In the last quarter of 2015, the governing councils of eight of the 12 federal universities established by the Dr. Goodluck Jonathan-led administration had begun the process of appointment of new vice chancellors for their institutions. This was signaled largely by newspaper advertorials that they put out.
But a November 19, 2015-dated letter from the National Universities Commission (NUC) that arrived at the doorposts of chancellors of eight of these institutions, effectively froze their actions.
In effect, the letter from the NUC asked the eight pro-chancellors to suspend the due-process appointment of new vice chancellors in their universities. Expectedly, the schools: Federal University Dutse; Federal University Dutsin-Ma; Federal University Kashere; Federal University Lafia; Federal University Lokoja; Federal University Ndufu-Alike; Federal University Otuoke, and Federal University Wukari all complied.
On February 4, 2016, pro-chancellors of the eight institutions, were in receipt of yet another missive from the NUC. The letter was re-confirming the date of expiration of tenure of their vice chancellors, and appropriately instructing each of them about the proper hand over to an acting vice chancellor in order to avoid any vacuum in power within the universities.
The February 17, 2011-dated letter from the Federal Ministry of Education signed by the former Education Minister, Prof. Ruqayyatu Ahmed Rufa’i to one of the former vice chancellors stated that the appointment was for a single term of five years with effect from February 16, 2011.
The respective school’s governing councils having suspended the VCs appointment processes and awaiting further directives were as jolted as the rest of the country especially the academic community with Saturday, February 13 appointment of new vice chancellors for the schools, including three others- as well as the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN). The other three schools are Federal University Gashua; Federal University Gusau and Federal University Kebbi.
A terse statement signed by the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu simply said President Muhammadu Buhari, has approved the appointment of new vice chancellors for the affected universities.
Pronto, the sack started generating hues and cries across the length and breadth of the country, with so many in the academic community especially arguing that Vincent Tenebe, who was sacked from NOUN could only be removed by the school’s governing council, of which he was a member of. Tenebe was replaced with Prof. Abdalla Uba Adamu of the Department of Mass Communication, Bayero University, Kano, while the substantive Vice-Chancellor of the Federal University, Dutse, Jigawa State, Prof. Mohammed Kundiri, was transferred to the Federal University, Wukari, Taraba State.
One of the first groups to kick against the Federal Government’s abuse of the VC appointment process was the Coalition of Civil Society Groups (CCSG). A protest letter to Buhari signed by its president, Etuk Bassey-Williams and Secretary-General, Ibrahim Abubakar, said the action contravened the provisions of the Universities (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act No.11 of 1993 (as amended) by decree No.25, 1996 and further amended in 2003 and 2012 respectively and other agreements as contained in the 2009 FGN/staff union agreement.
“While this does not come as a surprise owing to the influence of one of the Special Advisers to the Minister of Education in orchestrating the appointments of his friends and cronies without following due process, we are however concerned about the constitutional breach and the resultant litigation battle this action may cause, which in turn may generate unnecessary distractions to your focused administration,” the letter read inter alia.
“We are compelled to call your attention owing to the illegality in the removal of vice chancellors of 13 federal universities, including the National Open University of Nigeria and the hasty appointment of friends and cronies in place of those illegally removed from office.
“The constitution is quite clear on the procedures to be followed in the appointment and disengagement of vice chancellors and none of these procedures was followed in the above case. The appointment of vice chancellors is a tenured appointment, which presupposes that every appointee is expected to serve the prescribed number of years as stipulated by the acts governing the institutions.”
When contacted on phone to shed some light on the rationale behind the letter asking the eight pro-chancellors to suspend the due-process appointment of new vice chancellors in their universities, NUC’s Director, Information and Public Relations, Mr. Ibrahim Yakassai, declined comment saying only the Executive Secretary, Prof. Julius Okojie could speak on such policy matters. He promised to get Okojie on line, but did not.
When The Guardian visited the commission’s office in Abuja, Yakassai again declined to comment on the issue, adding that the executive secretary was not on seat. He, however, stated that it was only the Minister of Education, Mr. Adamu Adamu, that could comment on the issue.
However, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities (CVC), has expressed reservation at some actions taken by the Federal Government in the course of the entire exercise.
In a statement endorsed by its secretary general, Professor Michael O. Faborode, the CVC said, “For the nine federal universities established in 2011, except the Federal University Oye-Ekiti, the tenure of the vice chancellors expires on Monday February 15, hence it will be wrong to say they were sacked. As far as the CVC is concerned, there can be no justification for their being sacked, having labored stridently to establish enduring foundations for the fledgling universities. Rather, we congratulate them for ending their tenure on a commendable note.
“For the three new Federal Universities at Birnin Kebi, Gashua and Gusau, and that at Oye-Ekiti, whose VC was appointed after the pioneer vice chancellor, Prof Chinedu Nebo, was named minister, we are surprised that new vice chancellors are announced to have been appointed, as this does not conform to the extant practice in the university system. The VCs have inviolable tenure of 5 years. The situation is even made worse by the announced appointment of a new VC for NOUN, which is no stranger to the statutory process of appointing a VC. We plead that these vice-chancellors should be allowed to complete their tenure or proper statutory and transparent procedures be adopted if they are accused of any wrong doings,” the statement added.
It continued, “The power to appoint and remove a substantive vice chancellor, and when the need arises, an acting vice chancellor, is vested in the governing councils. The NOUN has a council in place. We are now aware that the councils of the 12 federal universities were dissolved unceremoniously a day earlier, and the appointment of new ones announced. We have said before that though a four-year tenure was prescribed for governing councils, the reality of change of government may necessitate re-constitution of such councils if the government feels compelled to do so. In our candid and unbiased opinion, the minister should have allowed the new Councils to be properly fully constituted and sworn-in, and then take the statutory responsibility of setting the machinery in motion to appoint the substantive VCs for the universities.
“The now dissolved councils of the eight universities had actually initiated the process of appointing their vice chancellors and one of them, the Federal University Dutse, had even concluded the process and had appointed a vice chancellor-designate (the candidate has now been assigned to another university in this random process. If he is found appointable, why not in the same university where the council had appointed him?) before the directive from the Ministry of Education to put the process on hold…”
The group added that “ The subtle usurpation of the statutory function of Governing Councils by the minister in appointing the new VCs does not augur well for the integrity and good health of the Nigerian university system. Quite rightly, the president had expressed concern about the poor ranking of Nigerian universities, but incidentally, good governance is one of the crucial ingredients of attaining world-class university status. Hence, these steps represent a minus for our system. We plead that the steps be reversed in the interest of the good intention of Mr. President.
“We submit that the Nigerian University System has a lot to offer the country in exemplary conduct of governance, and can be properly re-positioned to be relevant to the crucial task of re-engineering the country in line with the change mantra of the current government.
National Coordinator, Education Rights Campaign (ERC), Hassan Taiwo Soweto, condemns the process of the appointments, saying it was contrary to the Universities Miscellaneous Act, and should therefore, be revisited.
According to him, “From all indications the process by which the appointment of the vice-chancellors passed through is unknown to law and contrary to the Universities Miscellaneous Act, which is the general convention guiding the process of disengagement and appointment of vice chancellors for universities.
Soweto, who claimed even the establishment of the universities by the former administration was fraught with irregularities, added, “ERC deplores that kind of impunity and we feel that necessarily has to be corrected. But the way government is going about it is also the continuation of the same impunity. So our demands would be to insist that if things were not done right before, it has to be corrected now, for the purposes of the sanctity of university system.