Varsity of first choice’s unending search for peace
The crisis rocking the University of Lagos played out again during the week when the institution that prides itself as the university of first choice cancelled its council meeting, which it had earlier fixed for July 15 to 17. And just about three months ago, its 51st convocation ceremony was cancelled.
The planned council meeting was cancelled, after it had generated some ripples of tension among critical stakeholders of the institution. The two arrowheads, the Pro-chancellor and Chairman of Council, Dr Wale Babalakin and the Vice Chancellor, Prof Oluwatoyin Ogundipe were able to find justification for the cancellation in the Federal Government’s advisory on meeting, due to coronavirus pandemic. Secretary to the Government of the Federation and Chairman of the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19, Boss Mustapha had directed on Monday that all government physical meetings should be held virtually.
“Government meetings/Board meetings should be conducted virtually until further notice, all unnecessary travels for meetings by government officials suspended till further notice. All government offices shall continue to hold virtual meetings in their offices, especially where participants exceed four persons.”
The advisory was like a fire extinguisher that put out the raging fire being generated from the planned council meeting. This was because before the meeting was cancelled, the institution’s different unions seem to have taken positions that were delineated along lines of two camps. The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), University of Lagos Chapter, re-echoing an earlier persona non grata it has placed on the chairman of the council. It did not stop at that, it warned that if any thing happens as a result of the Council chair not heeding to their declaration of him persona non grata on the campus, Babalakin should be held responsible. This was aside the union had scheduled its congress for same day the three-day cancelled council meeting was to commence as well as fixing the congress within the same location for which the cancelled council meeting was to have been held, just as the Non-Academic Staff (NASU) and some senior staff held views contrary to the position of ASUU. Though the executive of the NASU came out to deny it sent out messages for a planned congress after the VC demanded that physical congress should not hold based on government advice.
If not for the FG advisory, the council would probably have gone ahead with its meeting and ASUU and NASU congresses would have also held. The fall out of the three meetings holding in a tensed environment could only be imagined, especially if the council had invited the Police considering ASUU’s earlier threat. Luckily, all the meetings were cancelled on the basis of the FG’s advisory. While Babalakin cancelled the council meeting, the Vice Chancellor wrote to the unions to also cancel their meetings, which was heeded as the unions held no congresses on Wednesday.
The crisis in the university that prides itself as the institution of first choice, no doubt, needs to be tamed, if not, it could further degenerate with the students majorly bearing the brunt and at the receiving end.
This is more so that as a result of the crisis, the university’s budget has not been passed while the 51st convocation of the institution was cancelled when activities lined up for the week long celebration had commenced.
Many students and their parents had to cancel merriments and personal activities they lined up to celebrate their graduation. It was huge economic lost. A parent was said to have arrived Lagos by air from Akwa Ibom with family and friends to celebrate their first son graduating, only to hear on the night of checking into the hotel in Lagos that the convocation had been cancelled.
Weighing in on the crisis, a statement was issued by Professor Ayo Olowe and other senior academics like Prof Lai Olurode. On the declaration of Babalakin persona non-grate on the campus, the senior scholars said the threat was provocative, disrespectful and illogical and does not represent the collective will of the majority of academic staff and other stakeholders of the university.
“ASUU, as a union, respects the rule of law especially the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which guarantee’s free movement of all Nigerians within Nigeria. Thus, the purported threat on the movement of the Pro Chancelllor, Dr.Wale Babalakin is not in line with the tradition and constitution of ASUU. ASUU, as a union has formal procedural way of presenting its grievances, always dialogues and follows due process.
“We along with the majority of the stakeholders of the University have full confidence in the leadership of Dr. Wale Babalakin’s led Council. We also dissociate ourselves from any act or action capable of obstructing the oversight function of the Dr. Wale Babalakin’s led Council.”
Responding, ASUU-UNILAG leadership said it read with disbelief and shock the public expression of dissent on the Congress Resolution, which passed a “Vote of No- Confidence and Persona non-grata” in Babalakin. This should not be misconstrued to mean a vote of no confidence in the Governing Council of the University.
The Union said though these professors have the right to express their opinions, nevertheless, it can only be done in line with the procedures of union.
