TributeIron Lady of UNIBEN Alele-Williams

Iron Lady of UNIBEN Alele-Williams


April 03, (THEWILL) – That was the soubriquet by which she was known for much of her time as vice chancellor of University of Benin for seven years from 1985. It was borrowed not by her but by those who saw similarities between her uncompromising leadership style and another tough-fighting, fiercely independent-minded former PM of the UK Margret Thatcher.

The similarities did not end there. They had the same bouffant hairstyle which stood high on big craniums. They never gave up a fight midway. Thatcher loved her Scotch straight undiluted. Alele-Williams loved her martinis just so. Though it was the Russians who gave Thatcher Iron Lady, students and lecturers of the University of Benin appropriated it to describe a woman they found too hot to handle.

The moniker fitted her snugly, like the pair of grandma glasses she wore most of the time. Most of their opponents were men. And during some of those confrontations – whether with Union leader Arthur Scargill in the case of Thatcher or Festus Iyayi in the case of Alele-Williams – both women never blinked first.

At an imposing six feet-plus, the professor of Mathematics looked formidable enough, especially to her male adversaries who were correspondingly shorter. But what they dreaded most was her equally formidable mind. She studied a course (Mathematics) at a time it was unfashionable for women to do so in Nigeria, obtained a first degree in it and then doctoral up to professorship.

It was not by chance she was the first woman in Nigeria to bag a doctoral degree. But becoming the first female vice chancellor of a university in Nigeria was serendipitous.

Professor of Mathematics Grace Awani Alele-Williams lived in polite obscurity as director of Institute of Education University of Lagos from 1974 to 1985. But everything changed soon after military president Ibrahim Babangida appointed her vice chancellor of University of Benin in 1985. Naturally, the appointment got the women folk happy, herself inclusive.

Recalling her appointment as the first female VC, Alele-Williams said: “The excitement I felt on receiving the news from Professor Jibril Aminu [the Nigerian Minister of Education] had more to do with seeing it in terms of opening up the field for women than anything else. I saw it as an opportunity to show that women too could rise up to the occasion. Also, I knew what the weight of the expectations of the women was.

“They were eager to see how things would go and I was not going to let them down. Mind you, those who appointed me felt I was qualified for it; so it was not just a case of wanting to satisfy the yearnings of the womenfolk. It wasn’t that simplistic.”

Good enough. But her new job also got her into trouble. It was as if the appointment threw her in a ring where she had to face opponents alone to, as it were, fight for survival. They were epic battles, first, with her fellow professors. It was bad enough that, after Professor Adamu Baikie, her predecessor, an out-of-state don from another university was chosen to replace him. Worst of all, a woman! It is enough to make any grown man wince from injured pride.

Right from the start, some professors in the institution, especially those of a particular ethnicity, took her head on. A tough nut to crack, she survived it all, reappointed a second time after her first tenure, leaving her tormentors champing at the bit. Round One: Alele-Wiliams 1, Grumpy professors 0.

She also recorded many victories over some of her headstrong wards, students under her care. At about the time she was appointed in the mid-eighties, fraternities in some universities were commonplace. Fresh from secondary school or HSC, most male students enjoyed freedoms they never had in grammar schools.

With raging hormones for twenty-something year olds, they could smoke, drink, chase girls and party like never before. It was also time to buddy up with ‘special friends’ initiated almost always at night and in peculiar regalia, complete with branded berets. Mind you, the new VC never took exception to students becoming members of fraternities. After all, as a student in two or three universities in the US, she would have known of frats and even sororities.

But what Alele-Williams took exception to was the accompanying violence, the needless killings and open chancing of fellow students by the so-called hard men in campus. At the time, cult-related violence was routine in Benin, rivalled and surpassed only by students of Bendel State University, Ekpoma, now Ambrose Alli University.

While violence escalated at Ekpoma where students casually gouged out eyes with a pair of compass or acid-bathed others, there was a corresponding decrease in incidents of that kind at UNIBEN thanks to the new sheriff in town. How did she do it?

Hand out lengthy suspension terms to students found guilty of cult-related violence, anywhere from four, five, six, seven, eight years, and most often delayed when they are just about graduating. (However hard-eyed students may be, spending eight years in the wilderness on suspension is sure to erode or undermine their confidence. Besides, it isn’t the kind of news you tell your guardians.)

If, for instance, you were involved in any cult-related confrontation as a fresher, the suspension won’t come until your third or final year. You will most certainly have forgotten about your crime and carry on like before. Backed by the VC, the school authorities routinely published the names of such errant students in school bulletins – those guilty of exam malpractice, frat boys involved in one form of disturbance or the other and so on.

