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Nigeria’s Ivory Tower fought long, bitterly and hard against the country’s combination of whining civilian administrations and their virulent, military-dictator counterparts to snatch for itself the limited autonomy it enjoys today, allowing it a measure of independence and respectability. In times past, university administrators were glorified civil servants before limited autonomy, which came incrementally. At a point, whoever headed the Federal Government appointed by fiat the vice-chancellor; later, the universities were grudgingly allowed the power to make recommendations.
Now, the universities are better off than in those jackboot days of military dictatorship – at least in the area of staff recruitments. No longer are recommendations made to the Visitor before the appointment of the VC is made. The Council of each university has now been vested with the power to hire and fire. This is, however, not to say that the FG has lost or relinquished all levers of power over the universities under its purview. The FG appoints a sizable number of the members of the Governing Council, including its chairman, who is called the pro-chancellor. This is one source of power that the FG still retains over the universities.
Another is the power of the purse in that our universities depend practically on dole outs or subventions from the FG. They are appendages of the Federal Ministry of Education/National Universities Commission and take instructions from those sources. Therefore, it is usually not the case that vice-chancellors are at all times appointed independent of the wishes or contributions of external factors. Pro-chancellors and many Council members have been known to take “orders from above” and to employ all manner of shenanigans to enforce instructions from their “Oga at the top.”
The president as Visitor to federal universities can set up visitation panels to inquire into any aspect of the administration of the institutions. Like the Governing Council wields the power to hire and fire over the VC, in like manner the Visitor as the appointing authority wields similar power over the Pro-Chancellor or chairman of the Governing Council. When the Governing Council appoints or fires a VC, the decision is expected to be communicated to the Visitor. But unlike in the past when the Visitor rode roughshod over the universities, now it does seem that it has little job to do if the universities run seamlessly; but where there is crisis as we have it now at the University of Lagos, and with the gladiators romancing the Visitor, then, the final authority to return the institution to normalcy lies with the Visitor acting within the ambits of the law.
So far, many of the universities have sensibly enjoyed their limited autonomy but there have been hiccups. Readers of this column will still remember my “At Ife: University autonomy goes gaga” (April 20, 2016). The then out-going VC at the Obafemi Awolowo University had a preferred candidate and got the Governing Council to line up behind him. Though the interview of contestants was done; it was to fulfil all righteousness as well as rubber stamp a decision already taken in the closet. The candidate that everyone else felt was the best for the job was deliberately marked down while the preferred candidate was unjustifiably marked up. That was the second time the hapless but outstanding candidate was reportedly being marked down but this time around; the whole university community decided they would frustrate the second attempt to so rob him in quick succession. So, they rose up like one man in protest.
As the Ife campus became too hot for the authorities to execute their inglorious scheme, they relocated to Abuja; just like the Dr. Wale Babalakin UNILAG’s Governing Council relocated to the same Abuja when the UNILAG campus was made hostile for its shenanigans by the ASUU. A new VC was purportedly named at Abuja by the OAU Governing Council but both the “new” and the outgoing VC could not return to the campus because the preponderance of both academic and non-academic staff, armed to the teeth with all manner of “weapons”, not only dared them to step into the campus but also kept vigil at the Senate building housing the principal officers of the university as well as mounted sentry at the VC’s office. In the end, the FG dissolved the Governing Council and appointed a new one. An acting VC was appointed and, within six months, a new selection process yielded the VC clamoured for by the majority of the OAU stakeholders. UNILAG may have started on the same route to normalcy. However, the composition of the Visitation panel to the institution by the Visitor has set tongues wagging. An informed insider said: “Personally, I believe the government is no longer an unbiased umpire, especially with the composition of the visitation panel”. Well, Grandma taught me that what is rumbling in the bush is surely coming to the main road!
If the UNILAG authorities that have now been swept aside were aware of the OAU debacle, it does appear they learned nothing from it, ignoring, as it were, the time–honoured admonitions of George Santayana that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are often condemned to repeating its mistakes. Now, both Babalakin and Ogundipe have been asked to step aside or recuse themselves. Both terms are ominous: Ever since military dictator, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, made the words “Stepping Aside” famous as he ignominiously left office as self-styled military president in 1993, he is yet to step right back inside and may never do! Recuse, on its own, means a challenge to someone, stating that he or she is “unqualified to perform (certain) duties because of a potential conflict of interest.”
Ironically, the first casualty – or loser – in the UNILAG imbroglio or impasse is Prof. Omololu Soyombo, purportedly appointed as the acting VC by Babalakin’s Governing Council. Everyone who had spoken of this man described him as a perfect gentleman seen as possessing solid integrity. It is in this regard that not a few were sorely disappointed that such a personality allowed his garments to be soiled by a tainted appointment that has run him ragged among his peers and left him naked in public opinion. When Soyombo’s peers – close to 100 professors – met and advised him not to accept Council’s Greek gift, it was then he should have deferred to his colleagues and stand tall in everyone’s reckoning.
In the Government statement asking both Babalakin and Ogundipe to step aside, no mention was made of Soyombo or his acting VC balderdash. In the eyes of the law, Soyombo’s so-called appointment never existed because no one puts something on nothing, as lawyers would say. Soyombo’s statement afterwards that he was stepping aside was as laughable as it was face-saving. In that the FG’s statement directed the UNILAG Senate to meet and appoint an acting VC (not a “new” or “another” acting VC), it means the government never recognised Soyombo as acting VC. Soyombo got quite close to it but, as they say, nearly does not kill a bird. Soyombo! Soroye! So sad!
As for Ogundipe, he must answer to all the allegations of financial irregularities levelled against him. If he discharges himself creditably, he can get back his job; why not? But if otherwise, he must face the music. Whereas probity has been thrown to the dogs generally, it is not too much if we expect some sense and sensibilities in the Ivory Tower. It is instructive that UNILAG students distanced themselves from both Babalakin and Ogundipe and, in fact, indicted the entire university management for being insensitive, incompetent and wasteful. Without doubt, a critical segment of the university community remains its students; thus, university managements – like UNILAG’s – that banish students’ unionism sine die, so to say, demonstrate incompetence and high-handedness! Closet dictators! If we want democracy to flourish, we must encourage it on all fronts.
Concerning the big masquerade – Wale Babalakin – why does controversy trail him everywhere? Lagos/Ibadan expressway! Airport concession! UNILAG! Ki l’ode! Whoever the enemies are should please give this man a break! Or the man should give himself a break from the public space! Abi na by force? With the benefit of hindsight, first at the OAU, Ile-Ife and now at UNILAG, we must begin to interrogate the calibre and quality of people appointed into the Governing Councils of universities – the Pro-Chancellor or Chairman of Council especially. Political jobbery, primitive capitalist accumulation, and predatory mercantilism must be kicked out of the Governing Council of our universities if autonomy is not to continue to go gaga in our universities.
LAST WORD: The case of the paedophile who defiled a four-year-old girl comes up at the Osogbo High Court tomorrow. This case must be diligently prosecuted and never must it be swept under the carpet. The Osun State Government should imitate other governments and public-spirited Nigerians and raise its voice and step up its activities against vile sex offenders and predators. Over to you, my dear colleague, the Osun State Hon. Commissioner for Information, Yeye ‘Funke Egbemode!