Igbobi Boy: The Crisis of Education in Nigeria

By Emeka Ugwu


  • Title: Igbobi Boy
  • Author: Adebayo Lamikanra
  • Publisher: Amkra Books
  • Number of pages: 307
  • Year of publication: 2014
  • Category: Memoir

‘[T]he ‘default setting’ of nine out of ten is primordial, no doubt. But as W E B DuBois says, we are after the talented tenth’. – Tade Ipadeola

‘Traditions are extremely difficult to establish and more difficult to maintain because once they begin to unravel, the whole edifice comes crashing down and is lost without a trace within a short period of time’. – Adebayo Lamikanra

Adebayo Lamikanra’s Igbobi Boy would appeal to any dyed-in-the-wool rascal. To be certain, Igbobi Boy is more than a delicately written story about life as a student at the elite, missionary secondary school, Igbobi College in the ‘60s. It is also a book that draws considerable attention to the hapless state of Nigeria’s dysfunctional education system. The book challenges the unfounded notion that quality education in Nigeria only began a nosedive from the mid-’80s.

After recounting how the author became an Igbobi boy, the book gets into gear with a self-explanatory title: ‘1962 – Year of Change at Igbobi College’. Under this title, the author spells out in painstaking detail a series of events that ultimately led to the decline of his alma mater. By so doing, he informs us of the school’s lost traditions. The school’s degeneration, we learn, began in 1962, the same year Lamikanra who is now a renowned Professor of Pharmacy, gained admission.

Reading Lamikanra’s story, the reader is sure to conclude that any conversation about the Igbobi College of the ‘60s without a mention of its sporting traditions is impossible. From cricket to football to athletics, Igbobi College held sway. It is for this reason, upon serious contemplation, that Igbobi College’s exemplary sporting traditions surface as the explanation for why Igbobi Boy is in part dedicated to the memory of the quintessential Igbobi boy, Sydney Bialose Asiodu. SBA, as he was fondly known, was the younger brother of Phillip Asiodu, a former Minister of Petroleum.

Regrettably, not much is known about Asiodu, the footballer, cricketer and all round athlete. Thankfully, Igbobi Boy provides ample information to fill this yawning gap in popular knowledge. Asiodu was a key member of the team that represented Nigeria at the Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica. In his short lifetime, and this bears repeating, he completely embodied the Corinthian ethos that pervaded the playing fields of Igbobi College. Is there one good reason why Nigeria does not celebrate this great sportsman and others of his ilk?

Sadly, Asiodu’s life was brutally cut short in 1967 during Nigeria’s civil war, in what historically has become known as the Asaba Massacre. At the time of his death, he had been a promising, young undergraduate at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He was on a scholarship awarded by the then Governor General of Nigeria, the late Nnamdi Azikiwe, and that scholarship was as a result of his athleticism. Lamikanra, by his own submission a remarkable cricketer himself, admits to coming away from Igbobi with ‘the knowledge that life was a game to be played with great vigour and honesty, bearing in mind that losing and winning [were] opposite sides of same coin’.

Another lost tradition of Igbobi College, we gather as Lamikanra compares his two ‘tophies’, is ‘tophyrism’. The book says it was the heart and soul of the school’s collegiate spirit. In fact, the author holds it to be one of Igbobi’s most sacred institutions. In narrating his experience with his two ‘tophies’, the reader comes to realise just how much of a rascal Lamikanra was, as it becomes obvious that despite his small frame in those days, he displayed an uncommon ability to speak truth to power. He challenged constituted authority:

My other tophy and one who has remained my tophy until the present, was Prefect S O Talabi, now a retired Professor of Engineering of the University of Lagos. He was in Upper VI when I was in Form I and was also in Aggrey House in the other Block from Freeman House where I was and so our paths were not likely to cross often and they did not cross for quite some time and when they did cross, it was because of an unlikely event.

