By Toyin Falola
The year 2020 has been a most unusual one. In the last couple of months, Nigeria has been rocked by the impact of a global pandemic (the COVID-19), allegations of massive corruption in the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), and, more recently, the killings in southern Kaduna and the Beirut explosion mishap. From the COVID-19 heightened economic hardship to the deaths of the average citizens and top government functionaries, combined with other casualties from rampaging insurgent attacks, the Nigerian public has been left near numb and in a state of dreamy uncertainty from the continuous blows.
Then came a self-inflicted blow, the “COVID-2020” that began as a selfish ego game—undetected and unseen at first like Covid-19—now about to become a virus that can tarnish the image of the University of Lagos. It is against such a backdrop of our collective pessimism that the Nigerian public was greeted by news of the removal of Professor Toyin Ogundipe as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lagos on August 12, 2020, by the University Governing Council which sat in the far away hinterland city of Abuja to pronounce on a coastal city. Afraid of the sea, the fish left the waters to visit the land and began to climb the tree, forgetting that it is not a monkey.
The news headlines, ranging from PUNCH’s ‘‘UNILAG VC purported removal by governing council illegal – ASUU’’ to VANGUARD’s ‘‘Unilag: What the law says about the removal of Vice-Chancellor’’ all described the disquiet that followed the removal of the embattled Vice-Chancellor, the divergent opinions of the university members, the university staff unions and the national education governing body, the Federal Ministry of Education. The left-hand does not know what the right is up to.
Even if a good portion of the Nigerian public reacted with little more than mild shock at these headlines at first, stakeholders made up mostly of the academia, the university community, and others who stand for justice, fairness and due process have mustered an enormous outcry, revealing details of the unjust and illegal procedure employed in unseating the Vice-Chancellor. The matter is fast gaining impetus to becoming the number one topic on national news, and the atmosphere can be summarized as being one of high expectancy. It is pertinent to mention here that, some of the said outcry surrounding this issue is in protest to the unrelated nature of the total abandonment of student affairs which should be the focus of university energies in this period of protracted strike with its untold hardships and not the expression of what appears to be no more than personal vendettas.
The protest by the academia, in this case, the university management, high ranking members of the university teaching staff, members of the Senate committee, the state chapter of the national Academic Staff Union of Universities, an amalgam of internal university unions and other well-meaning Nigerians, is anchored on two principal and interrelated issues: the absence of due process, the use of a “procedurally flawed” report, and the disallowance of the Vice-Chancellor of a fair-hearing.
According to a widely circulated document on the “Appointment and Removal of a Vice-Chancellor under the Nigeria Law,” by Ehi Oshio, Professor and former Dean of Law, the University of Benin, the “two legal statutes that provide the legal framework for Federal Universities in Nigeria” are the enabling law of each university which established it, i.e., the University Act, and the Universities (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act No. 11, 1993 as amended by the Universities (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Amendment) Act, 2003 otherwise called the “Universities Autonomy” Act No. 1, 2007, which confirms that the university governing council is indeed empowered to appoint and remove a Vice-Chancellor. The relevant provisions of the law on the subject of removal is to be found in Section 3 (8)-(11) of the Principal act as amended which “vests in the Governor of the Council power to remove the Vice-Chancellor from office on the grounds of gross misconduct or inability to discharge the functions of his office as a result of the infirmity of the body or mind after due process. It specifies the procedure for the removal of the Vice-Chancellor to ensure fair-hearing in the process.”
On the issue of the absence of due process in ousting the Vice-Chancellor, the University Governing Council led by the Pro-Chancellor, Dr. Wale Babalakin (SAN), has been accused of contravening the laws of both the University enabling Act and the Universities (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act. The Council members representing the Senate at the emergency Council meeting in the persons of Prof. F. E. A. Lesi and Prof. B. Oboh raised the following objections:
- Failure to properly consider the Dagari report;
- Failure to follow the procedure in dealing with alleged misconduct by the principal officer;
iii. Inconsistency of the votes cast which was not verified by an independent person; and
- The travesty of justice on the predetermined plan to ridicule and remove the Vice-Chancellor by all means possible.
Here the accusations were that, contrary to the University of Lagos (UNILAG) Act, which provides that the Vice-Chancellor “be tried by a joint committee of Senate and Council before any recommendation for his removal is sent to the Council for debate and action,” the Pro-Chancellor appropriated powers to himself by going ahead to carry out a vote to remove the Vice-Chancellor without any such procedure. The voting process itself was described as “fundamentally flawed” as votes against the Vice-Chancellor’s removal, such as that of the representative of the Ministry of Education, Prince Adebanjo were allegedly not counted.
Next is the matter of the application of the “procedurally flawed” report submitted by the Dr. Dagari Samunu led sub-committee, which was set up to monitor the University’s expenditure since 2017 and the denial of a fair hearing. Here, the issues are, firstly, the discussion of the report was not on the Abuja meeting’s agenda; secondly, the report was never subjected to the scrutiny of another panel, neither was the Vice-Chancellor’s response considered before voting was initiated; and thirdly, the embattled Vice-Chancellor is said to have been exonerated of wrongdoing by the House of Representatives Committee on Procurement after hearing the matter in 2019.
