A Genius Who Laboured on ‘Just The Technical Side-line’

By Frank Onyezili

That day, December 1, 2011, when President Goodluck Jonathan conferred on you the Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM), the highest honour Nigeria awards its citizens for academic excellence and outstanding intellectual achievement, you were described as a “University academic” who made “tremendous contributions in the area of agricultural commodity taxation and farm inputs and their consequences”. But, long before then, in 1962, you had debuted at King’s College (KC), Lagos, as simply “Citizen Idachaba of McKee Wright’s House”. You were my dormitory captain and, although I was then in form three, I was sufficiently enamoured to offer you my services as your fag (fags, “stinking” fags, at King’s were usually form one students).
You flashed a toothy grin, accepted my offer but in all your 2 years at King’s, 1962 and 1963, you washed/ironed your clothes yourself, polished your sandals yourself and made no demands whatsoever on me. Rather, delicately and effortlessly, you instilled in me your own self-discipline, and left me there at King’s much wiser and far better all round than you met me. Although you flirted with lawn tennis as well as 100 yards hurdles during the athletics season, and although you were also registered in the KC dancing club, very evidently, your greatest passion was for your textbooks, with no frills. And, no wonder, you achieved distinctions in all your three Higher School Certificate (HSC) principal subjects

After King’s and the University of Ibadan you literally traversed the world but returned to midwife Nigeria’s Universities of Agriculture (1988) and, in 1991, the National Agricultural Land Development Authority (NALDA). From your vantage position on the Ibrahim Babangida’s (IBB), Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC) you were also quietly impacting almost every Nigeria budget speech delivered by the erstwhile President. When I noticed the President’s preference for your own unique choice of English words and language, verbatim, in those speeches of his, you, ever self-effacing, responded to my question by saying you served on “just the technical side-line”. As ever, you remained the quintessential iconoclast
When our paths crossed again after a break of 25 years, at the University of Agriculture, Makurdi (UAM), where you became the Pioneer Vice-Chancellor, I was still your fag, but you always publicly referred to me as “my Dean of Science”. This time around, you had work for me, from serving on the team to prepare the UAM Academic Brief to chairing the Committee on the movement to the University’s permanent site. There you were, in your trademark dark suit and a beard that almost matched Cuba’s Fidel Castro’s, engaging with Rev Father Moses Adasu, the then Benue State governor who, in his hurry to found Benue State University, almost (but for your firm insistence) commandeered UAM’s state-of-the-art Engineering laboratory equipment. You must remember that our stampeded relocation to UAM’s permanent site. With hindsight now, perhaps you should have listened to IBB, the self-proclaimed genius who, when you complained about the hassles from Father Adasu, the Roman Catholic priest, urged you to solve the problem by attending Adasu’s morning mass and, thereby, to befriend him

There you were again, at UAM’s permanent site, at grave personal risk, standing up to the fury of villagers who stayed put after having received due Federal Government compensation for their land. How did you ever persuade those minds that seemed hell-bent on strife to jettison brawling and embrace dialogue? How did you manage to secure and take full, unencumbered possession of UAM’s 8,000-hectare permanent site in such adverse circumstances? And how did you win over to your side all those UAM’s sweltering catchment area communities, especially given your stout stand against several attempts from within the system to create lop-sided ethic hegemony that so nearly ruined the career prospects of talented but non-indigene UAM staff?
By when you arrived at UAM, you had identified the provision of adequate food for all Nigerians at affordable prices as the most fundamental challenge facing the nation. You had a clear mission: to provide prompt solutions to farmers’ practical problems such that, by generating high-yielding agricultural technologies and accelerating their diffusion and mass adoption, the fruits of science would reach the farmgate in form, amounts and time that farmers need them. From the word go, your single-eyed focus was to build at Makurdi a first-rate University for posterity, into perpetuity. You shunned the populist leadership style, preferring a merit-based approach to any appointment in the University

Merit was your watchword and, to the very end, you played by set rules whatever the issue, from student admissions to staff appointments, promotion and discipline for infractions, not minding ethnic origins and pressure from domineering cultural elites. Under your watch, it was a level playing field, with no for corruption in any guise
Do you remember the clamour, by our Engineering students who mostly were engineered by the same local elites, for a general University to replace UAM on the grounds that “University of Agriculture” would demean their certificates and cost them employment opportunities? You met the aggrieved stakeholders face-on (which Vice-Chancellor in Nigeria would risk such confrontation with fierce  local traditional forces?). Then, you kept your promise, took definite positive steps by arranging for the establishment of sub-disciplines of Engineering that received due accreditation from the Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria (COREN). That way, you won over your critics

The year 1994 proved remarkable in more ways than one. There was the March 1994 strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), a strike that not only broke the perfect record of no strike at UAM but also managed to create a record of its own, as the shortest strike in the Nigeria University system, lasting just 48 hours? Then, you were in the thick of the UAM students’ riot of June 1994, which tarnished UAM’s ranking as the most peaceful campus in the country. Somehow, you survived it.  Professor John Ayoade, the loyalist who was instrumental to your “safe passage” to the hideout in Professor Dele Ogunwolu’s residence, is currently UAM’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academics)
What I found most instructive was that you didn’t allow any of these 1994 mishaps to becloud your mission and vision. You started and completed UAM’s state-of-the-art library that became fully operational in the same 1994. Any wonder that the Library, on the eve of your departure at the end of 8 years at UAM, was renamed after you, as “Francis Sulemanu Idachaba Library”?
As you know, there was some backyard grumbling, mostly by indigenes, about your failure to “do as the Romans do, when in Rome”. You never engaged in the usual social revelling, with pepper soup, in the Vice-Chancellor’s Lodge. Also, rather than appropriate for yourself even a single cow from the University, you provided the enabling environment that nurtured the cows, ensuring their growth and rapid multiplication for UAM. You’re the only Vice-Chancellor of a Nigerian University that I know who left office with no abandoned projects and I often wondered whether this feat was attributable to the economist in you, your knack for disciplined financial management, or sheer good luck

Fast forward now, to that meeting, in 2003 or so, at your Abuja Sheraton hotel suite where I sought your advice on managing my personal finances. You were quite clear: “Invest in stocks and shares, not too many, choose them carefully, be very patient” you had counselled. Had I taken that advice, the 2008 financial meltdown might not have so nearly become the ruin of me. Then, when I narrated my fate to you, you didn’t chide me. There are “no easy harvests”, you told me very gently. Whenever it mattered, you were ever so gentle
It seems to me also that you lived your life according to the Preacher, fearing God and keeping His commandments, as “the whole duty of man”. Adieu and Floreat Prof, the egghead who laboured so assiduously, selflessly, serving gown, town and country, a most peculiar man on “just the technical side-line.”

Source: This Day

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