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OPINION: From Feather To Vice-Chancellor: Random Notes On Yemi Akinwumi, By Tunde Olusunle

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The reception hall of Idrinana Hotel in Lokoja, the Kogi State capital, had most probably never received the number and quality of guests it hosted on Monday February 15, 2021.

It was a colourful array of dignitaries from all facets of life. The royal contingent was led by the Obaro of Kabba and Chairman of the Okun Traditional Council, Oba Solomon Dele Owoniyi and the Olu Adde of Ekinrin Adde, Oba Anthony Bamigbaye Idowu.

From the academia were scholars like Professor Suleiman Bala Mohammed, Vice-Chancellor the Nasarawa State University; Professor Yakubu Ochefu, former Vice-Chancellor of Kwararafa University; Professor Gbenga Ibileye of the Federal University of Lokoja and Professor Eugene Aliegba also of the Nasarawa State University. Prof Kola Olorunleke of the Michael Ajasin University; Dr Tivlumun Nyitse of Bingham University, Karu; Dr Toba Olusunle, Managing Director of the Engineering Materials Development Institute, Dr Bode Oshadare of the Kogi State University, and many other scholars were in attendance.

Other dignitaries included Maj Gen Julius Olakunle Oshanupin, former Commander, Brigade of Guards in The Presidency; Barr Tunde Bello, former Solicitor-General of Kogi State; Dr Carolyn Ezeokeke, a Director in the National Commission for Museums and Monuments; Hon Positive Ihiabe, a former Member of the House of Representatives; Dr Femi Ajisafe, a former General Manager at the National Inland Waterways Authority; Mr Biodun Olorunleke, a former Director with the National Youth Service Corps, and Mr Sanya Ajakaiye, a former Director in the National Assembly Service Commission.

The event was a reception for the Vice Chancellor of the Federal University of Lokoja, Professor Olayemi Durotimi Akinwumi, who assumed office earlier that day. He replaced Professor Angela Freeman Miri who had served out her five year term in office.

Back in December 2020, the Governing Council of the University under the leadership of Senator Chris Adighije, had approved the appointment of Professor Akinwumi to the position. He was adjudged to have been head over shoulders above all the other 80 contestants for the position, from universities and institutions across the country.

According to Senator Adighije, the selection process was so rigorous that the 81 applicants, were initially scaled down to 20. Thereafter, the list was further pruned down to three names. Two independent external assessors were also invited to ensure openness, fairness and transparency in the selection process.

A five-man committee of friends of Akinwumi, notably: Dr Matthew Keyi (former Chairman of Ogori-Magongo local government area in Kogi State); Chief Sola Adedoyin, (a businessman and politician); Femi Ibrahim (a diplomat), Mr Rufus Aiyenigba and this writer, had constituted a small group to drive the event hosted that night. Except for Aiyenigba, all other members of the committee were alumni of the University of Ilorin.

As freshmen in the University of Ilorin in 1982, the reception we received from the older students and lecturers was welcoming and accommodating. I had come in at 200 Level, after completing my Cambridge University-moderated higher school certificate programme at the School of Basic Studies, Kwara State College of Technology. The likes of Gbenga Ayeni (now a professor of communication at the East Connecticut State University); Blessing Wikina (who retired as Director of Information in Rivers State a few years ago); Dapo Adelegan (a successful entrepreneur on the Lagos business scene) and Bisola Oluwole (a notable woman businesswoman in Lagos) among others, were also admitted by direct entry into the same programme. We never knew each other before our meeting at the University of Ilorin, but together we went through the motions of registration and familiarisation with our new environment.

As we shuttled between our various faculty blocks, departments, student union building, porters’ lodges and cafeteria, we met and made new friends who enthusiastically wanted to put us through our acculturation processes.

As students of English, we had to study Linguistics as “first minor”, also known as elective, elsewhere. You could choose a second minor from a broad array of other subjects, but I opted for History, having studied it for my higher school certificate.

