Opinion: The tragicomedy of the Otuoke protest

by Fortune Alfred

Something comical and tragedic all at once happened at the Federal University Otuoke, in Ogbia Local Government Area of Bayelsa State on Wednesday, May 24, 2017. There was a protest there by some people purportedly against alleged marginalization against them. Ethnic Protest in a University!

Details of the protest are already in the news. At least I know that The Nation, Sahara Reporters, among other online news sites, carried it in the usual manner these days that meticulously ensure that those who may have forgotten the significance of the town where the University is sited are reminded that it is indeed the hometown of Nigeria’s immediate past president, Dr Goodluck Ebele Jonathan and not another. Given that the blogs have already done justice to the meat of what that protest was about, I am not supposed to bore you with the details.

Yet, I crave your indulgence to allow me take you through the events of that day again and why I consider the protest and what transpired as comedic, yet sad and unfortunate enough for me to write an opinion on it.

Where exactly should I start to talk about this Protest? Believe me, I have looked for a starting point that will provide insight into the protest that would somehow manage to make its organizers look good, but I am really struggling here. Let’s take a look at the major placards containing their demands and grievances as captured by News Agency of Nigeria, from whom others seems to have gotten the story.
Some of the inscriptions read: “Bayelsans cannot be marginalised in our own land,’’ “We want fair representation, “Bayelsans are qualified,’’ “FUO na our oil well, Gbam!’ “It is our time, Bayelsans say.’’

Now, before delving deeper into anything, let me state from the outset that I have absolutely nothing against people protesting against perceived injustices against them. I think all people reserve the right to protest whenever they feel cheated. So, the Otuoke Protestors were within their rights. Having clarified this, now let’s return to the placards and sundry issues surrounding the protest.

The aforementioned inscriptions on the placards displayed by the protestors may look somewhat normal to you at first glance, especially when you think this is a protest led by members of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) or some other organization of that sort. However the true import of the tragedy that was that protest, which represented many lost opportunities for the Protestors to actually register any true grievances they may have, is driven home when one realizes that the said protest was organized and led by the institution’s chapter of the Senior Staff Association of Nigeria Universities (SSANU), and a faction of the Ijaw Youth Council.

Although one is not expecting to find the Professors and most of the PhDs in the University system amongst the ranks of SSANU, one still expected an association of senior personnel that operates within the university system to be more sophisticated than NURTW in the way and manner they express their grievances. The placards carrying words like “FUO na our oil well, Gbam!’ “It is our time, Bayelsans say.’’ etc should not come from senior staffs of any first rate nursery school, let along the senior staff of a Federal University established in the 21st century to mold the minds of future leaders of this Country and our world.  What would senior staff that think this way teach the younger generation? Now let’s look at some of the specific things said by the leaders of the protest, starting with SSANU.

According to the Chairman of SSANU FUO, Otuoke Chapter Mr Kalizibe Joseph, the recent appointment of a legal adviser was not in tandem with the laid down procedure for recruitment.

I ordinarily would not have delved into the merits or demits of his argument here. However, given that SSANU’s position is predicated on this, it is only fair that I pay it more attention. In doing this, I first asked myself one simple question, namely: “what is the nature of the employment that is the bone of contention?” My findings revealed that the said Chief Legal Adviser employment – which from my findings was made out of necessity to serve the need of the University to enter into vital legal partnerships – is a temporary employment. Now going back to the SSANU Chairman’s claim, one would love to ask: “does the Vice-Chancellor have the right to offer Temporary appointment without recourse to the Governing Council?” The answer is in the affirmative. YES! The VC has the right to make offers of temporary employments and does not need approval of Council to make temporary appointment. According to the rules guiding the appointments of Senior Staff in Nigerian Universities “The Vice-Chancellor shall have the power make temporary appointments to any established post for a period not exceeding 12 months” In fact narrowing this down to the institution in question, Section 2(8a) of “The Rules and Regulations Governing Conditions of Service of Senior Staff of the Federal University Otuoke, states that “The Vice-Chancellor shall have the power to make temporary appointments, if considered necessary for periods up to one (1) year and report to council thereafter but all such temporary appointments shall be formalized before the end of the year…”(p.15)

For the avoidance of doubt, article xxii of the FUO Rules and Regulation governing Conditions of service of senior staff defines a “Temporary staff” as “an employee who is appointed temporarily on the authority of the Vice-Chancellor and a non-pensionable yearly term as may be stated in his Letter of Appointment.”(P.5). Now please take special note of the link between the Vice Chancellor and the Temporary Employee whose appointment is predicated on the authority of the VC in its definition.

Moving on, given that he who comes to Equity must come with a clean hand, let us return to the issue of following due processes in taking actions earlier raised by SSANU. But this time we shall turn the mirror to SSANU itself. Given that the said appointment was done only the evening of the previous day, I am wondering if the Congress of SSANU at FUO met to agree on carrying out a protest early the following day’s morning.

