By Chris Otaigbe
Finally, after weeks of fierce battle between the Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Oluwatoyin Ogundipe and the Pro-Chancellor/Chairman of Council of the University of Lagos, Wale Babalakin, the Federal Government on Friday directed both men to recuse themselves from official duties, pending the outcome of the special visitation panel set up by the president. A fitting pause and hopefully, end to a crisis that threatened the peace and sanctity of one of the nation’s top Ivory Towers.
Until the UNILAG feud, no one knew the Pro-Chancellor had such enormous powers that could throw out a seating VC. Contrary to popular belief that the Pro-Chancellor is a ceremonial University title given, largely, to ex-Head of States, top Traditional Rulers, retired government officials etc., the UNILAG episode has opened our eyes to the real powers that such a position possesses. For instance, as the head of the University Governing Council, he has the influence to hire and fire, including the VC.
So, who is a Pro-Chancellor?
Besides the Chancellor, who is a ceremonial head, the power to govern the university rests on the Pro-Chancellor. He is directly responsible for the success, failure, peace and order of the university, good or bad.
Under his leadership, the Governing Council embark on policies that will ensure the smooth running of the university especially those that affect the development of the universities, contracts, employment of good quality lecturers, finances, including income and expenditure and auditing of university account.
As the Chairman of Council, he is not around merely to attend meetings, collect allowances, he is expected to consistently contemplate about the growth of the university and what he must do at all times to affect it positively. He is different from the Chancellor whose duty is to appear on ceremonial occasions only. He must be concerned about the welfare of the university community. He presides at all Council meetings, statutory Sub Committees of the University and also at Sub-Committees set up by Council. At meetings, he is primus inter pares.
Afe Babalola, who was former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s Lawyer and Proprietor of Afe Babalola University, served as UNILAG Pro-Chancellor between 2000 and 2007. He is extremely worried about developments in the University he helped mould to an enviable standard. In his interview with the Guardian published in its 25th May 2019 edition, the Lawyer to the former President said it is necessary to emphasize the need for Pro-Chancellors to appreciate the burden on them. A Pro-Chancellor’s job, he said, is not one which the office-holder can take lightly. Feeling a sense of Deja Vous, Babalola said history seems to be repeating itself in one of Nigeria’s first-generation universities.
“The crisis at that time arose as a result of an allegation of corruption against the then Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Jelili Omotola. This polarized the university as a result of which some people supported the Vice-Chancellor while others, especially the Ogoni Group of Professors, were opposed to his policies. It was alleged that the VC established an outreach in South Korea where the University Degrees were being sold. Secondly, it was alleged that the VC favoured a number of teachers to whom residential accommodation was given, whereas those who were entitled to such accommodation were not given, including market stores on campus. It was a serious matter,” he said.
Babalola, who was a Lawyer to the Federal Government, had turned down ministerial appointment twice, before government discovered he was the man to fix the UNILAG problem at the time.
Being the Patron of Transparency International in Nigeria, he was invited to help look into the allegation of corruption in the University of Lagos. He accepted because it was one of the ways he believed he could contribute to the development of education in Nigeria.
“Before I took over as Pro-Chancellor at UNILAG, even Council meetings could not take place unless ASUU and other unions had been appeased or else such Council meetings would not be allowed to hold. It was a serious matter at that time, but I successfully managed that. We went to South Korea and found out that the allegations of the sale of UNILAG Degrees were true. But in addition to that, there was serious mismanagement of funds by the university at that time. There were several uncompleted buildings, the roads were bad, the hostels were nothing to write home about, the laboratories, libraries were not better than those you see in good secondary schools,” said Babalola.
Fortunately, for him, he had some members of the Council who were very understanding. According to him, the first thing he did was to put his own structure in place, which is there up till today.
“The Afe Babalola Auditorium which was commissioned at a grand ceremony presided over by President Olusegun Obasanjo himself. I was able to invite my clients including Julius Berger, Mobil and others to that ceremony where I raised almost a Billion Naira for the university. Julius Berger also agreed and resurfaced all the roads in the university and put up a new Engineering Auditorium in the university and equipped it. The same thing with other clients. The place became a new university. That was why within three years, NUC rated UNILAG as the Best University in the country. I was also rated as the Best Pro-Chancellor in the country twice while Prof. Oye Ibidapo-Obe was rated the Best Vice-Chancellor,” said UNILAG’s former Pro-Chancellor.
