Indeed, the Nigerian university system is no stranger to crises. If it is not fight for university autonomy, underfunding, political interference, lack of respect for agreements, it is some mundane “ego” issues. These crises have been linked to the declining of standards and output of public universities in Nigeria. The latest in the cycle of crises is the announcement by the Registrar of University of Lagos, who doubles as Secretary to Council that the Vice Chancellor, Professor Oluwatoyin Ogundipe, has been removed from office by the University Governing Council in an emergency meeting held on 12th August 2020. This has created tension in the university and may have wider implications if not checked.
Some may be indifferent or apathetic to what is going on at the University of Lagos, but there are strong reasons why we should show concern. The interconnectedness and interdependencies between universities and society is well known. University of Lagos (Unilag) in particular is a premier university in Nigeria and very often sets the pace in what happens in our overall university system.
The contentious issue on the front burner centres on whether the Council followed the laid down procedures for the removal of a vice-chancellor.
We should all be concerned for the following reasons: First is that the precedence established in Unilag may become the standard in universities all over the country. Our university system is already fragile, and anything that adds to further instability will have a spiral effect on the quality of education.
Second is that universities are a mirror of the larger society and whatever example we glean from our academic citadels becomes the reference point for the nation. The question is, do we need a society where due process, law and order can be set aside because of ego or convenience or do we need a society where law and order will be the foundation of governance? The university system which ought to be a role model insulated from everyday pedestrian politics can set the pace or strengthen our values and standards of conduct.
Third, universities ought to be agents of social change, whatever happens in the University of Lagos will have a multiplier effect on other universities which will ultimately shape values on the broader society. The type of society we want will be determined by our everyday actions or inactions with intended and unintended consequences.
Having established that Nigeria and Nigerians should be concerned about developments in Unilag, what are the fundamental issues that led to this confusion, conflict and seeming stalemate that we are witnessing at Unilag?
No one is in doubt of the power of the University’s Governing Council to remove any vice-chancellor if found guilty of any gross misconduct(s) or inability to discharge the functions of his office as a result of the infirmity of the body or mind after a due process. The contentious issue on the front burner centres on whether the Council followed the laid down procedures for the removal of a vice-chancellor. The key issue is the need to balance statutory responsibility with the need for due process. Universities are places for raising doubts and asking questions about everything. The Council should not expect that it can do anything, any how without questions.
The rule for the removal of a vice-chancellor stipulates that upon receipt of a proposal to remove the VC, the Governing Council will constitute a joint committee of the Council and Senate to investigate. In line with natural justice and provisions of the University Act, Council shall give notice of those reasons to the person in question. Consequently, the Unilag branch of the Academic Staff Union of Universities has come out openly to state that this step and others were not followed and subsequently rejected the removal. In a statement signed by its chairman, Dele Ashiru, the branch condemned in strong terms, “the illegal, reckless and destructive action” of the Governing Council, under the leadership of the Pro-Chancellor, Dr Wale Babalakin. Senate representatives on Governing Council have also taken a similar stance. ASUU and University Senate are important stakeholders that no one can ignore in a university system.
Nigeria is known for non-adherence to the rule of law. Thankfully, the university is no place for lawlessness, impunity or what in popular Nigerian parlance is called “jankara”. Universities are places where society draws inspiration to do what is morally and legally right.
The second issue is what is the minimum acceptable standard of transparency allowed in the conduct of public affairs. Representatives of Senate in Unilag, Prof. F. E . Lesi and Prof. B Oboh alleged that “the Chairman decided that members should vote by secret ballot and send to him on WhatsApp for him to collate the votes……at the end, the Pro Chancellor gave a conflicting votes cast.” Both professors further stated in their statement “Senate representatives expressed their serious objections to the procedure and decision taken and noted the potential for generating disquiet and disharmony in the system”. If this represents the true state of what transpired in the Council meeting then it raises issues of transparency. Fortunately society in some ways look up to academic citadels to reassert the universal values of civility, transparency, openness, responsible conduct and respect for rules. We should not get to a point where a Pro Chancellor can invite some members of council to his house and announce the removal of the VC.
Assuming without conceding that Prof. Ogundipe is guilty as charged, he must have a voice and be heard. He should be allowed to defend himself as justice demands before a duly constituted panel. That is fair play. If someone like Evans (the alleged kidnap kingpin) with criminal charges hanging on his neck is undergoing a trial with full legal representation, why not Prof. Ogundipe?
In the present COVID-19 era, the effects of any crisis in any university can be grave. The pandemic has dramatically disrupted the school calendar at all levels. Any manner of a disaster on campus will worsen the situation. The major preoccupation of our universities should be in the area of striving to meet the guidelines set by the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control for the opening of schools across the country.
The university should avoid creating a situation that will make it to begin to dissipate energy on worthless causes. The removal of the Unilag VC appears not to satisfy the process and procedure anticipated by the framers of the University Act. Where that is the case, all right-thinking members of society should firmly condemn it; otherwise, the act will confirm most countries’ belief that Nigeria is a lawless nation. It will send additional wrong signals to the international community, and that will be unfortunate for us particularly in the area of acceptability of the quality of our degrees and foreign investments, with the complication of the impact of COVID-19 on every facet of our national life.
The Federal Ministry of Education acting for the Visitor or with the authority of the Visitor has a role to play in the unfolding situation in Unilag. In this particular circumstance, the fair thing to do is for Ministry of education to stop both the Governing Council and Vice Chancellor from taking any further action on this matter so as not to escalate tension, then set up an independent, respectable panel to investigate the truth of this matter so it can guide the Visitor to take informed decision to restore or maintain sanity in the university.
Without prejudice to the claims that Prof. Ogundipe did not have a fair hearing he should not resort to self-help, impunity or mob sentiment to stay in office. He has the opportunity to file an appeal to the Visitor. It is also important to note that some vice-chancellors by their style of leadership create rooms for crises and confrontation. Not minding their shortcomings, they deserve a fair hearing, must be allowed to defend themselves in case of allegations. That is how to do things in saner climes.
Political interference, in whatever form, causes some of the disorders on our campuses. Political leaders and policy makers seem not to understand the role that education plays in any given society. A former British prime minister, Tony Blair, once categorically stated that “what is needed to develop Britain is education, education and more education.” We do not pay adequate attention to education in our clime. The easiest way to destroy a nation is to deny it of quality education. The standard of education has been falling in the last 20 years or more. Nothing has been put in place to stem the tide. We should not allow self-inflicted crises to complicate the trend. Peace and orderliness must be restored to the University of Lagos immediately. It is important to emphasise that though the University of Lagos is the one in focus at the moment, there are other universities in the country going through one leadership challenge or the other. We use this opportunity to call on such universities and their administrations to ensure that the universities are a hallmark of peace, justice, equity and democracy.
•Dr Dakuku Peterside ( DAP) is a leadership & organisational development consultant; corporate political science strategist and newspaper columnist. He can be reached on +2348033123801.