When the University of Lagos (UNILAG), Akoka, last Thursday, abruptly announced the postponement of its 51st convocation ceremony, many Nigerians had wrongly linked the development to the rampaging coronavirus disease (Covid-19). But the truth was far from it.
The university’s vice-chancellor, Oluwatoyin Ogundipe, had earlier on Monday held a press briefing at the institution’s senate chamber, announcing that 13,489 graduands across various departments and faculties, including postgraduate and medical schools, would receive their certificates in different programmes and diplomas.
Earlier, the university’s governing council chaired by Wale Babalakin, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, had approved a budget of N70 million for the ceremony, and advised the management to follow due processes in executing the event.
However, less than 24 hours after the briefing, the Ogundipe-led university management received a memo from the National Universities’ Commission (NUC), which regulates Nigeria’s universities, ordering immediate suspension of the ceremony. NUC, according to the memo, had responded to a directive from the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu.
The minister, who was reportedly away in Germany on medical vacation, had acted on a letter addressed to the vice-chancellor by Mr Babalakin, querying the management’s ‘audacity’ to approve the activities lined up to mark the ceremony without his council’s stamp of authority.
The Root Cause
On February 28, Mr Babalakin said he received invitation cards from the university to attend the five-day convocation ceremony. He was angry that he was being invited to a programme he should otherwise be part of the organisers.
He said he was further shocked that the invitation was reinforced by a clause “On behalf of the governing council and senate of the University of Lagos,” adding that the programmes of the event as published in newspapers on February 25 were not brought to his notice.
That same day, the pro-chancellor sent an email to the vice-chancellor requesting to know why the council should be excluded in the planning of the convocation.
The email’s content was later reproduced on Mr Babalakin’s official letterhead and forwarded again to the VC on March 2. He, however, copied the NUC, Mr Adamu, and the Minister of State for Education, Emeka Nwajiuba.
According to Mr Babalakin, Section 7(1) of the university’s Act empowers the Council to be “the governing body of the university and shall be charged with the general control and superintendence of the policy, finances and property of the university, including its public relations.”
The letter reads in part; “The vice-chancellor informed council at its last meeting that the convocation lecturer will be the president of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo. Council was very happy about this choice. In the programme that I saw in the newspaper, the convocation lecturer was no longer advertised to be the president of Ghana. No one informed council about this change or the reason for the change.”
The pro-chancellor also kicked at the choice of nominees for the award of honorary degrees without Senate recommending the same to the council, which has that prerogative in accordance with the University Act.
“These actions contravene the laws of Nigeria fundamentally and the University Council cannot be part of it. The programme was not authorised by the Council of the University of Lagos. The letter of invitation sent out on 24th of February 2020 is inconsistent with the laws of the university.”
He, therefore, advised the management not to take the rules for granted, saying apart from the budget approved for the ceremony, he approved neither the programmes nor the three individuals listed for honourary degree awards.
Mr Babalakin also said that the honourary award is a prerogative of the council based on the recommendation of the senate. He added that the list containing the trio of Abiodun Shobanjo, late Stella Adadevoh, and Muhammed Indimi, for honourary awards, was not approved by the council.
VC replies council chair
But in his response to Mr Babalakin, the vice-chancellor stated the step by step efforts of the management to carry all stakeholders along, including the Visitor, President Muhammadu Buhari; education ministers; the university’s chancellor and Shehu of Borno, Abubakar El-Kanemi; the NUC as a regulator, and the governing council.
The reply, also dated March 2, and obtained by PREMIUM TIMES, reads in part; “You will recall that I said the President of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo, had accepted to be the convocation lecturer. I also mentioned to council discordant tunes coming from his office because of the political climate in his country. You then advised that we seek the support of Honourable Abike Dabiri-Erewa to assist in this regard.
“At this point, when it became clear that we could not get the President of Ghana, Senate duly approved the new convocation lecturer in the person of Dr Isa Ali Ibrahim (Pantami), Honorable Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, and he has graciously accepted.”
Mr Ogundipe added that apart from approving the budget, the council chair even made contributions on key aspects of the convocation, including the list of honourees.
