Minister sacks 13 university vice-chancellors, councils

Nigeria’s education minister has sacked the vice-chancellors and governing councils of 13 federal universities. In the same breath, he announced the university leaders’ successors. Strangely, no reason was given for the mass firing that has shocked the higher education community and the country.

Civil society groups pointed out that such action, without recourse to the rule of law, brought back bitter memories of military rule, when arbitrariness and impunity were the norm. Human rights lawyers said they would challenge the government move in court.

The university community was aware that the five-year, non-renewable tenures of the vice-chancellors of 13 federal universities would soon end. Most were appointed as pioneers of new universities created by former president Goodluck Jonathan and funded by the federal government.

Professors who were warming up to be potential successors put out feelers to the presidency, the Ministry of Education and the National Universities Commission to find out when the vacancies would be advertised in accordance with rules and regulations. The vice-chancellors were preparing to exit office.

Terse announcement

But that was not to be. In a terse statement on 13 February Malam Adamu Adamu, the federal education minister, announced the immediate removal of the 13 vice-chancellors and their immediate replacements.

The university community was shocked. Panic set in when the minister also announced the dissolution of the governing councils of the universities. All other principal officers are still in post.

Many senior staff recalled that as students they experienced the tactics of former military juntas, including unceremoniously removing vice-chancellors with immediate effect.

There was never any explanation – it was a military order. At that time, recalled some colleagues, the generals would arrogantly declare that they did not have to explain their actions to ‘bloody civilians’.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, elected last May, is a former army major general who was head of state from 1983 to 1985 after seizing power in a military coup.

But Buhari is reportedly unhappy with the education minister’s haste in sacking the vice-chancellors and his failure to follow established procedure. According to reliable sources, he holds the Committee of Vice-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities or CVC – which strongly condemned the sackings – in high esteem.

The president reportedly demanded a response from Adamu Adamu to the position of the CVC and asked why the governing councils were dissolved and why four of the new vice-chancellors are from Kano state. The whole episode is politically damaging to Buhari.

Vice-chancellors, students protest

Military regimes transformed universities into satellites of military garrisons where orders went unchallenged. But in today’s democratic setting where rule of law prevails, the minister’s action is being challenged by university groups and civil society.

The National Association of Nigerian Students, or NANS, staged a mass protest at the education minister’s office in Abuja, Nigeria’s federal capital. NANS President Tijani Shehu and five other students were arrested.

Earlier, students had waved placards saying, among other things, “Sacking of VCs, an attempt to cripple our citadels” and “Say no to injustice”. The minister was in his office but refused to meet the students.

In a show of courage, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities contended that the tenures of the vice-chancellors had not expired and frowned on the abuse of rules governing the appointment of vice-chancellors.

Professor Michael Faborode, CVC secretary general, said there could be no justification for sacking vice-chancellors who had laboured to “establish enduring foundations for the fledgling universities. Rather, we congratulate them for ending their tenure on a commendable note.”

“We plead that these vice-chancellors should be allowed to complete their tenure or proper statutory and transparent procedures be adopted if they are accused of any wrong doings. The power to appoint and remove a substantive vice-chancellor, and when the need arises an acting vice-chancellor, is vested in the governing councils,” said Faborode.

“We are now aware that the councils of the 13 affected federal universities were dissolved unceremoniously a day earlier, and the appointment of new ones announced,” he continued, adding later: “The subtle usurpation of the statutory function of governing councils by the minister in appointing the new vice-chancellors does not augur well for the integrity and good health of the Nigerian university system."

“Quite rightly, the president had expressed concern about the poor ranking of Nigerian universities. But incidentally, good governance is one of the crucial ingredients of attaining world-class university status. Hence, these steps represent a minus for our system.”

Faborode called for the actions to be reversed. But Adamu Adamu was emphatic that the ministry would not reverse the sackings. “Do you reverse government decision simply because somebody has criticised them?” Not all government decisions went down well with everyone, he added.

Civil society speaks out

The Coalition of Civil Society Groups, or CCSG, said that the mass sacking was wrong-headed and lacked legal procedure. In a protest letter to Buhari, the group demanded reversal of the decision.

Etuk Bassey Williams, CCSG president, described the firings as a display of naked power. He said the action contravened the Universities (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act No 11 of 1993, as amended several times, as well as items contained in a 2009 agreement between the government and unions.

Bassey Williams did not mince his words when he pointed out that four of the 13 newly imposed vice-chancellors were from Kano University of Science and Technology and that this violated the federal character principle.

“While this does not come as a surprise owing to the influence of one of the special advisers to the minister of education in orchestrating the appointments of his friends and cronies without following due process, we are concerned about the constitutional breach and the resultant litigation battle this action may cause, which in turn may generate unnecessary distractions.”

He reminded the education minister that the constitution is clear on procedures to be followed in the appointment and disengagement of vice-chancellors – and none were followed. “Deliberate refusal to follow due process means that the removal of these vice-chancellors is illegal, null and void,” he stated.

Some observers are worried that the frosty relationship between the academic community and the military, during the era of military dictatorship in the 1990s, may once again rear its ugly head.