It takes a sense of honour to decide to leave a high public position simply because it is the honourable thing to do. Dr Wale Babalakin (SAN) demonstrated a sense of principle and a sense of honour by resigning as Pro-Chancellor of the University of Lagos (UNILAG) following his objection to the operation of the seven-member special visitation panel set up by the Federal Government to review the actions of the governing council under him.
The governing council had announced the removal of the vice chancellor, Prof. Oluwatoyin Ogundipe, “based on investigation of serious acts of wrongdoing, gross misconduct, financial recklessness and abuse of office, ” and named Prof. Theophilus Omololu Soyombo as acting vice chancellor.
These actions were undone by the Federal Government in a statement on August 21 directing Babalakin and Ogundipe to “recuse themselves from official duties” pending the outcome of the panel’s probe.
The panel was to review the report of the council sub-committee on review of expenditure of the university since May 2017 and make appropriate recommendations after affording all those indicted an opportunity to defend themselves; examine the steps taken by the council leading to the removal of Ogundipe, and ascertain whether due process was followed as stipulated in the Universities (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Amendment) Act, 2003, and the principle of fair hearing adhered to; and determine whether the process (if any) leading to the appointment of Soyombo was consistent with the provisions of the enabling Act.
Also, it was to make appropriate recommendations including sanctions for all those found culpable by the special visitation team on the allegations contained in the report as well as other subsequent actions arising therefrom; and make any other recommendations that will assist the government to take decisions that will ensure peaceful, stable and effective administration of the university.
Babalakin’s letter of resignation to the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu, dated September 15, was made public shortly after the visitation panel submitted its report to the minister on September 17. Adamu had said that the visitor of the university, President Muhammadu Buhari, “after due consideration of the report will take a decision on the matter as appropriate in order to restore peace and conducive learning atmosphere in the University of Lagos and the university system as a whole.”
It is food for thought that Babalakin did not wait for the visitor’s decision on the matter, saying in his resignation letter that he considered the panel “inappropriate for the assignment,” and had appeared before it “in protest” and only out of respect for the minister. According to him, the terms of reference of the visitation panel “clearly indicated to any discerning person” that it was “empanelled to exonerate the Vice-Chancellor and implicate the Pro-Chancellor.”
Importantly, Babalakin faulted the directive that he should recuse himself, and argued that asking Ogundipe also to recuse himself implied that he was still in office despite his removal by the governing council.
He listed the major reasons for Ogundipe’s removal: Corruption and financial recklessness; Forgery; Complicity in the collapse of the university library and planned cover up; Deliberate policy of wrongfully concealing information; Depriving the Faculties in the university of funds; Concealing and distorting finances of the Internally Generating Units of the university; Undermining the academic process and seeking to appoint a professor by fiat; Siphoning of the university’s funds through dubious contract awards; Undermining the office of the Registrar; Failure to follow due process in organising the university’s convocation ceremony; and Sponsoring or acquiescing in the unconstitutional actions of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), University of Lagos chapter.
Apart from resigning as pro-chancellor of the university, a position he had occupied since May 2017, Babalakin also resigned as Chairman of the Federal Government Negotiation Team on the Agreement reached with university unions in 2009, a position he had occupied since January 2017.
Considering that his position as head of the negotiating team, which preceded his role as pro-chancellor, was not threatened, it is a reflection of his sense of honour that he chose to leave that position as well.
It is a testimony to his reputation for performance that he was considered suitable for these positions connected with the university system in Nigeria: Pro-Chancellor, University of Maiduguri (2009 – 2013); Chairman, Council of Pro-Chancellors of all Federal Universities (2009 – 2013); Chairman, Federal Government Implementation Team of the 2009 Agreement (2009 – 2013); Chairman, Federal Government Negotiation Team of the 2009 Agreement (from 2017); Pro-Chancellor, University of Lagos (from 2017).
Before the visitor’s intervention, and the investigation by the visitation panel, Babalakin had argued that, under the relevant Universities Act, the visitor had no role in the removal of vice chancellors, which he said was within the powers of the governing council.
Indeed, this is the crux of the matter. Ogundipe’s removal and Soyombo’s appointment, which the panel was set up to probe, “deal with the interpretation of the laws of the land,” Babalakin said in his resignation letter. “The appropriate forum to determine the laws of the land is a court of law or a judicial tribunal. It cannot be determined by academics of a different discipline no matter how distinguished. These terms of reference are ultra-vires the visitation panel as constituted,” he added.
This means that the panel’s report concerning the removal and appointment should not be expected to provide an authoritative guide on the interpretation of the relevant Act because it cannot do so. It also means that there is a need for an authoritative interpretation.
Initially, Ogundipe had gone to court to challenge his removal by the governing council, but later withdrew the case. A judicial interpretation may well be necessary to clarify the relevant Act.
It is thought-provoking that there is a disagreement on the interpretation of the Act on which the governing council under Babalakin based its removal of Ogundipe. Since there is such a fundamental disagreement, it is not enough to leave the interpretation of the Act to the visitation panel as constituted. Babalakin’s resignation highlighted the need for judicial clarification.
The point is that if there is no clarity regarding the powers of the governing council, the kind of crisis that necessitated this special visitation panel at UNILAG could recur in other federal universities.
The authorities should give serious consideration to Babalakin’s argument for a judicial tribunal to authoritatively interpret the Act and clarify the powers of the governing council. It is noteworthy that the Chancellor of the university, Alhaji Abubakar Ibn Umar Garbai Al Amin El-Kanemi, was quoted as saying in a letter addressed to the minister, that there were “too many vested interests in this matter, who are not approaching the issues objectively.”
Babalakin has chosen to “stand by principle” and “bow out in honour.” Should he have waited for President Buhari’s decision on the matter based on the visitation panel’s report? From the time the panel was set up, he has consistently maintained that it could not determine the questions of law and interpretation central to the matter. His resignation reflects his consistency, which should prompt a different approach to resolving the crisis.