AN ADDRESS BY THE VICE-CHANCELLOR PROFESSOR NIMI D. BRIGGS TO MARK THE DAY OF THE 21ST CONVOCATION CEREMONY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF PORT HARCOURT ON SATURDAY, 5TH MARCH, 2005
January 2000, the commencement of a new millennium, fortuitously, coincided with my appointment as the Vice-Chancellor of this great university. My appointment was first in an acting capacity which lasted for six months and then in a substantive one for a single tenure of five years. At my assumption of office then, judging from the antecedents of the university, it became clear to me that there was an urgent need for a comprehensive review of the institution’s development in order to enable it meet existing realities and to face future challenges.
After exhaustive deliberations and consultations at meetings of the Governing Council, Senate and Congregation, we all came to a collective decision that for the University of Port Harcourt to retain its relevance in the new millennium, there was a need for it to pay attention to a number of imperatives. These are:
It should aggressively address the issue of infrastructural inadequacies and decay and source for funds to enable it carry out its legitimate business. The outlook of the university must change from that of an insular, local university which is preoccupied with mundane issues, to one of a forward-looking and dynamic institution which is seriously engaged in its calling and is reaching out to its local as well as the international communities; staff and students must shun trifles and irrelevancies and embrace discipline and scholarship.
Growth and Development
Five years down this path and at this 21st Convocation Ceremony, the last for me as the Vice-Chancellor of this great university, let us examine, briefly, how much of our collective resolve at the commencement of this millennium, has been achieved. Here, all those who know this university will immediately accept that the institution has taken a quantum leap in the past five years.
With forty new construction works including classrooms, students’ hostel accommodation, staff residential quarters, laboratories, auditoria, boundary wall fencing and roads, the infrastructural deficiencies in the university are being robustly tackled. The Ebitimi Banigo Auditorium and that being constructed by the Basic Studies Unit will each have ample room for seminars, conferences and other educational pursuits — facilities that have long eluded this university. The Department of English Studies in the Faculty of Humanities will soon move to the Rotimi Amaechi Building, while the Peter Odili Students Hostel which is almost completed will alleviate the difficulties suffered by students in obtaining decent hostel accommodation. With the assistance of The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a philanthropic organisation with its headquarters in the United States of America, construction work will soon commence on the Senate Building which will also house the Administrative Block of the university. The Information, Technology and Communication Centre (ICTC) which was completed by the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) Joint Venture Partnership is a delight to see, while construction work on the University Library Building, which was abandoned over twenty years ago, due to lack of funds has now resumed.
With the completion of the Obasanjo Water Supply Scheme by the Niger Delta Basin Development Authority (NDBDA) and the purchase of three 1,000 KVA Generators, largely with funds from the Education Tax Fund and other electric power generating plants which were donated by the Rivers and Bayelsa State Governments, difficulties with water and electricity have been ameliorated to a large extent in the campus. These two utilities which previously served as flash points are now virtually taken for granted. Through the help of Rivers State Government, telecommunication was extended to various parts of the campus.
In the area of academics, we isolated and removed from our midst those persons who had used irregular means to become students of this university and we have gone ahead to streamline the admission process in a more stringent manner. Through the work of its Professional Ethics Committee, Senate ensured that lectures at the beginning of each semester commenced on time as was not the case and that examination results were ready five weeks after. This paved the way for graduating students to now receive their certificates on the day of graduation.
We have created new departments and faculties as well as specialised centres that will address specific critical issues in the nation’s development. The Institute of Petroleum Studies (IPS) which has been financed so far by Total and its subsidiary Elf Petroleum Nigeria Ltd, in conjunction with IFP School, Paris, trains high level manpower for the Nigerian Petroleum and Gas Industry. The Centre for Ethnic and Conflict Studies (CENTECS) is addressing the burning issue of restiveness in the Niger Delta of Nigeria, while the Institute of Maternal and Child Health would ensure that we have sufficient database that will enable us to drastically reduce maternal and perinatal deaths. The Regional Centre for Bioresources and Biotechnology (RCBB) which will have a Biodiversity Conservation Area and a Botanical Garden component, will be concerned, among others, with bioconservation. Furthermore, the university sustained its outreach to those who could not study within its borders by establishing fresh institutional affiliations and also strengthening its College of Continuing Education (CCE) where an International Secondary School has been established and a Centre of Continuing Education opened at the city of Yenagoa in Bayelsa State. The culture of delivering Professorial Inaugural Lectures was pursued with intense vigour and the professors eagerly took their turns to deliver well-researched lectures. Additionally, three Chairs were endowed during the period:
