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Agodi is to Ibadan what Kirikiri is to Lagos. It is the suburb of the city where the maximum security prison is located. Therefore, when the federal government announced the appointment of a nuclear physicist, Prof Cyril Agodi Onwumechili, as the Vice-chancellor of the University of Ife in succession to the renowned economist, Prof Ojetunji Aboyade, many students of the institution made a dance and song out of that middle name, Agodi!
Whereas Aboyade was lanky, magisterial and a natural goldfish, the new man, Onwumechili, was relatively small statured, self-effacing and consensual in administrative style. He was the very definition of the saying that the most priceless gifts come in small packages.
Quite a number of knowledgeable people in the academic community wondered if the Enugu-State-born scientist could survive the various banana peels of university administration, especially as Ife was the unofficial headquarters of radical student activism and fire-spitting leftist intellectuals.
It turned out that there was absolutely no need to fret on behalf of Onwumechili. He came to the job prepared. His style was humbling. In my many interactions with him as a student leader, he never once called me by name but by my title. In the same vein, he would address a faculty dean as “Dean”. That did not detract one iota from the fact that the man speaking was the number one citizen on campus.
He was only 47 when he was appointed VC, but his CV was so long you’d think he was in his sixties. He carried himself like an old sage, never brash, never talking down on subordinates. Those were the days!
But he was tempted once to interfere in the student union election of 1979. He told us the story of how some people had warned him never to allow certain activists assume leadership of the student union; otherwise, the campus would be on fire. The scientist in the new VC told him that a computerised election process such as Ife had in those days could not be tampered with without consequences. He chose to allow the computer to do its work even if it meant returning vibrant leaders as the new executive.
If there was anything one quickly learnt from the professor, it was his ability to put everything on the table and ask every stakeholder present to chip in ideas.That way, he was able to find a workable way to accommodate the directives of the federal military government and at the same time maintain cordiality with the students.
For example, when the federal government sent an official circular banning former leaders of the proscribed National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS) from being admitted into any Nigerian university, the VC, on our advice, replied immediately that unfortunately, the circular came too late; he had already admitted Segun Okeowo and the former student leader had already resumed classes. The VC however pledged to ensure that, going forward, no other rusticated student leader would be admitted.
There were many testy moments that could have led to a sharp disagreement between students and the authorities, but Onwumechili’s style was a moderating factor. One of such testy moments was when students waylaid the university bursar who had been holding on to their state bursaries for quite a while. The students’ union had written the bursar five times pleading with him to expedite action on the disbursements, to no avail.
The mob of student kidnappers then plucked the bursar from his air-conditioned car and placed him in a wheelbarrow. They blared sirens as they wheeled the hapless man round the campus for several hours until the alumni president, Prof Segun Adesina, arrived and pleaded with the students’ congress to release the man so that he could begin the process of quick disbursement of the bursaries.
Lesser conflicts had led to riots and subsequent student rustication in other universities. When VC Onwumechili summoned us all to a tense meeting, he only spoke briefly to express his displeasure that the students had not lived up to their pledge to always interact with the authorities to avoid any misunderstanding. He yielded the floor to his Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Prof David Ijalaiye. The Professor of Law couched the allegations in such apocalyptic legal terms that an onlooker would think we were all destined for the gallows. But when the students’ union produced evidence of five unreplied letters on the subject, the ice thawed.
Onwumechili’s ability to empathise with others was remarkable. Yes! When I was invited, together with Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and Dr. Tai Solarin, to appear at the Irikefe Tribunal probing the reported disappearance of $2.8 billion oil money, my VC discreetly sent me a message to make sure I sought legal advice from experts like Profs Ijalaiye and Sagay. I did. I also made sure to attend the tribunal with hundreds of student activists.
Onwumechili cared so much about student welfare. After we invited him to personally visit the halls of residence to see how much the facilities had deteriorated, he vowed that he would do whatever was necessary to bring succour to the students. The following day, he summoned the principal officers with the Works department in attendance. He laid out the survey map of the Opa dam on the table and asked some technical questions from the engineers. Eventually, he announced that the university could not afford the millions estimated for the project. “Let’s brainstorm”, he said; “instead of just throwing money at our problems”.
After the long technical session, the VC suggested an immediate remedy: he ordered that the second generator in the VC’s lodge be de-coupled and the engine component used to power the lift pump at the dam. Within 48 hours, water flowed in the halls of residence!
Although he was quite genial and understanding, Onwumechili was a stickler for discipline. In a particular instance, the son of one prominent university administrator in another university was accused of sexual misconduct in Ife. As usual in such cases, influence peddlers came to plead on behalf of the student. The VC swiftly ordered the Disciplinary Committee to sit on the matter. He wanted a quick resolution. (The student was the ‘macho type’!) When the Committee ordered him to put on his academic gown before judgement was passed, he burst into tears. In Ife parlance, he was shown the way to Road One. And that was the end of Solomon Grundy.
Prof Onwumechili knew how to keep his side of a bargain. After I left office, I was preparing for my final exams when a big crisis broke out on campus. A protest against ritual killing which claimed the life of one student led to the death of additional six. The campus was in turmoil. The situation had spiralled beyond the capacity of the students union leadership. The leadership of ASUU brokered a deal in which I would help restore normalcy, coordinate the People’s Tribunal set up by stakeholders (With Labanji Bolaji and Gani Fawehinmi as co-chairs), and appeal to the students to take their final sessional exams. We delivered, thanks to the support of critical segments such as ASUU, notable academics and student activists.
There was the little matter of the National Youth Service Corps which was pending. To ensure that I did not miss out on the scheme, the VC secured the permission of the federal authorities to allow those of us involved in the rescue mission to proceed on the NYSC orientation course even though we were yet to take our final papers. I personally saw a copy of the instruction of the federal government to NYSC Director, Col. Obasa, on this. After orientation, we returned to campus to take our final exams and returned to our places of primary assignment to continue national service. That was how we were able to graduate with our peers at the due time.
Cyril Agodi Onwumechili was born in 1932 at Oji River, Enugu State. A product of King’s College, Lagos, and the University of London, he earned a master’s degree in physics from the University of Ibadan in 1954 before later receiving a Doctorate degree from the University of London.
He was the first Nigerian Geophysicist and the second President of the Nigerian Academy of Science. He attained the rank of a professor in 1962.
He died last week, aged 91.
Although I‘m chewing the cud of remembrance with pleasure and fondness, this is not a goodbye, Prof. This is just to say a big thank you.
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