From banters, handshakes, laughs and similar asides before or after our lectures, from strolling together to our hostels and to the library, we cultivated new friendships which have withstood the test of time. Tivlumun Nyitse (a former Permanent Secretary in Benue State); Tunji Bamishigbin (a renowned movie maker and actor); Mopah Aileku (a civil servant); Jide Owojaiye ( who recently retired from the teaching service commission in Kogi State);

and Yemi Akinwumi, among others, were our new friends. They had been in the university a year earlier as 100 Level students, and so, they were, to borrow the common lingo, “sons of the soil.”

As students taking courses in History, we were taught by scholars and intellectuals like the late Prof Ade Mobain Obayemi (who also once served as Director General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments); Dr (now Professor) Hakeem Olumide Danmole; Dr A.S. Adebola; Dr S.J. Watts, among others. Akinwumi was not only punctual and regular in class, he had a way of taking down in his notebooks, any and everything that was said by any lecturer. It was never surprising therefore, that our classmates who skipped lectures for any reason, queued in his room in the hostel, to borrow his books to update theirs.

Beyond the classroom, Akinwumi, Ayeni and I lived in the same hostel. Our rooms, accross the grassy quadrangle in our “F – Block” accommodation, was a whistling distance from one another. Together with our other friends, we made cat calls and threw jokes about all manner of subjects. We mimicked the verbal mannerisms of our teachers and enjoyed robust cackles from time to time. At leisure,  the quadrangle became a temporary field for “five-a-side” soccer.

Since we both resided in Ilorin, Akinwumi and I made it a point of duty to utilize our end-of-session holidays, productively. We got like-minded friends together and arranged summer lectures for secondary school students. It was not only a way of making little stipends for ourselves ahead of the new school year, it was also a way of keeping our minds academically active.

I recall Yemi once asked me: “Your parents are comfortable, you suffer no lack in school, why would you be interested in this summer school exercise?” He found an answer himself when he said: “Well, I think it is part of grooming by your parents, which is very good.” The summer school project also helped parents whose wards participated in the summer schools, keep them out of harm’s way within the period.

Don’t be mistaken, Yemi was not a straitjacket bookworm. Higher institutions in our days, encouraged extracurricular activities. Education then was beyond classwork, in the effort to build the man and his mind.

Apart from belonging to associations immediately related to our courses of study, other clubs and societies made the whole educational process a holistic grooming exercise. Students belonged to the “Historical Society”; the “English Readers Association”; the “Performing Arts Students’ Association”, and so on. At the same time, the “Rotaract Club”; the “Jaycees”; “Firepoint” (an underground campus newsletter), and many more, flourished.

Yemi Akinwumi and I belonged to the “Palmwine Drinkers Club”, an assemblage of jolly, fun loving students. Oludare Olajubu, a professor of Yoruba Studies and Linguistics in our time, was one of the pioneers of the Club in his days as a student, decades back. In the parlance of the Club, he was an “archival Fellow.” The University of Ilorin chapter of the club at the time was called “Ilya Du Ilorin.”

Members greeted themselves in a particular way by locking their index fingers together and rubbing their thumbs against one another. Non-members were saluted with regular handshakes and called “quantity surveyors” because they were not entitled to the Palmwine Drinkers special mode of greeting.

They evolved their own conversational lingo, a curious corruption of phrases in English, French and whatever was the prominent language in the immediate community of club. Palmwine Drinkers were recognized by their green caps and milk-coloured tops, which combination was referred to as the “regalia.” They announced their programmes, known as “gyrations” by initiates, with rhythmic drumming, singing and dancing on the campus.

Akinwumi ascended the hierarchy of the Club to become the “Feather.” Feather in this sense, was a pseudonym for Secretary. Writing in primordial times was done by dipping the tip of a bird’s feather in an ink bottle. It was his responsibility as the feather therefore, to keep the records of activities of the club and to serve notices of meetings.