If all the messy details of the relationship between its recused pro Chancellor, the Vice-Chancellor and the rest of the stakeholders to the development of the university, are anything to go by, Babalakin’s story may not exactly be as visionary and all-embracing as that of University Proprietor.
In today’s Nigeria, when a stakeholder, no matter how highly placed, blows the whistle on a real, perceived or imagined corruption in the group he or she belongs or holds certain powers or control, it means such a person had been side-lined or short-changed.
Such seems to be the case in the ongoing UNILAG story, which can be traced to the long-running battle; Babalakin had been having with the university management over the award of contracts.
A panel was set up by the council to look into the project and roles played by the vice-chancellor as well as some serving and retired principal officers of the university.
The crisis hit its climax at the point when, applying the power of the Governing Council to hire and fire, Babalakin bullied the Ogundipe out of office.
To cut the long story, short, President Muhammadu Buhari, stepped into the matter and asked both the Pro and Vice Chancellors to step aside pending investigation of the matter by Federal Government’s Special Visitation Panel to the University set up to look at the case.
Two developments that took the story to another level happened:
The first, the VC withdrew his court case and the man appointed to act as VC, stepped down. In deference to the authority of President Muhammadu Buhari, the sacked Vice Chancellor withdrew his court case against the Governing Council of the institution, as communicated by his lawyer, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, SAN, on Friday, August 21, 2020.
Ogundipe had filed an ex parte application, which was pending for hearing before the National Industrial Court.
Marked NICN/LA/278/2020, the suit had as defendants: UNILAG; the varsity’s Council; its Senate; Pro-Chancellor, Dr Wale Babalakin (SAN); Registrar, Oladejo Azeez; and Prof. Theophilus Soyombo, who was appointed acting VC in the wake of Ogundipe’s controversial sacking.
According to him, upon detailed consultation with all stakeholders and his supporters in and outside the University, Ogundipe directed his lawyers to file a notice of discontinuance of the suit and that this had been done on August 21, 2020.
Following Federal Government’s directives on Friday that the University Senate nominates an acting VC, the newly appointed acting Vice-Chancellor, Prof Omololu Soyombo stepped down.
“The government also directed the University Senate to nominate an Acting Vice-Chancellor for the University, for confirmation by the Governing Council. With this, I am stepping down, with immediate effect, as Acting Vice-Chancellor of the University,” he said.
He had been appointed by the Babalakin-led governing council last week after it sacked Ogundipe.
While Ogundipe does have a case to answer, Babalakin, himself, may not entirely be a saint. After all, he who must come to equity must come with clean hands. Those hands must be clean and unstained, at any point in their working lives.
According to the description of the veteran Lawyer/Businessman, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) boss, at the time, Ibrahim Lamorde, in a report published in the November 23, 2012 edition of Premium Times, said Babalakin, who is a PhD holder from the University of Cambridge, is a seasoned lawyer, having been called to the Nigerian Bar in 1982; and surely has what it takes to frustrate court cases.
Towards the twilight of his two-term rule in Delta State, the report stated that former governor, James Ibori, executed a heinous fraud that ripped the oil-rich state of several billion in a high-web scam that left blurry traces.
A detailed expose showed alleged unscrupulous fund transfers made by the recused UNILAG Pro-Chancellor on behalf of the former Delta State Governor.
“He needed a private aeroplane and a supplier was located in the South African nation of Mauritius. Between May and December 2006, several millions of dollars of state funds were funnelled to the company through multiple third parties. At the centre of the several strings of large scale fund transfers, in breach of federal and state financial laws, was a certain Bolanle Olawale Babalakin,” the report established.
In a 27-count at a Lagos High Court, the report continued, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) said Mr. Babalakin and associates, including Bi-Courtney construction group, Stabilini, Renix Nigeria Limited, and a certain Alex Okoh, facilitated the fund transfers to Mauritius under the pretext of funds for a construction contract for the state.
According to the report, between May and December of 2006, the EFCC said, more than 24 transfers were made to the company, Erin Aviation, for the supply of a Challenger Jet Aircraft. The first transfer occurred on May 3 and involved the sum of N145.5 million while the final transfer involved $2 million on November 17, 2006.
Titled “How Bi-Courtney boss, Wale Babalakin, helped Ibori launder billions abroad”, the report stated that further transfers were executed by Mr. Babalakin and his companies for Mr. Ibori, through little-known firms.
