The University of Lagos, aka Unilag, is a much respected institution of higher learning in Nigeria. That is why it is the university of first choice for many students who want a place where they can study and graduate with minimum disruption to the calendar of their lives. It was the first university to get a radio station and the only one in the country so far to get a television station for the training of its mass communication students: My two degrees in mass communication have an admirable stamp of approval from there.
Two of my children also earned their pips as graduates of that respected institution. So, for me, Unilag is our family’s university because three of us, my children and I, are tied to the Unilag metaphorical unbiblical cord: That is an unbiblical cord that will never be cut. We are linked together, mother and children, forever.
In the early 70s, when I was there, students from other institutions used to deride us with the expression “Eko for show,” meaning that we were probably famous for showiness and flamboyance even though we were not wanting in the academic arena. We enjoyed the cosy ambience of the university, which was peopled by students and lecturers, black and white, from various countries. As the students and faculty members from different climes and cultures mixed and mingled, we had the feeling of being groomed in a setting with positive universal values, including universally cherished freedoms.
Throughout the period that I was a student there, we never had the episode of bunched-up convocation ceremonies because there was no reason for it. Once you got in, you knew from your entry date when your exit date would be, when your parents would feel proud that you now had a few important letters behind your name as a happy inductee into the privileged club of the educated elite. When I learnt of the altercation between the Vice Chancellor Professor Oluwatoyin Ogundipe and the Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of the Council, Dr. Wale Babalakin, which led to the suspension of the university’s convocation, I thought something was grossly wrong. I decided to meet the two officials, who are also eminent alumni of the university, and see if they would let me work with other alumni to get whatever was the matter resolved.
The two men were gracious enough to grant me audience during which they also willingly gave me some documents on the issues in contention. I called Dr. John Momoh, president of the alumni association and chairman of Channels Television, to inform him of what I was working on. He told me that a committee of the alumni association was sinking its teeth into the matter and he would like me to join the committee, a suggestion I readily accepted. I availed the committee of the information I got from both parties. The alumni intervention committee has several past presidents of the alumni association such as Dr. Sonny Kuku, Dr. Michael Olawale Cole, Dr. M.Y. Salami, Dr. Olajide Abbas, Mr. Adebowale Thompson and Senator Dipo Odujirin, among others. The group has held two virtual meetings with the two gentlemen. I am aware that the alumni intervention committee has appealed to ASUU and NASU, the two trade unions in the university, to maintain neutrality in the matter and avoid a situation that is capable of worsening the crisis. But ASUU seems unwilling to take the advice.
In a fit of vulnerable arrogance, the union is engaging in theatrical bitchiness. I have seen a letter dated May 2, 2019, written by the chairman of the Unilag branch of ASUU, Dr. Dele Ashiru, to the Minister of Education. In the letter, the chairman complained about the Pro-Chancellor’s alleged “anti-academic, anti-intellectual, authoritarian, Gestapo and fascist behaviour,” which, according to him, “represents present and future threat to peace, law and order and unhindered academic pursuit by staff and students of this great university.” That letter, toxic, dripping with violence, is the equivalent of a loaded gun that is ready to do what loaded guns do. Whatever message he intended to convey to the minister was tragically vitiated by the violent and uncouth language deployed in the letter.
Of course, I am aware of the agbero politics currently played by Nigerian politicians, most of them behaving like motor park touts. The violent language employed in our political space seems to take a cue from the physical violence prevalent everywhere every day. If the Unilag students’ union exhibited that kind of linguistic violence, it probably would be understandable though not excusable. But it is actually university eggheads that are engaging in such a classical trade union, chauvinist put-down with war-zone ethics. That does not represent a trip to Harvard. If a trade union that is populated by professors and Ph.D holders chooses to behave in a such a ruffianly fashion, the question to ask is, “where is their refinement and their sense of propriety?”
They ask their undergraduates to be exemplary in character and learning. Right? If they themselves are only exemplary in learning, where is the exemplariness in their own character? The question is: Is the gutter the grooming ground for trade unionists, including those that have professors as members, or is trade unionism not possible without the use of toxic and violent language? Their manner of presenting whatever are their grievances may not be their worst sin. The worst is the inane declaration of the Pro-Chancellor, Dr. Babalakin, a persona non grata on the campus of Unilag, a campus that does not belong to ASUU. To be sure, Unilag is a public space that belongs to all Nigerians and no one, not even the Visitor, President Muhammadu Buhari, can declare anyone persona non grata.
