Omole: 20 years after ‘The Great Trial and Travail’ at the Great Ife
• Facts are still sacred!
There is a time for everything, according to an ancient word. There is a time to speak and a time to keep quiet. There is a time of agony and a time of celebration. There is also a time of depression and a time of reflection, which most times lead to a time of thanksgiving to the God of all grace – who is also the God of righteousness and justice!
This sums up a reflection and thanksgiving by Wale Omole, a professor and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Ife, (now Obafemi Awolowo University) who was in the eye of some externally induced storm exactly 20 years (1999 – 2019) ago as the first alumnus (former student) of the university to be sworn in as vice chancellor of Great Ife on November 30, 1991. It was a classic story of trials, travail and triumph, of course. The tenure of Professor Omole was eventful as vice chancellor until the last year in 1999, coincidentally the year of restoration of democracy in Nigeria when a successor was to be appointed. The process of appointing a successor was on course until a political actor from the new political class in Abuja tacitly put a spanner in the works – to protect his kinsmen – one of whom he wanted to be successor to Professor Omole. This is the origin of the great plot to the 1999 epic battle:
In June 1999, barely a month after the new government was sworn in, the Obafemi Awolowo University Council had an obligation to recommend to the Visitor (the President) a candidate to take over from Professor Omole as vice chancellor in November that year. Every step of the process for the succession arrangement was diligently followed in the complex process to screen 23 prequalified candidates. The outgoing vice chancellor was said to be close to one of the candidates who had actually risen through the ranks in both academic and administrative milestones in the same university. The versatile candidate whose class Professor Omole had taught in 1973/74 was invited by the outgoing vice chancellor as a Deputy Vice-Chancellor after serving as Chairman Committee of Deans. It was understood that despite Prof. Omole’s belief that Professor Ajibola was the right person to take the university to the next level after him, he (Omole) chose to remain functionally neutral, in order that others could judge him (Ajibola) dispassionately. There was a record that on the day of selection, Professor Omole informed the Council, headed by Hon. Justice Anthony N. Aniagolu (JSC (rtd), that he would be unable to participate in the selection process. He (Omole) was reportedly permitted to vacate the Council Chamber. It should be noted two that four of the seven final candidates had also served as Deputy Vice Chancellors to Prof. Omole at one point or the other. But trouble began when the council rose and the Pro-Chancellor Hon. Justice Aniagolu, on behalf of the council, announced the result that Professor Ajibola had emerged the best candidate. In fact, 11 of the 15 members scored him the highest. When all the marks added, Ajibola led by quite a clear margin.
And thereafter arose a post-nomination rancour. It all began when the next day, the council forwarded Professor Ajibola’s nomination to the Visitor as the successor to Professor Omole, according to the rule then. Behold, this was the trigger for the 1999 crisis, which rocked the last days of Professor Omole. Like a bolt from the blues, different scenarios, divergent groundswell of opinions emerged. Some said Professor Ajibola was only 45 years and so was too young to lead the university. Just as some others quickly pointed out that some emerging world leaders at the time, including Governor of Arkansas (U.S), Bill Clinton, was governor at 32 and was elected President at 46, Tony Blair was British Prime Minister at 44, etc, were either younger than Ajibola or a year older. There was a report then that some shadowy desperadoes, using the cult-boys, attempted to eliminate Professor Ajibola after his nomination.
Curiously, Professor Omole who recused himself from the selection process and even travelled to Ilesha on the day was also a target as ‘armed robbers’ were spotted in his house in Ibadan twice; the first time to identify his bedroom, where they made away with only light stuff. On their second appearance, the ‘robbers’ ripped open his bedroom door with bullets, shot at even the mattress several times. They also shot open two wardrobes in the room. He was said to have escaped by the whiskers because it was on his 57th birthday. And so on that day, a private dinner was to take place in the same Ibadan home that night. As fate would have it, a terrible traffic had forced the family back to Lagos after having stayed on the same spot for about seven hours. That was how he ‘miraculously’ escaped the mystery gunmen’s bullets.
