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LAUTECH: TWO GOVERNORS AND A UNIVERSITY

PHOTO: OYO STATE GOVERNOR, CHRISTOPHER ADEBAYO ALAO-AKALA.
PHOTO: OYO STATE GOVERNOR, CHRISTOPHER ADEBAYO ALAO-AKALA.


For more than six months, two state Governors in Nigeria: the Governor of Oyo state, Christopher Adebayo Alao-Akala and the Governor of Osun State, Olagunsoye Oyinlola and their aides have been at daggers drawn over the ownership of the Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (LAUTECH) in Ogbomoso. The dispute resulted in name-calling and threats with both states assuming maximum and seemingly non-negotiable positions. But all of a sudden, yesterday, the newspapers reported that both Governors held a meeting on Friday for 20 minutes and decided to resolve their differences "temporarily." One newspaper used the word "amicably." One of the governors was quoted as saying that both of them are brothers.

May I ask: at what point did Akala and Oyinlola realize that they are brothers? I believe that the two Governors hurriedly arranged a truce when it became clear that the National Universities Commission (NUC) could carry out its threat that it would withdraw the license of the university if the two state governments did not sort out their differences within two weeks. The threat is of course bound to be ineffectual, considering the pending case in this matter before the Supreme Court. Although it has served the purpose of getting the two Governors to meet for 20 minutes, I believe that in real terms nothing has changed until both state Governments issue statements repudiating the positions that they have taken. By Friday when the two Governors met, both state governments had advertorials in the newspapers throwing mud in each other’s direction. It must have taken at least 24 hours to arrange the meeting between their Excellencies, enough time to call off the advertorials. But neither side did.

This dispute has raised fundamental issues that should be properly dimensioned in terms of their implications for the university and its future, the relationship between both state governments, and the ownership of state universities. The first dimension is that of politics. The politicization of the university system in Nigeria is one of the major causes of its deterioration, such that today in spite of the University of Ilorin claiming to have won some international glory recently, the general knowledge is that the Nigerian university system has almost completely failed; it has become a system patronized only by the helpless. The problem began when the universities (the Council and Senate) lost control over the management of the system, and all kinds of half-educated, miseducated or totally uneducated ones, wielding political and economic power, the same class that protects its children from the failed system, became the ones who determined the fate of such a strategic institution. This privileging of politics over scholarship and intellectualism has also drawn members of the academic community into its web and hence not a few of our public universities seem overtaken by issues that are harmful to the idea of the university.

The nature of the harm is well illustrated by this ownership crisis that has overtaken the Ladoke Akintola University of Technology. Established in 1990, LAUTECH was owned by the old Oyo state which comprised the present Oyo and Osun states, it was then known as Oyo State University. With the creation of Osun state in 1991, and the sharing of assets between the two states, it was resolved that the university should be jointly owned and funded by both states since the people of the two states are related; the name was then changed to LAUTECH and the university edict was so amended. The sharing of assets in the event of the creation of a new state from a new one has always been a problem, but where there is quality inter-governmental relations and public-spirited leadership, conflicts are easily resolved.

It is instructive that since 1991, there has been no dispute over the ownership of LAUTECH, even with two Governors rotating the Visitorship of the university, sharing responsibilities for funding and the indigenes of both states working in the university. But now, Oyo’s Christopher Alao-Akala and Osun’s Olagunsoye Oyinlola have been on war path over the ownership of the university. The obvious reason is the breakdown of inter-governmental relations. The sub-text is a conflict of two big egos, two egos that have now become more important than the idea and objectives of a university. With the 2011 election approaching and Alao-Akala seeking a second term in office, and Oyinlola looking for a Senatorial seat after two terms in office as Governor, the time is ripe for extreme grandstanding and search for personal glory! To drag an educational institution into such politics is crass and irresponsible. The two Governors should pay more attention to the common good: in this regard, the interest of the students, their parents and the workers of the university for whom the political fight over ownership has become counter-productive.

The second point is that the many advertorials that have been published by both state governments have been totally self-serving and contradictory; using public funds to wage the war is unconscionable. The Oyo state Government is insisting that the university has never been jointly owned, because it is established by an Oyo State Edict which is superior to a Memorandum of Understanding that Osun state Government can lay claim to. It argues further that since Osun state now has a University of Osun state, and the health sciences faculty of the university and its teaching hospital are located in Osun, with the latter now also serving as medical school for UNIOSUN, Osun state might as well keep what it has, while Oyo state holds on to the rest of the university in Ogbomoso where a new teaching hospital has just been built by the Akala administration. Oyo state also claims that it has contributed more to the development of the university over the years. It says it is tired of the partnership because "joint ownership (is) intricately problematic," and "no authority anywhere can force a union between two parties." ("LAUTECH- The Path to Peaceful Settlement", The Nation, July 30, p.52).

