Since Obasanjo came to power in 1999 in Nigeria, the regime has been trying to portray a picture of itself as “modernising”, anti-corruption and generally a new type of regime based on rectitude and respect for democratic principles. In reality beneath this façade lies the same old corrupt, despotic ruling class. This class cannot solve the problems of Nigeria, for it cannot break with imperialism and world capitalism. So it contents itself with raking off a part of the wealth of the country for its own personal gain. Part of this involves nominating totally incompetent, but servile, individuals to positions of prominence. This is the case of the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ilorin, who two years ago sacked more than sixty lecturers. This had serious adverse effects on the functioning of the university, and the struggle of those lectures continues till this day. In Nigeria this question has made front page headlines and is still attracting a lot of attention. Our correspondent in Ilorin interviewed the chairman of the Ilroin branch of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).
Q. The crisis of the University of Ilorin in Nigeria has dragged on for about three years and has become a national issue involving the Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities and the Federal Government of Nigeria. As Chairman of the University of Ilorin branch of the union, what is your assessment of the situation?
A. The current face off between the Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities (ASUU) and the Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN) is in reality a battle for the soul of the entire Nigerian education system. The issues immediately at stake are proper funding and propriety in the management of universities, being essential ingredients if the University is to realise its fundamental objectives of training, research and national development. ASUU, as a union of academics and intellectuals has a historical responsibility to intervene, with all the force at its command, when these fundamental objectives are threatened, as they frequently are in Nigeria. One would say that such intervention is more the raison d’étre for the existence of a union such as ASUU than, say, agitation for personal welfare improvements for members of the union.
Q. If I may cut in, you have said the fundamental objectives of University education in Nigeria are frequently threatened. How is this so?
A. The problem is that successive Nigerian governments have tended to see the country’s universities as a mere extension of the political system. The institutions of learning, so called, have therefore found themselves enmeshed in the grid of political patronage, graft and general incompetence. Vice-chancellors and Governing Council members are appointed at the pleasure of the government and the ruling party and therefore often do not feel responsible to the system - so long as they can keep in the good books of political godfathers. The universities therefore tend to be run as personal estates. University structures and resources are employed massively to oil the machinery of corruption. Merit is of course sidelined, both in appointments and admissions. In the event, the fundamental objectives of the university cannot be sustained.
Q. Coming back to the University of Ilorin and the current ASUU-FGN face-off.
A. The then Vice-chancellor, by name Professor S.O. Abdulraheem, was easily the least qualified academic amongst contestants for the position of VC. His CV was severely scanty from the academic point of view, and he had somehow become professor only two years prior to his appointment as VC. It was almost clear ab initio therefore that scholarship or excellence was never going to be his main concern; however, the political machinery responsible for the appointment picked on him anyhow. One of the things he did was to try to bring down the University’s scholarly legacy which he met on the ground but which apparently towered too much above his mien. To show that he meant business he sacked two past Vice-chancellors (his immediate predecessors) who were still functioning within their departments. These are respectable academics and international icons in their respective disciplines, who, as Vice-chancellors, did their best to sustain the enviable academic legacy of the institution. To further demonstrate his disdain for scholarship, Abdulraheem sacked academics who secured external fellowships and sabbaticals, while promoting his minions, however mediocre. He turned corruption into the norm. Indeed, in less than two years in office even government visitation had indicted his administration for corrupt self-enrichment and gross abuse of office and privilege, although his political godfathers shielded him from prosecution. He converted staff dues and entitlements to "internally generated revenue" which he then ploughed into servicing the corrupt machinery that he erected, while denying staff their legitimate dues. He violated all the human rights, including freedom of association and right to human dignity, while also attacking academic freedom and freedom of expression – a professor was sacked for setting down a critique of the administration in a memo to the University’s Congregation. One national magazine (The Insider Weekly) actually named Abdulraheem "Nigeria’s worst Vice-chancellor" in its cover story on the institution. These were the anomalies that the academic staff union in the university struggled against. He then responded to their struggle by sacking over a hundred academics, most of them during the national strike of the union. He did this regardless of the adverse effects on the university’s academic programmes.
Q. ASUU National has been engaged in a struggle for the reinstatement of the sacked academics?
A. Yes, and the struggle continues.
Q. What is the position of the Nigerian authorities?
A. Unfortunately, the president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, has chosen to turn a blind eye to the misdemeanours of the University of Ilorin Administration. So far he has ignored the indictments by the Visitation panel that he himself sent to the University and even the white paper of the government on the panel’s report. This of course places a question mark on the much-vaunted anti-corruption drive of the government. On the issue of the sacked academics, the Visitor, either out of misinformation or misconception adopted the position that since the decision was endorsed by the University Governing Council then the Council’s authority should not be undermined by his own executive action. This notion is absolutely misconceived since the University laws gives the Visitor a check and balance function over the Governing Council, just as the laws of the land balance executive functions with judiciary and legislative functions. It cannot be right to suppose that a Governing Council cannot err or that if it errs it must not be called into question. The whisper at the moment is that the president is only acting out his legendary antipathy towards the intelligentsia in UNILORIN. One hopes that this is not so.
Q. What is the way forward then?
A. One wants to hope that the Nigerian democratic system, as wobbly as it is, is not going to degenerate completely into a one-man dictatorship. The national assembly is currently looking into the matter, and aspects of the matter are also before the judiciary. The union (ASUU) is not giving up either. Judging by recently published opinion polls it is clear that the informed public is beginning to realise that ASUU’s struggles are actually about saving the nation by protecting its higher education system from opportunistic vandals who happen to be occupying positions of authority. In the modern age the state of a country’s universities is an index of its national development and the relative growth of its civilisation. It’s almost clicheic that no nation can rise above its universities. All hands must therefore be on deck to ensure that the nation’s universities are true models of civilised culture. The international community must also lend a hand in order to help lift this country above the morass of corruption, decadence and savage violation of citizens’ rights. In this regard one must appeal specially to the International Labour Organization and progressive workers’ (and related) organizations. The Nigerian Labour Congress, the Nigerian human rights community and progressive student groups must come together and be more assertive on the issue - UNILORIN is only a test case for the total denial of the right of all workers in the country to associate and to agitate. Such an unhealthy precedent must not be allowed to be consolidated. We believe that with all hands coming on deck, the issue of reinstatement of the sacked academic staff of the University of Ilorin and related matters will be resolved positively and soon.
Q. You are sure of victory then?
A. Oh, victory for progressive struggles such as ours is historically inevitable. It’s only a matter of time.
Q. It has been more than two years since your members were sacked, how are they coping?
Courage to stand by worthy principles and one's conviction is a necessary attribute of the intellectual. Our colleagues in the struggle have acquitted themselves well in this regard. Of course they have suffered severe material deprivation and moments of depression in the process of the struggle but their spirit remains indomitable. Even though they are mostly academics of international standards and many of them have had many a permanent engagement away from these shores, they have chosen to remain to see the struggle through. This is the sort of altruistic spirit that lifts nations. Of course they have received support from their colleagues, relations, progressive organisations and men and women of goodwill nationally and internationally, for which they are very grateful - indeed it has been astonishing how much people of all walks of life are prepared to support a good cause, even if covertly - help has often come from surprising quarters. But all this does not detract from the fact that the affected lecturers have supplied the basic ingredients of socio-political struggle - an altruistic (selfless) disposition towards humanity, an indomitable spirit and faith in the principle that truth and goodness always triumphs in the end.