Members of the former Governing Council of the University of Benin fight against efforts to frustrate their recall on matters of integrity
Gabriel Toby, a man in the eye of the storm at the University of Benin, UNIBEN, Benin City, Edo State, and former deputy governor of Rivers State, has a reputation for being incorruptible, meticulous and stickler for due process and rule of law. It was these sterling qualities that influenced his being drafted to the troubled UNIBEN by Sam Egwu, the erstwhile minister of education, as its pro-chancellor and chairman, Governing Council. Hitherto, Toby had performed similar functions at the University of Port Harcourt. As a retired permanent secretary, Toby had earned the nickname, Mr. Due Process.
Now, that reputation is being challenged by some officials of UNIBEN, ironically the same people had recently testified to his sterling qualities. From all indications, the current campaign against Toby is to forestall his return to the university as pro-chancellor. Unfortunately those behind the campaign appear to be getting the ears of Ruqayyatu Rufa’i, the minister of education.
The local chapter of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, at a press conference on March 14, warned of “industrial crisis brewing in the university” should the governing council dissolved late last year be returned. The union is particular that “Sir Gabriel Toby should not be reappointed.” The council was inaugurated in October 2009. Anthony Monye-Emina, chairman of ASUU, UNIBEN, who described the dissolution of the council as “good riddance to bad rubbish”, said prior to the dissolution of the council, there was already tension between the said council and the various unions.
Curiously, this position is at variance with the submission of the union to the federal government’s visitation panel to the university. The views of all the staff unions in the university, including ASUU, were summed up in the white paper on the panel’s report, “it was all praises for the present council and management for restoring peace on the campus; and for giving the staff a new lease of life. The salaries are paid regularly now (on the 23rd of each month), and over N567 million owed in arrears to staff have been paid.”
But, a position, which Monye-Emina said had been communicated to President Goodluck Jonathan as Visitor to the university, as well as minister of education, gives the impression that Toby’s integrity is in doubt.
Levelling sundry allegations against the retired permanent secretary, Monye-Emina told journalists how Toby reportedly turned the university into a “business centre” to enrich himself. According to him, Toby became a major contractor to the university, stating that the first task he performed was to take over the provision of Internet services to the university through a company known as Cinfores. He said Toby also took over the provision of insurance cover for the university through a company known as Hallmark Insurance and that he awarded to himself the contract for the construction of a clinical therapeutic laboratory at the cost of over N182 million and a miniature animals’ house for over N26 million. The ASUU leader also accused the Governing Council chairman of awarding a contract for the construction of the pro-chancellor lodge. Monye-Emina said Toby succeeded with all these because “he insisted and made himself the chairman of the university’s Tenders Board as well as Procurement Board.” This he said was against the regulation. ASUU complained that Toby virtually “lived on the university’s lean resources to the extent that he made the university to employ a personal driver for him”.
ASUU frowned at a situation whereby Toby still had in his possession two vehicles, a Toyota Prado SUV and a Toyota Camry, belonging to the university several months after the dissolution of the Governing Council. The union, surprisingly, further accused the erstwhile pro-chancellor of being anti-staff welfare, claiming that he complained against staff advancement and even stepped down promotions legitimately earned. He was also said to have refused to pay arrears of salaries arising from earned promotion but for the approval of the minister after the dissolution of the council.
Toby has since directed his lawyer, L. A. Mitee & Co. to write to the union asking it to retract the libelous publication or face legal action. Ledum Mitee, the principal partner, in his letter addressed to Monye-Emina and entitled: Libel of and Concerning Sir Gabiel T. G. Toby, frowned at the particular statement impugning his client’s integrity, stating that “you published the said words knowing them to be false as you are no doubt aware of the government white paper on the visitation panel into the affairs of the university wherein it was found, amongst others, that memoranda received from ASUU, NAAT, NASU and other staff unions of the university were all praise for the council of the university headed by our client and concluded that the pro-chancellor (our client) was ‘a firm and strong believer in the due process law who insists that all officers in the university should follow suit’.” Mitee did not however foreclose an amicable settlement of the matter. He said Monye-Emina should publish an apology and retraction of the said libel in all the media through which the words were published and tender “a realistic offer as to damages to which our client is entitled.”