The Osun state Government has an answer for every query that has been raised by the Oyo state government. It insists that the University in dispute is a creation of law and that the enabling edict duly recognizes the fact of joint ownership. It says it has met "till date ALL its financial obligations to LAUTECH", and accuses Oyo state of trying to seize a jointly owned asset "on the fact that Osun state unilaterally decided to establish its own university." The Osun state government then asks: "so it is now an offence to own a property of one’s own even when one co-owns another with someone else?" ("Osun State Government: The Quest by Oyo state to take LAUTECH by Force, The Punch, July 30, pp. 52-53). The Governors’ aides have also taken up the fight with one party arguing that each state should hold on to whatever it has on its land (qui quid plantatur solo solo cedit) – a case of bathroom law in this instance, and there has been some talk about one Governor being a former Divisional Police Officer (DPO) and the other a retired military officer. This is probably where the problem lies.

In the meantime, the university has been closed down (the two Governors are yet to reopen the university!) parents and students are distraught, the National Universities Commission (NUC) is threatening to withdraw the university’s licence, Osun state has gone to the Supreme Court to enforce its rights (has Osun state withdrawn the case?), Oyo state insists that not even the Supreme Court can force it to remain in a union that it considers "problematic" (has it now changed this position?). Alao-Akala and Oyinlola do not have their biological children in LAUTECH of course, so they probably do not realize how much damage they have caused. The revelation by both parties that appointments in the university are based on state of origin clearly devalues the quality of degrees awarded by that university. In one of the advertorials, it is stated for example that the Oyo State Governor personally appointed a Polytechnic lecturer as the Acting Vice Chancellor of LAUTECH. Was it also Akala that promoted the man a Professor? Alao-Akala also reportedly ordered all Oyo state-origin staff of the LAUTECH Teaching Hospital in Osogbo to relocate to a new hospital his administration has built in Ogbomoso!

The politicization of the university system and its hijack by former DPOs, Sergeant-Majors, contractors, college dropouts has resulted in all kinds of strange experiences in the last few years particularly in the state universities and this is one of them. Such partisan politicking may not be so graphically identifiable in the Federal Universities but they are also just as terribly politicized. It is the quality of scholarship that suffers.

The third point is that those who are opposed to state creation may find ready ammunition in the LAUTECH case to justify their arguments. The creation of new states is expected to bring development closer to the grassroots. In most cases, it has created more division due to the exploitation of emergent circumstances for selfish ends by politicians. Inter-governmental conflicts may be inevitable but they assume costly dimensions when personalized; when educational institutions are dragged into such matters, and there is no attempt to separate partisan politics from the idea of the university, heavy collateral damage is incurred. Besides, we are paying a price for the failure to ensure enough rigour in the state creation process: states are created along with new problems which the stakeholders are expected to resolve, whereas such problems should have been anticipated and addressed much earlier.

The fourth point is that there is a strong case to be made for university autonomy, the objective of which should be to protect every university from unnecessary interference by the visitor or his or her agents. There is a repeated reference to "partnership" in the LAUTECH crisis: for the disputants, this is not necessarily about an academic institution, for them LAUTECH is simply a business, and what we are seeing therefore is a boardroom dispute with calls for an interpretation of the articles of association and the memorandum of understanding. It is sad that this is more about the profit motive: who gets what position within the university and who owns what. University autonomy needs not conflict with the state’s responsibility to ensure qualitative and affordable education for the majority.

Our fifth point is with regard to the claim by the Oyo state government that there is no academic institution in Nigeria that is jointly owned by two governments "and an aberration" where it exists. There may be no joint ownership of academic institutions by governments, but in the case of state universities, we should be thinking of such joint ownership, and rather than destroy the LAUTECH example, it could easily become a model if the parties involved are well-meaning. Every state government struggles to establish a university, many of these universities are no better than glorified secondary schools because they are poorly funded or they charge such huge fees as in the case of UNIOSUN that the justification for their establishment becomes suspect. Two state governments pooling resources together could help in raising standards and it is perhaps due to this that LAUTECH within ten years became a university of choice for many parents. But that achievement is now in jeopardy.

This dispute, it must be noted, is not between the people of Oyo and Osun. The people are happy to co-own a university. In Oyo state a new university is not even an urgent priority for the people, who are already served by more than five universities. But Alao-Akala wants a full-fledged university in his hometown of Ogbomoso. Oyinlola will not allow that because it won’t serve his own political interest to sign away his people’s patrimony. This is the real problem. Both Governors should show maturity; the alleged imbalance in the deployment of resources can be easily resolved by a proper definition of responsibilities. Leaders of thought in the two states should wade into this matter and bring Alao-Akala and Oyinlola to the negotiating table; the report that both men after a 20-minute meeting on Friday, July 30, have "temporarily resolved to sheathe their swords" notwithstanding. The NUC should also refuse to be fooled by reports that the conflict has been resolved, it should keep a close watch on developments in this particular case in which it now seems to wield significant influence.

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