Opinion

Getting A VC For Ibadan Varsity: The Ugly Politics

By Reuben Abati

Established in 1948 as a campus of the University College, London, somewhere around Eleiyele in Ibadan, the University of Ibadan as it later became known when it assumed an independent status in 1962, has the history of Nigeria, its greatness and challenges written into every grain of sand, every piece of grass, every sound in its chambers, the minutest echo in its premises so much that any encounter with the University of Ibadan is an encounter with a piece of history.

It is Nigeria’s first university. It has produced some of the brightest minds that Nigeria can ever boast of, and has served the country as a factory for the training of generations of skilled workers. At the height of its glory, every university in Nigeria was referred to by ordinary people as UI as in UI of Nsukka, UI of Kano, UI of Maiduguri, UI of Port Harcourt…

For years, indeed, the University of Ibadan, as symbol, signifier, and object of public imagination, embodied in every sense, what John Henry Newman calls “The Idea of a University”.  As Nigeria degenerated and small minds replaced visionaries at the commanding heights of governance, and touts became new superstars in a country once destined for greatness, the country careered down the downhill path and every value failed. The first place to notice the effect was in the education sector at all levels and in that very department, iconic institutions took a fall: from the primary to the tertiary level. The town and the gown began to look alike, sometimes with the latter sounding less informed than the former in a reversal of roles. The idea of the university was trampled upon by an emergent anti-intellectual Nigerian elite that sought to dictate the processes, and standards for the production of knowledge and ideas. When the rogue class wanted to destroy Nigeria, they started with the intellectual class or anything at all that they thought could stand in the way of the planned emergence of thugs, bandits, thieves and terrorists as the new elite.

The University of Ibadan was badly hit over the decades. The teachers, among whom were some of the best in the world were targeted and demoralized by their less talented colleagues who had “connections in high places.” UI once had the best Chemistry laboratory in Africa. One night, it went up in flames. UI once had the best library in West Africa. In due course, that library became something of a museum. UI had the best archival library in Africa. Somehow, that also failed. UI had the richest zoo in West Africa. It turned out that the animals in the zoo, a great attraction for tourists, were eaten up one by one or sold by those who were employed to conserve them. Once, a zoo keeper who had been converted into a growing wave of Christian Pentecostalism, went into the zoo and proclaimed himself “Daniel in the Lion’s Den”. He confronted a hungry lion. You know how the story ended. But that did not stop some of the brightest Professors in the University joining the Pentecostal bandwagon too. Prayer rooms and night vigils became bigger attractions on campus.    

When some countries or institutions lose it, and the elite go astray, they manage to retain some value, a residual zone of redemption. But when things go wrong in Nigeria, they simply travel from bad to worse. This is the background to the current situation at the University of Ibadan, a metaphor for the overall Nigerian condition. Which is why it is so sad, and this is the point of this piece, that the University of Ibadan, once the breeding place of “national diamonds” has now become a melting pot of the Nigerian factor.  And to think that there are actually persons within that system not knowing the difference between the town and the gown, or they probably do, but they really do not care that the rot in town has so infiltrated the university; it may no longer matter anyway. It is particularly a crying shame that the University of Ibadan since November 2020 has not been able to appoint a substantive Vice Chancellor, after the expiration of the tenure of the former Vice Chancellor, Professor Idowu Olayinka. There may have been issues with the Vice Chancellorship of the University in the past (Kenneth Dike, Tekena Tamuno). There was also once a Cross vs. Crescent war between Christians and Muslims on the campus but what is now going on at the University is truly a new low.  Every alumnus of the University must be concerned that his or her alma mater is now a war zone for religious and ethnic politics, and that both faculty and staff are embroiled in a do-or-die fight over the position of Vice Chancellor.

