Land of the feuding elephants
With the world-wide coronavirus pandemic, no one could predict when the University of Lagos would be opportune to hold its convocation again.
The 2019 Convocation was supposed to hold between March 9 and 13 until the Pro-Chancellor, Dr. Wale Babalakin, an old student of UNILAG, protested and the Minister of Education upheld his prayer asking that the ceremony be put on hold. Despite entreaties from top academics and other stakeholders, the convocation remain suspended. It was the latest in the ongoing war of attrition between Babalakin and the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Oluwatoyin Ogundipe UNILAG is one of Africa’s leading universities.
In normal times, it would be one of the bastion of hope for humanity in this battle to find a cure for the coronavirus pandemic. The university remains the first choice of young Nigerians seeking higher education. Today, UNILAG is bugged down by internal wrangling and unedifying tuft war and because of this, it cannot fully participate in the ongoing global effort to combat the coronavirus pandemic. We have seen how similar turf wars had humbled the hitherto highly-rated Ladoke Akintola University, Ogbomosho, Oyo State. Now it is Unilag turn.
At the centre of the ring are two illustrious alumni of UNILAG. One is Wale Babalakin, a well-known wealthy lawyer and career money-maker who is the Pro-Chancellor of the university. On the other side is Toyin Ogundipe, professor of science since 2002 who became UNILAG Vice-Chancellor in 2017. Ogundipe, who had his first degree at the then the University of Ife, has been a teacher at the UNILAG Department of Botany for almost three decades. Both Babalakin and Ogundipe could appropriately be regarded as natives of UNILAG.
When he came onboard as Pro-Chancellor in succession to Professor Jerry Gana, Babalakin was welcomed warmly. He had earlier served as the Pro-Chancellor of the University of Maiduguri between 2009 and 2013. He promised to follow the footsteps of another great lawyer, Aare Afe Babalola, who was Pro-Chancellor from 2001 to 2008. During his tenure, Babalola established the UNILAG Endowment Fund, built a giant auditorium which he donated to the school and helped the university into financial solvency, accountability and national and international reckoning and respect.
Babalakin promised to do better. He said he would attract wealthy Nigerians to contribute to the UNILAG Endowment Fund, persuade them and their corporate establishments to fund research and support faculty efforts to reach world standard and generally ensure that the institution remains the envy of others. He also promised to donate hundreds of acres of land from his personal estate to the university. He promised to lead and make UNILAG greater than he met it. But he soon discovered he needed to fight.
What prompted him into battle was because he claimed the university finances were not well-managed. He accused the vice-chancellor and the management of the university of outrageous spending in the renovation and furnishing of official quarters. He said he, as the chairman of Council, needed to be carried along in the procurement procedures of the university. He fired queries to several top officials of the university. They said he had no such powers to do so.
They accused him of being a power-hungry dictator who wanted to run UNILAG like his personal estate. They alleged that he attempted to impose an unqualified candidate for the post of University Librarian when his choice-candidate was not qualified. They accused him of reckless interference, including his attempt to allocate quarters on the campus and generally throw his weight around in the affairs of faculties and the unions. Babalakin countered that he had nothing personal to gain in UNILAG except the satisfaction of patriotic national service. He explained that he had spent millions of naira of his personal money to pursue the interest of the institution. Among his philanthropy, he subsidizes the administration of the Faculty of Law with a cash donation of N500,000.00 every month. Last December, he paid each junior staff N5000.00 as Christmas bonus.
Babalakin set up a panel of enquiry, headed by another Council member, a chemistry teacher in another university in the North, to inquire into UNILAG finances. The university community derided the panel, claiming the chairman, a chemist, is ignorant about accounting. The panel met for more than one year, invited neither the vice-chancellor nor the bursar and yet its report was inconclusive.
Another opportunity for battle came with the usual and normal convocation ceremonies slated for March 2020. A meeting of Council was held in January 2020 and it acceded to the recommendations of the Senate that certain outstanding Nigerians should be awarded honourary doctorate degrees. The three were Alhaji Mohammadu Ndimi, a wealthy businessman, Chief Abiodun Shobanjo, pre-eminent advertising and marketing guru and Sir Kessington Adebutu, Nigeria’s most famous pool-betting magnate. Following the proposal of Babalakin, the Council also agreed that Dr. Stella Adadevoh, the late heroine in Nigeria’s fight against the Ebola epidemic, be given a post-humous honour. Adadevoh was a daughter of a former Unilag Vice-Chancellor, Professor Kweku Adadevoh. The Council also agreed that President Nana Akufo of Ghana should be invited to deliver the Convocation Lecture.