“Consequently, this action by our colleagues, individually and collectively, was at variance with provisions of the Constitution and Code of Practice of our great Union on grievances procedure.”
In the statement, the union catalogued steps it has taken to promote peace on the campus including engaging some of the dissenting professors to mediate.
“For the avoidance of doubt, our Union has not and will not side with any of the parties. What our Union has been doing and would continue to do is to defend the sanctity and the inviolability of the academia.
“In doing this, our Union has had to disagree and confront the Pro- Chancellor on a number of occasions.”
It said the personal non grata was declared because the congress was convinced that the cancellation of the 51st convocation ceremonies was solely by Dr. Wale Babalakin, without consideration for the psychological, emotional and financial implications on the university, the graduands and their families. “Not to talk about the damage it has done to the good name, reputation and image of our University, for which the Pro-Chancellor has not shown remorse.”
Findings revealed that the conflict had been brewing before now with the convocation the major outburst that negatively affected major stakeholders on the campus. It was gathered that the 2018 convocation ceremony was almost cancelled, because the council chairman disagreed with the award of distinguished professorship to be conferred on a lecturer at the university, Duro Ajeyalemi and the incumbent registrar of the Joint Universities Preliminary Examinations Board (JUPEB) due to non-approval by council. It also learnt that the VC and the Council Chair were also at loggerhead when the vice-chancellor was allegedly accused of misappropriation by the pro-chancellor. Though the House of Representatives Committee on Appropriation led by Wole Oke intervened and resolved the crisis, but walls were not completely pulled down.
An Alumni of the institution, who pleaded anonymity, said: “What is happening to our university and Alumni is what is happening to Nigeria. The whole set up is fixed by successive and entrenched cabals, who are carefully recruited and recycled.”
Commenting, Dr. Rasheed Olatunji Moruf, one of the students expected to graduate, had looked forward to the convocation, as the overall best graduating PhD student.
Expressing his view about the cancellation, Moruf said: “A lot of the graduating students were expressing disappointment because there’s no celebration to acknowledge the mental, physical, and spiritual toll that the programmes have taken on a lot of us. As for me, the cancellation handed a devastating blow, as I had already arrived in Lagos with my family from the northern part of the country before I received the news of the cancellation. As the overall best PhD graduand, I had to come to the university for some procedural events before the convocation date. It was disappointing, but I felt it’s a blessing in disguise. Most students too share the same sentiment.”
For his family, Moruf said it cost them a lot, the risk of traveling across states, the stress, financial burden and the issue of getting another permission from place of work when the convocation is re-scheduled.
Another stakeholder of the university, who does not want his name mentioned, said the way forward is for the Governing Council led by the Pro Chancellor to provide the leadership it was constituted to provide to steer the affairs of the university, which unfortunately has been lacking.
“The Council has unleashed a lot of avoidable suffering on the students by the needless cancellation of the convocation ceremonies earlier in the year. The Council led by the Pro Chancellor is de-marketing the University of Lagos as a brand by gleefully promoting crisis in the media.
“The Council led by the Pro Chancellor has contributed to the grounding of activities of the University by willfully failing to approve the 2020 budget more than six months into the year. An important but very apposite is this anecdotal evidence. In 2013 when the then President Goodluck Jonathan changed the name of UNILAG to MAULAG, the then Pro Chancellor Gamaliel Onosode provided the sort of leadership required to steer UNILAG out of crisis by supporting the decision to keep UNILAG brand against the interest of his employers.”
On the way forward to prevent things from further degenerating, Tunde Awobiyi, a former executive member of the alumni, said the only way forward is to start to be different. “Our Kabiyesi, hypocritical worship of liliputians is too much at home, in church, department, and everywhere. We shall move faster when we learn to ask questions more than heap praises on those who are paid to serve, but filling their pockets and nurturing their egos.”
To resolve the issues, Awobiyi maintained that only dispassionate and courageous alumni members can wade in, if they are invited.
Attempts to speak with Babalakin were not successful, but an aide disclosed that his boss was not averse to peace, as he was not fighting anybody, but just demanding that due process be followed and things done properly. The aide added: “He does not want to talk to the press on the issue again, so that the issue would not be further aggravated.”