Theatre of the absurd

Lagos State University's front gate.

Lagos State University’s front gate.

LASU remains in comatose as unions replace management team

By Wuraola Ajanlekoko

Forensic pathologists tend to have a philosophical attitude to life. They rarely bother about those mundane material things that many mortals struggle so hard to acquire. They maintain unbelievable calmness in the midst of chaos and exhibit, to the chagrin of their less discerning contemporaries, a deeper understanding of issues well ahead of time.

When you routinely have to slit dead bodies of the rich and poor; old and young; powerful and weak open, in order to determine what exactly took their lives, nothing matters to you anymore. It becomes clear that no matter how long, powerful or great any man becomes, one thing ultimately happens to everyone: death, the leveller, takes charge in the end.

No wonder, then, that Oladapo Obafunwa, a Professor of Forensic Pathology and Vice Chancellor of the Lagos State University (LASU) has so far handled the chaos in LASU with unbelievable calmness.  In 2011 when he was appointed, Obafunwa could not have imagined the complex situation he was entering. As Provost of the university’s College of Medicine situated at Ikeja, far away from the main campus in Ojo, he was insulated from much of the war of attrition on the other side. Medical students didn’t miss their lectures or embark on protests; examinations results were released promptly; academic calendar ran smoothly.

Upon resumption at the main campus, Obafunwa discovered a number of complexities. In a memo to the Lagos State Governor, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode back in June, the institution’s management described the situation in LASU this way: “The university has over the years, especially the main campus, suffered neglect in terms of infrastructural deficiency, unstable academic calendar due to incessant staff strikes and students’ unrest, little or no research, overwhelming dependence on government funding which is always inadequate, a bloated workforce, which further stretches the finances of the University, thereby leading to management’s inability to meet staff’s demands for improved welfare, financial leakages and non-accreditation of many academic programmes.”

Between 2011 and this year, Obafunwa embarked on deliberate efforts to reverse the institution’s rot, leading to the inevitability of stepping on toes. He ensured that examination results were promptly released while scholarships and bursaries were revived. For the first time in many years, convocations were held thrice back to back. The fourth would have been held on March 16, but for the disruption by the staff unions, the members of which were unhappy over the management’s inability to accede to their demands. They chased the vice chancellor and the entire management team out of the campus and has held the entire university community hostage ever since.  A contingency plan had to be put in place to ensure that the graduating students did not miss the National Youth Service Corps Scheme (NYSC).

Within the same period, Obafunwa’s team worked hard to get 61 of the institution’s 62 undergraduate programmes fully accredited. Many projects were also embarked upon, among which were the new senate building, main library, Faculty of Science complex, LASU Radio building, Students’ arcade, Faculty of Law twin theatre and the LASU staff quarters among others.

Old challenges remain
The Lagos State government could have solved much of the institution’s problems through pragmatic means long before now. Funding has been grossly inadequate over the years and was hardly enough to pay staff salaries and take care of the running costs. The institution’s infrastructure, which had been insufficient from inception, began to deteriorate slowly and steadily. New facilities were not added for many years, while the number of students and staff members expanded rapidly.

In employing staff, previous university administrations allowed sentiments rather than merit: a large number of members of the same family were recruited, many of whom were not required. As things now stand, the ratio of the non-academic to academic staff is two thirds, contrary to the prescription of the National Universities Commission (NUC). Along the line, academic staff members that were not needed were also recruited, stretching the institution’s finances even further. With time, the bloated staff began to demand for increment in salaries and promotion, when, in reality, the university continued to sink deeper into financial crises. Even some of the funds due to LASU, according to sources, were allegedly siphoned by “powerful politicians”, thereby compounding its problems.

When the university attempted to shore up its revenue base by establishing external campuses, the rather brilliant idea was soon abused. Those who got the franchise to run the campuses soon commercialized the whole process; students were admitted indiscriminately, courses didn’t have the required number of teachers and standards were poor. Examination malpractice was rife and certificates were issued to those that did not merit it.

The NUC got wind of it and wielded the big stick. The state government then decided to shut the campuses down, which meant the revenue expected from there will no longer exist.  Another attempt by the state government to introduce tuition fees endured for a while, but it sparked off protests and reduced the number of students. Some courses also suffered, with less students applying for them, leading to protests by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), which feared job losses among its members. Some prominent citizens, including former governor Lateef Jakande who established the institution, criticized the introduction of fees, and as this year’s general elections approached, former Governor Babatunde Fashola was forced to revert from an average of N250,000 to N25,000; a move some analysts described as a “re-election strategy.”

Obafunwa’s insistence on due process has hurt many entrenched interests. With less money to misappropriate and more work to do, trouble makers who preferred the old order quickly aligned themselves under the aegis of the unions to foment trouble. Since they had successfully used this method to make things difficult for former vice chancellors of the institution without being sanctioned, the unions were emboldened to even tell the state government that another vice chancellor should be appointed to replace Obafunwa, whose term expires in October. While the state government rebuffed this demand, it has refused to take appropriate steps to enable the university’s principal officers to return to campus.

In the memo to Ambode on the demands by the staff unions in respect salary arrears, the university management stated; “With regard to the payment of salary increase arrears, it is right to put things in proper perspective. First, it is necessary to state that this money is not salary arrears, but salary increase arrears, a derivative of the FG/SSANU/ASUU/NASU/NAAT agreement of 2009. The initial amount owed the staff stood at N2.2 billion. The state government, in its magnanimity, assisted the university management in off-setting 50% of the total sum (N1.1 billion), while the university management was to source for funds to pay the balance.

“On her part, the university management was able to pay 55% of the outstanding N1.1 billion (that is, N605 million) only, with a balance of N495 million as outstanding. There were plans to pay the balance of N495 million as at September 2014.  However, the reversal in school fees to the old regime by the state government left the university financially prostrate, thus, making the latter unable to meet up on the obligation.  This much was communicated to the staff unions, and their understanding sought, as to paying the arrears on a future date.

“Unfortunately, even with this understanding, the unions proceeded with the agitation on March 16, basing their action on the non-payment of the arrears amongst other issues. In meetings arranged to resolve the crisis on March 17, May 11 and 16, 2015 respectively, both by the state government and the governing council of the university, with the leaders of the staff unions in attendance, the issue was thoroughly thrashed; and in the end, the council directed the university management to pay 25% of the outstanding arrears (N123.75 million) while promising the payment of another 25% a month after the receipt of the initial 25%.

“It is only fair at this juncture to state that, while some other universities are owing their staff many months’ salary, Lagos State University has continued to fulfill its salary obligation to staff till date – April 2015.”

As this magazine went to press, the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), Southwest zone told journalists at a briefing in Lagos, that it was giving the state government an ultimatum of one week to resolve the LASU crisis or face protests by its members. While asking the state government to address the “reasonable demands” of the unions, the association insisted that administrative activities must commence on campus in full.

Comrade Obanobi Abidemi, who spoke on behalf of NANS, said: “It is a known fact that LASU initially always merges convocation of four to five years together. However, when he came in as the vice chancellor of LASU, he (Obafunwa) has held three consecutive convocations.

“During our visit to LASU, the ambience of the school was in disarray, we heard gunshots in the campus. This is not the institution of our dream and it occurred because of the absence of the vice chancellor. The imbroglio can only be curtailed by the vice chancellor.”

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