NIGERIA: Supreme court recalls sacked academics

The Supreme Court of Nigeria has declared null and void the dismissal of five lecturers of the Federal University of Ilorin. The court reserved a date in September to rule on a similar case affecting a further 44 academics who were also sacked eight years ago for taking part in a national strike organised by the Academic Staff Union of Universities. The verdict was hailed by lawyers and civil society organisations as a triumph of the rule of law and due process.

The atmosphere in the court room was quiet and tense as Chief Justice Ibrahim Kutigi read the unanimous decision of his peers on the dismissal of the four lecturers. The court - the highest in Nigeria's justice system - ordered the University of Ilorin to immediately reinstate the academics to their previous positions. The university must also pay the lecturers arrears in salaries, allowances and other perquisites denied them eight years ago, without delay.

Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, President of Nigeria and himself a former academic, ordered the Ilorin University council to implement the Supreme Court verdict immediately - and the council has since complied.

The verdict made the reinstated lecturers and their friends extremely happy, and they are hoping the Supreme Court will also rule in favour of the 44 remaining lecturers next month.

One of the academics recalled was Taiwo Oloruntoba-oju, chairman of the local branch of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) which led the strike for more funding and university autonomy eight years ago. He has returned to his post as a lecturer in the department of European languages.

"I am happy that the court has restored our rights and dignity. If I was given the same opportunity to lead and serve the union, I would abide by the principles of justice and equal rights enshrined in the ethos of the ASUU. I don't regret my actions as the local chairman of my union," he declared. He is optimistic that the Supreme Court will recall the other sacked colleagues, including his wife.

In an editorial on the Supreme Court decision, The Guardian newspaper of Lagos commented:

"This judgment has been hailed by many commentators as a good sign for the Yar'Adua government that has predicated its service on the rule of law. This has been a triumph for the rule of law and a befitting reward for the excruciating patience of the lecturers," stated the newspaper, continuing:

"In the intervening eight years many of the affected lecturers suffered humiliation and other privations. The trauma was just too much. Some could not even find alternative employment. Some were forced to take on jobs totally unsuited to their station. Some could no longer maintain their families, others fell sick, some went blind and some died."

The failure of the university management to apply the principle of due process in dismissing the lecturers was a major factor influencing the Supreme Court in its decision. The court faulted the governing council for not implementing the principle of fair hearing in the matter.

The lecturers were not given an opportunity to appear before the university disciplinary committee to respond to charges levelled against them. They were summarily dismissed because they took part in the strike action.

The case dragged on for eight years because of the involvement of three levels of the courts. The ASUU took the case to the High Court for alleged wrongful dismissal. That court ruled in favour of the lecturers, stating that they should all be reinstated. But the university went to the Court of Appeal and won there. Last month's Supreme Court decision overturned the Appeal Court ruling.

Many civil societies organisations criticised the high-handed disposition of the university in dealing with the lecturers. They wondered why the university did not summon them before a disciplinary panel before dismissing them.

"If indeed the university governing council failed to abide by the principle of due process on this matter, members of the council should be sanctioned for failing in their duty and responsibilities. They failed to promote the principle of justice and equity," said Yunus Abegunde, a lawyer and former student of the University of Ilorin.

Bimbo Shittu, a psychology lecturer at the University of Maduguri, commented: "It is hoped that this case serves as a lesson to university authorities who may develop a penchant for lawlessness."

It is unfortunate that most Nigerian leaders, including university administrators, have become a law unto themselves, having no regard whatsoever for civilized principles and rules. Happily, our courts are rising to the occasion and restoring cherished virtues and norms. Those who have ears and want to hear must be told that people may be persecuted for long but certainly not forever. Justice though slow, is certain.

Augustine U Kalu