Power, corruption, and conspiracy – the staples of the raging controversy rocking the University of Lagos (UNILAG) to its core.
The crisis seems to have defied logic, compromise, and a conclusion. It may well take the intervention of the almighty presidency to bring a denouement to the matter.
Until then, the dramatis personas have refused to sheathe their swords, adding fire to fury. In fact, the whole shenanigans have brought into ridicule the sublime reputation of the illustrious ivory tower.
The principal characters in the drama of denigration are the vice chancellor of the university, Prof. Oluwatoyin Ogundipe, the registrar, Oladejo Azeez and Chairman of the institution’s governing council. Dr. Wale Babalakin (SAN). Recently thrown into the messy mix is the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).
The furore is fixed on allegations of mismanagement of funds and corruption, and compounded by the gale of queries that followed from a particular quarter.
The accusations ranged from the inflation of contract fees for repairs to the renovation of an official’s residence to the tune of more than N20 million, resulting in some principal officers – past and present – being queried over the seeming malfeasance.
Among them are Ogundipe, the institution’s deputy vice-chancellors, Folasade Ogunsola, and Oluwole Familoni, a former vice chancellor, Rahamon Bello, a former Registrar, Taiwo Ipaye, and a former Deputy VC, Duro Oni.
Acting on the direction of Babalakin, Azeez queried his superiors, following an audit of the university’s finances between May 2017 and September 2018, with the audit team headed by Saminu Dagari, from Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi.
In the report, the committee faulted the process of awarding contracts, saying it was fraught with ‘irregularities and open to gross abuses.’
It read in part, “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 current regime of approval has been characterised by contract award without recourse to due process, payment without valid contracts and approvals, contract overpayment, contract splitting by vice-chancellors and tenders board, over-budgetary spending, frequent official travels, and expenditure without due approval by the governing council.
The report also accused the university’s internal audit units of gross lapses, dismal failure, and abuse of the institution’s internal control mechanisms.
In the case of frequent travels, the report accused the university management of spending huge sums on travels, sometimes without approvals.
But the committee absolved the deputy vice-chancellor, Ben Oghojafor, and Azeez of any wrongdoing.
Other members of the committee that produced the report are Yomi Kasali, Oladejo Azeez, Dora Osoata, Adepeju Adefowope, Adebayo Olaleye, Adeoluwa Folami, Daniel Asigwuike, and Gbenga Adefarakan
To prevent a recurrence, the committee recommended a monthly or quarterly approval limit for all approving authorities; reorganisation of expenditure control and internal audit units, and automating the process of revenue and expenditure for transparency.
The report also urged the council to take appropriate sanctions against all those indicted for financial mismanagement. It further recommended that contractors engaged in janitorial and maintenance services should be paid all their outstanding monies and subsequently disengaged as they are beneficiaries of management’s consistent abuse and violation of financial regulations.
And contrary to the Bureau of Public Procurement, which said the university’s tenders board based on the Procurement Act, should be under the chairmanship of the vice chancellor, the committee said the university act supercedes any other law. It, therefore, recommended that the governing council should take total control of the university’s finances while the chairman of council should head the tenders board from now on.
The audit report was thereafter submitted to the chairman of the governing council. Following the receipt of the report, Babalakin – without any deliberation or contribution from other members of the council – directed the registrar to issue the queries.
That lone-wolf action itself has become a huge irritant to ASUU and others concerned.
“Our fear, that a vicious, vindictive and meddlesome leviathan is at the head of the University of Lagos Council has sadly been confirmed. Our union has received an avalanche of complaints from members who are in receipt of ‘queries’ most recklessly and illegally authorised by Babalakin through the registrar,” ASUU said in a statement.
As the university’s supreme authority, ASUU might be displaying disregard for constituted authority – in this case, the governing council and its chairman, Babalakin.
The 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 chairman of the committee is the pro-chancellor, while other members are constituted as follows: external members, including visitors, appointees from various interest groups and internal members, mainly university management, including representatives of the senate.
Azeez, perhaps emboldened by Babalakin, published a stinker disagreeing with ASUU and reaffirming his temerity to query his superiors and others. In a statement titled, “The need to tell the truth”, he accused the union of chasing shadows and challenged it to prove him wrong.
ASUU’s gripe might go beyond the obvious in this matter since it is public knowledge that there is no love lost between the union and the pro-chancellor. There is a longstanding feud between ASUU and the Babalakin-led federal government re-negotiation team concerning the 2009 funding agreement – in which ASUU fingered Babalakin as its eternal foe and somebody it did not want to work with. It is reasonable to say that the UNILAG issue is an extension of that cold war.
The university union may be militant in approach and unforgiving but Babalakin is often resolute. While the primary issue has to do with how the institution’s funds are being managed, the secondary but more volatile issue here is power struggle, vendetta and attempts at settling old scores. Every stakeholder knows that this kind of wind will blow no one any good.