He added; “To ensure the smooth management of the process, I proactively gave council an advance notice of the proposed three honourees, and a fourth name, Dr Stella Adadevoh, was suggested by you for a posthumous award and council agreed.
“Council then decided that since the next council meeting before the convocation ceremonies will be too close for inclusion of the honourees into the Convocation Order of Proceedings, you proposed that I should meet with Dr John Momoh, OON, to consider the Senate recommendations on behalf of council. This was done and a letter dated February 17, 2020 was sent to Dr Momoh. Having followed your directives, I fail to see how I have contravened any law.
“The programme published in the national dailies was duly approved by Senate at the meeting held on 12th February 2020. Therefore, the advert and the invitations sent out were consistent with the traditions and laws of the university.”
Based on the pro-chancellor’s letter, PREMIUM TIMES learnt that the education minister advised the minister of state, Mr Nwajiuba, to act in his stead.
Rather than investigate the allegations, this newspaper learnt Mr Nwajiuba simply instructed the ministry’s permanent secretary, Sonny Echonu, to write the executive secretary of NUC, Abubakar Rasheed, to order the suspension of the convocation.
The university, which received the NUC’s letter on Tuesday, March 3, immediately convened an emergency meeting of its senate to deliberate on the matter. Though the whole 365 members of the senate could not make the meeting, a substantial number that formed the quorum attended in spite of the short notice.
The resolution of the senate, a copy of which was obtained by PREMIUM TIMES, reads in part; “That at the council meeting of January 21 and 22, the council deliberated on the proposed dates, budget and nominees for award of honourary doctorate degree.
“That it is in the interest of graduands, their parents, guardians and other stakeholders that the 2019 convocation ceremony hold between March 9 and 13, 2020 as scheduled and widely advertised. That the goodwill the university has always enjoyed and our current ranking as number one in Nigeria and eight in Africa will be adversely affected by any disruption in the 2019 convocation ceremony as advertised.”
Based on the above, the senate said it unanimously resolved to enjoin the council to urgently take “all necessary steps to ensure the 2019 convocation ceremony hold as scheduled from March 9 to 13, 2020, so that the brand ‘UNILAG’ built over 58 years is sustained and not brought into disrepute.”
A five-member committee was then set up to convey this resolution to the council, which was meant to sit the following day, March 4. The committee comprised two members of the council – Eddy Omolehinwa and Bola Oboh. Others were Oluwole Atoyebi, Ngozi Osarenren and Ayodele Atsenuwa.
However, according to sources present, the senate committee was not allowed to raise the matter at the early stage of the council meeting.
When the matter was eventually discussed during the AOB (any other business) matter, the chairman said he did not order the postponement, and so could not help in reversing the order.
Mr Babalakin told PREMIUM TIMES that he was only concerned about rule of law. He shared a copy of another letter he addressed to the vice-chancellor and dated March 5, with our reporter.
What the law says
While it is true that Section 7 (1) of the Act establishing the university empowers the governing council to be in charge of “general control and superintendence of the policy, finances and property of the university, including its public relations,” Section 8 (2C and D) empowers the Senate to take charge of “the award of degrees, and such other qualifications as may be prescribed, in connection with examinations held as aforesaid; the making of recommendations to the Council with respect to the award to any person of an honorary fellowship or honorary degree or the title of professor emeritus.”
Section 9 (2) of the university’s Act states that “Subject to sections 7 and 8 of this Act and the provisions of this Act relating to the visitor, the Vice-Chancellor shall to the exclusion of any other person or authority have the general function, in addition to any other functions conferred on him by this Act or otherwise, of directing the activities of the university, and shall be the Chief Executive and Academic Officer of the University and ex-officio chairman of the Senate.”
And on the matter of convocation, in particular, Section 6 (1) of the Act states that; “The Chancellor shall, in relation to the university, take precedence before all other members of the university, and when he is present shall preside at all meetings of congregation held for conferring degrees and at all meetings of Convocation,” and Section 6 (2) states that; “The Pro-Chancellor shall, in relation to the University, take precedence before all other members of the University except the Chancellor and except the Vice-Chancellor when acting as chairman of Congregation or Convocation and except the Deputy Vice-Chancellor when so acting; and the Pro-Chancellor shall, when he is present, be the chairman at all meetings of the Council.”