The companies include Interactive Technologies, Sopetrol Oil, Casaka Nigeria Company Limited, Geofluids Limited, ABS Limited and Hyundai heavy Industries Nigeria Limited.
What was troubling was the fact that in all the transfers, Mr. Babalakin and his associates, the court papers said, knew the funds were the proceeds of corrupt conduct by Mr. Ibori.
After two years in court, Lamorde’s description of Babalakin’s legal smartness came to play as the judge ruled that there was no basis for the charges and consequently struck out the charges.
Against the backdrop of the revelation of whole corruption in the nation’s judiciary where judges have been alleged to receive bribes to give judgements, such blank acquittal of the Bi-Courtney boss may not really be taking seriously by deep thinkers. Worse still, when one wonders how come Ibori, his Client at the time, was acquitted on numerous count charges in Nigeria’s courts, only to be jailed on less than five counts for corruption committed against Delta State. Those who know will tell you his escape of the Nigerian judicial system would have been on the sheer brilliance of his Counsel.
In a nation ridden with so much corruption at the highest and lowest places, where corrupt officials, from the Legislative, Executive to the Judiciary arms, are alleged to be neck-deep in corruption, the conclusion observers come to is this:
Once you know the Law well enough and you are connected to the people in power, you can get anything done including manipulating State machinery to manoeuvre Law and Policies in your favour.
While this may or may not be the case in the Babalakin-Ogundipe’s crisis, somewhere in the true account of what happened, there may be some connection to the conspiracy theory; because, clearly, both men cannot, in good conscience, say they have administered their duties to the school with clean hands.
In the light of the foregoing, the twist that attended Babalakin’s approach to his sacking of Ogundipe may have a tilted perception concerning the former Pro Chancellor’s moral right to demand the former VC’s removal.
He was alleged of declaring false voting results as some members of the governing council, who voted in the emergency meeting, which resulted in the removal of the embattled Vice-chancellor, claimed majority voted against the removal of the vice-chancellor.
According to Professor Afolabi Lesi, who issued a statement on behalf of the senate representative council, six persons out of 11 persons who cast their vote gave information that they voted against the removal of the vice-chancellor.
It was also revealed that those who voted for merely asked for the suspension of the Vice-chancellor, not removal as explicitly stated in Prof. Lesi’s statement below:
‘’UPDATE ON EMERGENCY COUNCIL MEETING OF 12TH AUGUST 2020
It has become necessary to provide a further update on the voting that took place to remove the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Oluwatoyin Ogundipe FAS. Fifteen members attended the Council meeting physically and virtually and two were asked to leave, the Vice-Chancellor and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DS). Thirteen members had the opportunity to vote, even though Dr. Wale Babalakin did not vote (as stated by him), leaving twelve (12) members.
Six (6) persons have given information that they voted against the removal of the Vice-Chancellor:
1. Prof. Bola Oboh (Representative of Senate, UNILAG).
2. Prof. Afolabi Lesi (Representative of Senate, UNILAG).
3. Prof. Olukemi Odukoya (Representative of Senate, UNILAG)
4. Dr John Momoh (President, National Alumni, UNILAG).
5. Prof. Ben Oghojafor (Deputy Vice Chancellor, MS, UNILAG)
6. Prince Adetokunbo Adebanjo, Representative of the Ministry of Education who declared his vote openly.
Also, from further information, one person abstained from the voting processing:
1. Prof. Eddy Omolehinwa (Representative of Senate, UNILAG)
However, the very first vote message that Dr. Wale Babalakin read out as having received was ONE SUSPENSION. From the recount so far, the suspension vote is from one of the following:
1. Alhaji Hussain Ali (Former Commissioner)
2. Oluwarotimi Sodimu Esq (Representative of Congregation, UNILAG)
3. Dr. Saminu Dagari (Senior Lecturer of Chemistry, Federal University, Gashua)
4. Dr. Bayo Adaralegbe (Babalakin’s Chamber)
5. Rev Yomi Kasali (Senior Pastor, Foundation of Truth Assembly)
Therefore, what is remaining is four (4) persons, who voted for the removal of the Vice-Chancellor.
From the analysis of the voting pattern above, SIX (6) persons voted that Prof. Oluwatoyin Ogundipe should not be removed as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lagos while FOUR (4) persons voted for the removal of the Vice-Chancellor…
Professor Afolabi Lesi
Senate Representative in Council”.
Nothing more to state except to conclude with Lesi’s words: Conscience is an open wound; only the TRUTH can heal it (attributed to Usman dan Fodio).