President apologises for sacking of 13 vice-chancellors

Following a barrage of criticism laced with threats of lawsuits, President Muhammadu Buhari has apologised for the firing of 13 vice-chancellors of public universities. The apology is unprecedented in the annals of Nigerian higher education – as was February’s mass sacking.

The federal institutions’ governing councils were also dissolved. Despite Buhari’s ‘admission of guilt’, some stakeholders are still insisting that the sacked vice-chancellors should be recalled – which bureaucrats are resisting.

There was anger and discomfort within the university community and among intellectuals in the diaspora in the days after Federal Minister of Education Adamu Adamu announced the firing of the 13 vice-chancellors of the National Open University of Nigeria and 12 new universities set up by Buhari’s predecessor, former president Goodluck Jonathan.

Adamu also announced the names of new vice-chancellors, who were ordered to assume duty immediately, and reconstituted the institutions’ governing councils – ignoring due process.

The outcry

Nigerian embassies abroad were inundated with protests via phone and email. Many lecturers and students, in and outside the country, saw the minister’s measures as illegal and heavy-handed. They also reflected negatively on Buhari, who is the Visitor for public universities.

“The Nigerian university system is being run like a military garrison and the minister of education is behaving like a garrison commander. This is a show of shame,” said Ibrahim Dike, a Nigerian labour relations expert working in New York.

Social media including Twitter was awash with hostile reactions. Many people said they had voted for Buhari in elections last year because he had promised them fundamental change.

The tone of the social media outcry was of disappointment in the president – a former military ruler who seized power in a coup in the mid-1980s – for behaving like a dictator and dishing out decrees in accordance with the military culture of impunity.

According to reliable sources, Buhari was jolted by the reaction of Dr Nasir Isa Fagge, president of the powerful Academic Staff Union of Universities or ASUU, who described the removal of the vice-chancellors as a violation of the Nigerian University Miscellaneous (Amendment) Act 2003.

He was particularly concerned with the way that the federal government – both past and present dispensations – was flouting due process in the university system. The same illegality displayed by former president Jonathan – who had appointed vice-chancellors on personal whim – had manifested in the Buhari government.

The latest action had “justified our consistent demand for a proper governance structure, respect for due process and unfettered autonomy in the Nigerian university system,” Fagge declared.

“In the first place, vice-chancellors were arbitrarily appointed into these institutions and the governing councils instituted without any enabling law. We are worried that the same cycle of illegality is playing itself out again. In a university where there is the law, only the governing council is empowered to remove a vice-chancellor from office for good cause.”

Section 4 (b) of the University Amendment Act of 2003, 4 (b) states clearly that the council selects and appoints the vice-chancellor, one candidate from among three recommended to it, and then informs the visitor. Existing law does not give direct or indirect powers to the education minister to remove a vice-chancellor

The apology

According to reliable sources, Buhari was strung by the union boss placing him in the same category as Jonathan and as a president who flout university laws with impunity. He was reportedly told by Attorney General Abubakar Malami that the union’s interpretation of university laws was correct.

Buhari was advised to douse rising tensions in universities as groups were mobilising resources to support a lawsuit filed by Etuk Bassey Williams, president of the Coalition of Civil Society Groups, challenging the legality of the education minister’s measures and his claim that the action has the blessing of Buhari.

If the lawsuit went ahead, it could portray the president as lacking respect for the rule of law.

Addressing senior members of his All Progressive Alliance party in the capital Abuja in late March, Buhari apologised for dissolving the governing bodies of the 13 universities – as well as the boards of parastatal agencies.

“We had to go back and lick our vomit in terms of universities’ councils’ because we found out that according to their laws, they cannot choose vice-chancellors unless the councils sit and interview candidates who want to be vice-chancellors.

“There is nothing wrong in saying sorry and going back on your decision. So, we say sorry and we shall allow all the universities to continue with their councils. So, please let us reflect on where we found ourselves wanting.”

Contradictory interpretations

Buhari’s apology was given contradictory interpretations by state functionaries.

Officials of the education ministry and the National Universities Commission or NUC were visibly embarrassed by Buhari’s unexpected apology – and perhaps its possible implications for the safety of their jobs.

Reliable sources told University World News that the president was considering the dismissing some bureaucrats who misled him into actions that tarnished his local and international image.

Dauda Abdulramid, special assistant to the federal education minister, and Ibrahim Yakassi, public relations officer of the NUC, separately told the press that the president’s apology did not amount to a recall of the fired vice-chancellors. In their view it was too late for a recall, as new university heads have already been appointed.

However Williams of the Coalition of Civil Society Groups warned that if the vice-chancellors were not recalled the lawsuit against the Visitor would proceed.

The battle for the soul of the university system appears far from over.