Also, given the rules of engagement and modus operandi of Trade Unions, one expects that the 4-Cs of engagement, namely: Complain, Consult, Consolidate and (when absolutely necessary) Confront should have been applied by the FUO SSANU. So I am wondering how and why FUO SSANU reached the decision to confront at such short notice. And not only did they confront, but they did it in concert with an ethnic organization, the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC). My worry now is the fact that unionism is being dressed in an ethnic Toga. One would ordinarily expect SSANU to be a de-ethnicized professional trade union protecting the rights of all its members irrespective of race, ethnicity, religion or creed. But that was not the case at Otuoke. So, I fear that, if care is not taken to arrest this situation, the FUO chapter might just be opening a new negative chapter in the history of trade unionism in Nigeria.

Furthermore, I am equally curious to understand why it took them this long to complain about the appointment of Legal Advisers. I mean, why was there no protest about the occupation of the more important office of Head, Legal Services by another non-Ijaw and non-Bayelsans from Edo State– all these years? Why did it take the temporary appointment of a Legal Adviser for all hell to break loose? Don’t get me wrong, I am not against the employment of the Head, Legal Services, who is actually a staff of the university. I am only trying to understand why his more important employment did not raise dust, while this is.

So far, we have been dealing with the Comedic part of the issue. Now let’s turn to the more tragic stuff of this narrative.

I earlier told you that one of the principal facilitators of the protest was a faction of the Ijaw Youth Council ably represented by its Legal Adviser Barrister Tare Porri. The fact that it was a factional IYC’s Legal Adviser that spoke at this protest organized to reject the appointment of a Legal Adviser for the University should not be missed. It is even more important not to miss what he said. According to Barrister Porri “All the principal positions in the school are occupied by foreigners except the office of the VC and a Dean, who are Ijaw people but not indigenes. There are more than one million qualified Ijaw people that can hold that legal adviser position and a person from the north is not better off” (The Nation, May 24, 2017)

This is a claim that is to the best of my knowledge not only incorrect but unfortunate. I shall explain why it is unfortunate later; but for now let me deal with the incorrectness of the claim.

For the sake of clarity these are the Principal Officers of FUO and their States of origin. The current VC is Rivers, the Deputy Vice Chancellor designate as elected by the Senate awaiting Council confirmation is from Bayelsa, the Acting Registrar is from Delta, the Acting Librarian is from Bayelsa State. The Bursar is from Rivers State. These are the five Principal Officers of the University.

And contrary to the IYC’s claim, aside the VC, the Deputy Vice Chancellor designate and Acting Librarian of that University are Ijaw people. Here is the thing: Lawyers are said to deal on facts, and the IYC Legal Adviser is a Lawyer. Thus before going out to speak on an issue this weighty, one expects him to get his facts right. The foregoing therefore leaves one with two nagging questions, namely: 1. Did Barrister Porri miss the fact that the Deputy VC designate, Acting Registrar, Acting Librarian, etc are also Ijaws? And if he did 2.(i) how did he miss that? And (ii) why did the SSANU not furnish their principal partners in this venture, the IYC with this vital fact? Does that mean Ijaws do not deserve more appointments there? No! I am not saying that. What I am saying is that, even if we leave outside the obvious fact that the FUO is a Federal University, there is still no need to misrepresent facts in order to make a claim of marginalization against Ijaws. Let’s move forward

Furthermore, given that the Vice Chancellor, Deputy Vice Chancellor designate, Acting Registrar, etc are Ijaws, what then was the IYC’s protest about? In other words, what necessitated the IYC’s involvement in a clearly internal affair of a University? The Ijaw Youth Council is supposed to provide equal cover for all Ijaws irrespective of State of origin. So I find their comment that “All the principal positions in the school are occupied by foreigners except the office of the VC and a Dean, who are Ijaw people but not indigenes.” There ought not to be a “but” in the IYC’s characterization of any qualified Ijaw person holding public office. Such talks could be expected from a Bayelsa Youth Council, but never from an Ijaw Youth Council that is supposed to be a pan-Ijaw youth organization.

More so, the said Dean (of Humanities and Social Sciences) Prof Diri Teiyanyo who was lumped in the non-indigenes categorization by the IYC, is a Nembe man, and therefore a Bayelsa indigene. So here again, the IYC was patently wrong.

One thing those who claim to protest in the interest of an Ethnic group often fail to understand when they attack their own people in the course of doing what they do is that they jeopardize the very things they claim to protect. Put more succinctly, the Vice-Chancellor, Prof Seth Accra Jaja is an Ijaw man of Opobo extraction. And those fighting hard to pull him down now thinking they or their preferred candidates would be appointed to replace him are grossly mistaken; because there is no guarantee whatsoever that if he is sacked, his replacement would be Ijaw. The focus of all Ijaws and Ijaw organizations at this point in our evolution should be about improving the quality of institutions like FUO and not to bicker against our own people running them, thereby making them look rather incompetent in the eyes of the world, when that is not the case.

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

Fortune God’sSon Alfred, a Public Policy Analyst and a Media Personality who blogs via Sayelbatimes.com writes from Lagos


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