From Aloysius Attah, Onitsha

As the lined up valedictory events for Prof Charles Okechukwu Esimone that climaxed with his handing over to an Acting Vice Chancellor – Prof Joseph Ikechebelu at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka ended on Tuesday, the epilogue used to draw the curtain and conclude that chapter was a resounding ovation for a man who not only came, saw and triumphed but succeeded in taking the university named after the Great Zik of Africa to greater heights and international prominence.

 

Professor Charles Okechukwu Esimone, a triple Fellow -Nigeria Academy of Science, (FAS), Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (FPSN) and Nigerian Academy of Pharmacy (FAP), Professor of Biopharmaceutics and Pharmaceutical Microbiology took over as the sixth substantive Vice Chancellor of Nnamdi Azikiwe University five years ago, on June 4 2019, having succeeded Professor Joseph Eberendu Ahaneku.

He was the Pioneer Dean, Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences of the University after joining Nnamdi Azikiwe University from University of Nigeria, Nsukka.  Prior to his becoming the Vice Chancellor, he had also served as the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic)  for two terms while his life trajectory has always been entrusted with great responsibilities which he had always discharged with unblemished precision and success since he became a professor at 37.

Esimone came fully prepared for the job of the university’s Chief Executive loaded with lofty ideas, dreams and vision.

Armed with an administrative blueprint he tagged Project 200, also known as ACADA Mission/Mission , he  articulated a five-pronged strategy encapsulated in “the pursuit of Academic Excellence, Productive Community/Public Service, Administrative Reforms, Discipline and Advancements”  which he deployed in the service of the university with immediate clarity of vision.

Pushing relentlessly in his mission statement, Esimone at the inception of his administration said that it was unacceptable to any rational mind that the great UNIZIK rank 4047 in World Universities Webometric rankings. He said that his goal was to move the university to at least 200 position in ranking, an ambitious goal that he was very much aware of. 

While presenting a maiden address during an interaction with the university community at the early stage of his assuming office in 2019, monitored by this reporter, he said: “Our goal is an ambitious one that can only be achieved if all hands are on deck. However, we know that it is only an insane man that will be doing the same thing repeatedly and expect different results. There is a reason why we are ranked number 4047 in the world. The work habit and mindset of people who get 1st positions in their classes are different from the work habit and mindset of those ranked from 25th down to those who fail to pass. This means that we have to get rid of the mindset, work habit and attitude which has kept us in position 4047 in exchange for the attitude, mindset and work habit of those ranked in the first 200 in the world.”

He set out to work immediately, but just barely one year into his tenure, the unexpected COVID-19 that hit the world like a thunderbolt and disrupted most programmes and project timelines reared its ugly head followed by the protracted strike embarked upon by the Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities (ASUU). These two major disruptions affected his tenure as it ate deep into his five-year timeline but that could not deter him from pushing his vision ahead.

To him, his administration is a divine mandate and therefore no man-made bottlenecks could derail its determined destination.

But Esmone remained unfazed by the two major disruptions and kept on pushing and advancing the university in all facets that by the time he was handing over, Nnamdi Azikiwe University has moved forward in all its rankings and ratings. Dotted also across the campuses of the university in Awka, Nnewi, Agulu and Ifiteogwari are also various landmark projects achieved under his five year-tenure. He has touched every facet of development both human capital, tangible and intangible in the university.

In the pursuit of academic excellence which is number one in his five pronged strategy, the Stanford University, USA in 2022 Ranking of World Scientists included two lecturers of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Engr. (Dr) Christopher Igwe Idumah of the Department of Polymer and Textile Engineering; and Joshua Ighalo of the Department of Chemical Engineering among its top two per cent of world Scientists.

Prof. Cecilia Eme of the Department of Linguistics and Kingsley Anukam of the Department of Medical Laboratory Sciences collaborated to translate Probiotic Infographics into Igbo Language, the first African language among the world languages into which probiotic infographics has been translated. Probiotics concerns live micro-organisms which when introduced into the body would have health benefits, while Infographic is simply a visual representation of data as in a chart or diagram.

