There is a massive value and recognition placed in the word “first” that most times the position alone is more highly celebrated than the impact of a person or institution marked as first.
Accordingly, many writers and scholars have debated on the first university in Nigeria with evidence to back up their claims. Well, “debate and divergence of views can only enrich our history” just like Ibrahim Babaginda once said, and yes, this debate is very necessary to deal with the bones of contention, and then to point to a direction that is beyond just being the first.
The abacus is the first computer, even if it operated in the crudest manner compared to contemporary computers. Therefore, it was a computer ab initio despite its crass crudity. The earliest books can hardly be called books by today’s standards. Yet, they were truly books going by the roles they fulfilled in their days. The first Nigerian newspaper, Iwe Irohin (at a time in contest), was founded by an Anglican missionary, Henry Townsend. By today’s standards, it could have been a newssheet or a church bulletin, which though are different shades of a newspaper. Yet, this point is enough to open up a debate about the status of Iwe Irohin as Nigeria’s first newspaper.
The point is that histories must begin at a point of recorded history. That is, there has to be a referent. At times, however, the referent steals the show as is the case in the story of universities in Nigeria. For instance, a college can be a reference point of tertiary education, but a university has to be a university in the beginning, not just a tertiary institution or a degree-awarding college. By law, in the degrees awarded, and in the nature of leadership, a university differs from a college, and a polytechnic. That was why the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, remained a College (of Science and Technology) of the University of Lagos until 1988, when it transformed to a full-fledged university.
UI is First in a Sense
The University of Ibadan began in 1948 as a college, not as a university. Its use as a reference point in the history of universities in Nigeria is mainly due to its affiliation to the University of London, whose degree it awarded at the time. This is also the circumstance that made the university to steal the show in the ladder of universities in Nigeria.
Universities are made up of units, centres, departments, faculties, schools, institutes, and colleges. UI was initially simply an offshore college of the University of London (UL), operating a bit beyond the status of an affiliate, yet a college of UL in essence. This is why it did not answer the University of Ibadan in the beginning, but University College, Ibadan (UCI). In this sense, UI is also neither the first college nor the first tertiary institution in Nigeria. The Yaba Higher College (YHC) was established in 1932, 16 years before UCI. The YHC later became the Yaba College of Technology in 1947 just before the students of YHC were moved to UCI for degree programmes, which were not being awarded anywhere in Nigeria then. The UL had extended its special relationship scheme to UCI on November 17, 1948, meaning that the status of UCI at the point was more of an affiliate college of UL, which actually awarded the degrees received by the students of UCI. Thus, without being an autonomous university, with an enabling law, and the specific officials (e.g. a vice chancellor), UCI couldn’t take on the toga of a university.
More appropriately, therefore, UCI became a university in 1963, governed by a vice chancellor after the extant law was enacted. Note however that the name UI was given in 1962, while the enabling law establishing the university was signed in 1963 as an “Act to establish the University of Ibadan. Formerly, it was simply a college, headed by principals until 1963. UI would eventually start awarding its own degrees in 1967. Kenneth Mallaby was UCI’s first principal, serving from 1948 to 1953.
Just as UCI was an affiliate of the UL, many universities in Nigeria, including UI, have many colleges as affiliates. Some of these affiliates have gone ahead to become full universities. For instance, the University of Ilorin and Ignatius Ajuru University of education were former affiliates of UI, just as the university of Port Harcourt and Bayero University Kano were former affiliates of the University of Lagos and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, respectively.
The Real First, and the Better Best
On this count, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) can more accurately be called the first university in Nigeria, having taken off on October 7, 1960, a week after the country’s independence from Britain. At that point, it started running its own degree programmes, with the first batch of students graduating in 1964, three years before UI set off with its own indigenous degree programmes. Speaking particularly about the first batch of journalism graduates who were honoured in a graduation dinner in May 1964, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, who was the chancellor of the University of Nigeria, said:
“We are making history tonight in that we have gathered here to honour the prospective graduates of the Jackson College of Journalism, who will receive their baccalaureate degrees in a few days. This incident will be history in the making, because for the first time in the annals of West Africa, an indigenous university will endorse the professional competence of journalists who have passed through the crucible of systematic university education.”
Note then that the Jackson College of Journalism (JCL), like other colleges, was just a college within UNN in the same manner that UCI was within UL. The first vice-chancellor of UNN was George Marion Johnson. The JCL is now the Department of Mass Communication, currently deep in the process to become a faculty of media and communication, UNN.
But beyond the craze about firsts, we need to start the craze for the bests. Only 12 out of Nigeria’s 264 universities featured in the 2023 Times Higher Education Rankings for universities in the world (THER). Nigeria’s best, UI, comes within the 401-500 bracket in the world, while UNN, 6th best in Nigeria, is in the 1201-1500 range. In contrast, South Africa has five universities in the best 500 universities in the world, with four of them within the best 300. THER rates 1799 universities across 104 countries. In this sense, notably, we can say that UI is first in a better sense, and is thus right to go with the greeting mantra on its website: The Frist and the Best.
Dr Mbamalu is a veteran Journalist, Editor and Publisher
Follow on X: @marcelmbamalu
Credibility and transparency is our DNA at Prime Business Africa’. We strongly believe in the role of media as a watchdog of the society that powerfully promotes accountability and transparency in government.
By contributing to Prime Business Africa, you are helping to sustain good journalism and making sure that it remains free to all.