The University of Nigeria | Ike Anya | Granta

The University of Nigeria

Ike Anya

The Margaret Ekpo Refectory at the University of Nigeria is named after one of Nigeria’s few prominent female pre-independence nationalists. It sits at one side of Freedom Square, the gathering point for innumerable student demonstrations since my childhood, and is a fifteen-minute walk from our house on a tree-lined avenue where many professors live.

Since the early eighties, when privatisation swept through the Nigerian public sector, the university refectories have taken on a desolate air, as small-scale private caterers try to utilise the vast spaces and industrial equipment created in another era, when universities employed an army of catering managers, cooks, cleaners and other refectory staff.

Nsukka is a small town, nestled in a cluster of green hills rising out of the flat savannah as you move from Northern Nigeria southwards and eastwards towards the rainforest. The University of Nigeria’s main campus looms large over the town and it is where we spend our first undergraduate year. Next year, we will move to Enugu, the state capital, forty-five minutes’ drive away, where a handful of faculties, including the medical school, are based.

For our first year, we take sixteen courses, more than any other first years, who take between nine and twelve. This is a source of pride and a burden: while we revel in our uniqueness, we struggle with the workload. Most are in physics, chemistry and biology, shared with students in other departments.

Our larger lectures are held in the New Science Lecture Theatre, a prefabricated wooden block. There are many like it, temporary structures put up rapidly during the university’s reconstruction after the Biafran War ended nearly twenty years ago. Its wooden window frames once held glass louvres but are now gaping spaces that allow students to slip in and out of lectures at the back, with the lecturer oblivious at the front of the theatre. It isn’t always easy to hear the lecturers or to see the blackboard, especially if you come late and have to scramble for a seat at the back. Occasionally quarrels and fights precede a lecture, provoked by seat ‘colonisation’. Some students arrive very early, drop books on a seat in the front row and then go off to breakfast. When other students arrive, frustrated to find all the front seats thus colonised, they occasionally snap, send the colonisers’ books hurtling through the air and set the stage for a confrontation.

Handouts play a big role in our studies that first year. Several pages of cyclostyled paper stapled together, they contain the rudiments of each course, and perhaps, some exercises to work through. Rumour has it that lecturers keep careful tabs on who has purchased their course handouts and who has not; and that these reflect in our final results. The lecturers drop heavy hints that the exams will be based on the exercises in the handouts. One particularly enterprising lecturer turns his handout into a proper printed booklet and is able to charge a higher price for it. Our days begin early, jostling at the water tanks outside our hostels to fill buckets for our baths. Others, better prepared, fetch their water the day before, or send one of the many umu Nsukka, the young boys from nearby villages who roam the corridors of our hostels looking for errands to run for a few naira.



As we walk to the classrooms for study one evening, the sounds of drumming and singing float through the campus. Male voices rise and soar upwards, sonorous in depth and rhythm, throwing out chants. They are echoed by the fluting voices of women, in chorused response. We soon come upon the group of dancing young men and women, dressed in jeans, strips of cloth tied round their heads and arms. Handing out flyers as they dance, they are Theatre Arts students, advertising their latest production. It is a play written by a lecturer, the young and fiery Esiaba Irobi.

On the day that it opens, I go with a group of friends to the Arts Theatre, a short walk from Freedom Square. Hangmen Also Die is set in the Niger Delta and illustrates the terrible effects of Nigeria’s exploitation of oil on the environment and the people of the region. At its heart are the recent attempts by inhabitants of the area to drive out the government and the oil companies through a campaign of attacks on oilfields and equipment. Captivated, I watch as the first scene opens. The darkened stage lights up dimly to reveal a masked and hooded hangman full centre stage declaring: ‘I no go hang those boys. I no fit hang those boys.’ As the play unfolds, we learn he has been asked to carry out the sentence of death by hanging, handed to a group of young militants from the Niger Delta caught blowing up the oil installations that have wreaked havoc on their homes.