Scopus in its December 2022 updated report, listed six (6) staff of the University: Prof. Charles Okechukwu Esimone, FAS, FPSN, of the Department of Biopharmaceutics and Medical Microbiology; Prof. Joseph Ikechebelu, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology; Engr. Joshua Ighalo, of the Department of Chemical Engineering; Prof. Onukwuli Okechukwu Dominic, of the Department of Chemical Engineering; and Prof. Menkiti Mathew Chukwudi, of the Department of Chemical Engineering, among the top 500 authors of journal publications in Nigeria. Scopus is an Elsevier’s abstract and citation database covering thousands of titles, many of which are peer-reviewed, in life sciences, social sciences, physical sciences and health sciences.

In the Times Higher Education (THE) Ranking 2024) Ranking of Universities, Young Universities Ranking: for Universities not more than 50 years of establishment,  Nnamdi Azikiwe University is placed 501+ in global ranking, and 5th in Nigeria.

In Sub-Saharan Africa Ranking, the University is ranked 31st, and 4th in Nigeria while in World Ranking, the University today under Esimone’s watch eventually moved from its  4047 position and is now ranked 1,501+ in the world and 8th in Nigeria, up from 10th in 2023.

Reinvigoration of academic culture through Inaugural Lectures

One of the significant impact Esimone made as UNIZIK VC was the introduction and reinvigoration of academic culture in the university. To him, the culture of a system is very instructive in how the system progresses. In a recent interview with the reporter, he said: “If you are in an academic institution and you are not grounded in the very fundamental academic structure -like method of teaching and research, then that system is bound to fail or derail. I saw that academic culture was lacking and people didn’t see it as a way of life, so one of the things we did was to institutionalise that academic culture.”

Esimone recalled that during the time of Egboka as Vice Chancellor, he was practically begging Professors to prepare and present their inaugural lecture, but when he took over from Egboka’s successor, he decided to change the system.

“Universities are known for their Professors professing their knowledge or talking to the town. But it was difficult and people were shy about it because it was not part of their culture. I started with myself presenting my inaugural lecture even as Vice Chancellor. Before then as DVC, I had wanted to present but the university didn’t have a calendar for such.  When I came in as VC, we had only 47 Inaugural lectures since inception but as we speak now, we have recorded 102nd showing that we have doubled the number in five years of my stewardship.  The rush is there now that every professor is eager to present his/her own inaugural lecture.

“Today, the delivery of inaugural lectures  has been upped from bimonthly, that is six times per academic year to biweekly, that is twenty-four times per academic year, with digital presentations” he said.

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Administrative Reforms: 484 staff promoted to Professors and Readers

The Esimone administration introduced several reforms in its administration all primed at making the operations of the University more efficient and effective.  One outstanding achievement also in this regard is on the area of Staff Appraisals and Promotions. Under his administration, there is no room for witch-hunting or stagnation of staff members due for promotion. The disruptions in academic and administrative activities of the nation’s Universities notwithstanding, Nnamdi Azikiwe University under Esimone’s leadership did  not allow the implementation of its new staff Conditions of Service, approved under his administration, to suffer vis-à-vis the welfare and promotion of staff.

Findings by the reporter showed that the staff appraisal innovations ensured that deserving staff were promptly promoted. Thus so far within his tenure, 494 staff were promoted to the rank of Readers and Professors, 240 to senior lecturers; and 766 to other ranks in the academic staff career ladder.

For the non-teaching staff, four were appointed into Director Positions; seventy-eight were promoted to the ranks of Deputy Positions; 2,291 to other senior non-teaching staff and junior staff positions.

Creation of New Cadres

In a determination to improve efficiency and effectiveness in the administration,  new cadres were created by the Esimone administration which while providing more opportunities for upward mobility of the staff, importantly provided better service delivery.

To this effect too, the admission process and Matriculation ceremonies were decentralized to Faculties. For admission, this has offered the Faculties and academic department’s room for their inputs and this had the effects of reducing attrition in the admission of students.

The administration also launched a Students’ Clearance Software that mirrors the students’ physical clearance process, making it unnecessary for graduates of the University to be physically present to do their clearance or for documents to be moved from unit to unit and table to table thereby avoiding person to person contacts. Call it a one shop clearance process.

Advancements:  Esimone’s goodwill attracted $173 to N200 million worth of investment to the university.

Not given to selfishness, the Esimone administration built on the efforts/achievements of previous administrations of the University in all facets of the University operations. While ensuring continuity of projects inherited from previous administration, he initiated new projects, completed many of them and also left behind some other projects for his successor to continue and complete.

