A law to establish a University in the Eastern Region of Nigeria was passed on 18 May 1955. While that date marks the formal beginning of the history of the University of Nigeria, the enactment of this legislation by several Nigerian leaders, and inspired particularly by the then Premier of the Eastern Region, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe.
One of the first steps taken by the Eastern Nigeria Government towards the implementation of its commitment was an invitation to both the United States of America and the United Kingdom to send advisers to help in the planning of physical and educational aspects of the proposed university.
Under the joint auspices of the Inter-University Council for Higher Education and Overseas and the International Co-operation Administration (now the United States Agency for International Development), J.W. Cook, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter, Dr John A. Hannah, President of Michigan State University and Dr Glen L. Taggart, Dean of International Programs at the same university, came to Nigeria in 1958. The team surveyed the site at Nsukka, and extensively investigated a great variety of factors pertinent to the establishment of a new university.
The results of their efforts were contained in a white paper issued by the Eastern Nigeria Government on 30 November 1958. They had recommended "that the development of the University of Nigeria based upon the concept of service to problems and needs of Nigeria, is a desirable project and one that should receive support from any source which could help to make it a sound endeavor".
They further recommended that a provisional council be established to "draw upon the technical and consultative resources available throughout the world for help in planning the institution".
The provisional council, authorised by the Eastern Nigeria Legislature, was appointed by the Governor in Council in April 1959, and given necessary financial and administrative powers to build a sound university. It reflected the spirit of international co-operation which has given birth to the institution. It consisted of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chairman, Dr. T. Olawale Elias and Dr. Okechukwu Ikejiani from the Federation of Nigeria, J.S. Fulton from the United Kingdom, Dr. Margueritue Cartwright and Dr. Eldon Lee Johnson from the United States of America.
The University was formally opened on 7 October 1960, as the climax to the Nigerian independence celebrations in the Eastern Region. Her Royal Highness, Princess Alexandra of Kent, representing Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at the Nigerian independence celebrations, performed the opening ceremonies and laid the foundation stone of one of the University's early buildings.
Classes began on 17 October 1960 with an enrolment of 220 students and 13 members of the academic staff. The opening convocation addresses were delivered by the Chairman of the Provisional Council, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first President of the Federation of Nigeria, and by Dr John A. Hannah, President of Michigan State University, USA.
The university was fully autonomous, with the power to grant its own degrees. Technically speaking, therefore, it became the first fully-fledged university in Nigeria, since Ibadan was still at that time a university college granting London degrees. It also became the first university established by a Nigerian Regional Government. The University College Ibadan, the oldest university institution, cut its umbilical cord with London in October 1962, becoming the University of Ibadan. In July 1965, it turned out the first graduates holding Ibadan (rather than London) degrees, by which time Nsukka had produced two crops of graduates and taken all the publicity for turning out the first graduates of an autonomous Nigerian university.
The University has four campuses – Nsukka (University of Nigeria, Nsukka, UNN), Enugu (University of Nigeria Enugu campus, UNEC), Ituku-Ozalla (University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, UNTH) and Aba (University of Nigeria Aba campus, UNAC).
The main campus of the University is located on 871 hectares of hilly savannah in the town of Nsukka, about eighty kilometres north of Enugu, and enjoys a very pleasant and healthy climate. Additionally 209 hectares of arable land are available for an experimental agricultural farm and 207 hectares for staff housing development. There is regular road transport between Nsukka and Enugu, and Nsukka is also quite easily accessible from all parts of Nigeria. There are modern shopping facilities and a large market in Nsukka town. The Nsukka campus houses the Faculties of Agriculture, Arts, Biological Sciences, Education, Engineering, Pharmaceutical Sciences, Physical Sciences, Social Sciences, and Veterinary Medicine.
The former Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, Enugu, was incorporated into the University in 1961, and its buildings now form the Enugu Campus (200 hectares) of the University located in the heart of Enugu, the administrative capital of Enugu State of Nigeria. Enugu is a modern city, accessible by air, rail and road. The Faculties of Business Administration, Environmental Studies, Law and Medical Sciences are located at the Enugu Campus.
The teaching hospital (UNTH) attached to the University is presently sited at Ituku-Ozalla (25 kilometres south of Enugu) on a 500 hectare site. It also hosts the Faculty of Dentistry and Health Sciences and Technology.
