by Afe Babalola (SAN)
On May 29 2012, His Excellency, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan announced the decision of the Federal Government of Nigeria to rename the University of Lagos after the acclaimed winner of the June 12 1993 presidential election, Bashorun M.K.O Abiola. The university, according to the President is now to be known as “Moshood Abiola University, Lagos”.
Public reaction to the announcement
No sooner had the address of the President ended than the decision began to attract criticism from within and outside the country. As a former Pro-Chancellor and Chairman, Governing Council of the University of Lagos, I felt so concerned about the development that I was compelled to issue a press statement describing the decision to honour Abiola as noble, but the procedure adopted was unconstitutional. My view was hinged on the fact that prior to the announcement by the Federal Government, no attempt was made to amend the University of Lagos Act from which the University derived its name. In addition, the University of Lagos Act does not empower the President as the Visitor to change the statutory name of the University. The action of the President therefore amounted to a usurpation of the powers of the National Assembly, which by the provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 is the only body empowered to pass a law to amend the University of Lagos Act.
Government appreciates the unconstitutionality of the decision
It does appear that the President has found merit in the argument concerning the unconstitutionality of his action, for, on the 7th of June 2012 he sent a bill to the National Assembly seeking to amend the University of Lagos Act to reflect the change in the name of the institution.
In submitting the Bill to the National Assembly, the government failed to consider and comply with the requisite legal and other conditions precedent to the submission of a bill to the National Assembly, which include the following:
• The need to first reverse the decision pronounced on the 29th of May, 2012 renaming University of Lagos after Abiola.
• The need to consult with the Council of University of Lagos, the Alumni and other stakeholders.
• Respect for the court and the need to wait for the outcome of the two suits pending in the Federal High Court, Lagos, and
• The adequacy suitability or otherwise of naming University of Lagos to honour a national leader of the status of Abiola.
Need to reverse the earlier decision
Consequent upon the announcement by the President, the National Universities Commission and the Governing Council of the University acted on it and indicated their preparedness to comply with the decision on name change. Students who were not prepared to welcome the decision were sent packing. This is because the decision of the President was not a mere proposal. It was a proclamation of government policy, which became effective and operational immediately. What the government should have done was to first rescind the decision announced on May 29, 2012 before preparing any bill. By sending the bill without first rescinding the decision, the government is asking the National Assembly to rubber stamp and give retrospective approval to an illegal decision. However it appears that in this part of the world governmental fallibility is a notion which some in government are not prepared to acknowledge or accept.
No consultation before the bill was forwarded to the National Assembly
One major point of disagreement with the decision by Nigerians was the failure or refusal of government to consult stakeholders before the decision was taken. In a policy matter like this, it is the duty of the government to consult the Governing Council of University of Lagos and Alumni Association and other stakeholders before the decision was taken. This was also the advice of the former military Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon. Such consultations would have brought to the knowledge of the President, the argument that the name “University of Lagos” had itself become “a top brand” such that any other name, regardless of whatever strengths or qualities it could claim to possess would neither compensate nor be representative of the concept of qualitative academics with which the University had become associated with, within and outside the country.
National Assembly: Duty to respect the court and await outcome of court decision
The President sent the Bill to the National Assembly on June 7, 2012. On June 4, the Alumni Association and the Student Union of the University of Lagos filed two separate suits before the Ikeja Division of the Federal High Court. By the said actions, which were commenced by means of an Originating Summons, the Attorney General of the Federation is the 4th Respondent in the said suits.
It is a settled principle of law that when a matter or dispute has been submitted to a court of law for adjudication, the parties are not permitted or indeed expected to take any step capable of prejudicing or impairing the fair adjudication or determination of the matter.
The issues raised in the suits transcend the constitutionality of the President’s announcement to change the names of the University of Lagos to Moshood Abiola University before an amendment by the National Assembly. Indeed the court is being asked to determine whether or not the change of name would affect not only the university but also thousands of graduates who currently hold certificates bearing the name of University of Lagos, or whether consultation was made before the decision to change the name of UNILAG to Abiola University and whether attaching Abiola’s name to University of Lagos was an adequate, fit and proper honour for a nationalist of Abiola’s stature. These and other issues cannot be addressed by the proposed amendment to the law of the University. Since these issues have been turned over to the court, the National Assembly cannot in law consider and deliberate on the President’s bill.
The significance of June 12: Appropriate national honour
The decision to rename the University of Lagos, and not any other University outside of the South West after Bashorun Abiola is really an attempt to brand “June 12 1993” and all that it represents as being only of regional significance.
By sending bills for the renaming of two other universities at the same time he sent that of the University of Lagos, Mr. President has not done anything to allay but on the contrary has heightened the fears of some who argue that he regards June 12 1993 and the contributions and sacrifice of Bashorun Moshood Abiola as being only of regional significance. Thus in debating the bills, the National Assembly will have before it, the decision of the Federal Government to rename three universities, one from each of the major regions of the country after a national hero. What is more, the intended honourees all hail from the region in which the university sought to be named after them are located. Therefore, in the real sense, the Federal Government has debased or degraded what should be a national celebration to a regional achievement.
By sending bills for the renaming of the three Institutions at the same time suggests an attempt to appeal to the “regional” senses or loyalties of the lawmakers. By ensuring that each region is represented in the proposed name changes by a university and also with a beneficiary in the region, there is a clear intention that each legislator will be swayed to view, debate and ultimately pass the bills only from the standpoint of regional considerations. Therefore, a lawmaker from a region other than the south-west who otherwise would have questioned the appropriateness of the decision regarding the University of Lagos may decide not to “rock the boat” as a university and personality from his own region of the country is also affected by the proposed amendments.
Rule of law and democracy
Democracy is rooted in the belief in rule of law and unqualified obedience to and practice of the principles that make up rule of law. With the cases pending before the court, the non consultation with the council, the alumni and other stakeholders of the university, the failure to rescind the proclamation of May 29, 2012 on which the university and NUC have acted and the need to honour Abiola with a befitting national and not regional honour all make it imperative for National Assembly to reject the bill.
I therefore call on all members of the National Assembly to approach the discussions of the bill for the amendment of the University of Lagos Act devoid of party loyalty or affiliations. They should take into consideration all issues raised by stakeholders with regards to the name change. They must not appear too eager to rubber stamp decisions taken by the Executive arm of government. They should not repeat the same errors, which characterised the decision of the government in the very first place. It is by adherence to proper procedure that the National Assembly will be seen as makers of law and believers in the rule of law. As I said in my initial press release, a befitting national honour is perhaps the greatest honour that could be done to the late Bashorun M.K.O Abiola. These could be the National Stadium, Aso Rock, National Assembly and the likes.
*This piece was first published in The Guardian