By Bennett C. Nwanguma
The University of Nigeria, Nsukka recently rolled out the the customary red carpet, the brass drums and their traditional green and white drapes to receive Dr Alex Otti, the Governor of Abia State, who is also a revered recipient of the Honorary Doctorate Degree of the University.
The occasion was the 63rd edition of the Founders’ Day Lecture of the University which held on Thursday, October 5, 2023, at the Nsukka campus of the University. The Founders’ Day ceremony of the University is held annually to remember, celebrate and honour the Rt. Hon. (Dr) Nnamdi Azikiwe and his contemporaries who founded the university in the wake of Nigeria’s independence in October 1960.
The befitting venue was the Princess Alexandra Auditorium and Unity Hall (PAA) – a magnificent venue that holds its share of the unique history of the university.
The auditorium is named after Princess Alexandra of Kent, who represented Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain at the independence ceremonies (held in Lagos on 1st October, 1960) and at the inauguration of the University of Nigeria (held at Nsukka six days later). The PAA, as it is called, still adorns the portraits of the Princess and that of Rt. Hon. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, who also became the first Chancellor of the University. The auditorium was bombed out during the civil war by federal forces because the university, whose name had been changed to the University of Biafra, was conducting a graduation ceremony at the hall. The convocation ceremony was held at night to evade detection by the federal. The top management of the university and the graduation class of 1967, known fondly as “Circle ‘67, escaped with their lives because the short convocation ceremony ended just before the bombs rained down and destroyed the auditorium.
In delivering the lecture, Dr Alex Otti was following in the footsteps of Engr Dave Umahi, the former Governor of Ebonyi State, and the present Minister of Works, Mr Peter Obi, the former Governor of Anambra State and the presidential candidate of the Labour Party and Mr Udom Emmanuel, the former Governor of Akwa Ibom State, who delivered the 59th, 60th and 61st editions of the prestigious lecture series, respectively.
The 63rd edition of the lecture was chaired by Professor Elochukwu Amucheazi, the pioneer Director General of the National Orientation Agency, who set the stage by giving a short history of the university. It was indeed a unique and colourful occasion, and it was made even more special by the presence of Professor Frank Ndili, the highly regarded 7th Vice-Chancellor of the University, who was visiting the University after 15 years. Frank Ndili is credited with building the most magnificent buildings at the University, and his tenure (1980 – 1985) is still considered the golden era of the University. Understandably, Professor Ndili deliberately preserved the bombed out remnants of PAA to serve as a relic and a monument of the civil war. But, one of his successors, Professor Umaru Gomwalk, a sole administrator, decided otherwise, and rebuilt the auditorium, arguing that it was better to forget the impact of the war on the campus than to remember it.
In his address as the host, the Vice – Chancellor of the University, Professor Charles Igwe, narrated how Dr Otti emerged the most desired guest lecturer out of a shortlist of 6 potential guest speakers who were considered for the 63rd edition of the lecture.
In anticipation of a massive turnout of staff and students who wanted to behold and listen to Alex Otti, the man of the moment, provisions had to be made for an overflow in the form of canopies, screens and additional seats that were kept outside the hall.
The topic of Otti’s lecture was “Removal of the petrol subsidy: dealing with the challenges and harnessing the opportunities’. Dr Otti, the economist and banker turned politician, had wisely chosen to speak on a subject that was both topical, interesting and almost sensational. He went ahead to deliver a rich and engaging lecture that left the audience wishing for more. In Otti’s opinion, removing the subsidy was the right thing to do, and should have happened a decade earlier. But, he criticized the manner in which the subsidy was removed, especially how such a far-reaching policy was communicated to the people. He also condemned the fact that adequate buffers, which would have minimized the impact of subsidy removal on the citizens, especially those of lower socioeconomic status, were not put in place before the eventual removal of the subsidy. He went on to identify what preparations the federal government should have put in place before the removal of the subsidy. Expectedly, the guest lecturer also took advantage of the big stage to highlight some of the many policies which his government had put in place to help alleviate or cushion the impact of the removal of subsidy on civil servants in his state of Abia. Dr Otti went further to present and justify a long list of other policies and programmes which he intends to use to transform and change the narrative of Abia State. Obviously, these policies and programmes attracted the loudest applause from the audience, which included a good number of staff, students and other citizens of Abia State who live in Nsukka.
Remarkably, Dr Otti stayed on the subject and succeeded in sustaining the interest and attention of the audience until the very last minute. In appreciation, the audience applauded over 20 times, including a resounding and standing ovation at the end. The consensus was that It was an excellent lecture and it was well-received. At the end, the audience was left in awe and utter admiration of the man who many people now see as “man of the moment”, the “messiah” who has come to wipe the tears off the people of Abia State.
The choice of Alex Otti as the guest lecturer at Nigeria’s oldest indigenous university must be seen as a form of approval or endorsement of the first steps he has taken as the Governor of Abia State. Many may argue, however, that these are early days, and it may be rather hasty to judge Otti and other governors who assumed office only 5 months ago. In contrast, the Igbo adage, “ubochi oma na esi na ututu awara anwu”, offers a perfect description of the scenario. This translates to: “a sunny morning often serves as a good predictor of a glorious day”. This proverb explains and justifies why the people of Abia State are suddenly walking with a new-found swag and with their shoulders held high. To be honest, no one should blame the long-suffering people of Abia State for celebrating what promises to be a glorious future under the leadership of Dr. Alex Otti. From the look of things, he is aware of the great expectations which he now bears on those tested shoulders of his. One can only wish Alex Otti and the people of Abia the very best of luck.
*Professor Nwanguma is the Chairman of Senate Ceremonials Committee of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.