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First Among Equals

• Michael Jimoh reviews The Petroleum Engineer As University Administrator by Ikechi Ibeji, Energy Nuggets Limited, Ilorin, 2015, 158pp

This book drips with petrol from start to finish. You can smell it on the cover, between the sheets and right through to the last page. The title is done in the colour of petrol or a hue close to it. The wellgroomed, sweet-smiling visage on the cover could pass for an executive staff of any Oil & Gas company you know, or a senior administrator in a Nigerian university.

Professor Joseph Ajienka, the face on the cover, has occupied positions in the O & G industry and the Ivory Tower. He is a petroleum engineer par excellence. He was, also, Vice Chancellor of the University of Port Harcourt for five years where he made sweeping reforms in academics, administration and business enterprise. None of his predecessors had achieved that triple feat before.

It will be presumptuous to judge his successor who took over only last July, but Ajienka’s admirers insist that he left “very big shoes” behind, meaning that his successor must surpass Ajienka’s achievements to be reckoned with.

The records are there for a man who made UniPort an “entrepreneurial university.” Ajienka pioneered the Institute of Petroleum Studies in the school, made daring and profitable partnerships with companies and corporate organizations. This, in the author’s view, is Ajienka’s most accomplishment. “The most important changes under his watch were the huge benefits from partnerships with industry, resulting in unprecedented flow of sponsorship for research and academic programmes and actual capitalization of research results.”

So, when the author writes of his admiration for the former VC as the man who made it possible for Uni- Port to transit from a mere “teaching to a research university and now an entrepreneurial university,” readers can’t but agree with him. More than any other institution of higher learning in Nigeria today, UniPort has more chairs endowed by corporate bodies and individuals. It is these R&D that distinguishes universities as venerable institutions of genuine – theoretical and practical – scholarship.

At one time notorious for cult killings, UniPort now ranks as the best in Nigeria, in R&D. In a Times Share Higher Education Ranking at the first such rating by African Universities Summit in Jo’ Burg this year, UniPort trounced University of Western Cape, University of Nairobi, University of Ghana and University of Pretoria. Only University of Cape Town, University of Witwatersrand, Makere University, Kamapala, and University of Kwazulu Natal beat UniPort to a fifth place.

As of today, UniPort has the highest number of professorial chairs in Nigeria raking in over N100 million. It is the only university with a residency for writers in the Art Village, experts in residence in petroleum and other disciplines.According to Ajienka, the residency is designed such that “each unit is also to draw experts in residence from industry or techno-entrepreneurs.”

Ajienka’s appointment in July 2010 as VC of UniPort came as a surprise to some of his colleagues but himself. While his co-contenders armed themselves with the usual manifestos, Ajienka went with something unusual. He went with a proposal, a five-year plan of action he would use to transform the school all through his tenure as VC.

Of course, he got the job, and so assumed duty as the number one man in the premier university in the entire South-south. By the time he bowed out last July, the man who held the Emmanuel Egboga chair for Petroleum Engineering before he became VC had made UniPort a modern-day institution where research and development was paramount and kick-started the entrepreneurial spirit.

Completed infrastructure during the time of Ajienka dotted the campus. There was Emerald Energy Institute, Bamangar Tukur Institute for International Trade and Development Studies and Thermal Hydraulics Laboratory by Nigeria Atomic Energy Commission. Other buildings begun in Ajienka’s time includeCentral Bank On Nigeria Centre for Excellence and Management Studies, Centre for Refining and Petrochemicals by Nigeria LNG Limited.

Such collaboration between the university and corporate bodies often lead to self sufficiency in many areas. Take power, for instance. Recently, students of the University of Lagos took to the street protesting against lack of power in Akoka campus. That is history in UniPort, thanks to Ajienka’s foresight.

As VC, Ajienka had gone in partnership with Total Support Energy in a UniPort Clean Energy Project funded by Keystone Bank. Today, the school enjoys round the clock electricity supply.

Gushing about the benefits of such joint effort with universities, MD of Total Support Energy, Dr. Ubani Nkajinieme, told the author pointedly: “It makes sense for all the universities in Nigeria to do what we have just done. When you take UniPort off the grid for instance, that means 2 – 3 megawatts more for Diobu. Above all, a high priority environment like the university will get the right ambience with regular power supply done in such an environmentally friendly process.”

That is just one of the many advantages of the partnership of UniPort with companies. Many more are listed by the author, complete with photographs of the infrastructural facilities built by Ajienka. Though the focus is on the former VC, there are pictures of those who realized his dream of an ideal UniPort. First among them is Dr. Emmanuel Egboga, one of his mentors. The other three are late Professor Chi Ikoku, Professor Nimi D. Briggs and Professor Mike Onyekonwu.

The author himself, Ikeji Ibeji, a veteran business journalist, editor and publisher, has covered the oil industry for more than two decades, organized conferences, seminars, symposia and sundry meetings in related fields within and outside Nigeria. This book is the first in a series of publications Ibeji hopes to write on Icons of The Nigerian Oil Industry.

That Ajienka is Ibeji’s first subject is no surprise at all. Both author and subject have had an apprentice/ mentor relationship dating back several years, rather like professionals whose dedication to duty have drawn them together and, in the process, inspired reciprocal respect.

So close was their friendship that when Ajienka was going to vie for the VC position at UniPort, he confided in Ibeji who was not a lecturer at the time but a journalist covering O & G.

The author is clearly over the moon about his subject. He writes like an acolyte overawed by the achievements of his master. He writes about him passionately; distils privileged information from lengthy interviews he had with him over a period of time; writes verbatim what the subject’s colleagues have to say about him. All of that make for an interesting insight into the scholarly and entrepreneurial contribution of a man considered a guru in O & G and a technocrat in the recent history of UniPort.

What should have been the most captivating aspect of the subject of this book is what the author deliberately ignores. Anyone hoping for a glimpse into the private life of the subject will be disappointed. This is deliberate on the author’s part for as he states in the prefatory remark, the book  is neither a bio nor a documentation of his subject’s time as VC.

“This book is not a biography of Professor Ajienka,” Ibeji warns readers. “Therefore, there is no mention of his personal life. Secondly, it is not a report of the Ajienka tenure at the University of Port Harcourt…Rather, it is a reflection of what happens when people think outside the box and an illustration of how engineering skills can be employed for the benefit of the society outside the engineering field.”

Also, Ibeji states, “it is a celebration of Ajienka as an oil industry icon who demonstrated superior human capabilities through his pioneering effort at the Institute of Petroleum Studies…his performance as Vice Chancellor reinforced and validated our choice of listing him as an icon of the oil industry, even though he is much younger than the other icons named.”

The author’s claim makes it difficult to compartmentalize the book. It is neither a scholarly appraisal of Ajienka’s contribution to O & G nor does it shed any light on his person – strength, weaknesses, idiosyncracy, in short, his humanity. Readers would have been more entertained with those than the strictly professional garb the author drapes Ajienka with.

After all, what is the essence of Achebe, Soyinka and JP without mentioning their early years as students at University College, Ibadan? Ibeji’s account gives the impression that Ajienka became what he is today in isolation of his other existence.

Again, the author wastes precious time on the acknowledgement. Six full pages are devoted to a heading that is sometimes reduced to a line or two. Ibeji begins with his mentors, Nduka Ogbaigbena, publisher of Thisday, and Ted Iwere, former MD of Independent, as if it matters. There are countless unnecessary names dropped in for good measure, making the reader feel just that – name-dropping on the part of Ibeji. It is a surprise the head of his community is not listed.

Well-bound and error-free, The Petroleum Engineer as University Administrator is a good start for an ongoing project.

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