FMA Ukoli: An Academic Icon By Olabode Lucas

Urhobo Historical Society

FMA Ukoli: An Academic Icon
By Olabode Lucas

Monday, January 17, 2005  

AFTER reading the robust and well deserved tribute paid by Professor Mark Nwagwu in The Guardian of January 3, 2005 to his good friend and colleague, the late Professor Frank Mene Adedemisinwaye Ukoli, whose untimely death was recently announced, I felt I should resume my regular contributions to newspapers with my own tribute to this academic giant and intellectual colossus of our time. Professor Mark Nwagwu is no doubt in the same age, social and professional/academic bracket with the late Professor Ukoli and as such he is more than capable to write authoritatively about his departed colleague. I am certainly outside this bracket as I am junior to both of them. I did not even meet the two of them in the University of Ibadan and they were already well established academicians when I started my academic career at Ibadan in 1978.

As Professor Nwagwu wrote in his tribute, late Professor Ukoli was a man of many enviable attributes. He described the late professor as somebody who could find joy in the simple ordinary things of life, and who could also search for truth and speak the truth. All these sterling attributes attracted me to the late Professor Ukoli when I met him at the University of Ibadan and through our association, my social and academic lives were well nourished and refreshed. Colleagues like Professor Godwin Sogolo, Professor Femi Otubanjo, Dr. Rasak Olopoenia, Dr. Hotonu Cole and others equally had profitable academic and social relationships with the departed versatile Professor Ukoli.

One of the cherished aspects of the university life at least at the University of Ibadan, is that any interested academician and non-academician can have inputs into ways the university is run through contributions in the council, Senate, Congregation and in various committees set up for the smooth running and governance of the university. The late Professor Ukoli took advantage of this unique opportunity to put his footprints permanently on the deliberations of various organs of governance at the University of Ibadan. He was not an obstructionist and his positions on issues were usually based on rational expositions of all aspects of issues. He impressed on all of us who were junior to him that one did not need to be a professor before one could take a stand on any issue in the university.

I recall vividly and with profound admiration, the role played by the late Professor Ukoli in 1985 when the University of Ibadan Governing Council decided to unilaterally change the rules for appointing the Deputy Vice-Chancellor. According to the rules, the Senate of the University should recommend one candidate to the Council for ratification but the Governing Council under the Chairmanship of Dr. S. J. Cookey wanted the Senate instead to send names of three candidates from where it would pick one for the post. The Senate frowned at this new procedure by the Council and the late Professor Ukoli led other Senate representatives in the Council to resign their membership of the Council in protest.

To me this action of late Professor Frank Ukoli was a display of high level of integrity and selflessness in the era when people in academics and other callings preferred to hold tight to positions even when they had been messed up and when their positions were no longer tenable. This controversy on the appointment of Deputy Vice-Chancellor lingered on for some time and it was only resolved through the wise counsel of that renowned Economist, Professor T. M. Yesufu, when he became the Chairman of the Council later in 1985. Also at Ibadan, as far as I can remember the only person who ever resigned as a Head of Department as a result of policy disagreement with a Vice-Chancellor was the late Professor Frank Ukoli.

The late Professor Frank Ukoli carried his sterling attributes of integrity, academic excellence, respect for university autonomy and tradition and personal regard and accommodation for all and sundry to Delta State University when he was appointed as the first Vice-Chancellor of that University in 1992. To many people this was one of the best appointments made by Governor Felix Ibru during his short tenure as the governor of the newly created Delta State. The late Professor Ukoli went to Abraka with missionary zeal similar to the situation when Dr. Kenneth Mellamby started University College Ibadan in 1948. I worked closely with the late professor during this period when I helped in the recruitment of academic staff for the fledging Faculty of Agriculture of the University. At this vantage position, I saw how devoted Professor Ukoli was to the university. He gave all he had in physical and intellectual energies.