I once served on the Governing Council of a University – Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago Iwoye, Ogun State. I was Chairman of the Establishments Committee and a member of the Appointments and Promotions Committee (known as A & P). Ordinarily, when a substantive Vice Chancellor is due to exit the position, the process for the recruitment of another would have begun more than three months before the scheduled exit to ensure a hitch-free transition. At the University of Ibadan, Professor Idowu Olayinka’s tenure was due to end by November 2020.  For one reason or the other, the University Council slept off, more or less on the matter of succession and did not activate the necessary processes in line with the Universities Autonomy Act.

In the face of that omission, mischief makers with their own agenda found an opportunity to step into the fray. They exploited the situation in typical Nigerian fashion. The emergent dominant position would eventually be defended as follows: the most vocal interest groups said they wanted an Ibadan indigene as Vice Chancellor of the University because no Ibadan person has ever been VC of the University. They even went a step further to insist that the next VC must be a Muslim. This is in a University that was once specially categorized as a Research University and as a Centre of Excellence. In 2020, its Professors and non-academic staff were busy fighting over the religious and ethnic extraction of a future VC. Several attempts have been made to resolve the impasse but they have proved futile and inconclusive.

In the midst of that confusion, the university’s Senate reportedly met and decided to appoint Professor Adebola Ekanola, Professor of Philosophy, as Acting Vice Chancellor, with effect from Dec. 1, 2020. Ekanola did not previously show interest in the position. He served under VC Olayinka, as DVC Academics. The main gladiators were Professor Kayode Adebowale – a Professor of Chemistry, and a Christian, believed to be Olayinka’s anointed successor. He served under Olayinka as DVC Administration. The second candidate was/is Professor Abideen Aderinto, a Muslim and a Professor of Sociology. Aderinto is said to be the candidate of Professor Isaac Adewole, who after serving as Minister of Health, has since returned to the College of Medicine in the University. It is widely believed that he is using his Abuja connections to seize control of the University and to determine who becomes the next Vice Chancellor. We have several levels of conflict here: Adebowale vs. Aderinto (candidates seeking the office of VC); Olayinka vs. Adewole (conflict of egos between two former VCs trying to control the university by proxy); Ibadan indigene vs. outsider (should indigeneship be a factor in the appointment of the Vice Chancellor of a Federal University?) and finally Christians vs Muslims (and I ask: do we now have bandits and kidnappers among the Ibadan academia?).  

These may perhaps be some of the considerations that led the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu to suspend the process of appointing a new Vice Chancellor at the University of Ibadan indefinitely. But in taking that decision, the Minister merely complicated the process. He should have allowed the university to run its own affairs. His decision to stop the process has fuelled the suspicion that the Ministry or the Minister himself is a party to the conflict. On the streets of the University of Ibadan today, there is great suspicion and masked tension.

The tenure of the present Chairman of the Governing Council, Nde Joshua Watlek Mutka ends in April. He cannot be compared to Chief Wale Olanipekun, SAN who served as Chairman of the Governing Council of the same University before him, or the likes of late Mr. Gamaliel Onosode, who also served with distinction as Chairman of the UI Governing Council. Waklek throughout his tenure as Council Chairman of the University of Ibadan has functioned like a victim of Peter’s Principle. But then this is Nigeria: he is father in-law of the Plateau State Governor, Simon Lalong, an APC Governor! In today’s politics, that is big political capital. But to drop the ball and draw Nigeria’s Premier University into the vortex of religious, party and ethnic politics is most unfortunate. Who cares whether the Vice Chancellor is an Ibadan indigene or not? And what has being a Muslim or Christian got to do with University Vice-Chancellorship?  

The Minister of Education must revisit this issue quickly. If he waits till the end of the tenure of the current Chairman of Council before the University gets a substantive Vice Chancellor, it would be correctly assumed that Abuja has imposed the politics of Godfatherism on the country’s premier University.  The University’s Alumni have also been too quiet.  They must not play possum and watch their alma mater turned into a battle-field of ambitions and egos.

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