Recalling one incident, Lamikanra speaks of a major triumph when his first ‘tophy’ – whom he hardly mentions by name, probably out of continuing deference – demanded, even though it was not due, the lines Lamikanra had been required to write as punishment, on a day Lamikanra was sick. He tells of how he returned the meaty slap that was issued him because he insisted that the lines were not due and that he was in no condition to write them. The author says he returned that slap because it crossed his mind that the senior had crossed a very clear line within the Igbobi system.

Lamikanra also tells the story of how ‘food aid’ provided for ‘starving boys’ by American sailors who came on a courtesy visit to the school ensured that lines formed in front of the toilets of the various school Houses. The Houses in question were Freeman, Oluwole, Aggrey and Townsend. Lamikanra was a Freeman House boy. Insisting that he loathed the wheat and milk instantly, he hints that it was not unlikely he had already worked out that the Americans came bearing gifts in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of newly independent Africans.

The one notable exchange that benefitted Igbobi College students at the time, was the presence of American Peace Corps volunteer members, who formed part of the teaching personnel. There were also teachers from Britain, the West Indies, Sri Lanka and India. By 1968, this tradition of having expatriate teachers had begun to unravel, so that by the time Lamikanra left school, that year, he recalls that Mr David Williams from Barbados was the only expatriate teacher left in the school. He relates an anecdote that is full of insight, about his relationship with Williams:

His conversation with me on that day was also by the way of ending a hiatus in our relationship which had been damaged when at the beginning of my sixth form career, he found me in the Science class. To say he was shocked by this must be regarded as an understatement because he had confidently expected me to be one of his students in the English Literature class and thought that my defection to the Science class was nothing short of a massive betrayal and from then on our relationship was so [cold]’.

Sharing his impression of Mr Williams, as well as other expatriate teachers, the author lets us in on the nature of the relationship that he and other students enjoyed with them. He goes on further to asseverate that first-hand interactions enhance the knowledge of other people. For him, changes in Nigeria meant that parochialism ‘has been encouraged by the flight of people from other parts of the world from Nigeria’. But what changes in Nigeria, precisely, is Lamikanra talking about, and what, in terms of effect, have those changes had on the quality education in Nigeria?

Babatunde Fafunwa’s History of Education in Nigeria tells of how for Lagos, the launch of free Universal Primary Education (UPE) in 1957 – after its launch in the Western Region by the Obafemi Awolowo-led Action Group – had by 1966 ensured ‘the number of primary schools had increased to 129, with over 140,000 pupils and over 4,200 teachers’ from ‘96 primary schools with 50,182 children and 1,646 teachers; 17 secondary schools with 4,087 children and 292 teachers’. Clearly, as the data indicates, it is actually the case that the rapid rate of expansion heightened the demand for teachers.

It is important to keep in mind that that period coincided with the era of self-determination, so on the eve of Independence, education in Nigeria was in dire crisis. There was already a large number of day boys in a school ‘founded with the expressed purpose of giving education to boys within a boarding house arrangement’ by 1962. To grasp what is being said, we only need realise that Igbobi College, founded in 1932, ‘began to have an overcrowded feel to her as early as 1963 when another double stream set was taken onboard and the first set of Arts students were admitted to the sixth form’.

Nigeria’s shallow pool of teaching talent meant that the quality of education began to decline from the late ‘50s. However, delivering a lecture titled ‘The Wealth and Poverty of a Nation – Who Will Restore the Dignity of Nigeria?’, on the occasion of the 42nd Convocation at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) in January 2013, Obiageli Ezekwesili, a former Minister of Education, made the remark quoted below. The remark would be funny if she had not been talking down to graduates who probably matriculated when she was Minister of Education. Her message to the graduands was that compared to her own education from the mid-’80s, their education was deficient:

There is no better example of the cost of the imprudent choices than what has happened to Education. The failures and limitations of education you received during your time here leading to your graduation today will become clearer to you should you ever seek to do what was very easy for me to do – that is, gain admission to one of the best schools in the world for my graduate studies simply on the strength of my University of Nigeria education.

