NIGERIA: Rejection of acting VC sparks controversy

Lecturers at the Federal University of Benin have rejected the appointment of an acting vice-chancellor in an action that has sparked legal and political controversies that could have far-reaching implications for the rule of law and due process in N igeria's university system. Last week armed police were deployed at various campuses of the university.

The academics say the university Visitor, the Nigerian head of state, was not properly advised by the Minster of Education on how to select an acting vice-chancellor as an interim measure pending the appointment of a permanent head. The acting vice-chancellor at the centre of the storm is Professor Uche Gbenedio.

A group of former vice-chancellors and retired university administrators, under the aegis of the Committee of Benin Elders, first raised with the university community and the general public the plans to nominate an acting vice-chancellor without following due process.

The university suffered a power vacuum when the tenures of Professor Emmanuel Nwanze, Benin's outgoing vice-chancellor, and his two deputy vice-chancellors - Professors Obaseki Eboh and Uche Gbenedio - expired.

The committee suggested that in accordance with the laws establishing the University of Benin, in the absence of a serving deputy vice-chancellor, the provost of the College of Medical Sciences was next in line to be appointed acting vice-chancellor. But Gbenedio had received a formal letter from the university's Acting Registrar, Celerina Ojomo, indicating she had been appointed acting vice-chancellor.

Eddy Akpomera, the university's public relations manager, explained that "in the absence of a governing council the Minister of Education, on behalf of the Visitor of the University, has the right to appoint an acting vice-chancellor". Alpomera said that what was happening at Benin was being done in all federal universities because there were no governing councils.

The government's suspension of university councils in 2007 has caused many problems for universities, including the appointments of their leaders. The local branch of the Academic Staff Union of Universities rejected the argument and the procedures.

Union chair Dr Kashetu Ilavbarhe said: "We cannot be comfortable with this kind of appointment because due process was not followed. [Gbenedio] has finished her first tenure as deputy vice-chancellor quite rightly. But she has not been given a second term which is by election and not by appointment."

In response to the crisis, the federal government is trying hurriedly to constitute and inaugurate governing councils at federal universities. The Benin university council will have two tasks in resolving the crisis: setting up the process to appoint a vice-chancellor and dealing with the irregular manner in which the current acting vice-chancellor was appointed.

"The governing council can appeal to the university senate to elect two deputy vice-chancellors and one of them should be the controversial and current acting vice-chancellor," said Uche Okpara, an industrial relations expert.

"The council can, in turn, reconfirm Professor Uche Gbenedio as acting vice-chancellor. She will then be conferred with both legitimacy and authority. That is the only way peace and harmony can be restored on campus."