Asked post-VC at UNIBEN how she curtailed cultism in her time, Alele-Williams would only remark that “I dealt with it,” as simple as that, no gloating.

Recounting her battles to two journalists in 2007 when she was 75,about the dons who wanted her out by any means she used a word to describe her adversaries many people often mispronounce: “They were sadists,” ‘saydists,’ we heard and not ‘sahdists.’

Patrick Asonye who was Deputy Editor of Sunday Sun then and I had waited for more than an hour in the retired professor’s Victoria Island residence. She’d agreed to meet and speak with the team on her anniversary. By the time she came in, you could see she was tired, held up in a gridlock. “I am sorry,” she said, and then proceeded to look in a moderate-sized mirror, touching a greying strand here, another there. We laughed and she responded, “you know, we women.”

She also reached for a Coke which she sipped straight from the bottle. “I am tired and I need to replenish my energy.”

Published afterwards as Woman of The Sun, Alele-Williams told us about her life’s journey from Warri where she was born the fifth and last child among five sibs, her early education at primary, secondary and university level. And, of course, her personal life with her spouse, Abraham Williams. At the time, they were already divorced but without any bitterness. The man, a political scientist and professor whom she married at UI, died in 2010.

At the time, too, she’d been on the lecture circuit, invited to this and that conference within and outside Nigeria, venerated more than ever before especially by the menfolk even the military who conferred an OON on her in 1987. She was member of board of directors of a half dozen or so companies, ranging from Chevron to Texaco.

But it was her contribution as a Mathematics professor that stood her out most. Of her contribution in that regard, a commentator has written: “She had been awarded a Master’s Degree in Education in 1959 having taught mathematics as a Graduate Assistant in the Mathematics Department while studying Mathematical Education. A Graduate Fellowship Award allowed her to go to the University of Chicago Illinois later in 1959 to study for a PhD…After the award of the degree, she returned to Nigeria and spent two years at the University of Ibadan undertaking postdoctoral work as a post-doctoral research fellow in the department and Institute of Education…Between 1962 and 1969, the African Mathematics Programme conducted annual eight-week writing workshops in Entebbe and Mombassa, and produced over 80 volumes of textual materials covering primary school, teacher training, secondary, and sixth-form mathematics.”

Her continental involvement with Mathematics will see Alele-Williams chair a Maths project at Entebbe. “The Entebbe Mathematics Series have sometimes been dubbed American but this is to ignore the valuable contribution of the African participants,” Alele-Williams wrote, “who feel keenly the African origin of the series. Moreover the whole exercise has provided an international forum for teaching and learning, unprecedented in the annals of education. Africans, working with Europeans and Americans, have produced mathematics texts good enough for use anywhere in the world. Mutual benefits have been derived by all concerned and the project has clearly contributed to international understanding.”

All of her contributions as VC, mother, mathematician and role model to women have not gone unnoticed. Writing on her 80th anniversary in 2012, a former student had this to say. “Today, friends and family are converging in Lagos to celebrate the 80th Birthday of a great African, a quality Nigerian, a super patriot, an indomitable champion of women’s causes, a great educator and educationist, the inimitable Mother of Nigerian academia and an exemplary Amazon, Professor Grace Awani Alele-Williams. I am here celebrating this special woman, not only because she was the Vice-Chancellor at the University of Benin who signed my Degree Certificate (BA History, 1985, as the best graduating student in my class), but also because she was ‘primus inter pares’ amongst those who put the “Great” in Great UNIBEN! Of course, it wasn’t easy to have to step into the shoes of another great Nigerian, Professor Adamu Baikie who held the position of the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Benin before her, but Professor Alele-Williams did it with grace, guts and grit…Mama Grace Alele-Williams opened her doors to everyone, treated students with respect, listened to what they had to say, encouraged academic freedom, victimized no one on account of holding contrary views and made the University of Benin a true place of learning.”

Upwardly mobile women in positions of authority, Alele-Williams once observed, “like to be thorough. And many women who go past that stage are very thorough, economical, pointedly vigorous and directed, because they have to do this to move up. Once you’re in that line, you tend to do extremely well and since the men have the common tie, we don’t have that. We have to do extra work to be seen and voted in even at the lower levels. And quite often, many of us are multitasking ourselves to be in such positions and we come out and are noted.”

There couldn’t have been a more apt self-analysis.

About the Author

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Michael Jimoh is a Nigerian journalist with many years experience in print media. He is currently a Special Correspondent with THEWILL.

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Michael Jimoh, THEWILL
Michael Jimoh is a Nigerian journalist with many years experience in print media. He is currently a Special Correspondent with THEWILL.

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