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Power tussle, personal interest as UNILAG’s bane

By Iyabo Lawal
11 March 2020   |   3:48 am
One of Nigeria’s best universities, the University of Lagos (UNILAG) is grappling with crippling issues that border on the ridiculous rather than the sublime.

Unilag gate

One of Nigeria’s best universities, the University of Lagos (UNILAG) is grappling with crippling issues that border on the ridiculous rather than the sublime.

From the largest city in West Africa – Ibadan – Dr. Wale Babalakin came to UNILAG in 1978 as a young man aspiring to reach the zenith. Little wonder his rousing speech at the 2016/2017 convocation of the University of Lagos smacked of passion, excellence, and glory for Nigeria’s education that has been in the doldrums. To Babalakin, there is no limit to the capacity of an aspiring genius.

“You constitute a part of the elite of the society,” said Babalakin to the graduands, “and I urge you to be guiding lights of the policies of the elite.”

Then, he added, “No society thrives unless the elite jealously guards the values of the society, protect it and propagate it. Your education is not meant for you to simply earn a living. Your education is for you to contribute to redeveloping society. You must challenge yourself to leave every place better than you met it.”

Having left the university with his shoulders high as a student in 1981, Babalakin, in every sense, was the right person to speak with the graduands. “I have come back (to UNILAG) as a member of the administration and it is my determination along with the council members to make it better than what we met.”

As the pro-chancellor of the university, tongues are wagging about Babalakin’s alleged gung-ho style of administration. Some of his critics claimed he is out to destroy the university system. Babalakin and his ardent supporters think he is working hard to open a new vista in the institution.

“Attitude is your determination to succeed. From all the data I have assembled, the preponderance of great people is those who have an attitude, not necessarily aptitude. It becomes a double whammy if you can combine both. But you should never feel handicapped because you don’t have aptitude if you have an attitude,” he had said during the 2016/2017 convocation.

Fast forward to 2020. No longer at ease, things seem to be falling apart in UNILAG.

It boiled over with a terse statement: “The management of the University of Lagos regrets to inform the general public that the 51st (2019) convocation ceremonies earlier scheduled to hold from Monday 9 to Thursday 12 March 2020 have been postponed.

“Any inconvenience occasioned by this postponement is highly regretted,” said Oladejo Azeez, the registrar and secretary to council of UNILAG, in a press statement.

That was how the 51st convocation slated for March 9 was cancelled. The institution had also in February 2018 postponed its 50th convocation.

Everybody is looking in the direction of the pro-chancellor as the brains behind the cancellation of the convocation. Since his assumption as the head honcho of the university’s council, Babalakin has not left anybody in doubt that he is in charge and that his interests should be not be overlooked in the minutest details.

UNILAG’s governing council seems to easily genuflect before him; not so the vice-chancellor though. So, it is being said that the convocation’s cancellation is a continuation of the drama of supremacy between the pro-chancellor and vice-chancellor, Prof. Oluwatoyin Ogundipe.

A letter had emanated from the permanent secretary, ministry of education, Sonny Echono, through the National Universities Commission (NUC) directing the university to suspend the week-long convocation.

The letter addressed to Prof. Abubakar Rasheed, NUC’s executive secretary and titled, “Re: invitation to the 2019 convocation ceremony of the University of Lagos’ had stated, “The attention of the honourable minister has been drawn to the attached copy of letter dated March 2, 2020, from the pro-chancellor to the effect that the 2019 convocation ceremonies were not approved by the governing council in line with the laws of the university.

“I am too, therefore request that you kindly advise the vice-chancellor to suspend the convocation and ensure full compliance with due process.”

What the memo did not state was that, according to reports, UNILAG’s governing council had held meetings in a bid to get Babalakin to support the scheduled convocation programme. The effort fell through.

With a new date not announced yet, it is likely that the cancellation of the convocation will adversely affect the graduating students’ call-up for the National Youth Service Corps programme; not to mention the resources expended in preparing for the convocation.

Babalakin, who earlier had a running battle with the university management over contracts and projects’ implementation resulting in the indictment of some serving and retired principal officers of the institution, allegedly faulted the university’s choice of a guest speaker without the knowledge of the council.

