Conflict Resolution in Nigerian  Universities,- By  Prof. Dapo F. Asaju

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*Photo: Prof. Dapo F. Asaju*

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Conflict Resolution in Nigerian  Universities

 Address presented at the 7th Biennial  Conference of the Committee of Pro-Chancellors of State owned Universities in Nigeria (COPSUN), held in Ikeja, Lagos, on 10th  July 2024.

    By  Prof. Dapo F. Asaju

Distinguished Professor of Theology,  Lagos State University, Ojo, Lagos.

Preamble

The Chairman, COPSUN, Senator Joshua Lidani,

The Chairman, Local Organizing Committee ,

and my Pro-Chancellor of Lagos State University, 

Sir David O.A. Sunmoni, FCA, KJW,

Committee of Pro-Chancellors of State owned Universities,

Distinguished Pro-Chancellors of State-Owned Universities in Nigeria, 

Vice-Chancellors of State Owned Universities in Nigeria,

Especially, my Vice-Chancellor of Lagos State University, 

Prof. Ibiyemi Olatunji-Bello, NPOM, Mni.

Registrars  of State-Owned Universities,

Fellow speakers, 

Ladies and gentlemen.

Preamble :

I hereby express my gratitude to the leadership of this Committee of Pro-Chancellors of State-Owned Universities for inviting me to address this conference, on the topic of Conflict Resolutiom in Nigerian Universities. 

The Context – The Ideal University :

1. A university is a global institution for teaching and acquisition of knowledge. It should operate with international standards in terms of curriculum, infrastructure, research facilities, and quality of knowledge.  On this basis, it is notable  to compare salaries and working conditions of academic staff across continents, even though that subsists in theory, as economic realities makes this impracticable. For instance,  a typical professor in Nigerian Universities earn less than 500,000 Naira per month ( 329 US Dollars as per exchange rate on  8/7/2024).  Comparatively, a professor in a University in USA earns between $ 8000 and $ 13,000 per month (-N- 12,136,000 ).This comparative reality accounts for the acute brain drain which has seen many of the  best brains of Nigerian origin, emigrate overseas for greener pastures. A careful consideration of the demography of Nigetian academics and medical personnel who serve in foreign universities and other tertiary  institutions, inform the need to appreciate the stress, patriotism  and sacrifices which home-based academics bear, for serving in our state-owned universities.

2. The quality of instruction in universities should meet international standards in the following respects:

First,  The ranking of universities underscores the competitiveness that obtains among universities as they strive for accreditation, recognition and mutual interactions and exchange of staff and students. 

Second, a degree awarded by a University is normally recognised and accepted, all over the world. 

Third, a lecturer from a University,  anywhere in the world, can   teach in another university, anywhere in the world. As a professor in Lagos State University, I served as external examiner of three PhD thesis at the University of Birmingham, UK and at Bakkie University in USA.  It is a global market, in the spirit of globalisation.

Fourth, Sabbatical Leaves are allowed for inter-change of ideas by academic staff of different universities. A sdholar experts the riches of his or her unuversity to the external university and during the one year,  imports the riches of the external university when he returns back to his post.  

Sixth, academic  research journals are mounted to generate and publish  knowledge of new discoveries by international scholars, for global debate, with the intent to further develop society, with shared ideas and inventions. 

Universities are centres of excellence where knowledge is dispensed and research is undertaken, with intent to provide solutions to the vital needs of society in every sphere and professions. Whatever the field of man’s professional  endeavour,  they are  trained by the universities. Angela Merkel, the former Chancellor of Germany once told  various professionals who were  protesting  against the German government’s  payment of higher wages to teachers over other professionals, that:  “How do you want me to pay you more salaries than the people who taught you ?” In the past,( the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s), university professors in Nigeria earned higher wages than permanent secretaries , Generals and  judges etc. Today, it appears that academics are at the lower rungs of the ladder in society. We cannot begin to imagine the wages political office holders in Nigeria currently  pay themselves!

3. Universities are established to raise the elite and leaders of a nation through good and complete education.  Complete education is the educating of man’s body, spirit and soul. It is a combination of knowledge and character. To produce intellectual geniuses without character amounts to graduating a bunch of clever devils who will end up damaging society. Check all over the world today, there is an acute scarcity of good leaders of nations, including America, Europe and Africa. 