In the beginning was a students’ crisis: Adeola Soetan factor
It is worth recalling that the appointment of Professor Omole in December 1991 came on the heels of a students’ crisis that had engulfed the university since May that same year. President of then student union, Adeola Soetan was alleged to have resorted to violence to run the Student Union Government (SUG), which had then resulted in the death of one student named Umunna at the student union building – in broad daylight. The suspects then identified as Soetan, Fasayo and others, were held on holden charge at Ilesha prison for about seven months – without prosecution. The university consequently set up an investigation panel, which led to the dismissal of 70 students.
Unfortunately for Professor Omole, within a month of his assumption of office the State High Court, sitting in Ile-Ife, had quashed the dismissal order and ruled that the students should be re-admitted. Meanwhile, a Magistrate Court had dropped the murder case on Soetan, Fasayo and others because the police failed to produce satisfactory evidence. Then the two groups, the dismissed students and the ones on murder charge, returned to the campus triumphantly with big rallies showcasing the power of impunity.
It was reported then that Professor Omole’s first task on assuming office was to manage the serious indiscipline and anarchy that followed the readmission of the dismissed students and those accused of murder.
Specifically in 1993, the university experienced incessant violence on the reinstatement of Mr. Soetan but the Senate of the university (against the advice of the institution’s administration) succumbed and approved Soetan’s reinstatement. That development set the tone for another spate of impunity as the student ‘escapees’ (the scapites) believed that they could do anything and get away with it in the university. All they needed was to blackmail the administration and then lobby their staff sponsors.
1994 was somehow peaceful in that the elected students’ union president was not a scapite. He was, however, impeached under conditions engineered by the scapites.
Trouble resurfaced in 1995 when another member of the scapite organisation Anthony Fasayo and Soetan’s companion in the murder charge of 1991 was allegedly rigged in as SUG president. Curiously, he swore in himself as president. The new student leader always gave the university authority ultimatum on issues he claimed had to do with students’ welfare. For instance, the leader insisted that the Faculty of Pharmacy should arbitrarily change the grades of some students. The same students’ union leader threatened to deal with any lecturer who had more than 10% failure rate in his courses.
Again, Fasayo was eventually expelled from the university for vandalisation of university property, breaking into the university bookshop and a bank on campus, in his bid to get marks arbitrarily changed in Pharmacy, and refusing to subject himself to university’s disciplinary panel and bringing thugs to disrupt proceedings and the 1995 convocation ceremonies. Despite his loss in court on this, he continued to resort to violence in his bid for the reinstatement of his studentship. There was even another Lanre Adeleke’s challenge as an extension of the student union crisis.
These series of student crises culminated in a denouement by 1999 when some student leaders rounded up some cult members and extracted some information from them, where it was clear that there was already a grand plan to tarnish the image and reputation of the vice chancellor – just as an instrument of blackmail in exchange for reinstatement of expelled students.
It will be recalled that by March 1999 National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) had moved its headquarters to Ife – to pursue the reinstatement objective. At a meeting held on March 18, 1999 with the Vice Chancellor, Professor Omole, the then Director of Mobilisation and Organisation of NANs, Mr. Livingstone told Professor Omole point blank:
Mr. Vice Chancellor, in spite of your high profile reputation, we, the students of this country, can rubbish you. We can destroy your reputation, if you do not that expelled students are reinstated…’
There was a record that the then NANS President, Mr. Moses Oisakede, thereafter asked Livingston to withdraw the statement to please the Vice Chancellor who had protested to the NANS president at the 2:00am meeting.
‘Facts are indeed sacred’
Facts are sacred; only comments are free, as we are told in journalism. The judgment in the case involving the suspected cult members at the Chief Magistrate’s Court, Osun State of Nigeria, Ile-Ife, reinforced the fact that the July 10 murder that escalated the crisis at the university was premeditated. The judgment MIF/33c/99 was delivered on March 23, 1999.