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, including the regulation of the constitution and conduct of the university.
The majority of the council membership is drawn from the public and representatives of a variety of interests. Other members of the council are the pro-chancellor (who is its chairman), the vice-chancellor and the deputy vice-chancellors as well as representatives of the university senate, the congregation and the convocation. The registrar is the secretary to the council.
Azeez argued further that the University of Lagos Act 1967 recognised the council as the approving authority for all honours to be conferred by the university and to him, it is unbelievable that the same ASUU that approached and appealed to the pro-chancellor to confirm Olowokudejo’s appointment as a distinguished professor outside plenary after the council had taken a decision to step down his appointment in plenary is now making a case that the chairman of the council cannot act for council outside plenary.
If the registrar’s argument was to lay the matter to rest, it did the opposite as it fuelled the fire and fury engulfing the institution, as ASUU did not hold back a word in vilifying Azeez and his purported paymaster, with the union pointing out that the former’s statement was disparaging.
“The correct position is that our union has 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,” a statement by ASUU claimed. “Our contention has always been that Babalakin, cannot approximate the council of the University of Lagos.”
While in a sense admitting seeking the support of the pro-chancellor in the past, the union said it did not want such “an illegality” to continue. ASUU further indicated that it was not bothered about whether the stepping down of Prof. Olowokudejo’s appointment was unprecedented. Its main concern is with the “obnoxious, draconian and vindictive” decision of the Babalakin-led council to step down the senate’s recommendation of Prof. Olowokudejo as a distinguished professor.
Yet, 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.
In university’s administration, a lot of politicking runs deep. The brickbat is often intense and sometimes results in ignominy. The driver of such a crisis as is rocking UNILAG – between the school’s management on the one hand and the governing council on the other – is considered by observers as sheer ego-tripping disguised as something else.
The matter is even made worse as only two diametrically opposed members of the council are spitting fire. The other members of the council appear to have sworn an oath to silence. Many are wondering who should call the shot: the institution’s vice-chancellor or the chairman of the governing council.
In Nigeria, a vice chancellor is regarded as the chief executive of a university. Yet, he cannot act independently in the selection, employment, evaluation, or discipline of university officers and students.
Instead the head of the federal government of Nigeria performs these tasks. According to the scholar, Felix Chima Ugwonali, the administrative structure of higher education in Nigeria is such that it is difficult to say who is in control or who represents the “owners” on federal university campuses. Every employee is expected to have some sort of responsibility, but ultimate authority rests with top management. Thus, accountability and authority are vertical, but responsibility can be both vertical and horizontal.
The union in unmistakable term described Azeez as a stooge. “For the incompetent and willing inconsequential tool called Oladejo Azeez, who was smuggled into the office as lame duck registrar and secretary to the pro-chancellor, he should be reminded that there is a limit to sycophancy and flunkey bootlicking. Oladejo Azeez should get familiar with the function(s) of a seasoned university registrar and stop deploying the paraphernalia of his esteemed office in the service of a brutish leviathan.”
That appears more than a slap on the wrist for Azeez. But there was more coming his way.
His seeming effrontery to issue a statement castigating ASUU also earned him a place in the infamy of the harvest of queries just as his superior, the university’s vice chancellor, issued him a query for such a statement. Some have accused the registrar of trying to assume the role of Ogundipe, his boss – the VC did not take that lying down.
In an internal memo, “Re: The need to tell the truth: Request for explanation”, Azeez’s boss accused him of power usurpation and directed him to give reasons for his seeming miscommunication, as Ogundipe argued that UNILAG’s corporate affairs directorate, through which the registrar’s statement was issued, is under the control of the VC.
“In light of the foregoing, you are expected to explain the reason for the publication, bearing in mind Section 3 (1), 6 (1) of the University of Lagos Act (1961), as amended, which states inter alia- ‘There shall be a registrar, who shall be the administrative officer of the university and shall be responsible to the vice-chancellor for the day-to-day administrative work of the university…’”
It is not certain whether Azeez will be sweating over that. However, there is more to the issue than meets the eye. According to reports, there was wrangling between the pro-chancellor and some top members of the institution over his stance on some issues, reporting that Babalakin had rejected the recommendation of the university’s senate for the conferment of distinguished professorship on J.D. Olowokudejo.
In fact, the ASUU Chairman, Dr. Dele Ashiru explained that the union loves to fight against corruption but would prefer that due process is diligently followed, suggesting that Babalakin is running a one-man show. It added that ASUU cannot be used by anybody because it is a union of intellectuals and admitted that “we have been at daggers drawn” with the pro-chancellor before the issue of the queries.
By that, ASUU underscored its willingness to cooperate with constituted authorities in stamping out corruption in the institution but with a caveat: only if the attempts to root out or expose corruption are legitimate, follow due process and the accuser is not the same as the investigator, the prosecutor, the judge, and the executioner – anything less than that, according to ASUU, amounts to blackmail.