On March 2, 2020, Babalakin fired a letter to Professor Ogundipe, denouncing the university’s plan for its convocation and accusing him of flouting the law and undermining the integrity of the Governing Council. Babalakin alleged that he was in Abuja when he learnt that Akufo was no longer going to deliver the Convocation lecture. This honour has now been given to Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy. “The letter of invitation sent out on the 24th February 2020 is inconsistent with the laws of the University,” Babalakin posited. “I will advise very strongly that we do not proceed with continued, unlawful actions which are capable of presenting the University of Lagos as a lawless entity.”
When the V.C got the letter, he was in shock as preparations were already in top gear for the convocation. Babalakin had also decided to externalize the fight and he had copied, the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu, his Minister of State, Chief Emeka Nwajiuba and the Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission, NUC, Professor Abubakar Rasheed, a former Vice-Chancellor of Bayero University, Kano.
The same day, Ogundipe replied to the charges. He said the Council at its meeting presided over by Babalakin, indeed approved all details of the Convocation, including its budget and the honorees. He said it was Babalakin who insisted that the late Adadevoh be honoured by the University for her Heroic Sacrifice in curtaining the Ebola epidemic. He appealed to Babalakin to drop his opposition and allow the convocation to hold considering that 13,000 students and their parents were looking forward to the event of a lifetime. He said further that the chairman of the Convocation Lecture, General Yakubu Gowon, and the Chancellor of the University, as well as other invited dignitaries, were all set for the Convocation.
He explained further that the President of Ghana had to be substituted when it became clear that political considerations in his country would not allow President Akufo to honour Unilag invitation. He said his substitution was approved by the University Senate. He stated that it was sheer hubris for Babalakin to believe that every snippet of the Convocation was under his authority. “I must say, Sir, that in the best of the tradition of universities, nationally and internationally, the ceremony of Convocation is an academic affair and the selection of convocation lecturer is, in fact, an administrative responsibility,” he said.
Ogundipe’s prayers were of no effect as the NUC, acting on the order of the Federal Ministry of Education, directed the V.C to put the convocation on hold.
It was the greatest victory of Babalakin against university management. An emergency meeting of Council was quickly conveyed where members were literarily on their knees begging Babalakin to change his mind and allow the convocation to go on. A member of Council, Dr John Momoh, the Chairman of Channel Television and President of the UNILAG Alumni Association, volunteered to accompany Babalakin to Abuja to iron out the matter with the NUC and the Ministry of Education. Babalakin declined. The University Senate met and insisted that the convocation must go on, but the V.C declined to state that “I am a man under authority
Then ASUU entered the fray. The Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, UNILAG chapter, angered by Babalakin attitude, held a press conference declaring the Pro-Chancellor a persona-non-grata on the campus. For many months, ASUU to has been at logger-head with the Pro-Chancellor over what it described as his “Leviathan orientation, impunity, recklessness and authoritarianism.” If anything Babalakin has achieved the almost impossible feat of getting ASUU and the Vice-Chancellor on the same side, a rare occurrence in any Nigerian university, especially the University of Lagos.
The suspended convocation of UNILAG is not going to happen very soon. The COVID-19 pandemic has put spanner in the work but has also provided new opportunities and challenges. In recent weeks, Aliko Dangote, the Nigerian billionaire, has led a group of wealthy Nigerians to donate more than 20 billion naira to the Federal Government to help in the war against the coronavirus epidemic. I am sure these group of Nigerians and many foundations and philanthropic organizations all over the world would like to contribute to the search for the cure and treatment of COVID-19. UNILAG ought to be on the forefront of this battle. Now it is involved in its own debilitating Civil War.
It is time the relevant authorities step in and save one of Africa’s greatest institutions from avoidable disaster. That a convocation could not be held is painful enough. What of the cost to parents and graduates and its debilitating impact on UNILAG reputation as a place of stability, predictability and integrity? The elephants are fighting. The grass is suffering. It is not in our national interest that the Federal Government plays the role of the enthusiastic spectator in this matter. It has a duty to act.