Exactly 54 years ago the then Registrar of UNN and its first indigenous, Mr Vincent Ike, now late HRH Eze Prof. Chukwuemeka Ike, performed one of the most heroic feats in the University’s history.
It was supposed to be the 4th Convocation, a ceremony always greeted with lots of fanfare, being a nascent University that already blazed the trail among its contemporaries, also as having broken series of records in the country’s higher learning space.
It was to be at the prestigious Akanu Ibiam Stadium UNN, same ground on which Nationalists like Chief Awolowo and Sir Ahmadu Bello became the pioneer Honorands of that great institution. This should paint you a mental picture of how hallowed the ground and the receptions on it were.
Parents and relations at the time fantasized about attending a University of Nigeria convocation from all parts of the country despite how limited and insufficient transportation may have been compared to the way it is today.
But, all that would not be, because of the political situation in the country which had attained a violent crescendo. The next day, May 30, was to be the famed Ojukwu broadcast, intending to be that declaration of secession, famously known as “The zero hour broadcast”.
Mr Vincent Ike having prevailed on the University leadership, informed the Eastern Broadcasting Service to announce that the convocation had been done so that parents and relations already set to attend would bother not coming; asking them to sit back at home and listen to the broadcast instead. He later sent circulars to all graduating students to converge at the Princess Alexandria Auditorium that night for the collection of their certificates, without the usual ceremony that followed.
He said: “since the two sides (Nigeria and Biafra to be) were poised for a showdown and Federal troops speedily advancing towards Obollo Afor, Akanu Ibiam stadium in full capacity would have been a choice target for the Nigerian war planes to strafe”.
The students were marooned in the Princess Alexandria hall at night with the lights off, given their certificates, & were all told to vacate the campus first thing in the morning. They bade themselves goodbye with half of that population never to be seen again. The war took them.
Those set of graduating students of 1967, became known as “The Zero Hour Graduates”. Prof. Theophilus Nwala is a living witness and a “Zero hour graduate” among a few others.
The University would later be utterly invaded and vandalized, and many of its students killed either as soldiers or as Biafran civilians. Mr Vincent Ike saved the University by “escaping” with many of its vital records and documents which without them would have caused the discontinuity of the University of Nigeria.
When the war broke out, UNN became the University of Biafra. Mr Vincent Ike was the person who stayed on with the university moving from one location to the other as the civil war dictated. UNN could not offer classes. Some students went to do what they liked. The staff found something doing. They thought of setting up a university in exile. But the war ended and they went back to UNN.
Mr Vincent Ike then had stupendous challenges from Ukpabi Asika who was then the administrator of East Central State. The staff of the university were summoned to Enugu and were told that they had decided to reopen the university and had set up a committee charged with the responsibility of preparing a report on how to reopen the university. The committee was given two weeks to present the report. Mr Vincent Ike was announced as the chairman of the committee. All the members were members of academic staff of the university, the Vice Chancellor, Prof. Eni Njoku was there, but his name was not mentioned.
He said well those of us appointed should go ahead. They spent two weeks, worked and prepared their reports. When they got to Nsukka, they were taken round the campus and the place was terrible. So many things were damaged. They damaged the borehole, which the university relied on to get water. They told them they invited an army engineer to repair the borehole but he pronounced it dead. They were going to Oji River with tanker to fetch water. They told them they couldn’t reopen the university because there would be no water. Gordian Ezekwe who later became the minister of Science and Technology was a member of late Mr Vincent Ike’s committee; he was told by Late Me Vincent Ike that that was his responsibility. He knew where they hid the items. As he reconnected them, the army could not believe it, because in two weeks water was flowing. So the University was re-opened.
The speech he gave on the reopening was carried worldwide. The Ford Foundation visited the university. After seeing the extent of damage, they paid for Late Mr Vincent Ike to go to any where in the world to raise funds as a help for the university. He went to Germany, US, England and Canada then got back to the Emir of Kano who was appointed the Chancellor of the university before the war broke out. He told the chancellor that they were back to business. He was very good as he gave nod to it. some Nigerians said they should not be allowed to reopen the university that they could gather again and cause another civil war. What some people planned was to shut UNN for several years.
But Late Mr Vincent Ike and his committee gave their reports in two weeks. Asika accepted the reports and gave them two hundred pounds to go and open the university. When Late Mr Vincent Ike called the students back they responded quickly. As he addressed them at the arts theatre, they sat on the bare floor, he sat on a block.
An individual like Vincent Ike should have been duly immortalized, with his bust in a very strategic site in the University of Nigeria.
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