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Succession dispute in Nigerian universities: Matters arising By Bolanle Bolawole

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Succession dispute is now a recurring decimal in our universities; the choice of vice-chancellors has become battle royal that has turned the Ivory Tower, a supposed citadel of learning and training ground of the leaders of tomorrow, into battle fields where all manners of weapons are deployed. Shenanigans unbecoming of trained minds and outlandish behaviour which many would have thought were the exclusive preserves of politicians now rear their ugly heads amongst our academicians. Why has the choice of vice-chancellors become real war, tearing the universities asunder and turning eggheads into gladiators of the type that make political thugs green with envy? When did the academicians descend into the cesspool of corruption and obscenities that now attend the jostling for the highest office in the Ivory Tower? In recent times at least five top-flight universities in the South-west region of the country alone have been in the news for the wrong reasons. The process of replacing a departing VC has become mired in controversy and allegations of financial malfeasance are traded amongst principal officers of the Ivory Tower. As professors’ tug at one another and wash their universities’ dirty linens in the open, public confidence in the affected universities is badly shaken and their international ratings take a beating. But, alas, in many instances the Visitor, like King Nero who fiddled while Rome burnt, often sit back to enjoy the spectacle, acting too little too late until much damage is done, some of which will take generations and huge resources to repair.

On April 15, 2016, I was compelled to write “At Ife, university autonomy goes gaga” when succession dispute turned arguably the most beautiful university campus in the country – the Obafemi Awolowo University – into a theatre of battles in which all manner of dangerous weapons were used – guns, cudgels, charms, name it! The departing VC was run out of town; his favoured successor, selected in a controversial process in far-away Abuja, could not venture into the campus to assume office; and the Governing Council members that superintended the charade were lucky to have escaped with their lives at their last meeting on the Ife campus. Union leaders, baying for blood, laid siege to the campus; in the midst of the confusion the term of the sitting VC lapsed and the authorities then acted – dissolved the allegedly compromised Governing Council, cancelled the controversial selection process and allowed the university Senate appoint an acting VC, a man of great honour and respectability among his peers, who managed to douse the tension and return peace to Great Ife. A new Governing Council was inaugurated and a new selection process yielded a man of the people as VC.

Whenever and wherever we experience succession dispute in universities, it is usually as a result of grand larceny and or departure from laid down procedures to cover up tracks. Playing monkey games, bastardizing the system, perverting the cause and course of justice, favouritism, playing God, and planting surrogates and fickle-minded successors who will “watch” over someone’s back and help cover sordid tracks are some of the reasons why the politics of succession has assumed a dangerous dimension in our universities. In recent times, tribalism from unexpected quarters has also entered the fray as one reason why quality is spurned and competent candidates are discriminated against in preference for so-called indigenes, the proverbial son or daughter of the soil! That the Governing Councils are now packed full with politicians has not helped matters. What is the meat of political appointment to the average Nigerian politician if not to recoup “investment” and amass a considerable war chest for future elections? So the “right” candidate who will play ball, who will “cooperate” as resources are pillaged and diverted, are usually head-hunted and manipulated into office. Corruption is the name of the game. Our institutions of higher learning are no longer insulated from this cankerworm. Politicians are not the only culprits; even traditional rulers appointed as university Chancellors have caught the bug.

At the University of Lagos, a simmering crisis of confidence between the Governing Council chairman and the Vice-chancellor burst into the open in August last year; the former sacked the latter and appointed a replacement. The Unions kicked, declared the Council persona non grata and the Akoka campus a “no-go area” for it. Allegations of financial malfeasance were traded back and forth. Fela came to mind here: “You be thief, I no be thief; you be robber, I no be robber; you be armed robber, I no be armed robber”! Damaging and incriminating documents flew all over the place, reminiscent of the “You Tarka me, I Daboh you” corruption theatre of the absurd of the Yakubu Gowon era! In the melee, the VC won and the Governing Council lost out but UNILAG is back in the news again with the ex-Governing Council chairman, on the heels of an alleged Visitation panel report, making allegations not just against the university administration but also against the supervising Ministry. Where will all this end?

The University of Ibadan rode straight into succession dispute when the tenure of Prof. Idowu Olayinka ended late in 2020. Those who claim to know say the rot at U.I has roots deeper than the outrage that came into the open in the last months and days of Olayinka’s tenure. Religion and ethnicity, two dreaded monsters that have unhinged Nigeria itself, were at work. Some agitators insisted on what they termed religious equity or parity in the selection of the VC while another group, protesting so-called marginalization, insisted that a “shon of the shoil” (an Ibadan indigene) must emerge VC! Where is the place of merit in all of this? At the Lagos State University (LASU), arguably the country’s best State-run university, the demon that truncated the VC selection process was also hydra-headed, wearing the caps of ethnicity and the (needless, unnecessary, diversionary?) dichotomy between Ph. D. and a Fellowship (for academicians in the Medical line). After flips and flops, the Visitor to LASU, Gov. Babajide Sanwo-Olu, held the bull by the horns and the announcement was made of Prof. Ibiyemi Olatunji-Bello as the second female VC of the institution.

