Federation Within A Federation: The Untold Story Of Prof. Na’Allah As UniAbuja Vice-Chancellor
By Hakeem Alohunmata
The 1914 amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorates as one entity, called Nigeria, has repeatedly been described as a ”marriage of inconvenience” or simply put, a ”forced marriage”. To some people, even, it was a wedding without marriage. This is the position of the pessimists who see Nigeria as a failed project. How can it be a successful project when the couples are constantly in conflict like sworn enemies? A nation that graciously allows artificial divisions to becloud its sense of harnessing its cultural diversity and religious plurality for national development. A nation that allows faint lines of boundaries to blur its vision of tapping into the resources of its over 400 languages for tourism enterprise. A nation that allows mutual suspicion to daunt its passion for developing its human resources for skill exportation. A nation that allows political affiliations to clog the wheel of its fortune, progress and prosperity. Pursuing the banality of a fictitious interest, the nation is found wanting in the loneliness of a multi-crore forest. The multitude of cultures, plurality of ethnicity and diversity of religion, rather than being a blessing to the nation, seem like an irredeemable curse placed on a traitor in a local movie. Nepotism, sectionalism, and corruption have eaten so deep into the system that it has spread like wildfire to every sphere of our institutions.
The University of Abuja, a federation within the federation, shares a similar experience. It is the only federal University in Nigeria that has all the thirty-six states of the country as its catchment in terms of staff recruitment and student admission. It is a heterogeneous community, and a conglomerate of conflicting ethnic groups, diverse cultures and polarized religious affiliations. Like the bigger federation, the ethnic divisions and religious affiliation have, over the years, become a bane in the development of the university. The institution had badly been bitten by the bared fangs of nepotism. Past leaders of the university had tried, without much success, to free the University from the tightening claws of sentiment to chart a course for the development of the University. However, a lack of political will to suppress ethnic favouritism and religious bigotry whips the chord of incessant internal crises, underscored by monumental bickering and eventual down-tooling of labour unions within the university. Prolonged industrial actions, blatant disregard for the academic calendar, admission and certificate racketeering, infrastructural deficit, poor staff, and students’ welfare, and low level of academic research output, top the chart of the numerous challenges bedevilling the institution. And this is no less the reason why the university was being derided and ridiculously referred to as a ‘glorified secondary school’.
This was the situation of UniAbuja, until the birth of a new regime spearheaded by an altruistic, patriotic, and detribalized Nigerian – Prof. AbdulRasheed Na’Allah. Rather than succumbing to the seemingly insurmountable problems, which are as big as the mountains surrounding the campus itself, Prof. Na’Allah saw an opportunity in the ethnic and socio-cultural division of his staff. No sooner he was appointed as the Vice-Chancellor in 2019 than he coined a slogan – The University for National Unity – for the university. This slogan has come to stay as the University is now popularly known as UofA of Nigeria and the University for National Unity. The coinage of this slogan shows the readiness of Prof. Na’Allah, right from inception, to form a government of national unity by mobilizing staff, students, and stakeholders regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliations to work with him on his mandate to bring an aggressive development to the University. The idea of the University of Abuja as a university for National Unity became his watchword. It is at the fulcrum of his programmes and policies, and it was brought to bear even in the appointment of deans and directors into key positions in the University without sacrificing merit. His idea of national unity was reflected in the admission process. Having realized that some sections of the country had benefited too much for so long in the scheme of things including student admission, he reviewed the admission process to ensure that applicants from every state of the federation are admitted to the University without prejudice. Prof. NaAllah’s patriotism could also be noted in the staff recruitment exercise by standing firm on the principles of federal character. His belief in National Unity resonated in two critical centres he established: the Centre for Community Development and the Centre for Stakeholders Mobilization. While the Centre for Stakeholders’ mobilization is working hard to mobilize for support from people of different backgrounds and statuses from within and outside the University, the Centre for Community Development serves as a link between the ‘town and gown’. Through the Centre for Community Development, the host communities are deeply involved in the activities and programmes of the institution. They now feel more attached to the University than ever before. The harmonious relationship between the host communities and the university made it possible for Prof. NaAllah to achieve the construction of perimeter fencing of the entire university land – a task no one believed was possible.
