By Bolanle Bolawole
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The unfortunate death of Miss Omowumi Aisha Adesina, a Part Four student of Foreign Languages at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, on Thursday, 30th September, 2021 was, understandably, angrily responded to by her colleagues who took their protest beyond the university campus to the highway, with implications for their own safety as well as for the safety of other citizens plying those roads. While their protest was justified, it is trite that your right stops where those of others start. Blocking the highway for an incident that happened within the campus and which required the attention of the school authorities should not be condoned for any reason. What with the rights of others – and their safety and well-being – being so brazenly and viciously assaulted! What if any accident victim was being rushed to the hospital? What if a woman in labour needed to quickly get to the maternity ward? What of those hurrying to catch up with one appointment or the other? What of intending couples making their way to the marriage registry or reception centre?
I consider it the duty of each and every one of us to impress upon our young, understandably exuberant and impressionistic youths the need to keep their protests and or grievances within the “locus in quo” and not stray into or invade the highways no matter the provocation. When they so hit the streets, they imperil themselves, endanger other law-abiding citizens, escalate and worsen the problem at hand, invite draconian and punitive measures on themselves from the authorities, and give a blank cheque for rogue elements to seize upon what might have started as a peaceful protest to cause mayhem and give both the students and their school a bad image in the reckoning of reasonable citizens.
Once the students’ protest spilled into the highways, the OAU Management panicked, in my view, and shut down the school on Friday, October 1, 2021. Among its reasons was the need to nip the crisis in the bud to prevent further loss of life. The loss of Omuwumi was painful and regrettable enough. The OAU Management also said it got credible information that fifth columnists had cashed-in on the protest to serve their own sinister ends and ulterior motives and that the newly-elected but yet-to-be-sworn-in Student Union Government had raised the alarm that it had lost control. Many of the protesters blocking the highway and extorting huge sums from stranded, desperate, and vulnerable road users were allegedly not OAU students. This is one vital reason why students’ protests should be restricted within the campus.
For a fact, I know that many stakeholders scolded the OAU Management for allegedly not being proactive enough in the way it responded to the crisis as it unfolded. Like Prof. Omotoye Olorode himself alluded to, many expected the OAU Management to have climbed down from its high horse to address the students. Prof. Olorode went back memory lane in his “Deepening neglect of public-funded education in Nigeria: OAU students’ protests as a metaphor” when he said: “And the tendency of the leaders of institutions to be “unavailable” during crises and periods when students are distressed needs to be terminated! Of course empathies are created and conditioned by the congruence of the interests of leaders and the communities they lead. Fortunately, at OAU, I can attest personally to the fact that H.A. Oluwasanmi was always there among the students during distress and crisis. Wande Abimbola was there, too. So was Roger Makanjuola who even called Town Hall Meetings to dowse crisis! So were senior academics like Oyin Ogunba, Bayo Lamikanra and “Union people” like the late Edmund Oshinaike, the late Kola Olufemi and Tunde Fatunla, the late Otas Ukpomwan, Dipo Fashina, G. G. Darah, Folabo Soyinka-Ajayi, the late J.D. Oke and Ayo Asafa, to mention just a few; even though “the Union people” end up carrying the can of being accused of “instigating the students”!
I had a glimpse of those glory days in our universities when I was admitted into the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in 1978. I saw vice-chancellors walk freely into the halls of residence, queue with their trays in the cafeteria, and rub shoulders with students. I stopped short of demanding similar populist, even if effective, PR and administrative stunts from present-day vice-chancellors because, frankly-speaking, times have changed in the universities. Today’s students are different in many significant ways from the students of our own days. For instance, in our own days, there was nothing like cults and cultism. The closest thing we got at Ife was Prof. Wole Soyinka’s Pyrates Confraternity, which was not a cult in the real sense of what cults are today. I remember toying with the idea of joining forces with them before finally deciding for the more socially-relevant and ideologically-focused Alliance for Progressive Students (ALPS). But with the way cultism and cults have permeated our schools today – from the university down to even primary school level – with the way students carry guns and cult gangs waste lives, with the support and cover they get from politicians in high places, I will not blame any VC who is wary to put his life on the line. How many high-brow murders have been conclusively resolved in this country? Usually, it is the concerned families that bear the brunt and lick their wound.
