The ex-dictator and his degree of anonymity

January 6, 2006

For Africans hoping to study here 30 years ago, it helped to be a deposed despot. Huw Richards on just-released National Archives papers for 1975

"There is always something new out of Africa," contended Pliny the Younger. In 1975, nearly two millennia later, Warwick University's African novelty took the highly distinctive form of a former military dictator enrolling as an undergraduate.

General Yakubu Gowon of Nigeria fell victim, while abroad on government business, to a coup in July 1975. He amazed the world when - instead of threatening bloody revenge - quoted the "All the world's a stage" speech from Julius Caesar and accepted that this was his time to exit.

His choice of departure point, government papers for 1975 released last week by the National Archives show, was somewhat disconcerting for the Foreign Office. First applying to Oxford, General Gowon changed his plans following an invitation from Warwick's vice-chancellor Jack Butterworth, who had met a Nigerian vice-chancellor at an international conference in Moscow and been told of General Gowon's intentions to study in the UK.

"He has been attracted by the idea of living at a small provincial university," reported P. J. Roberts of the Foreign Office's West Africa desk on September 29.

Not everyone approved. Mr Roberts' West Africa department colleague M. E.

Heath argued that "the status of undergraduate was inappropriate to a former head of state of such importance to us. My preference would have been, had our advice been taken, which it rather pointedly was not, that a post might have been found for him as Assistant Professor of International Affairs or something of the sort. This is the procedure followed by many North American universities and was the one followed by Mr (Canadian Prime Minister Lester) Pearson when he retired from office."

Mr Roberts reported that General Gowon "did not want to live on campus, partly because he wanted peace for his studies, but also because he wanted to avoid too much contact with other undergraduates in general and Nigerian undergraduates in particular. He would therefore be living off campus".

While Mr Roberts was anxious to "avoid any impression that we are keeping tabs on General Gowon... it would be helpful to know from time to time, both from General Gowon and other sources, how he is getting on". Within a fortnight it was reported that a Foreign Office official whose son was on the same course as the general would "pass on to us any information of interest".

Fears of demonstrations against the ex-leader for his part in suppressing Biafra in the 1960s proved exaggerated and within a few weeks, Mr Butterworth was recording that General Gowon had settled into his studies and been accepted by fellow students. The Foreign Office overcame Home Office protestations that it was "very irregular" to grant him the right to stay for more than a year at a time, guaranteeing that he, his wife and valet could stay for all three years.

General Gowon in fact was to stay even longer, completing a doctorate at Warwick before returning to Nigeria, although a later Warwick venture - admitting former Sierra Leone ruler Valentine Strasser - two decades later was to be less successful.

Other overseas students probably enjoyed 1975 rather less. A Home Office decision to ease immigration restrictions on black Rhodesians in 1974 led to an influx of hopeful students with no grants, eligibility for benefits or sponsors and furious inter-departmental correspondence as the Ministry of Overseas Development complained that it was being expected to fund them.

A 150-strong demonstration by Rhodesians outside the ministry and the Foreign Office in September helped persuade the Home Office to reimpose normal restrictions, but in exchange for the Ministry of Overseas Development providing 500 more grants for those already in Britain.

The year ended with the second increase in overseas student fees in 12 months as Harold Wilson's Labour Government, beset by rampant inflation and the collapse of the car industry, desperately sought spending cuts.

Chancellor Denis Healey, who had said the country was "living beyond its means" earlier in the year, prevailed by "a small majority" when seeking £3,750m cuts in planned total government spending in November. Also in the firing line as the Cabinet debated possible economies was the university sector as a whole.

"One possible economy would be for the universities to operate for more than three short terms each year - the degree of use of their capital facilities represented a clear waste of resources and would be quite unacceptable in industry," recorded one minute, without naming the complainant.

Exempt from complaint if not economies was Wilson's favourite project, the Open University. This year saw him trying to interest both Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin - during an interval at the Bolshoi theatre - and US vice-president Nelson Rockefeller in the possibilities of adapting the OU's academic model to their countries.

Selling academic skills overseas could, however, have its pitfalls. A thick Foreign Office folder chronicles the apparently endless quest by Exeter University law lecturer David Pugsley for payment for a term's work at the University of Bari in early 1974. His complaint was first raised in April 1974 and by January 1975 his Foreign Office interlocutor, the future MP and sketch-writer Matthew Parris, was noting that "Pugsley's inquiries have become more frequent and more plaintive". He was beset by a Kafkasesque series of bureaucratic wrangles, including such issues as whether his degree (from a not wholly obscure institution, Oxford University) was recognised in Italy and disagreement between university and education ministry as to who was responsible for paying him.

In February 1975 an Italian Embassy official wrote that "the main obstacle to the solution of this unpleasant obstacle has now been overcome", citing the decision by a huge professorial committee that his degree did count.

The sum of 2,740,220 lire, considerably eroded over 22 months by Britain's double-digit inflation, was finally paid to Pugsley, via power of attorney vested in a local consular official and the Rome Embassy's bank account, in December 1975.

The local official reported: "You may like to know that Dottore Giroldi, to whom I complained of the lengthy delays, stated that we had been particularly lucky in having it settled so rapidly as similar cases of this nature often took up to ten years to settle."

Perhaps wisely, this thought appears not to have been passed on to Dr Pugsley.

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