil Science and with only a year to go (and a cousin of the renown and intrepid journalist, Sonola Olumhense) having to pack his bags and headed for Lagos as a result of the closure, died in a motor accident on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway. We buried him later at his hometown of Igueben, Esan, now in Edo State. I regard him as a victim of the “Ali must go” students demonstration of 1978. May his soul rest in perfect peace.
After about a month of closure (again my memory lets me down here), the institutions of higher learning were reopened and we went back to the campus to immediately begin our examinations according to the schedule. No time was extended for us and we still had to graduate by July. All our properties were found intact in our rooms. The Ekene Dili Chukwus and Chi Di Eberes returned to Ibadan, with their loads of my brothers and sisters from the East, who had suffered the most inconvenience, and life appeared to return to normal on the c
However, underneath, the arrests, interrogation and victimisation of the leaders of the demonstrations began. Several student leaders were arrested, kept in cells and some were eventually charged with all kinds of offences. I was lucky; nobody even had a whiff of me, so escaped arrest and interrogation. My friends in the Students Union Executive Committee were victimised by the university authorities and some of them never got their degree certificates up till today. I remember a friend of mine, who was the Sports Secretary in that year, never got his degree in Chemistry until about 5 years later, but he did his Youth Service.
Looking back, and comparing to the present day, I think of how much students of this era now use to eat everyday. The cafeterias no longer exist on the campuses. In our days, breakfast of 20 kobo consist of your choice of bread, toasted or not, all kind of eggs, pancakes, all kinds of cereals, oats, your choice of coffee or tea, and fruits. Lunch and dinner has a choice of every Nigerian food you can think of (Eba, Amala, Pounded Yam, semo, rice and beans, rice and dodo), with your choice of stew, peppered or pepper-less (vegetable, okro, ogbono rich with crayfish, stockfish and cooked the real Igbo way, edikaikan, ewedu, gbegiri, etc) and then you have a choice of desserts in ice cream, jelly and cakes) On Sunday lunch time, there is additional choice of Jollof or fried rice with half a chicken as well as curry or green beans soup. All for 20 kobo, and we were complaining when it was unsubsidised to 25 Kobo. People from outside the university community even used to come and have their meals in our cafeterias then. All Halls of Residence had their own cafeterias.
Thank you Lord, but I cry for the current generation of Nigerian students. They are studying under very hard conditions. So it is disheartening to hear that Nigerians are now sending their children to Universities in Ghana to get a better education. I remember that our universities in Nigeria used to attract hundreds of foreign students. A credit to Obasanjo was his large scale allowance and sponsorship of thousands of Zimbabweans and South Africans to study in Nigeria in the 70s, as part of Nigeria’s fore-front fight against apartheid.
There were university students exchange programs with other West African universities, especially with Ghanaian universities. I used to take in Ghanaian students from the University of Legon into my room every year when they visit the University of Ibadan on educational and sports exchanges and trips lasting up to two weeks at times. In those days, Ghanaians, Sierra Leoneans and Liberians thought Nigeria was a replica of the United States of America.
Even in those days, it was like we were having fun studying, as a matter of fact, I have to admit it was fun studying in Nigeria in those days. There was the Federal Government Loan of 1500 Naira per year (nobody ever pays it back because the Government never chase us for it); then the states’ bursaries (I remember the Bendel State Government used to pay each of its students in higher institutions 200Naira per year, the highest rate in the country at the time); and the states’ scholarships.
Some states in the East used to charter buses to drop and pick their students to and from their states in those days. The various clubs used to charter the University buses to go on trips to visit or party with other clubs in other universities around the country.
As a member (Comrad) of the Kegites Club of the University of Ibadan, I went on trips with hired University of Ibadan luxury buses supplied with drivers to “gyrate” with other Palm Wine Drinkards clubs (“Iliyas”) at the Universities of Ife, Lagos, Ilorin, Benin, Port Harcourt, Nsukka, Jos, and even Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, as well as the Polytechnic, Ibadan, Yaba College of Technology, Lagos; Adeyemi College of Education, Ondo and School of Agriculture, Akure, etc.
As I am writing, I am shaking my head in wonder and smiling at the reminiscence. I made life-long friends just interacting with other Nigerians through the many other components of formal education, while at the same time enjoying a qualitative education, mostly driven by excellent Nigerian teachers.
Unfortunately, my smiles and happiness are short-lived when I wake up to the reality that some idiots have ruined Nigeria for us such that current and future generations may never realise that Nigeria had been “good” before. It was not always like this. Unfortunately, we all have to bear the blame.
Some last words: Some of our corrupt ex-Governors during Obasanjo’s eight-year misrule are now virtual prisoners in their own country. Dariye and Alamieyeseigha dare not venture out of Nigeria or they will be grabbed by Interpol or the British Police. They jumped bail in the UK which is an offence by itself. So, they are now classified as fugitives and criminals. Ibori too can hardly venture out. Some of his accomplices are already in the net in the UK. Odili is staying clear of Rivers State, a state he ruled for eight years, for many different reasons. What a shame. With Oni in power in Ekiti State, I doubt if ex-Governor Fayose can go home to visit without causing a stir. Orji Kalu is hardly welcome in Abia State. When their eight years are up, I doubt if Gbenga Daniel and Olagunsoye Oyinlola will be welcome in Ogun and Osun States respectively.
In the meantime, after only two years in power, the machinery of governance and administration will ground to a halt in Abuja and all the states capitals, because Ministers, Senators, Representatives, Special Assistants and Advisers, Board members, State Commissioners, Local Government chief, etc who have higher ambitions to become Governors and other political posts, and one-term governors seeking a second term will now concentrate on subtle and not so subtle campaigns, and abandon their responsibilities. It has started already. For the next two years until 2011, nothing will get done, and most importantly, more stealing and looting will be taking place. That is Nigerian democracy for you.
This article is dedicated to my friends: late Matthew Imoisili; Professor Ayodeji Oluleye, now Dean, Faculty of Engineering, University of Ibadan; Alhaji Tunji Ekemode, pioneer and former Provost, Lagos State College of Primary Education, Epe; late Emmanuel Emeni; Professor Bassey Effiong Bassey, now living somewhere in the United States; Rev. Olusesan Olumewo, now in the UK; Eng. Femi Dada; Sonola Olumhense, now living in the US; Professor Harry Garuba; Dr Gabriel Osaze Egharevba, ex-Unilag and now Reader, Chemistry Department, Obafemi Awolowo University; Shola Akintimehin , where are you now?; Alex Amata, Collins Abulu and Frank Kayoma (the Bendel boys); the National Association of Seadogs; the Kegites Club, University of Ibadan; University of Ibadan Students Union Executives of 1977/78 and the University of Ibadan itself.
I remember you all. If I have forgotten to mention anybody else, please forgive me. Nigeria will be good one day, don’t you worry.