That said, there is no job, vocation or profession without its attendant risks, dangers and challenges. If you enjoy the perquisites and spoils of office, be ready to take on the challenges as well! Students are an indispensable part of a university system and must be seen and treated as such. The way many university Management sees and treats students as trifles has got to stop. Without students, there can be no university! The primary purpose of a university is to train students. Research and other functions or roles must be treated as an addendum. Therefore, one of the criteria that qualify anyone to become VC must, henceforth, be the demonstrable ability to proactively and effectively manage students not only in peace time but also in times of crisis. Academic prowess alone may be suitable for the head of a research institute but not for a university. VCs must not be quick to shut down universities; they must also not see the proscription of student unionism as front-line charge at the flimsiest of excuses. If I am to advise, I will say that VCs that show a lack of competence, dexterity, and acumen in managing their students should get the sack. Haughty, arrogant and imperialistic VCs have no place in a university system. And where universities are unavoidably shut down, all hands must be on the deck for normalcy to quickly return; Management, students, and the unions must bend over backward to resolve their differences and reopen the school so that academic pursuit – which is the raison detre for the school in the first place – to continue in earnest.
Incessant closures have dealt incalculable damage to the academic calendar of our universities. Long-drawn strikes by the ASUU in its never-ending disputes with the Federal Government have been the major culprit. In 2020, COVID-19 reared its ugly head to make a bad situation worse. As if that was not enough, OAU has suffered two closures this year alone as a result of students’ crisis. This is not to say anything of the succession dispute that also grounded the university in 2016/2017. As a result, many of our universities, OAU inclusive, have had their academic calendar thrown into a tailspin. While some of them have cancelled an entire academic year, others, OAU also inclusive, have feverishly struggled to save the day before the latest setback of October 1, 2021. I gleaned from sources that the university plans to merge the 2020/2021 and 2021/2022 admission processes into one stream – 60% intake of candidates from the first stream and 40% intake of candidates from the second stream. That was before the last crisis. Thousands of eligible candidates will thus miss admission. As we put this column to bed, news filtered in that the OAU Management has asked the students to resume on November 5, 2021. When the panel set up to investigate Omowumi’s demise turns in its report, I will be surprised if it does not finger incessant school closure as one of the remote causes of Omowumi’s death. But for time lost, Omowumi would have graduated from OAU a long time ago and the angel of death that came reaping her would not have met her at Ife. So, the FG, ASUU, OAU Management, and the students themselves ALL bear precarious liability for Omowumi’s untimely and very unfortunate death.
Space constraints will not let me respond to Prof. Olorode point-by-point. It is obvious I did not object to public or students’ protests; I only insisted that students should restrict their protests to their natural habitat. Yes, the government has always employed the divide-and-rule tactics against radical-leaning universities like Ife and there have always been conservative, pliant and compromising staff and students willing to serve as government lackeys. In the face of this, however, Ife in times past had stood ramrod, solid, and uncompromising; keeping a progressive and united front. Is the government alone to blame for this? How about the pig-headed politics of the supposed vanguard of the struggle?
And what is “circumscribed historicism” in the current OAU Management celebrating the school’s 60th Anniversary in 2021 and not in 2022? According to Prof. Olorode, “I consider the debate unnecessary because it can also be reasonably argued that a university does not exist de facto unless academic activities begin in it!” I beg to differ! A baby’s birthday is the day it was born and not the day it was named. A school’s Founder’s Day is not when it admits its first set of students or when lectures begin; it is the day it is pronounced or legislated into existence. From that day, it becomes a legal entity and begins to take decisions, allocate resources, recruit staff, develop both temporary and permanent sites and, finally, it admits students, after which lectures start. The day lectures start, important as it is, CANNOT be the anniversary date. Or else, we void all the actions taken preceding that date. It is impossible, even laughable, to think of building something on nothing!
Signing off in “Deepening neglect…” Prof. Olorode described himself as a “theoretician and revolutionaire”; very well, but I am a journalist even though I may not be a total stranger to the terrain of Marxist theoreticians and revolutionary scholars. We, nonetheless, have different rules of engagement and subscribe to divergent ethics. Journalists inform (report news/events), educate (investigate to lay the issues bare), and entertain (choosing a style and language that best convey his point of view as well as captivate the audience). In so doing, journalists hallow facts, allow all sides to adequately present their views, and accommodate all shades of opinion. A journalist is not necessarily an ideologue. Even where one harbours an ideological bent or sympathy, the ethics of the journalism profession compels pragmatism. I suspect that made all the difference!