As students and other stakeholders sign online petition seeking the reopening of Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife, the institution’s vice-chancellor, Eyitope Ogunbodede, has said “even the management wants the campus to be reopened as early as possible.”
Mr Ogunbodede, a professor of dentistry, spoke to PREMIUM TIMES in an exclusive telephone interview on the crisis that rocked the university over the death of a final year student of the Department of Foreign Languages, Faculty of Arts, Aisha Adesina.
The vice-chancellor said the closure of the university became unavoidable following what he described as the hijacking of the students’ protest over their colleague’s death.
He said the protesters had barricaded the Ife-Ibadan expressway and the Ife-Ede road, among others, and that they had “dangerously harassed motorists and commuters and collected tolls from road users.”
He said: “We are all parents and no sincere university administrator would ever pray to lose any member of the university community. So when the student died, it was really sad news for us.”
He expressed the sympathy of the university to the parents and colleagues of the deceased. He, however, condemned what he described as the protesters’ manner of approach, saying blocking roads and harassing innocent people could not be the solution to the issues they raised.
“As human beings we expected reactions to trail the death and we immediately launched a probe into what transpired. But we never anticipated that our students would go outside the campus to block major roads.
Just like the EndSARS, ”the protest soon degenerated and we saw foods and drinks being mobilised to the scenes by some fifth columnists. Commuters including lecturers were held to ransom. At that stage, no sensible administrator would leave the campus open,” Mr Ogunbodede added.
He said if the university was not proactive enough and had allowed more lives to be lost, his critics would have called for his head. “They would have called us unprintable names.”
He said on Friday, the protesting students had circulated “directives,” warning that examinations slated for Saturday would not hold, and that everyone was afraid of movements. “So the best thing was to shut down.”
On dysfunctional health centre
The protesting students have described the university’s health centre as decrepit and unfit for the campus, saying the frequency of death of students on the campus is a bad omen.
A statement issued on Monday by the university’s chapter of the Alliance of Nigerian Students Against Neo-liberal Attacks (ANSA), called for the probe of the university’s expenses and budgetary allocations, especially on the health of the students and staff.
The statement, which was signed by the group’s protem coordinator, Saheed Luqman, called for the immediate reopening of the university.
The protesters had blamed Miss Adesina’s death on the alleged negligence of the healthcare workers at the health centre, insisting that the deceased was not the first to die in a similar circumstance at the facility in recent times.
But in his response, Mr Ogunbodede said he would not dispute that, just like other areas, there are a few challenges with the university’s health centre, but that he doubted if the facilities available at the centre could be found in many secondary hospitals in the country.
According to the vice-chancellor, the health centre has 17 medical doctors, and that they also collaborate with the university’s teaching hospital for referral of serious cases.
“I don’t want to pre-empt the outcome of the findings of the committee but I can assure you that a health centre with 17 medical doctors cannot be a small place. I doubt if we have many secondary health facilities that can boast of such. We have problems, no doubt, but things are not as bad as people may want the public to believe,” he said.
Reopening the campus
According to the vice-chancellor, closing the university was neither in the interest of the students nor the lecturers, saying as soon as possible the campus would be reopened.
He, however, noted that it would be bad of the university management to just reopen the campus without attending to some of the issues raised.
He said: “Let me tell you some of the reasons why shutting down the university is not in anyone’s interest. We have lost a session already because the 2020/2021 session has been cancelled. We are still running the 2019/2020 academic session. So, is that good for our image?
“Similarly, for the lecturers, no one has been able to go on leave for a long time. People think that lecturers enjoy during strikes, but that is not the case. Whatever forced holiday that you cannot plan with is not a holiday. You can’t travel, you can’t do exchange programmes or go on sabbatical. But even if a duly given holiday is just four weeks, you can plan your movement and whatever engagement you may have.”
The vice-chancellor said all hands are on deck to ensure that the university is reopening as soon as possible.
On reported planned ban of students’ union
Mr Ogunbodede said though he was disappointed by the conduct of the students’ leaders during the protest, it never crossed his mind that the university management may consider placing a ban on a “union I struggled hard to reinstate.”
“People may have forgotten that I was into students’ unionism on the same campus. I have been on that campus since 1977 and I know the students’ union has helped to build future leaders for this country, hence my insistence on its reinstatement. But OAU’s culture abhors brigandage, extortion and hooliganism by anyone
“Maybe, I may not have been appointed a vice-chancellor if I did not learn about leadership as a former player in students’ unionism on the campus. So I cherish our students and that was why I staked my neck against all odds to seek my colleagues’ support to reinstate the union,” he said.
The VC, however, condemned what he described as a strange development by the students’ leaders, saying they were yet to be inaugurated “and had started romancing partisan politicians as if they were outside the campus.”
“We went as far as collaborating INEC, a parliamentary institute, among others, to reorientate our students’ leaders ahead of the election. We wanted to make the OAU students’ union to remain a model. We were at the point of organising a retreat for the newly elected official when we started noticing poor conducts,” he said.
But in spite of his misgivings, the vice-chancellor said he would be glad to leave behind the legacy of a great students’ union.
On probe committee
Though the vice-chancellor kept a sealed lip on the details of the probe panel the university’s Senate advised the management to set up on the matter, PREMIUM TIMES exclusively gathered that a five-man committee has been set up.
This newspaper learnt from a reliable source who craved anonymity that the committee comprises three academic and two non-academic officials.
The source, however, could not give further details, apart from the fact that they received their letters of appointment on Thursday morning, and that the committee has two weeks to submit its report.
The university management had, on 1 October , ordered the indefinite shutdown of the campus, following the protest by the students over the death of Miss Adesina.
This was announced in a statement released by the university’s public relations officer, Abiodun Olarewaju, noting that the management “understands the grief after the loss of the student, but will not tolerate the continuous and uncontrolled protest by the students.”
“The Management understands the grief resulting from this untimely death within the community and sympathises with the parents, friends, colleagues and the entire students of the university on this sad loss, and prays for the repose of her soul.
“However, management condemns in strong terms the continuous and uncontrolled protests by the students culminating in unbridled brigandage, blocking the Ife/Ibadan and Ife/Ede highways and other adjoining roads that could be used as alternative routes, and engaging in other acts that are detrimental to their health and the safety of the generality of the people,” the statement read.
The statement further directed students to vacate their halls of residence in order to return normalcy to the campus.
“Therefore, having exhausted all necessary avenues to call the students to order and allow normalcy to return to the Campus and its environs, the authorities of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, have accordingly closed down the School until further notice. This is to forestall further breakdown of law and order.
“In view of this, all students are hereby directed to vacate their halls of residence and the campus latest by 12:00 noon on Saturday, 2nd October, 2021.”
It added that the university management has put in place the machinery to unravel the “circumstances surrounding the cause(s) of the crisis, while the swearing-in of the newly elected students’ union officials has been put on hold, pending a review of the situation.”
The senate of the university on 4 October met and deliberated on the development, and mandated the management to probe the protest.
The senate’s directive angered many stakeholders including parents and unionists, who condemned the senate for prioritising the probe of the protest over the circumstances leading to the death of the student.