In a television and radio broadcast this morning, May 29th 2012, marking the thirteenth year of return to civil rule, President Goodluck Jonathan gave Nigerians a surprise by “re-naming” University of Lagos ( Unilag), Moshood Abiola University. This bolt from the presidential blues caught everybody unawares, including the Unilag community, who is mourning the institution’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Babatunde Shofoluwe, whose remains would be committed to mother earth later this week. Obviously, the act of the President is meant to immortalize Chief M.K.O Abiola, a martyr for democracy, who, upon winning a free and fair Presidential Election on June 12, 1993, was not only denied the fruit of his electoral victory by a brutal annulment of the results of that election by the General Ibrahim Babangida-led military junta, but was also taken into captivity in June 1994 by the succeeding, General Sani Abacha military dictatorship, and held in captivity until he was murdered in August 1998.
Following the broadcast, students of Unilag trooped to the Streets to protest the “change” of name of the institution. The presidency must have been astonished that rather than receiving effusive encomium for immortalizing Abiola, “this hero of democracy”, at long last, a gesture that President Olusegun Obasanjo, Abiola’s fellow Egba co-ethnic, did not make in his eight-year presidency, he is being opposed by students of the University. The Presidency might have consoled itself, however, that if these students were misguided, suffering from “infantile radicalism” or were goaded into unbridled spontaneity by anti-Jonathan elements, the Abiola clan, the Yoruba people and the tribe of pro-democracy and human rights activists would not hesitate to express gratitude and appreciation in due course.
Two questions, in our opinion, arise from the action of the President. Does the President, acting as President of Nigeria or Visitor of the University of Lagos have the power to rename the University by an executive fiat in a nationwide broadcast; and is this renaming of the University after Abiola appropriate? Our answer to these two questions is no.
First, let us deal with the statutory power of President Jonathan to rename Unilag, if any. Unilag is a federal government institution, and cursorily, it may appear that the President, being the head of Nigeria and head of the Federal Executive Branch of Government possesses the powers to rename any federal institution, including an academic institution, solely owned and funded by the Federal Government of Nigeria. As the law stands today, the President does not have the power to rename the University. The University of Lagos Act, Cap. U9, Volume 15, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004, was made, by Decree No 3 of 1967, which came into effect on 1st April, 1967, and is deemed to be an Act that was duly made by the National Assembly, was so made “to provide for the establishment and incorporation of the University of Lagos, and to make a comprehensive provision for its due administration”. Section 1(1& 2) of the Act provides that “ there is hereby established a University to be known as the University of Lagos to provide courses of instruction and learning in the faculties of arts, law, medicine, science, education, commerce and business, administration, engineering, and any other faculties which may , from time to time, be approved under the Act; and ‘ the University shall be a body corporate and shall have perpetual succession and a common seal”
Thus, the name-University of Lagos– is a creation of an Act that was made by the National Assembly of Nigeria. This being so, the name can only be changed by a legislative enactment, amending the University of Lagos Act, upon a bill to this effect being passed by both Houses of the National Assembly, and being assented to by the President. If the President declines to assent, by vetoing such a bill, the two Chambers of the National Assembly may override the President’s veto and pass into law the bill amending the Act. In the light of the foregoing explanation, the name change that the President purported to have effected in his broadcast today is illegal, null and void and of no effect. That change of name is tantamount to usurping the legislative powers of the National Assembly.
The powers and functions that are vested, by the University of Lagos Act, in the authorities, organs and bodies that are created therein do not include any provision enabling any of the authorities, organs and bodies to change the name of the University. Under Section 16 of the Act, the President pf Nigeria, who is the Visitor of the University, “ shall as often as circumstances may require, not being less than once every five years, conduct a visitation of the University or direct that such a visitation be conducted by such persons and in respect of any of the affairs of the University as the Visitor may direct” The President, acting as a visitor, also has powers relating to appointment and removal of members of Council, the Chancellor, Pro-Chancellor, and Vice-Chancellor. Apart from these powers, the President does not exercise any other power in relation to the University.
Assuming it is desirable to change Unilag to Moshood Abiola University or to any other name for that matter, the best the President can do is to propose his desire, vide an executive bill, to the National Assembly for consideration. If the proposal is accepted by amending the University of Lagos Act to reflect the proposed name, the President may then formally announce the name change in a television broadcast, as he did this morning. When such a proposal arrives at the National Assembly, it will be debated. There would be public hearings during which the views and memoranda that may be submitted by stakeholders would be presented and collated to enrich the debate. The Council, Senate, Congregation, Convocation, academic staff, non-academic staff, students, and alumni of the University would be heard on the issue. Lagos State, on the soil of which the University is planted, and which has played host to the University for fifty years, would be heard. This is the dictate of democracy, as distinct from the military diktat. The problem now is that even if the President, as an after-thought, later sends a bill to the National Assembly to effect this change of name that he desires, and urges that his announcement of the change of name in his today’s broadcast be regarded as a “statement of intent” only, and a prostrate National Assembly acquiesces by endorsing the name change, in order not to embarrass the President, the harm has already been done. It will for ever be on record that the President of Nigeria, though a non-lawyer, but who all the same has or is presumed to have access to the best of legal advice, including advice from the Attorney-General of the Federation, in a national broadcast, purported to have exercised a power that the Constitution, by the doctrine of separation of powers, forbid him from exercising.
