During the lockdown, Africa at large and the Nigerian academic community in particular suffered a monumental meltdown resulting in our emotional breakdown. This was on account of the loss of a lovable legend, an academic giant, a foremost physician and the first Vice-Chancellor of the better-by-far University, Emeritus Professor Oladipo Olujimi Akinkugbe, CON, CFR, NNOM, MD, D.Phil, FRCP, FWACP, FAS, Hon DSc, on Monday, June 15, 2020.
A devastating loss of most excruciating proportions, Prof. Akinkugbe was one of the best to have ever come out of Africa, not just Nigeria, and no justice can be done in an attempt to honour his elephantine personality. In a poem by John Godfrey Saxe, we are told about the six blind men of Hindustan who went to “see the elephant” and to determine what it was, they placed their hands on different parts of its body, one after the other.
The first one who placed his hand on its side said the elephant is like a wall while the second person thought it is like a spear, having held its tusk. The third opined that the elephant is like a snake because his hands were on the elephant’s “squirming trunk” and the fourth swore that it is like a tree as he held the elephant around its knee. While the fifth man who held the elephant’s ear swore it is very much like a fan, the sixth who seized its swinging tail averred that an elephant is like a rope. They were partly right but not completely wrong.
So, hardly can anyone write or say anything that would fully capture the whole quintessence of this phenomenal personage. It is not because of blindness, like the men of Hindustan, but just because there is a limit to which ordinary eyes can see an ocean. Within the University system, he was a lecturer, a Professor, a Head of Department, a Dean of Faculty and a Chairman of the Committee of Deans. He was also a successful Principal and later Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ilorin and Ahmadu Bello University as well as Pro-Chancellor of the University of Port-Harcourt. He was Chairman of several committees in the crucial education and health sectors and was also the pioneer Chairman of the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB). He was many other things outside the University system. Erin wo!
Holding the leg of his connection to the University of Ilorin only, it is apposite to state that all past, current and future students and staff of this University are indebted to this master mentor and inimitable icon of excellence who served as Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University between 1975 and 1978. It is certain that if the University at inception had not been blessed with a man of his calibre, a leader of his nature and an administrator of his stature, it would not have maintained the healthy growth and development it has enjoyed over the years, which makes it the most sought-after university in Nigeria today, for the seventh consecutive year. It is to the eternal credit of Baba Akinkugbe that the mustard seed he planted not only survived but also blossomed to “a formidable oak tree” in less than 40 years of its planting, as Baba himself acknowledges in his thrilling autobiography, Footprints and Footnotes (2010).
Perhaps, part of what made Baba to reach that conclusion of UNILORIN being a formidable tree was the ranking of the University, for the first time, as one of the best 20 in Africa and the best in Nigeria at the time he was writing the book. It was the quest to contribute his quota to national development through the university system that made him to accept the offer to start the new University. He braced all odds, scaled all heights, fathomed all depths and utilised his extensive social capital and connections with the then Brig. General Olusegun Obasanjo, first as the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters and later Head of State; the National Universities Commission Executive Secretary, then Dr Jibril Aminu, a former student of his in Ibadan; and the Governors of Kwara State, Col. Ibrahim Taiwo and Col. George Innih, the latter of which was a student to his sister. Baba Akinkugbe had everything in place and used all in making the University of Ilorin what it is today, the largest university campus in Africa with a total land mass of 15,000 hectares or about 35,000 acres. In that regard and in some other areas, Baba Akinkugbe’s University of Ilorin remains unbeatable.
It is to Baba’s eternal credit that the University has its most iconic motto, “probitas doctrina”, that we conceive as “character and learning”; our vision and mission statements as well as our logo, cast around the eagle, with its spread wings, are from his ingenuity. His forthrightness ensured that he selected the best to start the new University and the young scholars he recruited for further training have all become highly respected intellectuals in their fields across the world, including the sole recipient of the Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) award in 2018, Prof. Olu Obafemi, FNAL.
Just as Baba Akinkugbe was purposeful and deliberate in staff recruitment, so was he in admitting students and one of the students he admitted in 1978 is the first alumnus Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ilorin, Prof. Is-haq Oloyede, FNAL. It is to his credit as well that the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB), the pioneer chairman of which he was, is now being ably led by the same Oloyede who symbolises the essential character of UNILORIN that Baba Akinkugbe envisioned in his students as Officer of the Federal Republic and recipient of many awards.
Of course, the University of Ilorin is just a single ring in the long chain of Baba’s achievements. Beyond the better-by-far university, which has produced a state governor, deputy governors, including of the Central Bank of Nigeria, many Vice-Chancellors, past and serving, and other notable Nigerians, Baba’s legacies are everywhere across the country and beyond as a big blessing he was to the human race.
As a mighty ocean, the first professor of medicine in black Africa who attained his professorship at the age of 35, Baba lived an amazingly fulfilled life nurturing, mentoring and caring for humanity, both in Nigeria and the world at large, especially through the World Health Organisation (WHO). Without him, generations of the University of Ilorin students might not have had such a fortunate and blessed institution to be proud of.
It is with gratitude to God for a life well spent that the Alma Mater through this medium bids farewell to a foremost professional, medical practitioner, educator, mentor, administrator, Vice-Chancellor, Pro-Chancellor, international consultant, trail blazer, front runner, Chairman extraordinaire of many Boards and Committees and family man par excellence, whose impacts straddle such universities as those in Ibadan, Ilorin, Zaria, Ondo, Port Harcourt, Abuja and the Nigerian health sector as well as many other areas.
Thank you, Baba; bye bye, High Chief; fare well, Emeritus Professor! You live on in our hearts.