Investigations by the magazine however revealed desperate attempts by top officials of the university to ensure that the Toby-led council is not brought back. ASUU for instance, from its utterances, is aware of every move being made by the embattled council and its chairman in an attempt to get it reappointed, including its letters to the President and minister of education as well as the visit of one of the external members of the council, B. I. C. Ijomah to the minister on March 13, 2012 to find out why the council was not recalled in line with the minister’s promise.
The minister had while releasing the white paper on the visitation panel’s report stated unambiguously that the federal government would recall all university councils except those that were indicted. Interestingly, the council under Toby was not in any way indicted. Prior to its inauguration, the university had been engulfed in crisis as a result of tussle over who became the vice-chancellor, VC. But within two weeks of its inauguration, the council succeeded in appointing one on November 30, 2009, in the person of Godwin Osayuki Oshodin, a professor of physical health education thus restoring normalcy to the institution.
Contrary to the impression that is now being created by ASUU, the visitation panel’s report quoted the VC as attesting to the excellent performance of the council especially in the promotion of academic and non-academic staff. The report also noted “the present vice-chancellor is in good standing with the present pro-chancellor and is working in harmony with the entire council.” It recalled, “In fact, towards the end of the year, a management and council party was held at the Palm Royal Hotel. This was regarded as a novelty at the UNIBEN, showing the cordial relationship between the VC, the Governing Council and the academic and non-academic staff.” The magazine found that it was against this backdrop that the embattled council was miffed at the reluctance of the minister to recall the council and decided to find out what went wrong.
The council in a letter to the minister, endorsed by Toby, Ijomah and three other external members namely Monday Okonny, Segun Ladejo and Yinka Adelani said the only complaint by the VC was that he was “not signatory to the university’s accounts.” This they said was rectified after the council gave the necessary instructions to the registrar.
What however appears to be a sore point in the relationship between Oshodin and the council appears to be the directive to him that he must thenceforth operate an annual budget in order to streamline expenses for the purpose of accountability. The council had insisted on the preparation and presentation of budget quarterly performance appraisal and that once the 2010/2011 budget was approved, all expenses should be within the approved limit while no over-expenditure should be entertained. Intimating the minister of the “inadequacies of the vice-chancellor bordering on budget indiscipline for which he was cautioned and advised”, they said when the bursar presented the budget performance for nine months ending March 31, 2011, the council noted that the VC had overspent by N133,400,000.
They said the most worrisome areas were such expenditures as: legal fees – N10 million, hospitality – N6.5 million, contingencies – N6 million, security expenses – N7.2 million, end of year staff package – N4.4 million, honoraria – N10 million and University of Benin Farm Project – N8.6 million. Others are maintenance and renovation of public building – N34 million, maintenance of university grounds – N9 million, and maintenance of refrigerators – N37.7million. The Council, therefore, directed that if there was to be any over-spending, such must be with the approval of the chairman of council. They also recalled that the only area of disagreement with ASUU was on the payment of promotion arrears between 2002 and 2009.
However, the council’s position was that the federal government had stopped the payment of arrears and that council was bound by the extant circulars to that effect. They said Oshodin was asked to seek clearance from the federal government if the university was authorised to pay the money put at N150,231,452.21.
On appointment of Cinfores as consultants for portal services in the university, the council insists that Toby is neither a director nor a shareholder in the company engaged to rescue the university from lack of incomplete and inadequate students’ data and financial records. Rather, they said the company, which has an enviable track record of providing similar services in universities, oil companies and private sector establishments, presented its proposal to the management for consideration and to council for demonstration to the satisfaction of all council members including the bursar, librarian and directors of physical planning. The VC reportedly assured council that the presentation had been seen by ICT, CPRU “and the units had supported the idea.” The company has however been sacked by the VC while the university has resorted to manual payment of fees.
The external members’ burden is however not just about being recalled but the implication of not being reinstated. According to them, “the delay or refusal of the ministry to recall the University of Benin council portrays the council as indicted, we have done nothing wrong to merit such a stigma.” They said the way and manner the issue of the council has been handled by the ministry seems to give credence “to the whispers, blackmail and falsehood of a man and a clique behind the scene against the report and views of white paper on a visitation panel of eminent Nigerians.” This is really a fight for honour.