I had promised to restrain from participating in the current brouhaha over the renaming of University of Lagos to Mashood Abiola University, until the insertion of two sentimental schools defined by arguments on the basis of history and of law.
As with anything about Chief MKO Abiola, history keeps repeating itself: and the current debate is framed against the context of debates between the principles of democratic struggle versus the whimsical actions of historical leaders. This context is best understood against the background of Abiola’s infamous handshakes with the military— to put it in other words: his naïve assumptions that daylight bluster weighed against nightly political frolicking could persuade power hungry individuals to part with power.
To be sure, the current dissension is on the propriety of president Jonathan’s action of overreaching the bounds of his powers to change the content and context of a validly passed legal instrument of a parliament without the input of the National Assembly.
Thus, the national discourse is not about the historical relevance of the Abiola-persona, nor is it about his importance or eminence in the psyche of an average Nigerian. It is true some, a few, have questioned his relationships, choices, and seeming proximity, to the dictatorships of the past. However, the great majority of Nigerians are of the belief that whatever were his follies, his martyrdom at the stake of struggles for the enthronement of democratic rule, is enough penitence, and that he now deserves a heroic statue of graceful relevance.
In fact, even the most ardent of the critics of University of Lagos name change, have not questioned the rationale of an owner changing the name of his or her property, the focus of debate is on the basis of the time-honoured democratic tenets of consultation, communication and collaboration between the leadership and the followership. After all it is within the bounds of good governance to constantly inform the citizens of the intentions of their elected rulers.
Unfortunately as with anything Nigerian, while the discussions were being exhausted in the public space—as part of the democratic tenet of open disagreements and triumphs of majority opinion—a dangerous trend of demonizing democratic dissent was slowly creeping in. Rooting their arguments in the nomenclatural status of some famous Euro–American universities, they query why one more name slapped on the identity an institution should generate such a revolt.
The lead exponent of this revisionist view was to be the famous Mr. Nduka Obaigbena, publisher of Thisday Newspapers and perennial points man of past and present Nigerian leadership. In an article on the renaming saga, titled: MKO and the Last Flight to Johannesburg, he stated how he was introduced to General Abdussalam Abubakar, by Ambassador Babagana Kingibe, the then Minister of Foreign affairs, as the man to deal with in Nigeria on matters of media management that bore controversy or created discomfort within government circles.
While nobody should attribute such ill motive to the other commentators, especially of the category of individuals of the likes of Lagos State Attorney General and Commissioner of Justice, Mr. Ade Ipaye, who held during the just concluded Democracy Day briefings, that indeed it is within the premises of the powers of Nigerian president, to change the name of any institution he so wishes without the input of the legislature.
Generally most of the exponents of this legal viewpoint, have premised their belief on the erroneous assumption of the huge powers which Section 15 of University of Lagos Act conferred on the President, which is a provision situating the powers of the Nigerian leader as Visitor to the institution. In that status, he is empowered, upon request for the fact that he is not domiciled within the boundaries of the ivory tower, to make bye laws for the smooth administration of the university.
According to them, it is by the authority of the section that the president could change the name of the institution without recourse to the legislature, technically conferring legislative and executive powers on him. Curiously, the fact that in changing the name of the Act itself (University of Lagos), the context of the legislation has also been significantly altered does not seem to bother them.
Yet, it is a primer lesson in law that the powers in the formulation of a bye law cannot, suddenly, exceed the original powers of its derivation, not even, as in this case, where the same University of Lagos Act duly acknowledges that, should any of its provision run contrary to the constitution, its validity is nullified subject to the extent of its inconsistency with our supreme legal norm, which is the 1999 constitution.
Law, stripped of logic, is a useless instrument that simply confuses to win arguments, as every section or provision could be interpreted at the whims of an individual. Indeed, without logic, anybody blessed with the natural gift of advocacy can argue a provision from two distinct angles.
It is only when legal arguments are processed against a logical framework that advocates are compelled to examine enactments and their provisions through the sediment and layers of socially constructed realities.
The first of such sediment layers is what lawyers love to call the intendment of the lawgiver in passing the Act. The next processing layer is whether the legislature has enacted the law to strip itself of the powers of amendment. The third layer is whether the drafters of the legal instrument formulated it to enable the “Visitor” to make laws for the institution or indeed for the president to make bye laws for the administration of the school, since the power for making or altering laws is exclusively at the behest the National Assembly.
While a byelaw is usually a tool deriving its authority from an Act, it is typically inserted into the powers of an enacted instrument to aid the day-to-day administration of an organization or a municipality. Viewed from this perspective therefore, it will be beyond humour to imagine that such a byelaw dramatically assumes power to supersede its original enacting authority. Only in Nigeria, perhaps!