By NBF News

It started like a joke. Sheriffdeen Tella, a professor of Economics, had written a letter to the Ogun State House of Assembly, advising the state government against seeking a loan of N50 billion by issuing bonds, because he felt it would be unwise. He was, at that time, the vice chancellor of Crescent University. Suddenly, the letter became a serious issue and the management of Crescent University asked him to withdraw it and apologise to the state government or else…

One thing led to another and the news came that Tella had been sacked. Again, news filtered in that Tella had also been sacked by the Olabisi Onabanjo University, from where he took a leave of absence to serve as Crescent University's vice chancellor.In this interview with ROTIMI LAWRENCE OYEKANMI, Tella tells his own side of the story. Excerpts:

YOUR trouble with the management of Crescent University began when you offered an advice to the Ogun State government on the controversial bonds. What informed your decision to offer the advice in the first place?

It is normal for academics to provide informed opinion on matters of public policy and I felt I was just contributing my quota to the discussion on the bond issue. I had observations based on my background as a specialist in monetary economics and I discussed with some colleagues, as well as, my students in a macroeconomics class. I, therefore, thought it imperative to offer my advise at that critical moment.

Did you envisage that the simple act could infuriate the state government at all?

I was surprised with the reaction of the state government because I was exercising freedom of expression, particularly under a democratic setting. My letter was addressed to the House of Assembly and the government should have provided superior argument to the same House to convince the members on the necessity for the bond.

Your former employers distanced themselves from your letter, with an instruction that you should withdraw it and apologise. Why did you refuse to follow this instruction?

I was given two options, to withdraw and probably apologise, or to dissociate the proprietor and the University from the content of the letter. I opted for the latter because I knew that the opinion was true, genuine and personal. After all, I used my personal letterhead and not the University's to convey my message to the House.

The proprietor of Crescent University, Prince Bola Ajibola was very apologetic over your action. Why is this so and did he seek your opinion on the matter?

He was apologetic because he happened to be the chairman of the Elders' Forum in Ogun State and felt embarrassed or concerned that the governor might think he was instrumental to my writing the letter.  He expressed this much when we met. But I am an adult and have been involved in writing to government before.

I explained to the proprietor that in 2008, I wrote the then Commissioner for Education, Prof. Awonusi, to visit some secondary schools and see the decay, which required urgent attention. It was under this same government and there was no furor.

As ASUU chairman in Ogun State University (1990-92) and an activist, I have had cause to dialogue or confront governments, even under the military, and there was no serious problem. I would not know why anyone would think someone sent me to write the letter at my age and level. It is just high level of intolerance of opposing opinion.

So, what happened after you refused to follow the instruction given to you by your former employers?

Initially, there was some disaffection towards me but normalcy returned thereafter. I think the government thought it could still get the loan and even a bigger amount (from N50 billion to N100 billion) and did not thereafter care much about my intervention until it became clear that it would not be.

I think the governor (allegedly) renewed his pressure for my sacking as a punishment for the innocent intervention, when he realised that the bond request had failed.  For His Excellency, Prince Bola Ajibola to have respite, the issue then became 'you either go or apologise.'  I chose to go and I think the respite has now come to him.

The university made an allegation that you did not resign, but was sacked. What is the true position?

There was no basis for sacking me. It would have been more embarrassing if I was sacked because of the bond issue. I am aware and the proprietor too was aware that I was loved by both the students and the staff. I was diligent in my work and we were just like one happy family working for the progress of the university.

Part of my commitment was that, out of my volition and despite my tight schedule, I was teaching courses in 100 and 400 levels. It was part of providing quality education to our students as well as keeping me abreast of happenings in my discipline.

How did you get into trouble with the Olabisi Onabanjo University, where you were originally domiciled?

I have no problem with the university because that is where I have been since 1983 and records of my services are available for people to see. I also have my students who graduated from the University, including the present Commissioner for Information and the university's vice-chancellor as testimony to my conduct while I was there. It is the governor, who, as the visitor, still pursing me and ordered my sack.

Why do you think you were asked to go by the management of OOU, and what steps are you taking to get justice?

As I said, Governor Gbenga Daniel was just exercising his powers as the visitor to the university, but the ultimate powers belong to Allah.  I am about to inform the university of my intention to go to court in accordance with the laws of the university, which states that one must give three months notice. Although the law also allows an aggrieved to appeal to the visitor, this does not apply to me because I know, like everyone, that the directive to sack me came from him. How can you disengage a staff with Ph.D. in a department that just lost its NUC (National Universities Commission) accreditation due to shortage of academic staff.

Apart from that, the university laws state procedure for disengaging staff of different categories and none of the laws says you can disengage a university staff like in a company.

Any regrets over the whole matter? Will you still speak up in the future against what you perceive to be wrong, even at the risk of losing your job?

No regrets at all. I cannot be cowed. People, who do not make comment or complain still lose their jobs or even die daily, so why should I be afraid of losing my job? Never! Allah remains my pillar of support and would not allow me to suffer unjustly.

What are you doing now?
I am presently engaged with Babcock University, Ilishan-Remo, Ogun State. There were a number of job offers as soon as people read the story of my sack in OOU in the newspapers but I settled for Babcock because of its nearness to my base, liberal employment processes and procedures, and its international outlook. The University belongs to the Seven Day Adventists, which has about 106 universities worldwide.