Fair deal; but it is often not that simple. Ashiru thinks Babalakin is acting gung-ho style and the union of intellectuals is not liking it at all.
“He called heads of departments to a meeting, which he had no power to do. He also unilaterally stepped down the appointment of one of our colleagues duly recommended by senate and several entreaties to him failed,” Ashiru claimed. “After his bloated ego had been massaged through a letter of apology, he then unilaterally asked the registrar to include the man’s name as one of those to be conferred with the honours.”
Defending himself, Babalakin said ASUU should provide evidence to support its accusations against him. “It is important that ASUU backs up its allegation by referring to (a) specific law that has been violated. Please refer to Section 7 of the University Act, which defines the power of (the) council. The registrar and secretary to (the) council are in the best position to advise on the procedure of (the) council.”
The section identified by the university’s pro-chancellor noted that subject to the provisions of the act relating to the visitor, the council will be the governing body of the university and will be charged with the general control and superintendence of the policy, finances and property of the university, including its public relations.
It further explains that there will be a committee of the council, to be known as the “Finance and General Purposes Committee”, which will, 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.
Therefore, the council will 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.
In view of this, it is not out of place for the Babalakin-headed council to call for an audit. ASUU said it is not against that too. But it is worried that the council had no input into the audit.
Just as the ivory tower seemed about to be blown into smithereens, an emergency meeting of the institution’s governing council had been called, following a notice of meeting issued by the registrar, perhaps to enforce a ceasefire until lasting solutions are found to the issues that had threatened to tear the institution apart.
Not to leave any stone unturned, it is expected that the regulatory body of all universities in Nigeria, the National Universities Commission (NUC), will not waste any time to wade into the crisis.
Before these interventions, ASUU had petitioned the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, in a seven-page document detailing its frustration with Babalakin and his cohorts, requesting the minister to warn the institution’s governing council’s chairman to act in line with laid-down guidelines and principles as against his penchant to disregard rules and procedures.
At the prestigious university, management crisis is not new as Prof. Ben Nwabueze (SAN) – one of two oldest senior advocates in Nigeria – pointed out in an interview he granted a few years ago. His recollection, if it is anything to go by, is frightening and should make those in the institution reaching for each other’s jugular to mellow.
“I don’t know those of you old enough, who observed the crisis at UNILAG in 1962. Three years after, in 1965, there was a crisis over the appointment of the vice chancellor. Prof. Eni Njoku was the pioneer vice-chancellor, and there was trouble between the Igbo and the Yoruba and he was dropped for Prof. Sabiru Biobaku, and there was a crisis,” Nwabueze had said.
Soon, he was charged to court and prosecuted for his leaning.
“One of the lecturers, Adeyemi, in the course of the clashes was beaten up by the students. During the trial, Adeyemi came out in court and said that when the students were beating him up, he saw me with a chair and that I hit him with the chair, which made him unconscious.”
The chief magistrate believed Adeyemi and sentenced Nwabueze to six months imprisonment even though he vehemently denied the allegation. He believed the crisis was a signpost of the anarchy that was soon to follow – that would nearly swallow up the entire nation.
“The UNILAG crisis heated the polity and also led to the first military coup of January 1966. General Ironsi, immediately he took over sacked the chief magistrate,” he said.
Reacting to the development, former vice chancellor, Olabisi Onabanjo University (OOU), Ago Iwoye, Prof Sheriffdeen Tella said,”The university general administration is headed by a governing council like a board of directors in the private sector, making broad policies.
The council is composed of external and internal members and headed by a chairman, appointed by government in the case of a public university or by proprietor for private. The general day to day administration is done by the VC and his management team. They are responsible to council.
“Council can call the administration to order through its chairman. For UNILAG case, like any other, if there is a petition of great consequence, the chairman could have called a council meeting to set up a committee within council to look into the issue and make recommendations. Universities are run on committee system.
At the top of the pyramid is a ceremonial head, the chancellor, who can intervene to resolve issues before government comes in. Though the vice chancellor is a member of ASUU, the union needs to be cautious in the business of council and management until procedure is not followed which the union should point out”.
On his part, former vice chancellor, Lagos State University (LASU), Prof John Obafunwa said the council of any university reserves the right to ask questions or discipline any erring member of staff. The former VC noted that once a vice chancellor oversteps his boundary, he can be called to order by the council.
On the role of ASUU in the saga, Obafunwa said there is the need for a different brand of unionism in the university system.
According to him, ASUU needs to be less militant and be driven by honesty of purpose and it should not serve as a hiding place for ‘so called academics’ who are just there collecting salaries and allowances.
It is hoped that in the ensuing commotion, denigration, accusations and counter-accusations, sanity will prevail before the gown goes to town in tatters.