There were reports from handwritten confessional statements from most of the suspects (in their individual statements) that they were indeed tortured and forced to implicate the vice chancellor. Some of the hand written confessional statements read:
“They now started beating us and said we are cult boys and they started bringing… and they said they have been looking for a way to destroy Omole and they asked my friend from Akure should say that he is a patron of cults…”
“They even forced us to claim that Vice Chancellor, Professor Omole, is our patron.”
“They also forced all of us including the boys they first brought to accept that all of us belong to the same cult and that the vice chancellor is our grand patron. This they made us to say in front of the video camera…”
An Education minister’s role in the crisis…
The role of the then minister of education could not be ignored in the 1999 event. There was evidence then that the Minister of Education, Professor Tunde Adeniran, had allegedly through his action on the cult killing at the university complicated the matter and empowered the cultists in the institution. The minister consciously weakened the authority of the university’s administration by curiously giving more power to the students’ leaders at the expense of the normal procedure and orderliness.
Most people then could not understand why Adeniran violated the procedure of appointment by dictating to the Chairman of the Council who to appoint as Acting Vice Chancellor among about a thousand academic staff, side-lining the two Deputy Vice-Chancellors. The minister reportedly insisted on one of the contestants for the position of the vice chancellor who was not even shortlisted by the Senate-Council Joint Selection Board to be appointed. The minister clearly usurped the functions and powers of the Senate and Council in the process.
As was widely suspected when the minister sneaked into the university at the time and consulted with vested interests, the first action of the minister was to suspend the vice chancellor, which was immediately seen as playing along with the students’ leaders’ agenda of Omole-Must-Go. The minister did this without reference to the Council or in consultation with the Senate. There were no allegation or charges against the vice chancellor and this was also a violation of the provisions for removing a vice chancellor as stipulated by law.
The suspension order was artfully used by the minister to discredit the vice chancellor and thus implicate him in the controversial cult killing. This way, the public was made to believe that the vice chancellor was guilty of allegations without trial, hence the arbitrary suspension.
Records showed certain tacit actions of the minister, which demonstrated his bias: The minister visited the university campus shortly after the cult killing. While at Ife, in a mammoth crowd, he warmly hugged and embraced the leader of the unrecognised Students’ Union Government, Mr. Lanre Adeleke. Curiously, Adeniran described him as the best student union president in Nigeria, a development that surprised a lot of people. This was against the grain, as the Senate did not recognise the student union leadership following the violent election that brought it.
But despite all the hostility, Professor Omole ended strong as he was cleared by a Visitation Panel set up by government to look into the finances of the university for the eight years of Omole presided over the university. The panel ordered audit of the accounts three different times using different audit firms. They even found out that the vice chancellor had used his personal money to do official business on the request of the bursar. He has not been reimbursed till date.
And so by June 1999 Council meeting, Professor Omole announced his retirement plans effective November that year. In September 1999, he forwarded a letter of voluntary retirement to the Council Chairman, Justice Aniagolu. And in his acceptance letter dated September 27, 1999, the Registrar wrote as follows:
“I hereby accept on behalf of the Council that Professor Omole should retire as Vice-Chancellor on 30th November 1999, as requested. While conveying the acceptance, I wish to place on record, for myself and for my and on behalf of my Council, my appreciation of Professor Omole’s hard work and unstinted devotion to this university. I have found Professor Omole to be a dynamic vice chancellor with original and progressive ideas for which the university is greatly indebted. Hardly ever resting, Professor Omole is every minute of the day thinking and working on the affairs of Obafemi Awolowo University, approaching them with his prodigious mind. He deserves accolade for his vast knowledge of the affairs of Obafemi Awolowo University and for his unreserved application of all his energies in solving the problems of the university”.
This was how the tenure of the first student to be vice chancellor of Great Ife, was rounded off to the glory of His name!
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