If those charged with the duty of making policy decisions have not the slightest clue what went wrong, as it is evident that there is nothing spectacular about the kind of education our dear former Minister received, it follows that Nigeria as we know it happened exactly because of the system of education that produced Ezekwesili. Nigeria happened because, at the dawn of Independence, ‘quality’ education was ‘sold’ as the exclusive preserve of an elite few, who learnt to think of themselves as privileged. This vapid idea that good education is something that by its nature can only be available to a privileged few accounts for the unwillingness of policymakers to frame and act on the problem of education as the lack of quality teachers and adequate resources.

By the ‘60s, a deficit of graduate teachers in Nigeria already existed. In recognition of this problem, the Ashby Commission, which was set up in 1959, observed that if the foundations laid by primary and secondary schools ‘were too weak or too narrow, higher education would not be able to meet the required needs of a nation’. The Commission went ahead to ‘recommend that 7,000 graduate teachers be trained for secondary schools by 1970’, to say nothing of the 18,100 Grade I teachers also recommended.

Of the five Nigerian universities that existed by 1962, UNN was the first, in 1961, to break with the old tradition in teacher education, but it produced only 210 graduate teachers between 1964 and 1966. The other four universities introduced new BA and BSc (Education) degrees in this order: University of Ibadan in 1963, Ahmadu Bello University in 1964, University of Lagos in 1965, and the then University of Ife in 1967.

Altogether, Lamikanra’s assertion, which serves as our second epigraph, suggests that the edifice built between the ‘30s and ‘60s had begun to collapse by ‘62, and that sits well with the developments that followed the situation described in Fafunwa’s own avowal that ‘[Lagos] as well as the Nigerian public (the private sector) committed substantial funds to education between 1952 and [1962]’. Expenditure for education increased twice as fast as GDP and grew from 1.6 to 3.5% of GDP in that period. However by 1975, at about the same time when Ezekwesili must have been a secondary school student, education expenditure dipped from nearly 4% to about 3% while at the same time the free UPE had resulted in the increased enrolment of students in both primary and secondary schools across Nigeria.

That this downward trend began just when it was quite obvious that ‘Nigerian education will continue to cost more, not less, in the future’ leaves very little to the imagination. If we cannot state categorically that Ezekwesili’s own education was also limited, we can at least invoke the famous injunction of Karl Marx and say that the educator herself must now be educated.

A passage from Igbobi Boy, which goes to the heart of the matter of elitism, is quoted below:

Igbobi College was conceived as an elite institution and it was operated as such but right from the beginning, the emphasis was on imparting elite standards without producing snobs or those who had a sense of entitlement bred into them, an attitude which would have made her products ask what their society could do for them, rather than address the issue of what they had been brought up to do for their society.

In closing, attention needs to be drawn to the profound statement by Tade Ipadeola, supplied here as our first epigraph, if only to stress the fact that 56 years after Independence the Nigerian system of education still continues to follow the colonial model very closely in structure, organisation, administration and content. It would take a talented tenth to envision and realise a system of education that is fit for contemporary purpose. Of course, from this standpoint what seems most plausible is that if all a Nigerian education does is secure admission into an Ivy-League university such as Harvard, it certainly is not fit for purpose.

Truth be told, the problem of inadequate teaching manpower was transitory and could have been solved, had it not been for narrow-mindedness. Today, Nigeria has both an Igbobi College boy and a King’s College boy as Vice President and Senate President, respectively. We are in a position to judge if they are a part of the talented tenth our country so desperately needs to rescue its dysfunctional system of education. Can they, at least, effect the kind of progressive change that of great necessity must ‘relate to the needs and aspirations of the child, the community and the nation’? Can Yemi Osinbajo and Bukola Saraki spearhead an overhaul of our dysfunctional system of education?


Photograph: ‘ICY Southern Gate’ by Ralphorb


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Emeka Ugwu is a Data Analyst who lives in Lagos.

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