Writing in this column on 5 September, 2021 on the shenanigans that detained the appointment of a substantive LASU VC, I had said: “The Lagos State University (LASU) is embroiled in crisis at the moment because some Lagos indigenes are incensed that a non-native could become the VC. The argument is not about competence but indigene-ship. So a fellow Yoruba can be discriminated against even in Yoruba land! After working your arse out in a Yoruba space, paying tax there, and helping to build up its infrastructure, you can be shown the door when the time comes for you to reap the fruits of your labour simply because some people now suddenly realise that you are not a “son or daughter of the soil”! While the impasse raged, LASU’s international rating dropped; public confidence in it also sagged. I know parents who, due to the impasse, sought university admission elsewhere for their wards instead of their preferred choice of LASU. Without doubt, the new LASU VC has a mountain to climb. May the good Lord help her!

UNIOSUN is another top-flight State-run university in the throes of succession shenanigans. The outgoing VC has a terminal date of November 4, 2021 but the process of appointing a new VC has pitched academicians against academicians, the university administration against lecturers asking probing questions; contentious issues have seeped into the open; and some aggrieved members of the UNIOSUN community, including even the national body as well as the Osun State chapter of the Nigeria Medical Association, have approached the courts. What are the issues in contention? Those on the side of the UNIOSUN authorities claim they want the very best for the institution; hence, the need to raise the stakes so that only the best candidate can emerge as the next UNIOSUN VC. They insist there is no attempt, as alleged by those they described as “agitators”, to shut the door in the face of any interested candidate. Conversely, those kicking against the announced process of appointing a new VC allege that this flies in the face of the evidence; that the advertisement for the vacancy (even after it had been amended by the authorities) disregards the advertisement used in 2016 for the appointment of the out-going VC. In other words, the outgoing VC is accused of climbing to the top with a ladder and removing and destroying the same ladder afterwards! They also allege that the role of the Registrar was hijacked by the VC such that interested candidates were directed to submit their applications to the VC’s office instead of the Registrar’s; that some of the qualifications demanded by UNIOSUN surpass those demanded of VCs of IVY League universities like Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, to mention but a few; and that the outgoing VC himself does not qualify based on those conditions! To cap it all, the aggrieved UNIOSUN academicians complain that the demands are deliberately loaded against candidates in the Humanities, Law, Education, Arts, Social and Management Sciences and those in the Medical field. Possibly as a result, only a candidate from Political Science is reportedly venturing into the race.

Writing on an entirely different topic but which view is germane here, respected columnist, “Snooping around with Tatalo Alamu” (The Nation newspaper of Sunday, September 12, 2021, page 3), had this to say: “Having been brought culturally to heel – intellectual, spiritual, and economic estrangement must logically ensue. This is why even the most accomplished Africans, unlike the Chinese, the Indians, the Singaporeans and the Japanese, seek intellectual validation from Western institutions designed to protect and project the hegemony of the Western order. Such has been the ideological efficacy and the spiritual terror exerted on Africans by these foreign institutions that it has proved impossible to evolve a distinctly African identity or to recuperate its lost organic essence.” The UNIOSUN authorities who set store by Thomson Reuters, Web of Science criteria and peer review publications should listen to the video “Return to Eden” which I stumbled on recently. The narrator had this to say: “What is science? People talk glibly about science but what is science? People are coming out of the university with a Master’s degree or with a Ph. D, you take them into the field and they literally don’t believe anything unless it is a peer review paper; it is the only thing they accept. And you say to them ‘let us observe, let’s think, let’s discuss’; they can’t do it. Is it in the peer review paper or not? That is their view of Science. I think it is pathetic. Gone into universities as bright, young people but they come out of them brain dead, not even knowing what Science means. They think it means peer review papers, etc. No, that is academia. And if a paper is peer reviewed it means everybody thought the same; therefore, they approved it. And an unintended consequence is that when a new knowledge emerges, new scientific insights, they can never ever be peer reviewed. So we are blocking all new advances in Science…We are going to kill ourselves with stupidity.”

Stupidity runs stark naked, though it pretends to be ornately attired, where the obsession is for Thomson Reuters, Web of Science and peer review criteria; surpassing even the acceptable standard set by their originators in the West! Colonial mentality is the name of the plague when we cry more than the bereaved and pretend to be more Catholic than the Pope. Ironically, a cure was prescribed a long time ago by someone who never saw the four walls of a university – Bob Nesta Marley – when he sang, in Redemption Song: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds…” They should begin to do just that at UNIOSUN! Think out of the box!

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