For years, the staff of universities, especially the academic staff, fought for autonomy in the management of their internal affairs. This was done not just verbally, as it resulted in the closure of universities through strike actions that culminated in students staying at home for as long as a year in some cases. Due to the incessant strikes, the government was forced to give in and entered into a formal agreement to grant Universities their autonomy.
However, almost two decades after the epoch agreement, which allowed universities autonomy in the governance of their internal affairs, the understanding was tampered with last week, when Minister of Education, claiming to be acting on the orders of President Muhammad Buhari, sacked 13 Vice Chancellors of some federal universities. And he did not stop at that; he also announced their replacements.
This development jolted many, especially stakeholders in the education sector, who felt the action reminded them of the days of military rule.
The affected universities are the Federal University, Lafia, Nasarawa State; Federal University, Lokoja, Kogi State; Federal University, Kashere, Gombe State; Federal University, Wakari, Taraba State; Federal University, Dutsin-Ma, Katsina State; Federal University, Dutse, Jigawa State and Federal University, Otuoke, Bayelsa State.
Others are Federal University, Ndufe-Alike, Ebonyi State, Federal University, Oye-Ekiti, Ekiti State; Federal University Gashua, Yobe State, Federal University, Gasau, Zamfara State, Federal University, Kebbi and the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN).
Ironically, the tenures of nine of the sacked Vice Chancellors officially expired on February 15, 2016, just two days to their alleged sack by the Buhari-led government. And these Vice Chancellors, it was gathered, had handed over to their deputies with the commencement of selection process of a new VC. This perhaps was why the Secretary-General, Committee of Vice-Chancellors (CVC), Prof. Michael Faborode, said it was unfair to say that the VCs were sacked, because their tenure had been exhausted and the fact that there was no tenure renewal did not amount to a sack.
Reacting to his sack, Professor Ibidapo Obe, one of the affected Vice Chancellors in a media interview, said it was incorrect to say he was sacked, as he had completed his five-year single tenure and handed over to his deputy Vice-chancellor a day before the government announced his sack.
In the Minister’s statement, the NOUN VC was replaced with Prof. Abdalla Uba Adamu of the Department of Mass Communication, Bayero University, Kano, while the substantive VC of the Federal University, Dutse, Jigawa State, Prof. Mohammed Kundiri, was transferred to the Federal University, Wukari, Taraba State.
A former Head, Department of International Relations at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Prof. Kayode Soremekun, who was said to be on sabbatical in NOUN, is the new VC of the Federal University, Oye-Ekiti, Ekiti State.
The Federal University, Birnin Kebbi, Kebbi State, has Prof. Auwal Yadudu of the Faculty of Law, Bayero University, Kano, as the new VC, while Prof. Fatima Batoul Muktar of the Department of Biology, North West University, Kano, is now the VC of Federal University, Dutse, Jigawa State.
A lecturer in the Department of Pharmacy, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Prof. Haruna Abdu Kaita, is the new VC of Federal University, Dutsin Ma, Katsina State, while Prof. Andrew Haruna of the Department of Linguistics, University of Jos (UNIJOS), will now function as VC, Federal University, Gashua, Yobe State.
Another lecturer in the Department of Pharmacy, ABU, Zaria, Prof. Magaji Garba, has been appointed VC of Federal University, Gusau, Zamfara State, while Prof. Alhassan Mohammed Gani of the Institute of Maritime Studies, Federal University, Kashere in Gombe State, has been elevated to the position of VC of the institution.
The CVC stated that it was surprised that new persons were appointed to replace the VCs of the newest three Federal Universities at Birnin Kebi, Gashua and Gusau, whose tenure are yet to expire. This, it said, does not conform to the extant practice in the university system, as the VCs have inviolable tenure of five years.
“The situation is even made worse by the appointment of a new VC for NOUN, which is no stranger to the statutory process of appointing a VC,” he said.
Though the body pleaded that the VCs should be allowed to complete their tenure, it maintained that the appointment and removal of a substantive Vice-Chancellor, when the need arises, is vested in the Governing Councils.
