University of Lagos and reputation management
Curious media trial on a crisis bordering on some corporate governance issues at the University of Lagos has continued on various media platforms. The emergent details point to a tripartite web involving the Governing Council, principal officers of the university and the Academic Staff Union. Coming from one of the prestigious institutions of higher learning in the country, a cautious scrutiny of the details is imperative. Even so because our tertiary institutions are centres of knowledge production and reproduction, they are therefore sacred grounds for breeding values of integrity, character molding, learning and transparency. In times of crisis, inevitable in the social relations of men and women, laid down principles should be followed and not circumvented.
It is clear from facts available so far that the point at issue is the audit of the university’s finances between May 2017 and September 2018 by an audit team headed by Dr. Mohammad Saminu Dagari of Federal University, Gashua who is also a member of the Governing Council. The audit report, accordingly faulted the process of awarding contracts, which it observed was characterised by indiscretions and channels of abuses. Notably, the report stated inter alia that: “The current regime of approval is open to serious abuses. There was consistent, brazen, manifest and gross mismanagement of university finances by past and current management.” The team went further to recommend a monthly or quarterly approval limit in financial transactions for all approving authorities; a re-organisation of audit units, including strictures over expenditure power as well as automation of the revenue and expenditure process for transparency.
Armed with the audit report, the Pro-chancellor and Chairman of Council, Dr. Wale Babalakin caused the registrar who by law is also Secretary to Council to query the principal officers without a prior discussion of the audit report by the council. This procedure reportedly irked the local branch of Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), which read the action of the chairman as authoritarian. Also, the Vice Chancellor (VC) queried the Registrar correspondingly. The VC based his action on the University Act, which subordinates the Registrar to him administratively. Thus, an intricate knot over issues of accountability, procedures and hierarchy was tied.
The University Act of 1967 is explicit on the powers of the organs of the institution, namely, the composition of the council (Section 5) and the functions of the Pro-Chancellor and the Vice-Chancellor (Section 6). Section 5 states inter alia that the Council of the University shall consist of the Pro-Chancellor; the Vice-Chancellor; the Deputy Vice-Chancellors; one person from the ministry responsible for education; nine persons representing a variety of interests and broadly representative of the whole Federation to be appointed by the President; four persons appointed by the Senate from among its members; two persons appointed by the congregation from among its members; one person appointed by convocation from among its members. Section 6 (1) 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.” Section 7(1-5) is explicit on the functions of the council and its Finance and General Purposes Committee and states as follows: (1) “Subject to the provisions of this Act relating to the visitor, the council shall 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.” (2) “There shall be a committee of the council, to be known as the Finance and General Purposes Committee, which shall, subject to the directions of the council, exercise control over the property and expenditure of the university, other than that of the colleges and perform such other functions of the council as the Council may from time to time delegate to it.” (3) “Provision shall be made by statute with respect to the constitution of the Finance and General Purposes Committee.”(4) “The Council shall ensure that proper accounts of the university and the colleges are kept and that the accounts of the university and of each of the colleges are audited annually by auditors appointed by the council from the list and in accordance with guidelines supplied by the Auditor-General for the Federation; and that an annual report is published by the university together with certified copies of the said accounts as audited.” (5) “Subject to this Act and the statutes, the Council and the Finance and General Purposes Committee may each make rules for the purposes of exercising any of their respective functions or of regulating their own procedure.” And (6) “Rules made under subsection (5) of this section by the Finance and General Purposes Committee shall not come into force unless approved by the council; and in so far as any rules so made by that committee conflict with any directions given by the council (whether before or after the coming into force of the rules in question), the directions of the council shall prevail.”
There is equally a countervailing interpretation of the Bureau of Public Procurement Act, 2007 in relation to the crisis. The Governing Council had in June 2017 sought to resolve role conflict between the Pro-chancellor and the VC on who chairs the tenders’ board by means of a sub-committee in the context of the prevailing practice, which puts the VC as head of the university’s tenders’ board. However, two interpretations have emerged: One which says that the VC is the appropriate authority to chair the tenders’ board based on “the provision of Section 22 of the Public Procurement Act of 2007’’ which states that: “(1) There is hereby established by this Act in each procuring entity a tenders board (in this Act referred to as “the Tenders Board”). (2) Subject to the approval of the Council, the Bureau shall, from time to time, prescribe guidelines for the membership of the Tenders Board. (3) The Tenders Board shall be responsible for the award of procurements of goods, works and services within the threshold set in the regulations. (4) In all cases where there is a need for pre-qualification, the Chairman of the Tenders Board shall constitute a technical evaluation sub-committee of the Tenders Board charged with the responsibility for the evaluation of bids which shall be made up of professional staff of the procuring entity and the Secretary of the Tenders Board who shall also be the Chair of the Evaluation Sub-committee…”
The second report embedded in the audit report holds that the University Act aforementioned supersedes the Public Procurement Act. These are matters of law that will be resolved by the correct interpretation of the law and it stands to reason that this should be the noble path to follow, in the circumstances.
Lately, the Pro-Chancellor in an apparent bid to resolve the festering issue convened a two-day emergency council meeting to which parties to the crisis were invited. The effort was however marred by the alleged presence of undercover security operatives. Nonetheless, the matter is by no means over. There is a crisis of legitimacy as well as propriety in terms of the repository of authority for running the affairs of the university. As things stand, the institution’s Vice-Chancellor and the Chairman of the Governing Council are locked in some power struggle despite the fine lines of the University Act. What is worse, media trial over the lingering crisis continues.
In this regard, commonsense dictates that the matter should be resolved peacefully to avoid unnecessary disruption of academic activities in the institution. It is cheering that the academic union has underscored its willingness to cooperate with constituted authorities to stamp out corruption on the basis of due process without arbitrary intrusion by anybody. Indeed, ASUU averred that it had “no problem with the university’s council and has never accused it of any wrongdoing. Our grouse is the crude usurpation of the council’s powers by the pro-chancellor,” who they claimed could not act alone without the concurrence of the council members. The former Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, reportedly advised that the status quo should be maintained to allow for consultation with the ministry but the Pro-chancellor frowned on the manner in which that information was communicated to the council.
Nevertheless, the House of Representatives Committee on Public Procurement has called on stakeholders of the university to work in concord within the bounds of law. This intervention came by means of its oversight function. But its interpretation of the Public Procurement Act as having superintendence over the University Act in certain aspects of financial matters seems to have complicated the legal matter arising.
This newspaper believes that good intentions are desirable but the sure path to peace is to follow fair and square, the spirit and letter of the University Act and the corresponding rules and regulations in resolving the matter.
Specifically, the University of Lagos is a premium brand that should be protected by all principal officers and students. Besides, as a well-known boardroom guru and legal luminary, the Pro-chancellor, Dr. Wale Babalakin should resolve the current issues discreetly only within the Council Chambers. And so, all current media noise and trial should be made to stop on all fronts. Consequently, all the parties to the crisis should note that a brand equity can be lost in a twinkling of an eye through public relations damage that media trial can trigger. That is why the council and management of the university should be resourceful enough to work together to take the university to greater heights the country can be proud of.