It was learnt that the school had initially settled for a former Ghanaian president as the speaker for the convocation lecture who later wrote to express his unavailability during the period and the school’s management settled for Nigeria’s Minister of Communication and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami. But the Babalakin-led governing council would have none of it. He was alleged to have queried the vice-chancellor, Prof. Oluwatoyin Ogundipe and copied the minister of education, Adamu Adamu and the NUC executive secretary, Prof. Abubakar Rasheed.

In the petition dated March 2, 2020, and obtained by The Guardian, Babalakin said: “I saw the programme of the convocation ceremonies for the first time when it was brought to my attention during the FGN/ASUU 2019 Agreement Renegotiation meeting. The programme was never brought to the attention of the council and it was not mentioned to me at all. I was taken aback by its contents.”

He affirmed that the budget for the convocation was discussed and approved with conditions of due process at the last council meeting, but insisted, “no memo was presented to council about the convocation ceremony.”

He said: “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 the 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 doctorates without Senate recommending 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 February 24, 2020, is inconsistent with the laws of the university.

“I will advise very strongly that we do not proceed with the continued unlawful actions, which are capable of presenting the University of Lagos as a lawless entity,” the petition read in part.

Ogundipe, however, revealed some telling details in his reply to the Babalakin’s petition.

“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,” UNILAG’s vice-chancellor explained.

“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.”

Ogundipe pointed out, “The chancellor, who is the chairman of convocation, has also been duly informed… To ensure the smooth management of the process, I proactively gave the council an advance notice of the proposed three honorees, 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 the inclusion of the honorees 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 the 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.”

At the 324th special meeting of UNILAG’s governing council held on January 21, 2020, said to be presided over by Babalakin, the minutes noted, “Council was informed that the 2019 convocation ceremonies have been scheduled between March 9 and 13, 2020. The Chairman informed members that all matters on the convocation ceremonies shall be considered at the council meeting of Wednesday, January 22, 2020.”

The minutes added: “Council received and considered C.P. No. 2019/20/3b, which contained the nominees for honorary doctoral degrees at the 51st Convocation ceremonies of the university and the proposed budget estimate.

“The vice-chancellor presented to council names of the following eminent personalities, who had shown great commitment to the development of education in Nigeria for the award of honorary doctoral degrees in the forthcoming convocation ceremonies: Dr. Muhammadu Indimi, Biodun Olusina Shobanjo, and Dr. Kesington Adebukunola Adebutu.

“The chairman also suggested that the late Dr. Stella Ameyo Adadevoh should be honoured for the role she played in the Ebola Virus epidemic. After exhaustive deliberation, the council noted the inadequate information on the nominees for honorary doctoral degrees and resolved to conclude deliberation on the matter off-line.”

As Babalakin is pulling his weight, UNILAG’s chapter of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) is flexing its muscle by condemning Babalakin’s stranglehold on the institution and the cancellation of the scheduled convocation.

“Our union condemns this wicked, inhuman, egoistic, retrogressive, unconscionable and satanic postponement of this historic convocation ceremony on account of the over-bloated ego of the pro-chancellor. That the Ministry of Education could by fiat request the executive secretary of the NUC to advise the vice-chancellor to suspend the ceremony without investigating the veracity of Babalakin’s claim is not only worrisome but highly depressing,” said Dr. Dele Ashiru, ASUU president, UNILAG chapter,

He added, “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.”

ASUU described Babalakin’s action as a blatant erosion of academic freedom and university autonomy.

Section 6 (1) of the University of Lagos Act says, “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 the congregation held for conferring degrees and at all meetings of convocation.”

While Section 6 (2) adds, “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.”

There has been no love lost between the pro-chancellor and the university’s management. The animosity became more evident shortly after the 50th convocation characterized by allegations of financial abuses and usurpation of statutory power making the rounds.

The governing council is the highest authority of the university and has full responsibility and control for the custody and disposition of all finances and property of the university. The council is responsible for approving the financial guidelines of the universities; determining the terms and conditions of appointment of the vice-chancellors and principal officers of the universities as well as annually reviewing the universities’ budget to monitor their performance and assess the overall impact of their implementation, among other responsibilities.

For a starter, the council has powers to do anything, which, in its opinion, is calculated to facilitate the development of the university. The pro-chancellor is the chairman of the council and he is more directly involved with the operations of the institution than either the visitor or the chancellor. The pro-chancellor and the council that he leads play a critical role in the affairs of a university. But is Babalakin playing his role for the greater good?