1. Gas Engineering by PTDF.
2. Cultural Heritage by UNESCO and
3. Mass Communication Studies by Dr Alex Ibru.
The processing of certificates was taken with all seriousness and this greatly assisted the alumni of the university, who needed such certificates for authentication of their qualifications. Only recently, the university launched two important documents: one on Code of Conduct and the other on HIV/AIDS Policy. These documents, first of their kind in the Nigerian university system, were formulated for specific purposes. Whereas the Code of Conduct document contains information by which the behaviour of staff and students is to be regulated, the HIV/AIDS Policy document spells out the university’s response to that ubiquitous viral infection which is more common in youths and young adults, the preponderant population of a university community. Furthermore, a Youth Friendly Centre which encourages youths to discuss sexuality issues with experts in confidence was recently opened.
Realising the pivotal role that international cooperation and exchange of staff and students play in advancing higher education throughout the world, the university established the University Advancement Centre (UAC) with a mandate, among others, to aggressively pursue international cooperation and linkages with institutions of higher learning and to forge bilateral, mutually beneficial relationships with the private sector, industry, governments and other stakeholders in education. The centre also serves as the hub of the university’s fund-raising activities.
Due attention was paid to staff and students welfare. Matters governing staff promotions and their entitlements, including those of retirees, were handled with utmost despatch. This university prides itself in the fact that it is up-to-date with the payment of pensions and gratuities to its retirees!
A Human Resources Development Unit (HURDU) was established to undertake regular in-service refresher training programmes, while the UAC facilitated staff training abroad. We supported student activities in every way possible — intracampus transportation, visits to other universities within and outside Nigeria. Only recently, we carried out an extensive renovation of students hostels including painting, which gave the hostels the much needed face-lift.
In the area of sports, our performance was beyond all expectations. We now have the best sporting facilities in the Nigerian university system here at the University of Port Harcourt, the facilities being second in the nation, only to those at the National Stadium, Abuja. Our modern Olympic size swimming pool is among the best seven in the world! Along with these superlative structures was an equally superlative performance by our athletes. The University of Port Harcourt was second on the medals table at the Nigerian University Games in 2000, 2nd in 2002, and 1st in 2004. The 2004 Games which were hosted by the University of Port Harcourt, to borrow the words of President George Walker Bush, were resoundingly successful. The university was also first at the West African Universities Games in 2003, which were held at the University of Ouagadougou, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, beating even the host university to a second position.
We made relentless efforts to improve the revenue base of the university through improvements in internally generated funds. The Choba-Uniport Community Bank which was moribund and bankrupt was so successfully resuscitated that it is today a very strong and thriving Community Bank which is rated among the best in the country. Uniport Investments Limited and the Consultancy, Research and Development Centre (CORDEC) are also now performing better than was the case hitherto. In a similar vein, serious attention was paid to the University Demonstration Secondary School (UDSS). The downward trend and retrogression of the school were halted. The school is now doing very well and with boarding facilities for boys and girls.
Environmental sanitation was considered to be sufficiently important for a new unit, Campus Environmental and Beautification Unit (CEBAS), to be created. Headed by a very dedicated staff of this university, the unit has ensured the general cleanliness of the campus and that the large volume of refuse that is generated daily is disposed of promptly.
These indeed are giant strides. They are concrete, incontestable, incontrovertible, and verifiable and they have had a profound positive effect on the university.