When I first read it some months ago, I thought it could not be true, so, I waited for a refutal from ASUU. It didn’t come. And then they repeated it recently. They held a congress meeting and actually declared again that Babalakin must not step into Unilag, he would not be welcome. Were all the professors of law in that university on vacation abroad that they could not tell the misguided unionists that freedom of movement in Nigeria is guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution? Unilag is a public place, not ASUU’s private parlour from which it can arrogantly issue dictatorial directives. ASUU’s leadership should have learnt a lesson from what happened a few months ago to the Governor of Ebonyi State, Mr. David Umahi, who was whipped hard with the koboko of public opinion when he declared two journalists persona non grata. He quickly backtracked and apologised to the two men for his primitive behaviour. Our universities have lost a substantial part of their academic freedom largely because they are not ready to defend it.
Academic freedom is the path of liberation for students and faculty. It underlines their freedom to inquire into and test received wisdom even if they are unpopular or controversial or offensive. I believe that it is also part of the unwritten mandate of universities to defend freedom for the society generally because of their superior interaction with knowledge. During our many years of military rule, some of the military dictators had actually put road blocks on the path to the attainment of a large measure of academic freedom. They even told one of the universities, Ahmadu Bello University, ABU, Zaria, which seemed to have a surfeit of socialist intellectuals, not to teach socialism. There was also a general directive for lecturers not to teach what they are not paid to teach. Why should there be a limit to what can be taught in any university? The most ridiculous part of the threat to academic freedom was the appointment of a Major General, Mamman Kontagora, as the Vice Chancellor of ABU. Even though the official designation was Administrator, the job content was that of a Vice Chancellor.
We went that low but analysts blamed this on the sycophancy of many university professors who were crawling and hustling at the corridors of power, begging to be crowned vice chancellors. They had no idea that there is no free lunch and that they were mortgaging their academic freedom in the process. In the same manner, the ASUU leadership in Unilag that seeks to take away the freedom of the Pro-Chancellor seems unable to understand that what goes around comes around. When you deprive someone of freedom, you invariably deprive yourself of it too because you have lost the freedom to speak in defence of your own freedom. However, the redeeming feature is that a sane voice has spoken out in condemnation of what Dr. Ashiru and his officials have done. Ndukaeze Nwabueze, Professor of Sociology in the university, issued a statement in which he said that the Unilag ASUU leadership “are behaving like misguided students union officials.” In the statement issued on July 15, Nwabueze said: “ASUU Unilag has no constitutionally defined standing in the misunderstanding between the Pro-Chancellor and the management of the University of Lagos. Our union is neither the PRO nor the aluta wing of management. The union had neither declared a trade dispute against the Council of which Dr. Wale Babalakin is the Chair. On the other hand, management, to the best of my knowledge, has not declared inability to state its own side of the dispute, if a conducive dispute settlement atmosphere was to be provided for that purpose.”
Nwabueze who says he has been a member of the union for 37 years, chided the union for going on the war path on the slightest provocation. He asked: “Where is collective bargaining, dialogue, mediation, arbitration or even lobbying?”
He warned that the union was “gradually sliding into functional irrelevance and soon our views will neither be sought nor matter anymore, going forward.”
Very wise words from a concerned elder who thinks that the union is probably acting in a partisan manner that will not serve the cause of reconciliation.
The Alumni Intervention Committee is determined to get the matter resolved amicably but that process can be muddied by parties that choose to take partisan positions. That is the equivalent of pouring petrol in the fire. ASUU is in no position to solve the problem. If it is interested in seeing the matter resolved for the benefit of all, then it should allow the Alumni Intervention Committee to work on a resolution of the issues without distraction. ASUU’s rabble-rousing cannot solve the problem. In the unlikely event that the union is able to illegally stop Dr. Babalakin from setting foot on the Unilag campus, how will that solve the problem? Is it ASUU’s desire to inject chaos into a crisis that is already threatening to dent the reputation of that eminent institution?