Universities are training grounds for producing critics who serve as watchdogs of the society. The Holy Bible states that ” It is better to listen to the rebuke of a wise man than for one to listen to the song of fools”.(Ecclesiastes 7:5).Academics by training and tradition, are critics. It is by critically assessing a product that enables others to improve upon previous ideas by producing better products. Unfortunately,  government leaders as well as past military rulers of Nigeria hate criticism. To that extent, good academics often criticise policies which are inimical to the good of the country. They were vocal in their resistance to foreign exploitation by imperialist organisations such as the IMF and World Bank. They see themselves as watchmen over social, political and economic policies and their impact on the common man. They raise political activists among students’ Union mentees, bejng leaders of tomorrow, some of who may end up  becoming ideologues who provide political leadership for their countries. That was how the anti-colonialist African heroes who fought for African independence, were produced. These included : Herbert Macaulay, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo (all Nigerians) , Kwame  Nkrumah ( Ghana), Kenneth Kaunda (Zambia) , Julius Nyerere ( Tanzania), Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya), Leopard Sedar Zenghor (Senegal), William Tubman (Liberia),  Martin Luther King Jr.,(USA civil rights movement),  Marcus Garvey (Jamaica), Patrick Lumumba (Congo),  Dauda Jawara (Gambia), Hophouet Boigny ( Cote dobvoire) etc. Franz Fanon was right in pointing out that the primary objective of scholarship is the search for truth. It is this tradition that produced the likes of Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Dr. Bala Yusuf Usman of Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, Prof Eskor Toyo of University of Calabar, etc, who were critically  vocal about the social and political affairs in Nigeria. Most times, vocal academics and unionists are hated by establishment and University administrators. They are seen as radicals who should be persecuted. Ironically, almost every financial gain the Universities have made in Nigeria came as a result of efforts of Union leaders, especially, Academic Staff Union of Universities.

Personal testimony :

I served as Chairman of ASUU chapter in Lagos State University (LASU) from 1988 to 1992. I was at the centre of one of the most notable crisis in the university at this preriod. I spear – headed the national strike that eventually produced the present Condition of service and salary structure which all Nigerian tertiary Institutions are enjoying today. Prior to that, a University professor at at 1988 earned a basic salary of 1, 428 Naira per month!!!

As a young man of 30 years of age, I drove my car alone  to Dodan Barracks , on my own initiative, in order  to challenge the then Head of State, General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida . I initiated the dialogue between the Federal Mikitary Government and  ASUU ( then led by Dr, Attahiru Jega). I followed this up by inviting and playing host at LASU to the National Delegates Conference ( from all Nigerian universities)of ASUU, with the federal government, represented by Minister for Education, Prof. Aliu Babatunde Fafunwa, Minister for Labour, Alhaji Bunu Sheriff and  Military Governor of Lagos State, Brigadier Raji Rasaki. On our side were, Comrade Paschal Bafyau (President of Nigeria Labour Congress), Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, Barr. Femi Falana.  I was also a member of the four- man committee that drafted the original condition of service for all Universities. This is an example of conflict resolution on a large national scale. Bridging communication gap between universities and government jn order to restore peace, normalcy, instead to violence and vicious attacks. Civilizes human beings do not behave like animals because they have grosses with their authorities.  The fee of us who were instrumental to the change at the time may not have our names known, but the results are being enjoyed today by countless thousands of workers in Universities, polytechnics and colleges of education. We were also the ones who suggested that Education Tax ( which has evolved into Tetfund be introduced as an alternative to funding capital developments in universities. This undescores that governance ideas should be collaborative,  rather that unuversity workers seeing themselves in a ‘we versus them perspective. 