The institution now has a better visibility; its image, more respectable and its environment, more in keeping with one that is able to support serious academic pursuits. It now attracts better quality students who are more committed to their studies and are less given to violence, falsification of admission records and involvement in examination malpractices. So, they fare well when matched against their peers in national and international academic competitions. For the past four years, students of this university have held the first position at the annual Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) student paper presentations. The staff are also more committed; they relate better to one another and they carry out their responsibilities with a greater sense of dedication. By its performances at the last West African Universities Games and the Nigerian University Games, the University of Port Harcourt has become the only university in Nigeria that has consecutively topped the medals list in these two games. As if all these were not enough, the university even produced the most beautiful girl in the world — the Miss World 2001, Agbani Asenite Darego, (Matriculation No. 2000/5575284), the first ever from black Africa.
These positive attributes of the University of Port Harcourt were recently corroborated by the National Universities Commission (NUC), when it declared the University of Port Harcourt not only as the best governed in the entire Nigerian university system in 2003; NUC also adjudged the university as the No.1 in the quality of the academic content of its first degree programmes, along with the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta.
This forward-looking, progressive, determined and dynamic posture of the university attracted well-meaning persons, organisations and philanthropists to rally round and support the institution. And they did so in large numbers. Important visitors were frequent to the university. Their Excellencies, the Executive Governors of various states in Nigeria; their Excellencies, Ambassadors of various sovereign nations of the world; Honourable Ministers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; Distinguished Senators and Honourable Members of the National Assembly; Captains of industry and academic gurus. Even Mr President, His Excellency, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, GCFR, who is also the Visitor to the University and the First Lady, Her Excellency, Chief (Mrs) Stella Obasanjo, visited the university at different times and expressed their admiration and pleasure at the progress of the university. Never was there a dull moment as even the occasional rumbling of the unions, added to the vibrancy of the institution. And to borrow from the words of Sir Winston Churchill, “this was indeed our finest hour”.
The University of Port Harcourt in a Global Context
But one may now ask: have all these strides, improvements and good fortunes converted the University of Port Harcourt into a truly first rate global University? The honest answer is “not yet”. For one thing, the infrastructure is still inadequate and the facilities for first class research, not up to the mark. Highspeed telecommunication, the bedrock of today’s knowledge acquisition and dissemination, is still rudimentary. Power supply, though better, is brittle and our laboratories and workshops, not well equipped. Human resources, attenuated by years of poor morale and depleted by death, cry for a refill.
Unfortunately, these remarks are not only true of the University of Port Harcourt; they also reflect the state of affairs in all universities in Nigeria to varying degrees and sadly, most in sub-Saharan Africa. No university in Africa — the University of Port Harcourt inclusive — could make the list of the World’s Leading 200 Universities which was recently published in the Times Higher Education, November 5, 2004 edition. And here, a look at some of the criteria that were used to assess the universities is instructive:
1. Ground breaking research that leads to international recognition like the award of the Nobel Prize.
2. The presence in that university of international scholars whose literary and scientific works are most often cited in major international journals.
3. The presence in the university of students from diverse countries of the world.
It was therefore not surprising to note that universities that are situated in countries that have established a tradition of good governance, where the economy is able to sustain a decent standard of living for the generality of the citizens, the universities are adequately supported and are allowed to take control over their own affairs including the power to hire the most productive staff at their own prices, like is the case in several countries in North America and Europe, came top on the list.
The situation is different in Africa, where there has been a prolonged deterioration of institutions of higher learning. Infrastructure for educational pursuits is poor and the lure for continuing education and life long learning, virtually absent. Poor governance, resulting in the collapse of national economies and lack of adequate investment in education and research have further contributed to the deteriorating quality of education. Furthermore, the weak linkages between universities, government, industries and the private sector, have also heightened the achievement gap.
Should we then, staff and students of the University of Port Harcourt lie prostrate and throw up our arms in utter disillusionment and despair on the ground that all our efforts in recent times do not appear to have taken us far? Here again, the answer is no, as we now have a number of factors that are in our favour. Rather, we should consolidate and build on the successes we have had in recent times and continue to work assiduously. For I share the optimism of many others who are of the belief that the University of Port Harcourt will rise to be one of the foremost universities in black Africa!
For one thing, we have established a tremendous amount of goodwill and opened up fantastic opportunities within and outside Nigeria, which we must exploit. People now listen to us better and are prepared to work with us. Governments, philanthropists, the private sector, industry and well-meaning people see us as a credible and purposeful institution worth doing business with. We have instituted a Strategic Plan titled Building the Future: the University of Port Harcourt which defines for us where we were, where we now are and where we hope to be. With this well-defined roadmap, it becomes easier to navigate our path in the future.