“The National Open University 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 CVC explained that the dissolved Councils of the eight universities had actually started the process of appointing new Vice-Chancellors and that even the Federal University Dutse, concluded the process and had appointed a Vice-Chancellor-designate.
Ironically, the candidate has now been assigned to another university in this random process. But the CVC wondered why the minister reassigned him to another university; saying if he is found worthy of appointment, why not retain him in the same university, where the Council had appointed him?
“So, the system is not oblivious of the right procedure to follow on this matter. Why then are we incurring unnecessary complications for the universities?”
Faborode said, insisting 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.
He explained: “Quite rightly, the President had expressed concern about the poor ranking of Nigerian universities. Incidentally, however, 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 Mr. President’s good intention.”
Faborode noted that when the 12 universities were established and Governing Councils were yet to be constituted, the government had abridged the process for the appointment of VCs and randomly picked the set of outgoing/out-gone VCs.
“It is thus inconceivable that such an aberration will be condoned and adopted under the current dispensation. The enshrined competitive process for the appointment of VCs has immeasurable benefits, as opposed to ‘random selection’ of otherwise unwilling individuals, who are not aligned with a university’s vision.
“We are regrettably doing incalculable damage to our education system, by unwittingly demoralising and demotivating Vice Chancellors, and highly distinguished Pro-Chancellors and Chairmen of Governing Councils.
“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. The best approach for this, however, calls for greater synergy between all stakeholders, and Vice Chancellors are very central to this process. Hence, policy initiatives that will in anyway connote the denigration of the exalted office should be avoided,” the Committee of Vice Chancellors, said.
The rank of those kicking against the arbitrary sacking and appointment of Vice Chancellors is growing. Aside individuals that have been kicking against the minister’s decision, bodies such as Education Right Campaign, National Association of Nigerian Students and the Coalition of Civil Society Groups, have openly come out to condemn the pronouncement.
On the day, the Minister issued the statement, the Coalition of Civil Society Groups also issued a counter statement berating the action. It followed up days after with a protest march to the National Assembly, demanding a reversal, as well as the resignation of the Minister of Education, saying he was at a loss with regards to the demand of his office. The following day, the National Association of Nigerian Students led by its President, Comrade Tijani Usman, protested the decision of the Minister to sack and appoint VCs by fiat.
“Sack Adamu now and reinstate the sacked VCs”, “NANS says no imposition of VCs,” “Nigerian students say no to wrongful sack of VCs” and “NANS says no to injustice”, were some of the inscriptions on the placards carried by the students during the protest that later degenerated into a rowdy affair.
After many years of negotiations following incessant strike actions by the Academic Staff Union of Universities, (ASUU); the Federal Government had reached an agreement with ASUU on a number of issues with autonomy, as a major ingredient in the pact. To pressure the government into starting the implementation, more strike actions were embarked upon, with dire consequences on university education in Nigeria. Students who should have spent four years in school, ended up staying for an average of six years.
Ironically, since the Minister’s pronouncement, ASUU has kept mum. Attempts to get the union to comment through its national president have not yielded fruit. When The Guardian got in touch with the ASUU President, Dr. Nasir Isa Fagge, he claimed he does not grant interviews on phone. He suggested that The Guardian’s correspondent in Kano be sent for an interview with him. This request was complied with. But when the Kano correspondent, Abba Anwar called him, he said he was in a meeting and would get back to him. Hours after, Fagge failed to get back to Anwar, and when he was called on phone, he refused to pick his calls. He also refused to respond to the message sent to his phone.
Despite all the protest that trailed the Minister’s action, he has insisted that there is no going back, though he had received written petition from some of the sacked Vice Chancellors that are yet to complete their tenure. He, however, reassured them that government would look into their demands.
So, if the Minister refuses to back down and the new appointees assume office, what are the implications for ASUU? Like what happened during the University of Ilorin crisis, will the rank of ASUU membership be further depleted?