The Aba campus (UNAC) hosts the Institute of Nigerian Languages.
A former campus was opened in October 1973 in Calabar, Cross River State. The campus at Calabar became a full-fledged University of Calabar in October 1977.
The official name of the University is University of Nigeria and the official acronym of the name UNN. "UN" stands for University while the last "N" stands for Nigeria. This acronym is also shared by the main campus of the University, Nsukka (University of Nigeria, Nsukka). Thus technically, the name University of Nigeria, Nsukka refers to the main campus at Nsukka only while the name University of Nigeria refers to all the campuses of the University. References may be made to the location of the other campuses by mentioning the names of the cities where they are situated rather than a blanket description with the name Nsukka. Students at the Enugu Campus prefer to write the name of their school as University of Nigeria Enugu Campus (UNEC) if they must add the location of their school. Students from other campuses of the school also prefer same. Official documents of the school describes the school as simply University of Nigeria. They also make the dichotomy when referring to different campuses of the school.
Noted author Chinua Achebe held research and teaching appointments at the university, starting in the early 1970s. Renowned Astrophysicist Sam Okoye founded the Space Research Center in 1972. The SRC remains one of the few institutions in Africa that researches and offers courses in astronomy at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
The medical school, in Enugu, has most of it activities in the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital (UNTH), where doctors and other health workers are trained with high standards and have proven over the years that they can effect a significant positive change in Africa and the entire worlds' healthcare system. Doctors and nurses trained in the institution have contributed to the advancement of medicine.
The first open heart surgical operation in Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa was undertaken in 1974 at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital (UNTH) Enugu. The team was led by visiting Professor Yacoub from the UK and others in the team included Professors F.A. Udekwu and Anyanwu. The College of Medicine has since evolved into the centre for cardiothoracic surgery and tropical cardiology excellence for the West Africa region with the siting of the National Cardiothoracic Center at UNTH Enugu. A lot of medical research is also being carried out in the college. Most of the projects are nearing completion, but it is pertinent to note that some too, have fallen short of completion due to lack of finances and the Government's reluctance to fund private research.
The Department of Fine and Applied Arts is renowned for the Nsukka group – seven artists associated with a system of traditional Igbo designs and styles known as uli. The seven artists are Uche Okeke, Chike Aniakor, Obiora Udechukwu, El Anatsui, Tayo Adenaike, Ada Udechukwu, and Olu Oguibe.
The Law Faculty of the University is the oldest in Nigeria, having been established in 1960. It has contributed immensely in legal education in Nigeria. The faculty has gotten into the legal profession notable people like Late Barrister Johnny Okonkwo (SAN) one of the most Igbo prominent members of the Nigerian Bar Association and one of the first three SANs in Anambra state and also was an attorney to people like former Vice-President of Nigeria, Alex Ekwueme, Barclays Bank, Chief Chris Uba, Dim Odumegwu Ojukwu, Shell Petroleum,President Bush amongst other big names in Nigeria and beyond. He even has trained other successful legal icons like Chief Tagbo Ike, Justice Donatus Okorowo and the rest of them. The faculty also saw through the former vice-president,Alex Ekwueme in law practice.
The Department of Electronic Engineering was named a Center of Excellence in Electronics by the Federal Government of Nigeria in 1982. It is renowned for its prestigious graduates and is one of the most sought after programs to study at the university. The department has consistently produced the Best Graduating Student of the University and Best Graduating Student in the Faculty of Engineering.
Of recent a lot of work has emanated from the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics where a new agent against HIV was derived from a local plant source. Named "irab" the new agent is thought to be a fusion inhibitor and studies in initial clinical trials have shown astounding results. Noteworthy also is finding a novel application for an otherwise old drug. Piperazine citrate which is a cheap and safe anthelmintic agent that has almost gone into disrepute was shown to have anti-arryhthmic properties by studies in the department. The investigators have also established that piperazine can protect the heart against sudden cardiac death from ventricular fibrillation.
The University of Nigeria, Nsukka Libraries consist of the Nnamdi Azikiwe Library, the Enugu Campus Main Library and the Medical Library located at the College of Medicine, University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, Ituku-Ozalla.