By Alhaji Yusuf Alhaji

When it was established in 2006 by the Bukar Abba Ibrahim administration, Yobe State University (which was then called Bukar Abba Ibrahim University) was universally derided as a glorified secondary school—and for good reasons. Here was an institution that was a university only in name; an institution whose establishment appeared to have been inspired more by vanity and conceit than by the passion to democratize access to higher education in Yobe State.  Here was an institution that was so bereft of the most basic facilities and manpower needed to run a university that even the most optimistic advocates of university education in Yobe State thought the establishment of the university was one joke taken too far.

It was so bad that the late governor of Yobe State, Senator Mamman Ali, suspended the entire operations of the university in 2007, just one year after its founding. What conscientious, God-fearing administration would run a university that had no lecture halls, that lacked enough lecturers to teach the courses the university offered, that had no enough PhDs to lead teaching and research, that had no professors to train and mentor budding scholars, that had no laboratories for scientific research, and that had no library worth the name?

The late governor, ever so scrupulous, decided he could not in good conscience sustain the indefensibly deceptive smokescreen that was the Bukar Abba Ibrahim University. So he temporarily stopped it and transferred the unfortunate students admitted into the university to more established schools like Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria and Bayero University in Kano. He said Yobe State’s stakeholders in higher education must go back to the drawing board and invest more time and energy in the conception, contemplation, and construction of a university the good people of Yobe State deserve. Gov. Mamman Ali, however, didn’t live to see his plan and vision materialize.

Fast forward to 2011. The same Yobe State University that was rightly disdained as a grotesque perversion of the idea of the university was described as northern Nigeria’s fastest growing university by no less a person than Professor Abdullahi Mahdi, Ahmadu Bello University’s former vice chancellor who is now Gombe State University’s vice chancellor. Professor Mahdi should know a thing or two about universities—if you would permit the understatement. Professor Mahdi is on record as one of the best and brightest vice chancellors ABU has ever had. He transformed this northern Nigeria’s premier university in ways that have not been rivaled since his departure from the school. His innovational administration at the Gombe State University is also the envy of many older, more established universities. Yet he was frank enough to admit that Yobe State University is northern Nigeria’s fastest growing university.

So what happened between 2007, when the university was suspended because of its substandard facilities and manpower, and 2011 when it emerged as one of the fastest growing universities in the country? Well, it was a simple yet momentous change that made all the difference.  Yobe State’s then deputy governor, Alhaji Ibrahim Gaidam, who took over as governor upon the death of his former boss, invested time and efforts to giving life, character, vitality and international stature to a once decrepit, comatose institution that was stuck in prolonged infancy.

When he took over power in 2009, Governor Ibrahim Gaidam initiated a very ambitious and surreal programme to make Yobe State University not only worthy of its name but also a first among equals. As an educationist himself (having begun his career as a classroom teacher), he embarked on a programme to recruit lecturers, professors, and top-level administrative staff for the university. He also sponsored several graduate assistants to earn postgraduate qualifications from universities in the UK, Malaysia, Turkey, etc. so that they would boost the intellectual manpower needs of the university. Several of them returned after their studies and have been adding value to the university. Many other lecturers with master’s degrees were also sponsored to foreign universities to pursue their doctoral degrees. Upon their return, they will increase the pool of top-level academics that will steer the affairs of the university. Many more still in training are due to return and rejoin the university.

With the tremendous improvement in the intellectual and scholarly capacities of the university, Governor Gaidam decided to expand the university’s course offerings and research activities to make it relevant to the immediate needs of its catchment area. For instance, he approved the establishment of Nigeria’s first ever Desert Research Center to conduct research in and proffer solutions to the problems of desertification in the country. He strengthened the scholarly capabilities of the centre by establishing academic affiliations with high-profile Egyptian university professors and academics who have researched and published on desertification in the Middle East and North Africa.

The Governor also added a Faculty of Law to the university, making Yobe State University the second university in the entire northeastern region to offer a bachelor’s degree in law. The only other university that offers a law degree in the region is the University of Maiduguri.  The new Law Faculty in the university gives students the option to specialize either in Civil Law or Sharia Law.

But it isn’t just the intellectual content of the university that the governor has focused his attention on. He has also been investing in its physical development, and the university is on track to becoming one of the most aesthetically pleasing university campuses in Nigeria. The new, beautifully paved road networks he built within the university campus are a visual delight. So is the perimeter fencing for the institution, which gives the school the feel of a truly land-grant university.  When the university was established in 2006, it had no fence; it was just a vast, visually unpleasant, borderless farmland.

Governor Gaidam also built several new classroom blocks, lecture theatres, 12 new academic department buildings; equipped two science laboratories built by the Education Trust Fund, and approved the construction of several new housing units to provide comfortable accommodation for members of the university’s teaching staff. This is in addition to the new state-of-the- art library complex he has built in the university. The library, which will be well-stocked with the latest books and journals in the fields the university offers degrees in, can accommodate up to 5, 000 students at a time

Academic and non-academic staff members from older universities who have had the privilege to visit the new Yobe State University in Damaturu confess that the scenic and marble splendor of the university’s physical infrastructure put many older universities to shame. The school’s classrooms, staff offices, and office furniture can compete with the best anywhere in the world, they say. Is it any wonder that the venerable Professor Abdullahi Mahdi has described the new university as northern Nigeria’s fastest growing university?

After all is said and done, Governor Ibrahim Gaidam knows enough to know that the university isn’t his—or anybody’s. It is the collective inheritance of the people of Yobe State. That is why, in 2011, he sent a bill to the Yobe State House of Assembly to change the school’s name from Bukar Abba Ibrahim University to Yobe State University. The bill was passed unanimously.

There is a lesson in it for us all. One governor established a substandard university and chose, rather presumptuously, to name it after himself. Another governor took that substandard university, spruced it up, elevated it to new heights, made it the envy of the world, and chose to dedicate it to the people.

In the end, quality education is all that matters. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, education isn’t an either/or proposition. It is a both/and proposition. It takes both quality infrastructure and well-grounded academics to mentor and groom future leaders. It takes both selfless leadership and alignment to established academic traditions to make a success of a university project. And it takes both a fired up Yobe State Government and a fired up university administration to achieve the transformation currently going at the Yobe State University.

 Alhaji Alhaji writes from Bolori Ward, Maiduguri