Prof. Na’Allah’s zeal for infrastructural development is not known only to the University of Abuja. As the pioneer Vice-Chancellor of Kwara State University, he started the university from zero infrastructure to a masterpiece, a world-class university with a beautiful landscape, superb architectural edifice, good road networks, and stable and quality academic delivery, a feat that made the then Kwara State Governor called on the House of Assembly to review the one-term tenure policy of a Vice-Chancellor, to allow him to come back for another term of five years. This also is an uncommon privilege earned by uncommon character and dedication to duties. The Executive Secretary of TETfund, Arch. Sunday Echono visited the university recently. He could not but confirm the solid foundation laid by Prof. Na’Allah upon which KWASU today stands.
However, the great achievements he recorded at KWASU were not enough to reveal his patriotism as KWASU seems to be a small community with a small political set-up. The opportunity eventually came when he was called upon to serve his nation in the capacity of Vice-Chancellor of a Federal University- a university with conservative tradition that defies modernity; a university that takes solace in mediocrity and stagnancy; a university with galaxies of scholars working in isolation without collaborations; a university with a senate that is divided against itself across ethnoreligious lines.
Managing such an institution was a huge task because the most difficult thing to accept is change. As a master strategist, Prof. Na’Allah, amidst stiff rejection, cheap blackmail, and witch-hunting, was able to waddle through the muddy water to pave the way for the needed development of the University. Under his leadership, the University of Abuja has regained its rightful position in the comity of Universities in Nigeria. With his doggedness and administrative acumen, Prof. Na’Allah had, in no small measure, maintained the sanctity of the academic calendar and improved the academic standard of the University. With the COVID-19 lockdown and the prolonged ASUU strike that rocked the entire 2020 and early part of 2021, the University of Abuja was one of the few, if not the only, universities that did not lose a single session. Prof. Na’Allah developed a robust virtual learning system that allowed students to take their classes while at home. Students now know the day they will graduate, the first day they are admitted into the University. This was largely made possible with the introduction of a portal system by Prof. NaAllah who is popularly known across the length and breadth of the campus as a digital Vice-Chancellor.
To the committee of Vice-Chancellors of Nigeria Universities, Prof. NaAllah is known as an infrastructure Vice-Chancellor. He leaves no one in doubt of his capability by turning the University of Abuja into a construction site. To him, the best welfare any staff can get is to have a conducive working environment. He then began on an aggressive mobilization for funds by blocking leakages, improving the university’s internally generated revenue (IGR) without unnecessary hikes in school fees, rallying for financial support from philanthropists, organizations and well-meaning alumni of the University, and lobbying government and government agencies to invest in the infrastructure of the university. This endeavour yielded tremendous benefits as money raised is prudently plunged into building faculties, befitting lecture theatres, state-of-the-art laboratories, world-class international conference centres, building of new hostels and renovation of existing ones, staff clubs, new staff quarters on campus, mini stadium, solar farms, computer laboratories across the campus, first-of-its-kind new senate building (ongoing), completion of the old senate building as well as all other abandoned projects (PG school, Faculty of Engineering, Faculty of Sciences etc.) landscaping and street lighting of the entire campus, good road network, to mention a few.
This recent transformation occasioned by a world-class administrator, Prof, AbdulRasheed Naallah, opened the University to both local and international collaborations. Government agencies, ministries, diplomats from various countries, international organizations, and Universities from other African countries, Europe, China, Japan, and North and South Korea, are now trooping to the University for partnership and exchanges. This gives the ever-expanding student population the opportunity for intercultural exchanges as some students at the university, who won the Fukushima Prefecture Governor’s Award were recently invited for a tour of Japan by the Japanese government; so also is the University receiving international students on an exchange programme to its campus. The Chinese government is continuously supporting the University’s Engineering programme through the provision of state-of-the-art equipment.
Prof. Na’Allah, in a grand style and one scoop, did what no Vice-Chancellor in the history of UniAbuja had ever done by securing NUC approval to start twenty-six (26) new programmes including Aeronautic and Astronautic Engineering. He is a Vice-Chancellor of many firsts’: The first Vice-Chancellor to introduce students’ employment scheme to the Nigerian education system, the first Vice-Chancellor to introduce Railway Engineering (awaiting NUC resource verification result), Aeronautic and Astronautic Engineering (at KWASU) as undergraduate programmes and so on. Prof. NaAllah’s unmatched administrative experience in managing tertiary institutions had, without doubt, brought about a significant change not only to the University of Abuja but also to the Nigerian higher education system as other Universities now tow the lines of a new direction he had painstakingly led. Prof. NaAllah is a distinguished academic and astute administrator who only needs a bigger stage to turn around the fortune of the Nigerian education system.