The school management in a statement signed on August 12, 2020, by the embattled Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ogundipe, rejected the claims in the notice to the general public by the University Registrar, Oladejo Azeez of his purported removal from office, describing it as an “illegality” which, as a clear violation, cannot stand. To dispel any doubts, the statement carried the relevant provisions of the University Act for the removal of the Vice-Chancellor, which reads:
If it appears to the Council that there are reasons for believing that the Vice Chancellor….should be removed from his office….on the grounds of misconduct or inability to perform the functions of his office….the Council shall…
- Give notice of the reason to the person in question
- Make arrangements:
For a joint committee of the council and the Senate to investigate the matter where it relates to the Vice Chancellor….and report on it to the Council…
Therefore, having not met these requirements, the University management urged the general public to disregard “this mischievous disinformation” and assured them that the sitting Vice Chancellor still remains in that capacity.
However, in a counteraction, the school registrar Oladejo Azeez used the occasion of the unveiling of the newly appointed acting Vice-Chancellor, Professor Theophillia Omololu Soyombo, to reiterate that the action of the Governing Council was both legal and binding, and therefore, the general public should disregard the statement attributed to the “former Vice-Chancellor”. He went on to praise the academic achievements of the incoming acting Vice-Chancellor. The newly appointed acting Vice-Chancellor who, amidst the raging controversy, readily accepted the appointment had described it as a “call to service” to the dismay and chagrin of the University Senate which has distanced itself from his appointment and refused to acknowledge it because it was not an outcome of due process. The University Senate went ahead to pass a resolution to that effect at an emergency meeting convened on August 13, 2020, reaffirming its confidence in Professor Ogundipe as the substantive Vice-Chancellor of the University.
The chairman of the state chapter of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, Dr. Dele Ashiru, has, on different fora, strongly condemned the action by the Governing Council, calling it “illegal, vindictive and reckless.” The position of the Federal Ministry of Education on the matter, as announced by its spokesperson, Ben Gong, is that it “awaits proper briefing from the University authorities”; however, it reaffirms that the Council has the power to hire and fire. Yet, the Vice-Chancellor has, in the meantime, engaged the services of Mr. Mike Ozekhome (SAN) to seek redress in the court of law.
Given that it is almost common knowledge that there is no love lost between the University Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of the Governing Council, Dr. Wale Babalakin (SAN) and Professor Ogundipe, the entire uproar takes on a particular perspective. Coupled with the at best haphazard and clandestine way the procedure for removal was conducted, the indications become even more evident. Most importantly, what appears to be at stake here is not merely the office and feelings of the embattled Vice-Chancellor—not that these do not matter—but the real autonomy of the University stands threatened by the authoritarian tendencies of Dr. Babalakin, my Oga at the top. For a renowned institution such as the University of Lagos, such matters as due process, justice, and fairness cannot be haggled. This is why every well-meaning Nigerian is lending their voices in defence of truth and righteousness, for our collective sake and posterity.
Drawing from the events at the University of Lagos in the past few days, one can quickly conclude that the management of the university at the highest levels is being subjected to the whims and caprices of the pro-chancellor. This behaviour, which is neither new to Dr. Wale Babalakin nor the federal government, demonstrates a lack of respect for the University’s students, its teachers, administrators, and the general community. Nigerians should recall that the same pro-chancellor, without consultation, cancelled the students’ 2019 convocation ceremony with no respect for the University and invested parents. Also worthy of recall is the day the University woke up to the federal government’s (sole) decision to change its name to Moshood Abiola University without due consultation with the University community. These actions are clear indicators of a total disregard for due process and common professional courtesy that must be cultivated.
In charting a way forward, the appropriate authorities in the position to correct this monumental misfire must take into cognizance the possible consequences of its current trajectory. The government should, in this case, recall the resistance put up by the junior staff at Obafemi Awolowo University when a legitimately appointed Vice-Chancellor, Professor Salami, was refused entrance into his office. At the University of Lagos, it should be expected that the university would be made ungovernable under a so-called Acting Vice-Chancellor who would undoubtedly be treated as a usurper by members of the university community who already believes that he is a Judas Iscariot. Members of both junior and senior staff would not allow him to do his work on the fundamental refusal to work with someone they consider to be illegitimate. Therefore, to return to sanity, the visitor (the president) should exercise his power to dissolve the Governing Council as constituted and appoint a new one or, as soon as possible, select a committee to determine the so-called transgressions of Professor Ogundipe. If not found guilty, he should be restored to complete his term office. The University of Lagos is already dealing with Covid-19, but now about to be inflicted with Covid-2020, combining a pandemic with an epidemic that may take years to recover from.
- Prof. Falola is The Jacob and Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at University of exas at Austin, USA.