I think the President or those who advised him to take this name change plunge believed we are in 1987, that is twenty-five years ago. That year, upon the passage of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the then military president, Gen Ibrahim Babangida renamed University of Ife, Obafemi Awolowo University. Although serious reservations were expressed about the suddenness of that exercise and the lack of consultation with the University, that name change prevailed. The reasons were obvious.
First, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, astute politician, champion of free education, and the inspirer of the establishment of University of Ife just died, and the name change resonated with a lot of his followers who were enamored of having a national monument named after him not only in appreciation of his role in developing education in Nigeria but also in recognition of his contribution to the evolution of the Nigerian State. Gen. Babangida, the military power-chess player that he was, merely inserted, effortlessly and opportunistically, in that mass desire for a national recognition for a departed hero. Two, Awolowo was closely associated with the history of the University; changing its name to his name was not going to generate political upheaval. When university education was to be expanded in Nigeria, the NPC-NCNC constituted Federal Government accepted the proposal to establish a university in the North ( Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria), a university in the East ( University of Nigeria, Nsukka) and a university in the then Federal Capital Territory-Lagos ( University of Lagos). The vigorous case that was made by the Western Regional Government for a new university in Western Nigeria to co-exist with the federally owned University of Ibadan was dismissed as unwarranted by the Federal Government. Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Chief S.L Akintola and their party, the Action Group felt that the mass of students that were unleashed by the free primary education programme, starting from 1955, might not have university education opportunities, if no additional university existed in Western Nigeria. So, the West decided to go ahead to establish its own university, by University of Ife Law, No 6, 1961. The University was owned by the Western Region and later Western State, until it was taken over by the Federal Government in 1975. Three, Babangida was a military President, presiding over the Armed Forces Ruling Council, the military regime’s legislative imitation. He was thus in a position to use a military decree to effect the change of name. Under the then existing grund norm, and hierarchy of laws, a military decree was superior to an Act of the National Assembly, including the University of Ife Act.
The other question is whether this renaming of Unilag after Abiola is appropriate. We have said no. And this is not because a tertiary institution, Moshood Abiola Polytechnic, Abeokuta was named after him, years back. Undoubtedly, Chief Abiola, and not only him, his wife, Kudirat Abiola, who has now been confirmed by a court of law to have been killed by the agents of the Abacha regime, deserve immortalization. No questions about that. Since their deaths, calls have been made for the naming of national monuments after them in recognition of their supreme sacrifice for the restoration of democracy to Nigeria. After the assassination of Kudirat Abiola, far away in New York, a Kudirat Corner was born, an act that was remarkable for its symbolism and meant to haunt the military assassins responsible for her death. Following, the return to civil rule, every decent attempt that was made to persuade the Olosegun Obasanjo Presidency to immortalize Chief M.K.O Abiola was rebuffed. At a point, a motion that was moved on the floor of the National Assembly to name the national stadium, Abuja, after Abiola, who, in his life time, was a great sports philanthropist, owner of a football club, and “Pillar of sports in Africa” was thrown out.
The President, therefore, has a “term of reference” if he had a genuine intention to immortalize Abiola. The National Stadium in Abuja or Federal Secretariat, Abuja could have been named after him. The Ministries, Departments or Agencies in charge of the stadium and Secretariat are under the Federal Government and under the exercise of its concurrent or residual powers. There are no laws establishing the National Stadium Abuja and the Federal Secretariat, Abuja and specifically naming them as such, that require amendments as a result of a name change. So, the President will have an easy ride here. What of naming the Presidential Villa “ The Moshood Kashimawo Abiola Villa, thereby symbolically honouring the memory of a man who ought to have been sworn into office and who ought to have occupied that very villa but who was robbed of his right to so do, and eventually of his life; such that it can now be said of him that “although while alive he was denied of his right to live in the Presidential Villa as a President, in death, he could not be prevented from hovering over the Villa”?. Here again, there is no legislation naming the Presidential Villa “Aso Rock Villa”. And so, the President has an easy ride here too. What of renaming Aso Drive, the road leading to the Presidency after Abiola, who was held captive in Abuja and killed there? Was the gateway to the Federal Capital Territory from Abuja Airport not named after President Umaru Musa Yar Adua, for no other reason than that he unfortunately took ill and died while in power? What of having Abiola”s portrait emblazoned on a new currency note, say =N= 2000.00 or working with the National Assembly to have a national holiday in his honour?
Why did the President refuse to exercise the powers he possesses to immortalize Abiola but chose to exercise the powers that he lacks to achieve the same objective? Is this a case of genuine ignorance of the law or a deliberate violation of the law to reap a political dividend? Are we to assume that the President knows that he lacks the power to rename Unilag after Abiola, but that he went ahead to do just that such that when the National Assembly that has the power to rename the institution refuses to do so, then he will be portrayed as a hero for having recognized the need to honour Abiola, while the National Assembly will be condemned as the villain? Is the President going to reap a bountiful political capital from this illegal name change, or is he going to harvest a huge political embarrassment? Will the National Assembly agree to change the name, if the President eventually sends thereto a bill seeking the name change, or will it reject the name change, and instead immortalize Chief M.K.O.Abiola in another way? Well,…kashimawo. Let us wait and watch.
*Mr. Ogunye, a public interest litigant and constitutional lawyer, writes from Lagos.