At the beginning, things were going on well and the foundation for academic excellence and administrative efficiency comparable to the best in the world was being set up at Abraka by the late Professor Ukoli. Unfortunately, good policies have a way of being easily aborted and truncated in our country. The military brought back darkness to the country in 1993 under the moronic Abacha. His so-called military administrators in the State behaved like their imbecilic master at Abuja as malevolent drunken despots. The military administrator of Delta State during this period had no faintest knowledge of how universities were run in civilised societies. He interfered in an unbridled manner in the running of Delta State University.

As it should be expected, the late Professor Ukoli, being a seasoned university man with clear vision on how universities are run resisted the unwarranted intervention of the military administrator in the affairs of the university. In this struggle, it was gratifying to note that the Chairman of the Governing Council of the University at this time, Mr. S. J. Okudu, a renowned university administrator fully supported the late Professor Ukoli. For his principled stand, all sorts of ludicrous accusations were leveled against him and unfortunately some of the people employed by Professor Ukoli were used by the government to rubbish his administration in the university. Eventually the late Professor Ukoli was relieved of his post, because of his refusal to bow to the dictates of the semi-illiterate military administrator.

The stand taken by the late Professor Ukoli at Abraka was unique. It was a courageous stand at the time when most of the vice-chancellors of Nigerian universities were more than eager to implement vicious and anti-people policies of the military government. Some of them secretly advised Abacha on ways to perpetuate himself in power and some even served without shame in his frivolous, money-wasting and ill-conceived foundation. The late Professor Ukoli’s stand at Abraka could be compared with the stand taken by the revered late Kenneth Dike, the first indigenous Vice-Chancellor of University of Ibadan against an attempt made by Chief R.O.A. Akinjide to mess up the exalted office of the Vice-Chancellor of University of Ibadan. This happened during the brief period when Chief Akinjide was Federal Minister of Education in 1965.

The late Professor Ukoli was eventually vindicated. He won his case in court against the unlawful dismissal and the university in order to atone for the wrong done to him awarded him a well-deserved honorary doctorate degree. The Bible passage in Matthew 5:10 which says “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” was really apt for Professor Ukoli’s career at Abraka. He put down his experience in Abraka in a book titled A State University is born: Throes of Birth, Ordeals of Growth.

Apart from making an indelible impact on university governance, the late Professor Ukoli was a quintessential zoologist. After obtaining his Ph.D. degree in 1964, the late professor plunged himself into high level academic productivity. He changed the ossified curriculum of zoology at Ibadan to meet the challenges of the modern era. The Department of Zoology at Ibadan which was notorious for awarding students with third class degrees changed its image with this forward-looking and modern curriculum under the late Professor Ukoli.

The late professor authored three books in his profession. The first one titled Introduction to Parasitology in Tropical Africa is regarded as the most authentic book on tropical parasitology to be written by anybody. The other two are Control of Parasite Diseases and Wither Science. The late Professor Ukoli produced more than a dozen Ph.D. students, most of whom are now professors in their own rights in universities in Nigeria and other parts of the world.

For his erudition and contributions to scholarship, the late Professor Ukoli was honoured both at home and abroad. He was formerly the President of the Nigerian Science Association and a foundation fellow of the Nigeria Academy of Science. This fellowship is the highest honour that could be bestowed on a scientist in Nigeria. It is however, a matter of regret that the organisers of the Nigeria Merit Award failed to recognise this genius before he died.

Professor Frank Ukoli, an academic icon had gone and the Nigerian academic environment is poorer for this. His likes are fast diminishing in our universities in this era of unbridled materialism in our country. We in the academics will miss his erudition, his rigorous pursuit of academic excellence, versatility, dogged fight against erosion of university autonomy and tradition and more importantly his love and affection for humanity.

Adieu Professor Frank Mene Adedemisinway Ukoli.

Lucas is a professor of Agronomy at the University of Ibadan.


%d bloggers like this: