Unilag: When politicians take over varsities

Turf wars among President Buhari’s political appointees are not uncommon. For the greater part of five years, Malami’s Ministry of Justice and leading lights of EFCC, DSS and other security arms have waged war of attrition against each other. We recently witnessed Senator Godswill Akpabio, the Minister of Niger Delta fight dirty in public with injured sacked NDDC managing director and his successor over who awarded the most scandalous contracts.

Before that, we saw a serving Inspector General of Police drag his Police Service Commission board chairman to court over an otherwise routine exercise of recruiting new police officers. What makes the on-going battle over the disbursement of  University of Lagos’ huge Internally Generated Revenue which runs into billions between politician Babalakin, the university  council chairman and politician Ogundipe, the university vice Chancellor is the unhelpful meddlesome of ASSU (Unilag branch), the Committee of Vice Chancellors of Universities in Nigeria (CVCUN)  and the University Alumni Associations local and (worldwide).

Babalakin had made some damaging accusations against Professor Ogundipe, citing the report of a committee set up to investigate financial health of his institution. The report which according to him was sent to all those affected, indicted the former VC for allegedly spending N49 million to renovate his house and for approving N41 million for the bursar to renovate his own official house without the council’s approval. The issue appears straight forward.

But for over two years, while the two political appointees, played the ostrich, others including ASUU, Senate, Committee of University Vice Chancellors, Alumni Association and Unilag Muslim Association (UMSA) were assiduously working to resolve what was described as ‘the misunderstanding’ between these two politicians.

Unilag Alumni Association which claimed to be committed to resolving what it described as “the frosty relationship” between the two political appointees admitted it spent close to two years in the elusive search.

On its part, the Alumni, (worldwide) which according to John Momoh, its chairman, constituted an  intervention committee comprising of respectable and successful alumni including Dr. Sonny Kuku, Dr Olawale Cole, Prof Olaide Abass, Prof Oye Ibidapo-Obe, Chief Wole Olanipekun – also spent two years ‘trying to bring about an amicable resolution of the misunderstanding between the Council and the University Management’.

Unilag Muslim Associations (UMSA) with revered outsiders such as Dr Muiz Banire (SAN), Prof Adams, Dr Khalid Adekoya and Lukman Adeoti and Alhaji Oladejo, chairman (UMA) Board, was not left out. Reconciling the two warring politicians was also a failed mission for these noble men who cannot be accused of being economical with the truth because of the logs in their own eyes.

But while peace-seekers and supporters of the two politicians were trying “to walk the tight rope”, ASUU took sides by issuing threats described by Professor Olurode as “provocative, illogical, anti-academic and an assault on freedom of movement and thoughts” – directed at Dr Babalakin, the chairman of the University of Lagos, Governing Council  and by extension employer of Ogundipe and his ASUU supporters. ASUU followed the threat with the declaration of Babalakin as personanongrata on University of Lagos campus. This perhaps prompted Babalakin to shift the venue of last week council meeting to Abuja where last Wednesday’s ouster of Prof Ogundipe as VC was announced.

The aon the other hand remains ambivalent issuing a statement saying  “ without apportioning any blame to either the Governing Council or the vice chancellor, it is of the view that before the council can exercise such powers, it must follow due process,” and appealed to the council that it be allowed to “continue with efforts at ensuring that lasting peace and harmony reign on the campus particularly between the council and the university management”. This is the same body that has admitted little progress was made after two years.

While Ogundipe claimed he was not given an opportunity to defend himself, Babalakin insisted he “had all the opportunity of fair hearing under the law having written “his defence to the allegations, submitted on May 13 or March 13 and spoke for one hour in his defence.”

Babalakin, insisting Ogundipe’s ouster followed due process justified the appointment of Professor Soyombo as acting VC by claiming the two acting DVCs one of whom Ogundipe supporters claimed ought to have been picked as acting VC in line with the university law, had not been confirmed by his board. He went on to liken the vote of confidence passed on Ogundipe by senate as null and void as  ‘the Senate did not have a meeting because it could not have had one’, since any action by the vice chancellor, the only authority to call a senate meeting after his removal’ was an exercise in futility.

He therefore advised the embattled former VC to challenge his removal in court, an advice Professor Ogundipe who has since hired Chief Mike Ozekhome to challenge his removal and redeem the damaged reputation he has built this past 30 years, seemed to have taken seriously.  Ogundipe must have no doubt come to terms that one needs a long spoon to dine with a lawyer.

On his parh, Professor Theophilus Soyombo, the Acting VC while acknowledging the divided opinions on “issues at stake and the steps taken so to resolve the impasse”, has said he  accepted the “responsibility thrust upon him out of a sense of duty to a university and a call to service with the overall objective of fostering of course in an atmosphere of peace for the normal university business of teaching, research and community service.”

Waving the olive branch, Soyombo has reminded everyone that “our paramount goal should be an amicable resolution of all the issues and to win back the peace and stability of our university.”

However  while many University of Lagos readily admit Soyombo is an accomplished scholar in his own right and a man of peace who should be given a chance to rescue the university from the strangle-hold of warring politicians, ASUU which attributed  his appointment to “lawlessness, recklessness and deliberate violation of the university’s regulation” vowed  there was no going back in its rejection of the removal of Ogundipe.

Just as peace-seekers have not told Nigerians the reason for   the ‘fight to the death’ of the two government political appointees, ASUU has not told us why it has chosen to weep louder than the bereaved. The body which doesn’t seem to understand that University of Lagos is bigger than Babalakin and Ogundipe perhaps prefers anarchy to dialogue.

The Governing Council is expected to provide a check on the university authority and prevent it from becoming a law unto itself. In the process, conflicts without which a system decays and which are best resolved through dialogue is bound to occur. Alleged financial infractions, which  Babalakin’s council claimed to have uncovered in Unilag perhaps justifies the implementation of Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) over which the university was whimsically locked down by ASUU before COVID-19.

But again, the battle of politicians over the soul of University of Lagos is a symptom of a dysfunctional centre. As Prof Oye Adeniran, one-time member of University of Lagos Governing Council  observed early this week: “Beyond reckless looting going on in the Ivory Towers across the country, there is also the bastardisation of age-long culture and long established values and traditions of universities including appointing of vice chancellors and Pro-chancellors of federal universities on merit”. Babalakin – Buhari government of change’s new saint – was only yesterday haunted by Buhari’s predecessor and had to seek refuge in LUTH, feigning illness. Nigerian politicians are the same.

That is the reason none of the peace seekers after two years of heroic efforts have been able to tell us the source of enmity between pro-chancellor and vice chancellor.

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