The better quality students whom we are now attracting and the cohesion and seriousness we have forged amongst staff as well as the somewhat improved environment, should place the institution in good stead for concerted academic work that should result in the breakthrough we are seeking.
Furthermore, the excellent sporting facilities we have should be of tremendous advantage to the university. Staff and students can use their leisure hours in exercising themselves physically and so be less inclined to engaging in unwholesome activities. The facilities can be made open for national and international sporting activities. This will further boost the image of the university and enrich its revenue generation.
Our University Advancement Centre is a huge asset with almost limitless potential for exploiting mutually beneficial linkages, external relations and partnerships with industry and the organised private sector. With the on-going reorganisation of the Centre into a Development Office and an Alumni Relation Management Office, it should also prove to be a veritable base for fund-raising activities. So also, are our Specialised Units which will not only serve as specific growth points in the University, but also units that will enhance our contributions to poverty eradication and to sustainable development in Nigeria, as they seek to address specific issues in the nation’s march towards an egalitarian society. And here, permit me once again to indulge myself by mentioning the Institute of Petroleum Studies (IPS) where this university, along with the world famous IFP School, Paris, is training men and women who will occupy the top echelons of the petroleum industry. With our dominance in this field, we are planning to venture into exploration activities in partnership with others, establish a Petroleum Museum at the university and offer joint programmes outside Nigeria, especially within the countries in the Gulf of Guinea of Africa.
In 2003, at this very forum, we launched the university’s Silver Jubilee Endowment Fund. I am proud to announce, some of us, staff and students of the university, as well as many others, but especially, Dr Alex Ibru and Dr (Mrs) Ndidi Onyiuke-Okereke, willingly contributed. The fund will be relaunched today and the proceeds used to augment what is already available. Thereafter, I suggest that we wisely invest the fund for the next ten years before its utilisation for the needs of the university.
At the level of the nation and indeed our continent Africa, I want to keep hope alive. Nigerians have been invited to bare their minds under the umbrella of a Conference on Political Reforms. The expectation is that at the end of that debate, Nigeria would have identified those inhibiting factors in her polity, which have continued to weigh her down with shackles as a third world country in spite of her enormous human and material resources. Mother Africa is also awakening to a new dawn. The new African Union (AU) of which our President is Chairman, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) are all instruments with which Africa is currently redirecting itself. Recent experience in Togo augurs well for democracy in Africa. The relationship between this renaissance and the universities is as clear as crystals. For, like universities elsewhere, African universities, the University of Port Harcourt inclusive, as the bastions of knowledge, have a pivotal role to play in repositioning individual African countries and the continent, in their quest for sustainable development including a breakaway from the cycle of global economic marginalisation, hunger, disease and endless violent conflicts.
Famished as we are by a string of bad governments, destructive economic policies and chronic under-funding, the process of lifting our universities to world standards will neither be easy nor swift. There is only one gold standard in education and that standard is global, not local. However, we must not despair. For as the Chinese saying goes, the journey of a thousand miles commences with a single step. For the University of Port Harcourt, that step has been taken. And in this respect, let me publicly thank the current Federal Government of Nigeria, including the Senate and the House of Representatives Committees on Education for the improved funding to the universities which, though still inadequate, is beginning to make a difference. Your recent instructions to Vice-Chancellors to make a comprehensive listing of requirements in their laboratories and workshops to bring them to world standard is deeply appreciated. In the same vein, may I plead with government to review the case of university staff that participated in the 2003 strike actions and direct Vice-Chancellors to pay them their outstanding salaries.
Congratulations to the Graduands
Let me crave your indulgence if I have carried on so far as if I am oblivious of the fact that today is a special day to many of you. I am referring to the graduands, their well-wishers, parents and guardians. Only yesterday, with the authority of the Senate of the institution, I conferred the university’s first degrees, on 2,568 worthy recipients. Today, Master’s, Doctoral and Honorary Degrees will also be conferred on deserving persons. I congratulate you all most heartily and welcome you to the alumni family of the great University of Port Harcourt. The fulfilment that is yours today is earned and may you from this point on, climb to greater and greater heights.
