By ‘Seun Gbanja.

A few days from now, precisely on the 23rd of April, the quintessential vice chancellor of Nigeria’s best State University, Professor Ibiyemi Ibilola Olatunji-Bello, will clock 60 years. 60 is a significant milestone in a person’s life, and for an individual whose catalogue of achievements is as tantalising as hers, she deserves a grand celebration in her name.

But having got wind of plans by various groups to orchestrate extravagant birthday celebrations in her honour, she had made clear her inclination for a modest celebration ensconced in the familial connection of her immediate family and closest friends, and a church thanksgiving service in the presence of her maker.

That itinerary to celebrate the most significant year of her existence, when she could afford to rent one of the grandest halls in Lagos for a talk-of-the-town party speaks of her profound devotion to God and dedication to family, attributes that have marked most of her adult life.

Nonetheless, the prevailing sentiment around her circle is that the diamond girl has touched far too many lives to hold a celebration, any celebration at all, as a personal project. There are levels in life that you attain and relinquish the privacy of self-ownership because you have become people’s business. Devoid of the appurtenances of public office, such levels are attained only by selfless and sustained investments in the lives of others.

Such a level, it would appear, is where Prof Olatunji-Bello has attained, which nourishes whispers here and there of a series of events that have been curated to mark her birthday without necessarily flouting her wish for a modest celebration.

So, this milestone celebration presents the opportunity to commemorate the life and accomplishments of a woman who has etched her name permanently in the sands of time at Lagos State University and the heart of everyone privileged to closely interact with her. I summarise her six decades of existence in four words: a life of impact.

Born in Lagos on April 23, 1964, to Mrs. Jadesola Ibidapo nee Abraham of Ita Kose, Lagos Island and Mr Emiola Ibidapo-Okunrinboye of Owo, Ondo State, little Ibiyemi attended Anglican Girls Primary School, Surulere, from 1970 to 1974 and Lagos Anglican Girls Grammar School, Surulere, between 1974 and 1979. She proceeded to Methodist Girls High School, Yaba, and Lagos State College of Science and Technology, Ikosi Campus, where she did her “A” levels in 1982. She went on to the University of Ibadan, where she bagged a BSc (Hons) in Physiology in 1985 and was awarded an MSc Physiology in 1987 at the University of Lagos. She followed this with a Ph.D. in Physiology at the University of Lagos in 1998.

Her insatiable thirst for knowledge drove her to obtain a Postgraduate Diploma in Theology from the Bible College of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) in 2001 and a Postgraduate Diploma in Education PGDE from the Lagos State University in 2018. In 2012, Professor Olatunji-Bello attended the Course 34 of the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru, the highest policy advisory body of the Federal Government, as a nominee of the NUC. She has also been awarded several fellowships too numerous to mention in this piece.

Professor Olatunji-Bello has had an enviable career as a pastor at the Redeemed Christian Church of God, where she currently occupies the position of zonal pastor, but her trajectory as an academic and university administrator is what has earned her greater acclaim.

A glistening 35-year career as a professor of Physiology, which culminated in her appointment as the Vice Chancellor of Lagos State University in September 2021 began with the “disappointment” of her failure to secure admission to study her preferred Pharmacy at the University of Ibadan in 1982. Many students would have been discouraged by the setback, but not Ibiyemi, who made a decision to pursue the course with vigour and attain the highest possible height in the field. “I decided that if I must do Physiology, then I must study it to Ph.D. level and make a successful career out of it,” she once told an interviewer. She eventually obtained her Ph.D. in Physiology at the age of 34 at the University of Lagos where she began her career as an Assistant Lecturer and rose through the ranks to become an associate professor before her appointment as the first professor of Physiology at the Lagos State University in 2007 at the age of 43.

Such remarkable ability to turn setbacks into opportunities has been the driving force behind Prof. Olatunji-Bello’s illustrious career, propelling her to the coveted seat of vice chancellor after persevering through four unsuccessful attempts.

As you become accustomed to the story of her emergence as the second female vice chancellor in the 42-year history of the university, you can’t help but become fascinated by her indomitable spirit and unyielding determination to surmount all obstacles that stand in her path toward achieving dreams in life.

However, as she has shown since her appointment, she is not just a woman who dreams but a leader with vision.

Her vision to make LASU the best university in West Africa, ambitious as it is, was clearly articulated from day one. At every stakeholder engagement, she laid bare her plans and sold her vision with gusto and clearheadedness. Behind the scenes, secluded in the sanctuary of her office late into the night or nestled in the comfort of her bed, early in the morning, she works, works and works, with urgency, gravitas, and deftness like someone driven by something far bigger than her.

Yet, outside, she exudes elegance, finesse, and oomph as she cruises through each day, making what the Gen Zs would call a soft work of her job.

The result is that LASU’s stock has steadily risen, as the institution continues to shed off residues of its inglorious past, emerging into a university of choice courted by an unprecedented number of admission seekers. Research and innovation culture is being entrenched, and students are flourishing under clement conditions, resulting in improved academic performances all around. The university has been ranked by the U.I Greenmetric Global Ranking as the best in West Africa for two consecutive years and has also been named Nigeria’s most digitally advanced state university.

Undoubtedly, Prof. Olatunji-Bello is a great leader, but much more than that, a great person. And how do you know a great person, if not by their proclivity for touching people’s lives?

On that basis, Prof. Olatunji-Bello is one of the most ardent philanthropists that I know of. It is a fact that no one goes to her to seek help and returns without relief. The number of students on her personal scholarship is countless; people for whom she pays medical bills or fund their business startups are innumerable. Many families enjoy monthly support from her even long before she got into office. One junior staff, a driver who worked with her about 13 years ago when she was deputy VC and later acting VC once told me how Prof. Olatunji-Bello had been supporting his family with a particular amount every single month for the past 13 years, long after he stopped working with her. He neither offered her any service nor had any debt obligation to her. Yet, no month passes without him receiving an alert from her.

I also enjoyed similar largesse for over ten years that she left the main campus after her tenure as acting VC for the College of Medicine Campus, Ikeja. While in office, apart from money, she gifted all her staff bags of rice, groundnut oil, and other ingredients every Christmas. That annual largesse did not stop even after she left office and returned to the classroom. Every Christmas without fail, long after we had all been posted to different offices and some had even left the university, we got our Christmas package. Her philanthropy is simply altruistic. You don’t have to be in a position to serve or add value to her before she does good to you. She gives freely, without the expectation of a recompense and without fanfare. She once told me, “When you give to people, don’t expect anything in return, not even their gratitude or loyalty. It is only God that can reward, and He can use anybody to reward you.”

It is, therefore, little wonder why she has received so much favour before God and accrued much goodwill before men. It is the reason why she is a woman of the people (apologies to Chinua Achebe), loved by many and admired by all.

At 60, she has unobtrusively etched her name on the hearts of the young and old, the poor and the rich, in a manner that would be difficult to match, and left her imprint eternally in the history of LASU.

It is therefore fitting for us to bring out our wine glasses and toast to a woman of impact at 60. Toast to Madam VC.

Seun Gbanja is the Media aide to the Vice Chancellor


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