Stakeholders, citizens, students reject UNILAG’s name change
If President Goodluck Jonathan had thought that re-naming the University of Lagos after the acclaimed winner of the June 12, 1993 Presidential election, the late Moshood Kashimawo Abiola in his May 29 broadcast would attract general applause, he had miscalculated. No sooner had he announced the name change, than the institution’s students poured into the street in an unprecented protest. By the second day, they had extended their grouse beyond the gates of the University when they blocked a portion of the Lagos Third Mainland Bridge, causing a gridlock and subjecting many motorists to several hours of torture.
Several reactions were to follow, most of them supporting the students’ point of view. Action Congress chieftain and protagonist of the June 12 struggle, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu released a statement asking Jonathan to reverse himself because, he pointed out, Abiola would have been reduced to a sectional leader by having UNILAG named after him. He preferred the Abuja stadium instead. Former Pro Chancellor of UNILAG and respected Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief Afe Babalola commended Jonathan for his recognition of Abiola’s contributions to democracy, but faulted the President’s method which he insisted was alien to law. In an article published in some national newspapers, Babalola listed several grounds why the move was illegal and also asked Jonathan to reverse himself.
Dr Tunji Braithwaite, a former Presidential candidate of the Nigerian Advanced Party (NAP) found it distasteful that rather than empathise with the University over the loss of its Vice Chancellor, Prof. Adetokunbo Sofoluwe, Jonathan felt it was an auspicious time to announce a name change. Braithwaite, who spoke at the Distinguished Lectures Series, organized by the Department of Sociology at the University of Lagos, declared: “Jonathan’s attempt to unilaterally change the name of UNILAG is not only insensitive, but also illegal and unconventional.” Describing the President’s move as a “cheap political expediency,” Braithwaite further affirmed: “You cannot purport to uproot the name of a University, established by statute, nutured by scholarship and sustained by a sense of heritage without doing a grave and irreparable damage to the institution.”
Two former Vice Chancellors of the institution, Professors Jacob Ade Ajayi and Oye Ibidapo-Obe also did not agree with the President. In an open letter to Jonathan, Ade Ajayi wrote: “As a former Vice Chancellor of the University of Lagos and a historian that has all my life sought to increase the respect for a sense of history in our national life, I would like to respectfully appeal to you to reconsider whether the decision to change the name of the University of Lagos represents the best or most appropriate vehicle to honour Abiola’s contribution to the cause of democracy in Nigeria.” Describing the University as “an important part of our institutional history,” he urged Jonathan to “restore back its (UNILAG) name and consider a more befitting way in which to pay tribute to Abiola.” Ade Ajayi, a foremost Historian also observed: “UNILAG is an important part of our institutional history. I urge you to restore back its name and consider a more meaningful and befitting way in which to pay tribute to Abiola.”
Ibidapo-Obe said he almost “died” when he heard about the name change. He wondered why a President, who had mouthed the importance of following due process and the rule of law would take such a step without consulting the stakeholders. In an interview with Punch newspaper, he said: “When the former military head of state, General Ibrahim Babangida (rtd) wanted to change the name of the University of Ife (to Obafemi Awolowo University), he consulted widely. He had a think tank and the people were consulted, the University authorities were aware, there was wide consultation. But there is nothing like that in this case. The President is the one that talks about due process and the rule of law and in this case he has faulted himself. He didn’t go through the due process. He didn’t consult anybody, he didn’t consult with the University Council, he didn’t consult with the University authorities. The late vice chancellor was my very close friend, if the President had consulted him, he would have told me. To me, this is the level of disdain our leaders have for us.”
But the Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission, Prof. Julius Okojie insisted that Jonathan consulted widely over the issue. He also maintained it was not the first time the federal government would change the name of a federal university, citing the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Usmanu Dan Fodio University Sokoto and the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. He also said that the name change would be effected.
Hoping for a legal backing, Jonathan has sent the Bill for UNILAG’s name change to the National Assembly.
However, those opposed to the change are not resting. The UNILAG Alumni association has declared its intention to go to court over the matter. In a communiqué issued at the end of its extra-ordinary meeting on the contentious issue, the association averred that while it fully associates with the need to give a MKO Abiola a befitting national honour, t the very means adopted by the federal government in re-naming UNILAG was a “dishonor to the memory of a man who died in pursuit of democracy.” It proclaimed the name change as “unacceptable” and “illegal” adding: “the extra-ordinary general meeting of the association hereby mandates the national executive to seek redress in the court of law and take all legal measures to resist this illegality and ensure that the name of our university remains the University of Lagos.”
The Senate of the institution towed the same line. Rising from its emergency meeting held recently, it maintained that the renaming of the institution “is rejected in its entirety as it is a mere declaration of intention with no legal effect.” It also declared support for all legal processes being carried out by all stakeholders on the matter.