The honorary graduands deserve a special mention. Your Excellency, Chief D.S.P Alamieyeseigha. Our wish is that the recognition of today will spur you on to even greater commitment in your desire to free your people from the ravages of poverty and want. Your Excellency, Alhaji (Dr) Maitama Sule, Danmasani Kano, a veritable mountain of a human being, an undisputed repository of knowledge. This nation cannot thank you sufficiently for your services as a role model. Today’s event is another in the endless series of recognition from a grateful Nigeria. Emeritus Professor Ayo Banjo, the quintessential university administrator and academic. It was said of you when you came as Chairman of Council that if you are unable to turn the fortunes of the University of Port Harcourt around, then the university is truly doomed. We are glad you succeeded in a most convincing manner. Chief Emmanuel Ebitimi Banigo, a soft-spoken and cultivated fine gentleman. A quiet achiever, a self-effacing philanthropist. We recognise and salute you on behalf of all Nigerians.
Expression of Gratitude
Let me now attempt, on behalf of all staff and students to pay back some of the mountains of debt of gratitude this university owes to our major benefactors, some of whom are here, others, unable to attend due to one good reason or the other. Your Excellency, Dr Peter Odili, Nigeria’s Golden Governor, the Ibiyekoribo of Kalabari land, our worthy alumnus. On behalf of myself, members of my family and all staff and students of this university, I thank you, most sincerely for your support, assistance and unparalleled benevolence to this university in the past five years. It is my prayer and supplication that the Almighty God rewards you and yours most bountifully. Dedicated Servant of the People, Your Excellency, Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, the “Governor General” of the Izon nation, we thank you even as we formally register our gratitude today for your services to this university and the generality of Nigerians.
To Dr Jonathan Fanton, President of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, who identified our potentials when we were yet toddlers and took the bold step to partner with us in our developmental efforts, we express our immense gratitude. Then follows a list of organisations, chief among which are the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), Total and Elf Petroleum Nigeria Ltd, the Nigerian National Petroleum Company, Schlumberger, the Niger Delta Development Commission, Chevron-Texaco, Moni Pulo and the Allstates Trust Bank as well as many others including Chief Arumeme Johnson. I thank you all, friends of the university, most sincerely even as I borrow from the words of Winston Churchill and say, “never was so much owed by so many to so few”.
What remains now is for me to take my bow at the conclusion of what is perhaps my last major assignment in this great university. In doing so, I thank once again, the Federal Government of Nigeria for finding me worthy on three separate occasions for appointment as the Vice-Chancellor of the University. I also thank the Federal Ministry of Education and the NUC for their supportive roles. I register my gratitude to the immediate past Governing Council under the distinguished leadership of Emeritus Professor Ayo Banjo, CON, for not only recommending me to Mr President for appointment but also for giving me tremendous support during the four years we worked together. I thank all staff and students for their contributions towards what we were able to achieve together. But I wish to single out, for special mention, the Principal Officers of the University, the Provost and Deans of Faculties, Heads of Departments, Directors of various Units and the Deputy Registrars, for the collective leadership we shared.
I am strongly indebted to the Senate of the university for its sense of mission and unflagging commitment to the furtherance of the course of the university. I appreciate the various trade unions in the university, including the Students Union, for the relative calm in the campus which enabled me to work with some peace of mind. I thank their Royal Majesties and the Traditional Rulers in the State, especially our landlords for their love for me.
The University of Port Harcourt Women Association (UPWA) stood strongly by this administration. I am grateful to all its members. In a very special way, I thank my wife and members of my family for their prayers, accommodation and understanding during these challenging years. And finally, I thank the Almighty God for his sustenance, wisdom, strength and good health during the course of this assignment and to Him I now sing my Nunc Dimittis:
Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For my eyes have seen thy salvation.
AN ADDRESS BY THE VICE-CHANCELLOR PROFESSOR NIMI D. BRIGGS TO MARK THE DAY OF THE 21ST CONVOCATION CEREMONY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF PORT HARCOURT ON SATURDAY, 5TH MARCH, 2005