NIGERIA: State vice-chancellor jobs precarious

Vice-chancellors of Nigeria's regionally controlled universities are being fired or resigning due to instability and excessive politicisation at the institutions. And industrial unions in these state universities are constantly at loggerheads with the authorities over issues of autonomy and failure to follow due process.

The country's 108 universities fall into one of three categories: federal (funded by central government); state/regionally controlled (one per state); and privately owned.

The rate of dismissal and resignation of vice-chancellors is far higher in state than in federal universities, where there are more checks and balances in place around hiring and firing. And vice-chancellors of private higher education institutions are seldom subjected to such threats.

Recent events in state universities have highlighted the precarious position of their vice-chancellors.

Ekiti state, in southwestern Nigeria, witnessed the dramatic dismissal of three vice-chancellors in one fell swoop - a development unprecedented in the history of Nigerian universities.

The three vice-chancellors were relieved of their posts and mandated to return to the only university funded by the state government - the University of Ado Ekiti, or Unad.

"In most cases, the vice-chancellors of state universities are mere appendages and marionettes of the state governors. University autonomy is relatively present in federal universities and private institutions, but totally absent in state universities," declared the former vice-chancellor of a federal university who pleaded anonymity.

And Ekiti state Governor Dr Kayode Fayemi, who is also the visitor of the three universities, undertook further surgical measures.

Acting on the recommendations of an education summit headed by Professor Sam Aluko, a renowned economist, the governor downgraded the status of two of the universities: the University of Education at Ikere is now a college of education, and the University of Science and Technology in Ifaki has been renamed a government secondary school.

Students from the two former universities have been transferred to Unad, and the governor, in his role of visitor, has appointed Professor Dada Adelowo as Unad's acting vice-chancellor.

Students supported the changes because the visitor also announced a drastic cut in tuition fees.

But the local branch of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, or ASUU, has challenged the process followed in removing Unad former vice-chancellor Professor Dipo Kolawole, and instituted a law suit against the visitor.

"The visitor reserves the right to appoint whoever he likes as the vice-chancellor. But in removing the substantive vice-chancellor, there are laid-down procedures, which we thought the government breached, and this we are challenging in the law court to restore sanity and orderliness in the process," declared Unad ASUU Chair Dr Ayan Adeleke.

In a similar development the governor of Edo State in southern Nigeria, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, ordered the immediate removal of Professor Sam Uniamikogbo as vice-chancellor of the Ambrose Alli University in Ekpoma.

According to Malam Ali Suleiman, special advisor to the governor, the removal of the vice-chancellor "was to pave the way for far-reaching financial, academic, administrative and overall institutional reorganisation of the university as recommended by the visitation panel report and the forensic audit report".

But, as also reported by the national newspaper The Nation, the local branch of ASUU has rejected this firing, which it Chair Sunday Ighalo described as "illegal and unprocedural".

"Allegations ought to have been levelled against him. Council would investigate them and make its recommendation to the visitor. If he is found guilty, then he should be removed. In this case the VC [vice-chancellor] was not given a fair hearing. He was not given the opportunity to defend himself. There are laid-down procedures to appoint and remove the vice-chancellor. It is not for the government to remove the VC by fiat," declared Ighalo.

A few weeks after he was elected, Governor of Imo state Rochas Okorocha sacked Professor Bertrand Nwoke, acting vice-chancellor of Imo State University, and replaced him with Professor Osita Nwebo, also in an acting capacity. Okorocha's move was patently political; he simply dismissed Nwoke because he was appointed by his arch political rival, former Governor Ikedi Ohakim. No due process was followed.

And in Lagos State University, Vice-chancellor Professor Lateef Akanni Hussain tendered his resignation due to irreconcilable differences between him and three industrial unions. The unions wanted him removed but both the council and the visitor, Lagos state Governor Babatunde Fashola, rejected the union demands. But they reluctantly accepted Hussain's resignation, noting his positive achievements and reforms he had introduced.

Finally, the former governors of Oyo and Osun states arbitrarily and without recourse to law appointed two different vice-chancellors to Oladoke Akintola University in Ogbomosho.

There are lessons to be learnt from the dilemmas confronting vice-chancellors in Nigeria's state universities.

The checks and balances in federal universities are more complex because the appointment and sacking of any vice-chancellor involves many layers of complicated political interests. In most cases, if the vice-chancellor is found wanting, this is also an indictment of the governing council, because vice-chancellor decisions are approved executively by the council chair and reported to the full council in session for subsequent ratification.

Also, the president of Nigeria is the visitor of all the federal universities. In most cases he delegates his powers - such as setting up investigative panels into federal universities in crisis - to the education minister. Such panels take time to conclude their findings and their recommendations must be submitted to the president for consideration.

Similarly, in private universities stakeholders undertake careful studies of all issues involved before dismissing any vice-chancellor.

By contrast, in state universities the state governor who is also the visitor is under pressure from local and influential forces. The governor's proximity to local communities makes it culturally mandatory to 'interfere' and get involved in minor campus crises.

Local legislators are receptive to complaints from students and staff who are useful to them, especially during election times. Local politicians also tend to put pressure on the state governor to interfere in the daily operations of state universities.