African Engineers: Dr R P Baffour

Dr R P Baffour is famous in Ghana for having been the first Ghanaian to be appointed Principal and later Vice-Chancellor of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi. A close friend of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first Prime Minister and President, Dr Baffour lost his job in 1967 as the military government of the day removed the last vestiges of Nkrumah’s regime. The author did not arrive in Ghana until February 1971, so he feels himself fortunate to have met, and even come to know, the great pioneering engineer who left an indelible impression on Ghana’s foremost engineering school.

Founded in 1952 by the amalgamation of several colleges, on land donated by the Asantehene (King of Ashanti) Prempeh II, the institution that was to become KNUST was guided in its early days by two distinguished British academics: Dr J P Andrews (1952 – 54) and Dr W E Duncanson (1954 – 1960). Dr R P Baffour was appointed Principal in 1960, the year that Kwame Nkrumah transformed Ghana into a Republic with himself as President. Two years later, Dr Baffour was appointed the first Vice-Chancellor of the fledgling university. He immediately set about transforming 18 square kilometres of secondary bush into one of the world’s most beautiful university campuses.

In the task that he set himself, R P Baffour’s friendship with the President was a great help. Stories of those eventful years have become apocryphal. Faculty buildings, students’ halls of residence, a great assembly hall, and an impressive library building rose out of the red lateritic soil and were surrounded by extensive lawns adorned by flowering shrubs and trees. Shady tree-lined avenues joined academic areas to administrative, community and commercial centres and residential estates.

When a time came that the President grew weary of such heavy expenditure it is said that the Vice-Chancellor would order the foundations of the next great structure to be dug and invite his friend to come and view progress and release funds for the building to be completed. How Dr Baffour persuaded Nkrumah to fund an Olympic-size swimming pool to attract distinguished foreign academics to the university is a secret that may never be revealed.

Dr R P Baffour left behind in Kumasi a reputation as a practical, hands-on engineer. It was related how when driving from Kumasi to Accra he came upon a State Transport bus that had broken down. He stopped his car and fixed the problem with the bus before resuming his journey. On another trip to Accra he decided to go by rail and talked the driver into letting him ride in the locomotive and take the controls. Even if these tales have been embellished by retelling, it is clear that the first Vice-Chancellor provided a role model for the sort of engineer his country needed and his university sought to train.

For some years after Dr Baffour’s departure, and with the former president overthrown and out of favour, Kumasi University dropped ‘Kwame Nkrumah’ from its name. However, in the course of time old sentiments faded and famous names were restored. R P Baffour was called to Kumasi to receive an honorary Doctor of Science degree from the university he once led. Sometime after the ceremony, the author came across the great man alone, descending the steps from the Great Hall and with his magnificent gown still on his bowed shoulders. He seemed to be greatly moved and was possibly delaying his departure until he had composed himself. Forever the gentleman, he responded to words of congratulation and with tears on his cheeks added, ‘To think that this could happen to me!’

The last time that the author met Dr Baffour was in Accra at the University Guest House. This time he discoursed at length upon his latest project. He wanted to build a plant on the coast near his hometown, Cape Coast, to electrolyse sea water and produce chlorine and sodium hydroxide. This he felt could provide the foundation for a chemical and plastics industry. The old man has gone and the plant has not yet been built, but when it does eventually become a reality it would be fitting if it bore his name.

Source by John Powell

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