4. Universities have religious and ethical backgrounds. This background should enable peaceful and ethical perspective to conflict resolution.  University traditions in the western world hardly witness culture of conflicts as we have them in Nigeria.The earliest universities in the world were established by religious organisations. Some advanced civilizations  established higher education to train their skilled labour such as priests, military, rulers, and other elites. The earliest Universities were founded in Asia  and Africa predating the first European Medieval Universities. The University of Al Quaraouiyine founded in Morocco in 859 is considered by many to be the earliest degree awarding University. Al Azhar University in Cairo (970 ) occupies same pride of place as one of the earliest of the Medieval Islamic Madrasahs which later became  Universities. .However the modern concept of universities as formal institution of learning with structures as we know them today owe their origin in the medieval Christian Tradition. These started in cathedral or monastic schools often established by papal bulls. Kings also founded universities such as the Kings College of University of London, founded by Edward V. major Universities founded included the following: University of Bologna (1088), University of Paris (1150), University of Oxford (1096- 1167).  University of Cambridge (1209) University of Cologne Germany (1388), University of St Andrews, Scotland ( 1413), University of Leuven Belgium( 1425) The oldest institution of higher learning in USA is Harvard established in 1636. Its origin was Christian, just like most other European Universities. It was established to train many Puritans who had migrated to United States of America in order to provide training clergy for the commonwealth. The college was renamed Harvard after the clergyman John Harvard, a University of Cambridge alumnus who willed the new school worth then 779 pounds, with a library of 400 Books. 

5. The culture of modern universities, titles, offices, processions at convocation and vestments of paraphernalia mostly owe their origin to adaptation of Church systems. Titles like Chancellor, Pro-Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Registrar, Wardens, Provost, Dean, etc were adopted Church titles. In fact, in the case of Law profession, graduates were originally called to the bar in Church. Essentially the Church gave birth to the Universities and ran them with religious under-currents. 

When education had the God- content as its primary driving force, better human beings and leaders were produced as well-educated graduates who changed societies for better, but that now that God has been virtually chased out of our educational system, the devil now seeks to take over the human hearts and influence the curricula of schools and universities   through secular ethics and culture , the result of which has been the emergence of ‘clever devils’  bearing so-called educational certificates with little or no moral content- hence the failure of the normal  maxim of graduates being proved in learning and character. 

 The ‘Ivory Tower’ concept ordinarily behoves universities the task of  moulding lives of trainees to become useful to God, to themselves and to their societies. It is the god-content which we call Theology that underpinned all the good that university education stood/ stands for originally.  I have often wondered why Nigeria, like many pother parts of the world are in a moral crisis that has kept them from operating in an ideal form despite having so many educated professionals. Take Nigeria as example, even the most educated states are ruled by charlatans. Why should we be so failed  a state with all essential organs of society collapsing even though  we have the large number of professors, doctors, and Engineers, yet  we are retrogressing in every area of life. I found that education is one thing, the religious and moral fabric that influences man to use that education for compassionate and progressive service to humanity is another.   

Training in godly character began from and was popularly complimented by home training in families. Indeed, Charity they say begins at home. Unfortunately there has grown a culture of broken homes with attendant bad effects on the lifestyles and discipline of children of broken homes.  With increased rate of divorce and single parentage in parts of the human societies, the role of godliness in human formation dwindles. This, combined with many other societal disconnect have bred various vices such as  cultism, sexual harassments, examination malpractices, fraud, declining interest to study, distractions by negative influences of the social media, etc. In western societies, there have been series of incidents of students  going berserk to the extent of shooting and killing their teachers and colleagues. In Nigeria, we are witnessing a radical decline in educational standards, breakdown in discipline, to the extent that in some faith-based Universities, attempts are being made to reintroduce disciplinary measures which were alien to university culture and academic freedom as is common in state owned universities. 

The Role of Pro-Chancellors in Universities:

1. Whereas the Visitor ( President, for Federally-owned universities) and Governors ( for state -owned universities),  are the overall heads  of Universities by virtue of being proprietors and heads of government; traditionally, Chancellors occupy apex position in universities hierarchy. The Chancellor presides over the convocation and admits graduates to all degrees awarded. In his absence, the Vice -Chancellor presides, by law. This is in order to shield the Pro-Chancellor from  dabbling into direct running of the universities. They are simply regulators and approving bodies.

2. The Prochancellor , who is next in rank to the Chancellor, is the actual overall supervisory Manager  of the Universities. They are like Prime Ministers who practically govern  the country , while the President is ceremonial and honorific. Pro-chancellors are Chairmen of the Governing Councils of Univeraities. The councils are the policy approving body, the regulators of financial policies and activities, the final approving authority on staff and students discipline, senate decisions, academic establishments , physical developments, judicial appeal, staff welfare and promotions. Often, the Pro-chancellor has executive powers to act on behalf of council on urgent matters . 

3. The Governing Councils are the employers of staff of universities . They have the powers and prerogatives to hire and fire, but there are checks and balances to the exercise of these powers. That is why by law, visitation panels are set up by government to periodically look into the books of universities , in all ramifications and make recommendations on review, reorganization etc.

