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From UNILAG to MAUL - The politics of a name change

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In yet another unwarranted assault on university education, the 50-year old University of Lagos became the unexpected target of a name change by presidential fiat. The action almost disrupted the funeral ceremonies of its late Vice-Chancellor, Professor

Tokunbo Babatunde Sofoluwe, who recently died in office. On May 29, 2012, when Sofoluwe's funeral rites began with a service of songs, Jonathan suddenly changed the name of the university Sofoluwe had headed before his death.

At the tail end of a long this-is-what-I-have-done-so-far speech, Jonathan 'decreed': '… in honour of Chief M.K.O. Abiola's accomplishments and heroism, on this Democracy Day, the University of Lagos is renamed by the Federal Government of Nigeria, Moshood Abiola University, Lagos. The Federal Government will also establish an Institute of Democratic Studies and Governance in the university.' The UNILAG community did not hide its rejection of the name change. The students immediately took to the streets in protest, leading to a two-week suspension of classes.

Abiola's qualifications for immortalisation are beyond reproach. His contributions to the growth of business and sports were as memorable as his philanthropic activities. Even more so were his contributions to the growth of democracy, which culminated in his election as President in 1993 in the freest and fairest election in the nation's history. The arbitrary and inexplicable annulment of the election led to massive protests and led to Abiola's imprisonment and subsequent death in prison in 1998.

What people find objectionable is not the bestowal of honour on Abiola but the way Jonathan went about it, including the choice of the University of Lagos; the inauspicious timing of the announcement; the absence of consultations with appropriate stakeholders; and utter disregard for due process. Equally detestable are the political overtones of the name change.

Jonathan's ethic has been called into question for renaming the institution led by Sofoluwe just as his body was being laid to rest. The President also ignored the sensibilities of a university community about to celebrate its golden jubilee. Should Sofoluwe's funeral programmes have been changed to bear the imprint of MAUL instead of UNILAG? Would the university be celebrating the 50th anniversary of MAUL instead of UNILAG?

Equally detestable is the lack of consultation with the university authorities, the Alumni Association, and relevant unions prior to the announcement. This rightly prompted the Alumni Association to issue a press release, rejecting the name change and invoking Abiola's dictum, 'You cannot shave a man's head in his absence'. To add insult to injury, the government's spokespersons launched verbal boasts on TV, insisting that consultations were held and that Jonathan's decision was final, even as the university authorities awaited an official letter on the name change.

It is unclear how Jonathan came about the idea of renaming UNILAG, who advised him to do so, and for how long the thought lingered on his mind. What is clear is that he never shared it with relevant persons, authorities, and institutions, including the National Assembly.   This was confirmed by Senate Leader, Victor Ndoma-Egba: 'Only an amendment to the act establishing the University of Lagos could alter its name. To the best of my knowledge, there is no such bill before the National Assembly'. It was this disregard for due process that angered many observers, including Chief Afe Babalola (SAN), former Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of UNILAG's Governing Council, who wrote a two-part opinion in which he questioned the legality and constitutionality of the name change (The Guardian, June 4 & 5, 2012).

The renaming of UNILAG as MAUL has raised questions beyond a mere name change. First, changing the name of any university could only complicate, rather than solve, the numerous problems facing university education today. Renaming UNILAG further complicates matters because of its enabling statute, brand identity, international stature, and location. But these considerations are trumped by Jonathan's ulterior motive-to employ the strategy of divide and conquer in the South-West, where his initial popularity has waned, by playing supporters against opponents of his renaming gymnastics. Sensing that the Action Congress of Nigeria would oppose the name change, Jonathan would want to use the division to demonise the party.

Jonathan's strategy worked to the extent that some supporters, including Abiola's family, were incited against opponents of the name change, particularly UNILAG students, democracy advocates, and opposition parties (read ACN). Ironically, these opponents included those who suffered with Abiola in the quest for democracy and have been clamouring for his immortalisation, including Prof. Wole Soyinka and Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu. However, the strategy backfired more than it worked as many people now see the name change as a cheap ploy to cause division among the people and divert attention away from various corruption scandals, national security problems, and the perceived failure of leadership.

This is not the first time Jonathan would trample on the sensibilities of South-West leaders. Remember his labelling of some of them as 'rascals' during the 2011 campaigns and the sidetracking of the zone in major federal appointments? Besides, the renaming of an institution located in the South-West, or in any region for that matter, is viewed as the parochialisation of Abiola's national stature.

This has led to a focus on alternative suggestions in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory, including the University of Abuja; Abuja National Stadium; and Aso Rock. Yet, others suggested that the May 29 Democracy Day be renamed as Moshood Abiola Democracy Day. Still others want Abiola declared as a past President with all entitlements.

The way Jonathan went about the renaming of UNILAG reveals deficits in humanity, leadership, and governance. Renaming a university whose beloved Vice-Chancellor was being buried shows lack of compassion. Doing so without consulting appropriate stakeholders reveals a misconception of democracy. It involves much more larger than periodic elections. It is a system of governance that is rooted in the wishes, desires, and aspirations of the governed.

If Jonathan understood democracy as described above, then he is a timid leader. Afraid of working through controversial issues, timid leaders tend to catch people by surprise, as he also did when he suddenly announced the removal of fuel subsidy on New Year's Day. He demonstrated the same trait on Democracy Day when he suddenly renamed the University of Lagos. Yet, in both cases, the robust debate he initially avoided took over national discourse.

Nobody doubts that Jonathan meant well. But, as with the fuel subsidy crisis, he now has to deal with the consequences of a timid execution. Students are busy gathering signatures to register their protest with the National Assembly. The Alumni Association is working with the Law Department to initiate litigation. Democracy advocates are registering their protest in other ways.

I was in the hallowed UNILAG Senate Chambers on May 30, 2012, when tributes were showered on Sofoluwe during a special Senate session in his honour. The greatest tribute that could be paid to Sofoluwe is to ensure that the name of the university he so ably headed until his death endures.

By Niyi Akinnaso