THERE is a succession crisis in public universities across the country over the appointment of vice chancellors, especially in the universities owned by the Federal Government. The latest is the selection process for the 13th vice chancellor of the University of Ibadan which has been suspended. The process had operated in fits and starts before the suspension because it was trailed by a series of petitions and protests. At first, the protest was made by contestants in the election for the position of Senate Representatives to the Selection Board. At least two petitions claiming that the elections were rigged in favour of two candidates were received by the Council of the University. These were followed by public protests by two non-academic staff unions in the university: the Non-academic Staff Union of Universities (NASU) and the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU). They have protested against the process on the ground that it had been manipulated to foist a candidate as the next vice-chancellor. They maintained that the process had been flawed from the electoral process for the selection of candidates to represent Senate and Congregation to the Selection Board. They therefore called for the cancellation of the process and the appointment of an Acting Vice Chancellor to oversee a fair and transparent process. During the protest that followed the announcement of the six shortlisted candidates, the unions shut the main entry and exit gates to the university, throwing the university’s campus into confusion.
Before things got to a head, a lot of intrigues and pressures around the identities of the candidates for the position of vice chancellor dominated the media. At first, it was demands by some groups that an Ibadan indigene should replace the outgoing vice chancellor because in the university’s over 70 years existence, no Ibadan indigene has made it to the office of vice chancellor. The university was also divided along religious lines, linked to the unsettled Hijab issue at the university’s International School. There were tension and suspicion about an agenda to Islamise the university, once a Muslim becomes vice chancellor. The rise in identity politics in the selection of a vice chancellor in Ibadan is just one in a long list of crisis arising from the alleged disregard for rules and values of merit and competence in the appointment of vice chancellors in Nigerian public universities. As far back as 2009, the process of the selection of vice chancellor at the Ahmadu Bello University was suspended over tensions linked to religious and ethnic divisions.
It took the intervention of the then Minister of Education acting on the request of the then Pro-Chancellor and some civil society organisationa to forestall anarchy. The Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of the Governing Council, Mallam AdamuCiroma, resigned his appointment in the heat of the rancour over the appointment of vice chancellor for the university. The Obafemi Awolowo University was not that lucky. The university was thrown into deep crisis following the announcement of Professor Ayobami Salami as vice chancellor after a controversial meeting of the Governing Council held in Abuja in 2016. The crisis was so deep-seated that the university had to be shut down until normalcy was established. A similar but less caustic situation trailed the recent appointment of a vice chancellor at the University of Uyo a few months ago.
We call on the Governing Council of the University of Ibadan to ensure that the situation does not deteriorate into a deep crisis. We call on all parties to reflect carefully on the steps they take as the situation unfolds. At stake is the hard-earned university autonomy which the unions in the universities fought for and wrested from the Federal Government, which had previously appointed vice chancellors for the universities. If university internal organs function as they should, the appointment of vice chancellors would not be this challenging. It seems that the office of vice chancellors has been redefined as another opportunity to participate in the looting of the national cake, judging from the issues of corruption, high handedness and mismanagement that have suffused news from the universities. A particular case in point is that of the University of Lagos where the vice chancellor was removed from office by the Governing Council, precipitating a crisis that was stemmed only with the intervention of the Federal Government.
Certainly, the universities have the demonstrated capacity to replicate the vices associated with partisan politics in Nigeria, where impunity trounces accountability. The processes of appointment of vice chancellors has been mired in needless controversy and claims of financial inducement. The processes are now riddled with religious and ethnic partisanship. This is very disappointing. Those who designed the process of appointment of vice chancellors did not include ethnic or religious affiliations as part of the criteria. This is because the leaders of the university are expected to be drawn from the cream of thought leaders in the community. They are expected to sustain the universities as the redeeming institutions of society, especially in moments of uncertainty, confusion and anomie in which Nigeria currently finds itself.
The universities must rise above sentiments of religion and ethnicity, uphold merit and competence in the appointment of their leadership, and institute accountable governance for the politicians to emulate. For the sake of autonomy, the vast members of stakeholders, and their role as a redeeming light, the universities should embrace dialogue, fair play and accommodation of diverse opinion, and return to their status as bastions of knowledge and freedom. The universities are the prime environment for elite socialisation. They have been active in moulding behaviour and inculcating social values in the current and future generations of Nigerian leaders. In this sense, the universities cannot be allowed to fail the country. Universities are constituted with in-built capacity for self-renewal. Let the vice chancellors demonstrate leadership and responsibility and drive the effort to rehabilitate the integrity of the universities.
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