4. The Governing Councils have the prerogative to interface with government on behalf of their Universities. It is also part of their responsibility to raise funds and receive benefactions to the Universities.    In view of the above responsibilities of Councils, they are the highest layer of authority to deal with staff-related matters and to prevent or resolve industrial disputes in times of conflicts . 

Common causes of conflicts in State owned Nigerian Universities :

Conflicts in Universities occur usually at national levels, over which Governing Councils and University Managements of state-owned universites may not have direct control . Academic Staff Union of Universities for instance, embarked  on strikes, variously , in 1980, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2007, 2003, 2009 and 2016. Non-teaching unions are also formidable in state Universugies. These include :

Non-Academic Staff Union (NASU), the Senior Staff Union of Universities (SSANU) and National Association of University Technologists . They often experience conflicts and strikes  as well, commonly over salaries, promotions or some petty issues. In some  cases,  the methods employed by junior staff unions are not ideologically-based and are less civil, than that commonly employed by academic staff unions when they embark on jndustrial actions. 

Lagos State Unjversity had the unfortunate history of uprising by junior staff unions against two administrations  which resulted in the untimely exit of two Vice-Chancellors.I must commend here, the peculiar tact and approach employed by my Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Ibiyemi Olatunji Bello, Mni, NPOM, and the Pro-Chancellor,  Sir David Sunmoni, FCA, KJW, during whose current tenures, there has been no single industrial conflict by any union in the University. Both staff unions and students unions have achieved an uncommon peaceful relationship for the common progress of the Univesity. This is partly due to their openess, accessibility, dialogue and efforts to ensure regular payment of staff salaries and encouraging welfare programmes. LASU has become ‘born again’ , known for peace and academic excellence. This model can challenge all state-owned unjversiyies to also turn the fortunes of their universities for good and to reflect the ideals of a university.

Causes of Industrial Conflicts in State-Owned Universities

1. Inadequate funding of the Universities,

2. Poor infrastructure for staff and students,

3. Population explosion students and excess workload of teachers, worsened by the Brain drain,

4. Poor remuneration of academics, and poor working conditions,

5. Outdated curriculum, ill-equipped laboratories, and lack of tools for modern competitive scholarship,

6. Insecurity of lives and cultism,

7. Response of staff to general strikes by the Nigeria Labour Congresss or other national industrial actions,

8. Conflict with Management of a unuversity over policies perceived as harsh and  adverse to the welfare and progress of staff,

9. Perceived persecution or victimisation of staff, especially union leaders on account of their participation or role in generally agreed industrial actions, as a result of perceived dislike of union leaders by university administrators. Moreover, unrest ensues, when staff are punished without adhering to due process.

10. Agitations for autonomy of universities. 

11. Communication gaps between Management and staff,

12. Financial Fraud and Double standards in administrative style, 

13. Indiscipline  of Union leaders and insubordination to University authorities, 

14. University politicking over appointment of Vice-Chancsllors, and other principal, officers.

15. Tribalism and Religious bias in appointments,  promotions and favouritism. 

The above are the common reasons, to the best of my knowledge,  why conflicts occur in  state- owned universities in Nigeria.

The issue of serving justice or discipline should be done objectively,  strictly following due process as contained in all relevant laws and conditions of service. Failure to do this will result in common loss of law suits instituted against university administrations  by aggrieved, staff who were dismissed but had to seek redress in the Law Courts.   Cases abound, where the dismissals were declared illegal, and reinstatement of the victims ordered, with payments of their salaries during the usually long period of trial of the  cases. Examples of these include the following :

2009 – Supreme Court reinstated 44 lecturers sacked at the University of Ilorin,

2017 – Court reinstated 2 sacked pexturers at the Federal University of Agricukture, Abeokuta, 

2024 – Court reinstated lecturer sached twenty years ago at the University of Uyo.

Councils should be meticulous in familiarising themselves with all relevant legal provisions on staff matters.

Alternative dispute resolution should be sought, rather than protracted Court cases. University adminustrators should remember that when they leave office, they will return to their University  bases. When I left office as Vice-Chancellor of Ajayi Crowther University , Oyo in 2020, I was back in class at Lagos State University, the very next day, teaching my students. They should administer power with humility, peace and reconciliation. power is very transient.  Unfortunately, in Nigeria,  academics are their own worst enemies. Outside Nigeria, Bice-Chancellors are so ordinary and simple that they do not exhibit attitude or paraphernalia of power. They do not even employ  drivers to drive their cars.