“More specifically on infrastructure development, we took over and completed some projects inherited from previous administration, through the funding channels like: TETFund, Federal Government Capital Releases, Presidential Needs Assessment, Internally Generated Revenue and Endowment while the percentage completions of those not completed were significantly advanced. We also commenced a significant number of new projects and completed some, while making appreciable progress in those not completed,” he said. 

“In summary, the following were completed: 37 Internally Generated Revenue Projects, eight TETFund projects; seven Federal Government Capital Releases on infrastructure and five on Capacity Building; four Presidential Needs Assessment Projects; and 12 Endowment Projects”.

Being a man of integrity, the university under Esimone witnessed giant and great leaps in the area of endowments. People trusted him as one who has the pedigree to   deliver and keep to his words and this endeared him the more to more public spirited individuals who were willing to commit their resources into various projects in the university without expecting anything in return. The total projects attracted under his administration are estimated conservatively at over N60BN and between $173 to N200 million dollars.

“Yes, about that, let me tell you, sometime last week, I was trying to take note, and I saw that; and it is on record that the endowment we have attracted to the university since I came on board is in the neighbourhood of $173 to $200million dollars’ worth of investment. So, look at all the projects, all the endowments that we have done and I think in all fairness, we have really advanced that sector. When we came, the university didn’t have funding, and of course there was COVID and there was strike, and even if we were getting funding from the school fees, inflation has taken up everything. What students used to pay and if they pay it, it cannot even take care of recurrent expenditure, buying diesel and others because cost of things have gone up. So I discovered that we cannot rely on these sources for funding, we started going out for aggressive endowment drive, meeting all the people and that is why all the projects you see in the university, 100 percent or a little less, it is either they are coming from endowment or coming from federal government.

Esimone’s goodwill transcends boundaries
– Ufoh, Acting Registrar

Opinion polls sampled by the reporter cutting across students, staff and friends of the university were all unequivocal in giving a thumbs up for Esimone for the giant strides  he made while in office.  The Acting Registrar of the University, Pastor Sam Ufoh in a chat with the reporter said Esimone left behind a gold mark in the sands of time following his stellar performance in office. Ufoh listed various virtues and positive signposts of his administration to include his open gate policy where both students and staff can easily have access to him in office as one of the greatest legacies.

“I call it open gate policy and not open door because he instituted accessibility as a prime character. His human relations is also unequalled while he also promoted industrial harmony in the university. He is also a great mentor who allowed many young people to prove their mettle in the university by assigning them responsibilities and appointing them into strategic positions like Heads of Departments, Directors among others.  His human capital development is also top notch because under his leadership many had opportunities to benefit from study leaves, enhanced promotions, attending of international conferences among others” he said.

For Professor Frank-Collins Okafor, the youthful Dean,  Faculty of Social Sciences, Esimone left an indelible mark of positive achievements in office more so when he gave the faculty a befitting world class faculty building.

“Prof. Esimone administration brought a good number of innovations especially in digitalisation of the university administration, teaching, learning and results processes, which have catapulted the ease of doing business with the university, global visibility and ranking of the university. For us in the Faculty of Social Sciences, the new state of the art Faculty Building remains a great assurance that we are bona-fide members of the university, having been neglected to that effect over the years. With his irresistible charisma, character, and unequalled intellectual prowess, being the 18th most published scholar in Nigeria, he has been an inspiration to the young generation of scholars” he said..

Handing over with a grateful heart and in good health

At 53, Esimone is in high spirits having served as a Vice Chancellor and gotten to the pinnacle of university administration at the prime point of his life. He remains his effervescent self even as encomiums keep pouring for him across different faculties, departments and directorates of the university who all organized befitting valedictory sessions in his honour. He appreciated all who in one way or the other contributed in making his tenure a success.

“The task was quite challenging, but with their cooperation, it was accomplished.  Managing a university, a community of intellectuals with contesting ideals and ideas, who by the very nature of a niversity cannot be restrained from expressing and canvassing these is no mean feat. First, I thank God for His guidance that has enabled me pull through, I dare say successfully, through this onerous task. I thank the university community: staff, students and the University staff unions, without whose cooperation and support, I would have found myself in the awkward position of a general charging forward in battle only on looking back to find himself without troops, for they have deserted him.

“I thank all persons and institutions: the Governing Council, the various staff unions, the individual staff and students’ union government, the Ministries of Education, Finance and , National Universities Commission, TETFund and various government agencies, stakeholders , corporate bodies and individuals  who in various ways have contributed to whatever successes we achieved,” he said.


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