Urhobo Historical Society

F.M.A. Ukoli: An Obeisance
By Victor Jike

Friday, January 28, 2005    

PROFESSORS Mark Nwagwu and Olabode Lucas have written incisive and encompassing tributes on Professor Frank Mene Adedemiswanye Ukoli who passed on rather abruptly at the age of 68 in the early hours of December 21, 2004. Both accounts highlight a distinctive personality and inadvertently showcase Ukoli's prodigious intellectual proclivity, his determinate administrative resolve to accomplish set tasks in a much efficient manner and his visionary tendency to see beyond ordinary mortals.

These attributes largely accounted for Ukoli's success both at the University of Ibadan and later in Delta State University where he was appointed Vice-Chancellor by the administration of Chief Felix, Ibru in 1992. Ukoli's ascendant scholarly profile and his intellectual accomplishment as a parasitologist have been fairly highlighted in the articles by Professors Nwagwu and Lucas of the University of Ibadan. I knew F.M.A. Ukoli from a distance as an undergraduate at the University of Ibadan in the mid 1970s. Others in the same category of big uncles in those days included Onigu Otite, Omafume Onoge, B.J. Dudley of blessed memory, Isidore Okpewho and Peter Ekeh. They were all mid-westerners and they made us proud.

I had a chance meeting again with Prof. Ukoli in 1992 when I was contesting for the Senate slot in Delta Central District and my campaign bandwagon blazed through Abraka where Ukoli had just been appointed a Vice-Chancellor. Not much of a worthwhile social interaction transpired between both of us until 2001 when I visited my elder brother Mr. Jacob Jike and I discovered to my amazement that Prof. Ukoli lived on the same street and shared a common boundary with him. The proximity of the residential abodes of my elder brother and (hereafter) Olorogun Prof. brought us together and made us to become close family friends. I spent quality time with Olorogun Prof. and his wife. We discussed the state of the economy at length, the problems of tertiary education and the environmental conundrum of the Niger-Delta.

Olorogun Prof. was intellectually engaging. He was a repository of knowledge both of standard global scholarship and of the indigenous variant. I learnt from him that hyacinth actually translated to tetebe in Urhobo language. He took all invitations from the Jike family quite seriously. In March 2002, he attended my father's funeral ceremony and spent time and money in the process. Just before his death in early November 2004, he drove all the way from Warri with his last son to attend the funeral ceremony of my elder brother's father-in-law in Adagbrasa in Okpe Local Government Area. On this particular occasion he was pressed for time to travel to Abuja for an environmental roundable organised and sponsored by Shell Petroleum Development Company. He was such a busy man.

I would like to devote the remaining part of this piece to Olorogun Prof. Ukoli as a community man. A role model for the indigenous peoples and a custodian of the revered values and mores of the local communitarian setting. It could not have been otherwise. Having been conferred with a chieftaincy title (the Oboiroro of Ogor kingdom) by His Royal Highness, the Ovie of Ogor Kingdom, Ukoli felt energised to make a contribution as a cultural ambassador to the community where he lived. In funeral ceremonies and community activities, Olorogun Prof will be decked in traditional regalia comprising a pristine George wrapper, a circle bead around the neck symbolising chieftaincy authority and a walking stick to match. He expressed deep concern about myriad social problems and was convinced that Government was not doing enough to stem the swift tide of moral depravity in the society. He was not just a scientist who stayed within the framework of narrow specialism. His mastery of the written and spoken English gave him an unusual advantage for interdisciplinary foray and advocacy.

In 2001, when the Nigerian Sociological Society invited Prof. Ukoli to give a speech on Cultism in tertiary institutions, he gave an earth moving speech.

In the speech, he asked: "Why does society refrain from applying the full weight of the law as and when appropriate? The reason may not be unconnected with the wrong definition of cultism the Nigerian society has been led to adopt. It is my opinion that this is at the root of the failure of society to come to grips with the problem. The activities of these 'cultists' are criminal and should be treated as such. But instead of investigating, arresting, prosecuting and convicting them if found guilty as the law provides, the authorities merely offer the soft option."

Like his name, he was even more frank in the review of the book- Warri City and British Colonial Rule in the Western Delta by Prof. P. Ekeh. He emphasised that the major culprit in the internecine imbroglio among the ethnic groups in Warri city was the Itsekiri ethnic group. Olorogun ruminated over several social issues including social security and cohesiveness at the neighbourhood level. As a sociologist, I would argue without fear of contradiction that the Ukoli neighbourhood in Effurun, Warri was closely-knit and sociologically face to face. Everyone knew every other person. They also had a security network organised from within.

A week before his demise, he visited the Polytechnic at Oghara and was inundated with gifts of fruits especially pineapples and citrus fruits. He drove straight to my brother's house and asked the kids to offload all the fruits for my brother. This was quintessential Ukoli. He was alone in the house with the only son of his younger brother Neville Ukoli who died just over a year ago and the wife was away in the United State where she had gone to baby sit for their daughter who had just put to bed.

Last two years about the same time, Prof. and Mrs. Ukoli had travelled to the United State to join their daughter for a well-deserved rest shortly after Delta State University had conferred a honorary doctorate degree on Prof. Ukoli about ten years after Ibrahim Kefas sacked and truncated his tenure as Vice-Chancellor of Delta State University. The intrigues, back-stabbing and real politick that led to the sack of Prof. Ukoli constitute the contents of the book entitled - "A State University is Born: Throes of Birth, Ordeals of Growth." This book is a must-read for every administrator who wants to understand the quicksand of university administration.

Prof. Ukoli treasured the degree honoris causa that was conferred on him by Delta State University, Abraka in 2003 more than everything else. If he is happy, goat meat must be part of the menu and brandy must be handy to wash it down. To this end, several goats were slaughtered to celebrate Ukoli's honorary degree. It was the peak of his earthly sojourn when he was finally restored to his rightful position. He spoke fondly of this period of restoration and we shall remain with these fond memories. Just two weeks to 2004 Xmas, he informed my brother that the neighbourhood group will slaughter a goat for the yuletide and hold a much more elaborate ceremony.

Olorogun Prof. loved such gatherings. The old boys of Government College, Ughelli regularly met in his house just like the University of Ibadan Alumni Association. He never allowed any opportunity to pass him by. On my way out of his house on one of those brainstorming nights, he asked why as a preacher, I have never deemed it fit to pray for him and his wife. I obliged and prayed for him and his household. I am convinced he lived a fulfilled life. As he is laid to rest on February 3, 2005, may God continue to protect his wife and children.

Dr Jike teaches Sociology at Delta State University, Abraka.