President Goodluck Jonathan must be exceedingly surprised at the vehement rejection in some quarters of his renaming of the University of Lagos, Unilag, after Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, the man who paid the supreme sacrifice for the democracy the nation enjoys today. He will not be the only one; several members of the Abiola family must be equally surprised. One of his widows and several of his children had been full of effusive praise for the president in the immediate aftermath of the announcement in a nationwide broadcast on Democracy Day, May 29. They may now be wondering, in the light of the rejection of the new name, Moshood Abiola University, Lagos, Maulag, by many notable Nigerians, the students and alumni association of the university, whether Abiola had not after all died in vain. The students did not stop at just voicing their protest, they took to the streets. The university authorities had to hurriedly shut the school on the second day of protests to avoid a descent into chaos. Surely, this crisis is one the authorities of the school never bargained for at a time it was performing the final obsequies of its late vice chancellor, Prof. Adetokunbo Sofoluwe, who was laid to rest on Thursday, May 31.
Why are they kicking against the new name? There is no doubt many agree that Abiola deserves a national honour, but it is a shame that it is coming late in the day. And since the return to civil rule in 1999, many Nigerians have made vociferous calls on the federal government to immortalise the symbol of June 12. That was the day in 1993 that Abiola won the fairest and freest presidential election ever held in Nigeria. The military cabal ruling the country, then led by self-styled military president, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, denied him that hard-won victory which he achieved against all odds. But President Olusegun Obasanjo did not hearken to the plea in his two terms of eight years. His successor, late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, did not do it. And now that President Jonathan has done it, he has seemingly picked the wrong monument. He is being told that the University of Lagos, founded 50 years ago, has become an icon that cannot be replaced with the Abiola icon. Furthermore, since this is a democracy, they equally ask why the President failed to consult the stakeholders about the renaming. By that, they mean the university authorities, staff, students and the alumni. Considering the on-going reactions, the government would have met a brick-wall in the course of such consultations. Majority of the stakeholders would have advised Jonathan to perish the thought.
However, even if that was going to be the case, the federal government should have observed all the due process in respect of the change. By consulting the afore-mentioned stakeholders, it would have shown that this government is keen on democratic norms. The university was created by an Act of Parliament. That law needs an amendment to accommodate the new name. The President and his advisers on this matter have largely ignored that. The steps the government has taken so far are to the effect that we own the university, thus we can do whatever we want with it. That is a position that does not sit well with those who are annoyed by the sudden “death” of what they regard as a unique icon. And there are many graduates of Unilag who are threatening that if the decision on the name change is not rescinded, they will return their certificates to the university. Of course, that would be reaching for the extreme. The threat though may not amount to more than a mere statement voiced in the heat of anger. That is understandable; in our country we at times use a sledgehammer to quash a mosquito. How great would it have been if the current anger were to have been fostered by the poor state of facilities in Unilag and the nation’s tertiary institutions generally?
Considering the current posturing on all sides, it is not likely the President will reverse himself on this matter in the immediate future. That is in spite of the several monuments, especially in sports, which have been suggested as a possible substitute. After all, Abiola was in his lifetime the “Pillar of Sports in Africa.” We must not forget too that Abiola equally dispensed quite a bundle of his stupendous wealth to promote education at all levels. And he did forbid all the schools that benefitted from his philanthropic gestures to name anything after him, perhaps, as long as he lived.
It is doubtful whether Jonathan would accept the suggestion to substitute a sports monument with the University of Lagos. To him and his aides, that would be a sign of weakness. They will argue that there would be no end to similar demands in the future. Thus in order to make the name change a fait accompli, an Executive Bill praying for an amendment to the Act setting up the University of Lagos may already be heading for the Senate. Many legislators are said to have privately voiced their individual opposition to the arbitrary change. That is politics at work. The President’s party controls the National Assembly. If his bill asking for the name change fails in the Assembly, it is the Peoples Democratic Party that will suffer the collateral damage.
If only the dead can watch the political drama the living sometimes engage in, this is one such drama Abiola would have loved to be part of. What a pity! Just like some Nigerians did while he was incarcerated for four years, Abiola’s head is once again being shaved behind his back. Trust him, a humour merchant to the core, he would have had some pithy and witty riposte for this on-going opera. The sanest step that has been proposed so far is the suit the Unilag – beg your pardon, the Maulag – Alumni Association is planning against the government on this name change. Let the court decide whether the President can just wake up and announce such a change. Period!