In 1985, we both graduated and proceeded for the mandatory one year National Youth Service Corps, NYSC. And as though by mutual consent, we found ourselves back in the University of Ilorin for our masters degree programmes, in 1987.

He continued with his ambition to become one of Nigeria’s preeminent historians, while I also returned to my old department, English. Again, we lived in the same hostel, this time the “PG Hall” (PG for post graduate), also in the mini-campus of the institution. Those were days of struggle when we would make “eba” and appropriate “geisha” (canned fish in tomato sauce), as soup for our meal. We would sometimes visit my girlfriend at the time, who is my wife today, Funimi, and ask for food. Yemi’s girlfriend at the time, Toyin, who is also his wife, would sometimes bring us something to eat.

Upon the completion of our masters programme, I returned to my job as teacher in a secondary school in Iddo Oro, about 50 kilometres from Ilorin. Yemi stayed back to continue with his doctorate. In 1990, I got a job in the Daily Times, Lagos, so I had to relocate. Nevertheless, we kept in very close touch, especially since my family lived in Ilorin.

Yemi continued to make waves as a budding scholar in the academia. As I moved from Lagos to Lokoja and back to Lagos on several professional duties, we never lost touch. Even as I found myself in Abuja and he went abroad, we remained in close contact.

On his invitation, my wife and I were his guests in Berlin in 2004. At that time, he was at the Ethonogie Freie Universitat in Germany. With his Nigerian friend and compatriot, Victor Ngwu, they made our stay very memorable.

Professor Akinwumi has served his apprenticeship very well and honed his skills for his new assignment. Under the leadership of renowned academic and university administrator, Prof Adamu Baikie as Vice-Chancellor of the Nasarawa State University, he returned to Nigeria in early 2005 and became the first substantive Head of the Department of History, from 2005 to 2007. He also served as the Deputy Dean, Faculty of Arts from 2005 to 2006 and substantive Dean of the same faculty from 2006 to 2010. In 2009, he emerged Chairman of the Committee of Deans and Directors of the institution and Senate representative in the Governing Council. In 2017, he was appointed Director, Institute of Governance and Development Studies, and he became the Dean of the School of Postgraduate Studies. His last assignment before his recent appointment, was Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Academics at the Nasarawa State University.

From his early days at Nasarawa State University, he began a robust students’ exchange programme between the university and German institutions. My family and I were privileged on one occasion to play host in our Abuja abode to Akinwumi and his visitors from Germany. He also has never spared any opportunity to encourage his friends and associates in foreign institutions who desired to have their sabbatical in Nigeria, to make Nasarawa State University their first stop.

Indeed, in every position he found himself in, Akinwumi leveraged external support for the Nasarawa State University Keffi, in several ways. Some structures and monuments in the institution today, came to fruition, courtesy of his extensive contacts and relationships with people. He equally facilitated book gifts for the university library, from several foreign sources.

He has won several international and national academic laurels, notably: the Professor Ali Mazrui academic award for Academic Excellence in Kenya; the Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Study Award in South Africa; the prestigious Alexander von Humboldt Award in Germany and the Universitat Zurich Nord-Sud-Kooperation Award in Switzerland. He has also received the European Research Award in University College, London and the German Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdiendt, DAAD Award, among others.

Akinwumi was National President, Historical Society of Nigeria and has since been honoured with the Fellowship of the society. He is also a Member of the Nigeria Academy of Letters, NALs.

A tireless scholar and quester for knowledge, he has over 70 publications in national and international journals, books and monographs, and attended conferences, workshops and seminars in over 30 countries across the world.

He will be expected to bring his broad-based experience, contacts and affiliations across the world, to bear on his assignment as chief executive of the ten-year-old university.

Born January 20, 1964, he is happily married to Mrs Toyin Akinwumi, a civil servant and the union is blessed with beautiful children.

* Tunde Olusunle holds a doctorate degree in media arts from the University of Abuja.

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