In a chilling scene, the boys march out on stage, the lights dimmed, to the sound of a single female voice, singing softly, dirge-like, a song we all learned in primary school. Back then, we sang it with gusto, marching to the Independence Day celebrations at the Government Field every 1st of October. We have never heard it sung so sorrowfully, so full of pathos, and it is as if in the tune, the many tragedies of our young country are mourned:

‘Nigeria, is a great country Africa is a large continent
We are marching on, to take our place Among all the nations of the world . . .’

When the play ends, the theatre erupts in applause, and the actors take their bows, joined by the playwright, Esiaba, his head gleaming under the lights, shaved in solidarity with the stars of the play, the shaven-headed young men playing the Niger Delta militants.



Towards the end of the first year, as we prepare for our final examinations, food prices shoot up, propelled, everyone says, by the government’s Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) endorsed by the World Bank. In between lectures, we angrily discuss the rising cost of food, soap, toothpaste, transport. Rumours spread about the wealth that our military leaders are secreting in bank accounts in Switzerland, the mansions they are buying in London, New York and Paris. In the small canteens where we go for our meals, more and more students ask for smaller portions of food. The common phrase is ‘Madam, give me fifty-naira rice “without”’. ‘Without’ is a euphemism – the student cannot afford the small pieces of meat and fish that ordinarily enliven our stodgy starch meals of garri and rice. Pocket money from our parents, who are mostly on fixed salaries, dwindles, as the cost of living soars.

One night, a rumour spreads: our militant student union leaders have returned from a national meeting with leaders from other universities. They have resolved to embark on a series of demonstrations to protest the economic policies of SAP.

The next morning, we wake to the loud noise of banging on plastic buckets and on the metal railings that run around the walls of our halls of residence. The demonstration is on. Pulling on our oldest clothes, we dash into the corridors, joining the shouting, chanting mass of angry students, heading for the centre of the campus, where the female student halls of residence and the administrative buildings are.

Homemade cardboard placards, bearing slogans like SAP is SAPPING US and IBB MUST GO, are waved high. There is a sense of carnival mingled with outrage, especially for us since this is our first demonstration. At the female hostels, we run through the corridors, banging on doors, co-opting residents to join us. Some female students come out to join; others barricade themselves behind closed doors. A group of shouting students head for the lecture theatres to drive out any students there, forcing them to join. Any lecturers, university staff or taxi drivers foolhardy enough to venture out in their cars are made to attach green leaves to the grilles and bonnets as a sign of solidarity. We head to Freedom Square and, once there, cheer loudly as student leader after student leader, lifted high on the shoulders of other students, denounces the government and the harsh economic reforms impoverishing so many. Word comes that the Vice Chancellor wishes to address us, and we stream towards his office, a short distance away.

Standing on the lawn outside the Vice Chancellor’s office, a peculiarly shaped building, its design characteristic of the sixties, we watch as he emerges on to the balcony. A few students try to heckle but are quickly hushed – he has a fairly good relationship with the student population. He implores us to return to classes, acknowledging our anger but pointing out that everyone is suffering, not just students. His calm advice is met by shouts of No, No, No, and a small group burst into a chant declaring their refusal to acquiesce to the current situation: ‘We no go gree o! We no go gree! Too much suffering, we no go gree.’ We won’t agree. Realising he is getting nowhere, he retreats behind the closed doors of his office. We return to Freedom Square, continuing our chanting and sloganeering, and we are still there when the news comes to us a few hours later: the university has been shut down on the orders of the military government. We are given twenty-four hours to leave the campus, so we retreat to our hostels to pack up and head home, unsure of what will happen next.

It is another three months before the university reopens and we return to sit our final examinations. They pass in a blur, and then we anxiously wait for the results, although it is virtually unheard of for anyone to fail this, the pre-clinical year.


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This is an excerpt from Small by Small: Becoming a Doctor in 1990s Nigeria by Ike Anya, published in 2023 by Sandstone Press

Ike Anya

Ike Anya is a consultant in public health medicine working in Nigeria and the UK, most recently supporting the NHS response to COVID in Scotland. His writing has been published in the Guardian, Huffington Post, Granta, Catapult Eclectica, and in the anthology of essays by Nigerian writers on Nigeria: Of This Our Country. He co-edited the Weaverbird Collection, an anthology of new Nigerian writing. His memoir, Small by Small, is published by Sandstone Press.

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