Towards effective conflict prevention and Resolution in state- owned universities :

1. The composition of Governing Councils is specially designed to allow for their mature and competent leadership of the universities. It also allows for comprehensiveness in constituency representations.  These include, proprietors, senate,  congregation, convocation, and external bodies like National Universities Commission and State Ministry of Education, etc. Room should be given for staff representatives to have their say on matters pertaining to the welfare of their members, even if at the end of deliberations, decisions will not favour their positions.

2. Due process, according to the laws and conditions of service of the universities should be observed in all disciplinary matters.

3. Extra efforts should be made by Governing councils to raise funds for the universities, apart from regular subvention from government. Support should be given to Managements to gear up internally generated revenue. When funding is adequate to meet basic commitments, there will be less chances of industrial conflicts.

4. Pro-Chancellor need to pay great attention to accountability and financial propriety by Management of universities. As Chairmen of Finance and General Purposes Committee off Council, the responsibility for due process, openess in bidding for contracts and council approval of project proposals should be carefully monitored to check corruption which has become a cancerous culture in Nigeria’s public and civil service. As much as possible, Council members should not directly seek financial favours from the Universities where they preside over. ‘A gift blindens the eyes’.

5. Pro-chancellors should occasionally organise retreat for council and Management members ( they may interface with union leaders as well and students)  to generally review the objectives, modus operandi and progress of their universities. This self- evaluation can help in addressing potential problems and prevent conflicts.

6. The autonomy of universities should be protected. Very often, State governments treat unuversities like parastatàls of the civil service. This should not be so. Universities have their structures and traditions. They are answerable to the respective Governing councils, not to an Oba in the localty, or a Special Adviser /  or Commissioner of Education  etc. In appointment of Vice-Chancellor, due process, fairness and merit should be preferred to god-fatherism or tribal sentiments. A leader is key to good management and progress of a unibersity. As water does not rise above its level, so can a university not rise above the vision, character and principles of its leaders.

7. Pro-Chancellors of  State Unibersities should endeavour to protect their good staff through ensuring investments in their career enhancements,  provision of staff residential accommodation and on-campus hostels for students. The high turnover of lecturers, occasioned by the establishment of new private and public  universities in Nigeria , usually results in highly qualified staff leaving to elsewhere where they can be appointed to higher positions. It is difficult to replace highly skilled professionals. We should do our best to make staff to become committed  to stay and serve their Universities for a long period of time. I have served Lagos State Univeesity since 1984 (40 years)and despite various opportunities overseas, I chose to remain here   because of the University’s contributions huge to my life. Iam grateful to my present Vice-Chancellor ,  Senate and Council for appointing me Distinguished professor. What better honour can an a anemic expect to have his labours appreciated. ‘A good  name is better that silver and gold’.

8. Efforts should be made to provide good infrastructure in universities. This will make them competitive. A busy academic will face research rather than campus politics and unionism. The devil they say, finds work for the idle hands. Where laboratories are functioning, Internet is available, modern textbooks and resources are current in the library, where security is assuring, efficiency and industrial peace will be guaranteed.

9. Visitation panels should be set up as and at when due, and the white papers in their reports released on  time and diligently implemented . This is an assurance to staff that their careers and in the general affairs of the university is  being looked into. This will enhance accountability in all  ramifications, and less cause for conflicts. Visitation panels are sometimes the last arbiter for aggrieved University staff and their unions. 

10. Governing councils should encourage ‘gown and town’ interactions to generate development ideas and donations to the Universities, from private sector philanthropists and from alumni of the respective universities. 

Chairman, eminent Pro-Chancellors, Vice-Chancelors present, Ladies and Gentlemen, these are my thoughts on conflict management in  Nigerian universities. I do hope that  they are useful as you deliberate  on the very crucial theme of this year’s conference. I again thank my Pro-chancellor and the organisers for considering me worthy to be a speaker at this highly prestigious conference of most eminent  Pro-chancellors of state – owned Universities in Nigeria. God bless you all and  the state universities which you govern.

*Distinguished Professor Dapo F. Asaju

Lagos State University, Ojo, Lagos.

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