Is Suspension Justified
Both the minister and the ministry’s permanent secretary did not pick our reporter’s calls to their phones. They also did not reply text messages sent which requested to know whether any investigation was conducted before the directive was issued.
However, while the executive secretary of NUC, Abubakar Rasheed, neither picked his call nor replied text message sent him, the regulatory agency’s head of public affairs unit, Ibrahim Yakasai, said NUC simply acted on the directive.
He said; “Yes, a letter was written to UNILAG on the matter. But note that NUC acted on the instruction of the Minister, and nothing more.”
The actions of the minister and the NUC in suspending the convocation exercise also appear to violate Nigeria’s University Autonomy Act as amended in 2003
Section 2AA of the Act states that; “The powers of the Council shall be exercised, as in the Law and Statutes of each University and to this extent establishment circulars that are inconsistent with the Laws and Statutes of the University shall not apply to the Universities,” while 2AAA added that; “The Governing Council of a University shall be free in the discharge of its functions and exercise of its responsibilities for the good management, growth and development of the university.”
In a treatise titled; “Autonomy and Management of Federal Universities under the Universities Autonomy Act,” by a visiting professor at the NUC, Ehi Oshio, he said the purpose of the above provisions “was to liberate the universities from the bureaucracy of the civil service and to enable the council exercise its powers and perform its functions without undue external interference or influence.”
Crisis not new
It would be recalled that the events of the past three years have confirmed the cat and mouse relationship between the Unilag management and the governing council.
The 2018 convocation ceremony almost experienced similar fate, when the council chairman insisted that the award of distinguished professorship scheduled to be conferred on the incumbent registrar of the Joint Universities Preliminary Examinations Board (JUPEB) and a lecturer at the university, Duro Ajeyalemi, was not approved by the council.
On other issues of allegations of misappropriation levelled against the vice-chancellor by the pro-chancellor, it took the intervention of the National Assembly, and specifically the House of Representatives Committee on Appropriation led by Wole Oke, to resolve the crisis.
But the resolutions were only short-lived as the VC and the council chair soon resumed their conflicts.
Meanwhile, UNILAG’s Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has condemned the development, describing it as “unfair and overbearing.”
A statement issued by the union on Friday and signed by its chairman, Dele Ashiru, said the union viewed the development as “wicked, inhuman, egoistic, retrogressive, unconscionable and satanic.”
He said: “These latest antics of the pro-chancellor have further confirmed our age-long fears about the destructive machinations of the pro-chancellor in the university of Lagos, in particular, and the entire Nigerian university system in general.
“Otherwise, how else can one explain the role of the pro-chancellor in the calamitous postponement of a convocation ceremony without any consideration for the psychological trauma this may cause the graduands, their parents, relatives, the image and reputation of the university? This is apart from the huge human, material and financial resources that have been committed to planning the ceremony.”
Mr Ashiru also condemned the action of the education minister and the NUC, saying apart from lacking the power to take the action, “failure to conduct proper investigation on the matter is an indictment on the minister.”
Yesterday, lecturers of the university embarked on a protest against Mr Babalakin and condemned the convocation exercise.
Call for Visitation Panel
While some members of the governing council, including Saminu Dagari, believe that the pro-chancellor took the right step, others refused to take side on the matter but expressed disappointment.
For instance, Mrs Oboh, who said she was hurt by the development, said she was more concerned about the image of the institution and the consequences of the suspension order on both the students and the country’s economy.
“I know of parents who had arrived Nigeria to witness the convocation while graduands had collected their gowns, taken venues, and others, ahead of the celebration,” she said.
The incumbent president of the university’s alumni association and also a member of the council, John Momoh, who was tasked to convey the list of honourees to the council, could not speak with our reporter despite his promises to do so.
But one of his predecessors and an emeritus professor at the university, Olaide Abass, said the infighting that led to the postponement of the convocation was clearly avoidable.
He recounted a series of efforts made by stakeholders to resolve the lingering crisis between the university management and the council but that their failure has shown that only a visitation panel duly set up by the federal government can address the matter.
This view was shared by other stakeholders who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES on condition of anonymity, saying the panel should be bold enough to specifically identify the roles of each arm of the university.
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