by Sam Omatseye
The crisis stirring the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife reminds me of one evening at the Oduduwa Hall in the 1980’s when I was a student. I cannot recall the reason for the gathering, but Professor Wole Soyinka, not a Nobel laureate then, rose to speak.
It was the first time I had heard of the “university idea.” He observed that OAU, then the University of Ife, was losing its way. His concern was not about egotists jousting for leadership or a febrile issue of student discontent. He was disappointed that where lawns should green and trees blossom, buildings were sprouting widely. For a student who was studying his homage to nature in his play, Madmen and Specialists, the evening was all too poignant.
He was also disappointed that some campus high rollers did not even understand the simplicity of the “university idea.” He mocked them by alluding to those who accused him of “obscurity and impenetrable densities.” Yet, the Ife top brass ought to hang their heads in shame for breaching nature in the pursuit of the soap bubble they see as architectural bliss.
Today, the soap bubble is the rule of law. The result is thousands of students idle at home. Ambition has shut the horizon. Egos are clashing. Greed is in high places. The university idea is hibernating. I cannot escape the irony. This is OAU, the place of culture and learning. It is the same school that has twitted an inane establishment, revolutionised student unionism in the country, installed an academy of conscience, held to account the brutal ecstasies of past military regimes and tamed the flamboyant corruption of democracies. Chinua Achebe once called it the seed bed of African renaissance.
Jesus would have yelled at them over the recent crisis: physician, heal thyself. How come the struggle for who becomes a vice chancellor has transmuted into a template for paralysis? In the past, we have seen fragile egos go sore, juju placed on roads, death threats skulk rivals, orations of meaningless acidity, money exchanging hands, et al. But often, a certain code of civility undergirded the apparent barbarities. Students still attended classes, the registrar still paid salaries, lecturers still laughed and guffawed over beer at the clubs, campus nights maintained the contradictory rhythms of lucubration and romance, aluta cohabited with the evangelicals.
At OAU, it is now graveyard. Why? The soap bubble of the rule of law. The story seems a bit straightforward. To pick a vice chancellor, the university top council advertises. This they did. They were supposed to draw up a shortlist. This they also did. In fact, it was done by the body called Joint Council of and Senate Selection Board, (JCSSB), which comprises persons from both the Senate and Governing Council of the university.
In the course of making a shortlist, members of Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) and Non-Academic Staff Union of Universities (NASU) suspected foul play. They would not allow the process to continue because they thought it was not going to be a contest but a coronation. They took the matter to court, but the JCSSB, went along with the process by also securing a court order. What it means is that the matter was still brewing in court while the process continued.
Both SSANU/NASU and the JCSSB were in their rights. The process therefore continued. The law was followed. A shortlist was made, and a final decision favoured Professor Ayobami Salami. But the opposition was not happy for the following reasons. Two of the top three candidates at the final interview were not from Ife. Three others from OAU were shortlisted but decided not to show up at the final interview. They automatically disqualified themselves. Only Salami came from Ife. The others were from outside. Did the law forbid that? Is the university idea not about merit? Maybe the others believed the board had decided on Salami. The other point was that one of the shortlisted candidates was not healthy because he had a stroke. That is a valid point. I still wonder how the council would defend that. He was not even physically present at the interview, so he performed it over the phone. In any case, he never was made the vice chancellor. Again, if they wanted somebody from Ife, they have it in Salami. Some on the short list were about four OAU professors.
To make it more absurd, the minister of education had accepted Salami as new VC. The same minister now dissolved the governing council because the process was said to have been flawed. This same education minister has stumbled several times on his throne. The same man who cannot distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate and dissolved university boards unilaterally. His is the minister of board dissolution. He forgets that Salami had gone through all the processes: academic, health, SSS, etc. he was found sound enough.
If those who oppose him felt things did not work according to due process, why did they not follow their own lead and wait for the court to take its course?
How does the dissolution of the board de-legitimise Salami’s pick? The board was legal when it decided. It cannot be illegal in retrospect and that makes the education minister’s decision untenable. The governing board members as well as the senate who picked Salami may have choreographed the process to pick their anointed. It may be so. It may be fair.
It is obvious that if it is a matter of the rule of law, the SSANU/NASU coalition would have yielded. They wanted something less noble than the rule of law. The snag about the rule of law is that it can be manipulated. But to paraphrase Apostle Paul, we can do nothing against the law but for the law.
That means everything should be done according to law. Meanwhile, we need the minister to step up and invoke the necessary steps to get the students back to the classroom. It is clear that it is not the principle of law that is at play, but group interests. One group beat the other in the fight for campus supremacy, and the losing side is calling for the rule of law. As I have often said, the rule of law makes sense in the context of justice.
The injustice here is against the students whose future is truncated by juvenile academics and other staff. All those who carried symbolic coffins around the campus and created a mournful air should realise that Ife is a school, not a morgue. Presently it is a school as morgue where ideas and learning are waiting for the breath of life.