Interview: UNIPORT is collapsing and needs urgent fixing – Efemini

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Professor Andrew Efemini is not new to the struggle for justice at the University of Port Harcourt. The professor of Philosophy of Development, in recent months, has been at the forefront of the struggle for reforms at the University where he has called home for almost two decades. In this chat with TPCN, the former ASUU Chairman explains the events which led to current crisis brewing at the University. Enjoy.

TPCN: May we know you?

Efemini: I am Professor Andrew Efemini, a lecturer at the University of Port Harcourt and a major stakeholder in the University.

TPCN: You have been the chairman of the Academic Staff Union of the Universities, UNIPORT chapter?

Efemini: Yes, I was ASUU chairman of UNIPORT for 5 years between 2005 and 2010

TPCN: What was your initial issue with ASUU?

Efemini: Well, not while I was ASUU chairman. In 2013, I was misunderstood, suspended and reinstated in 2018.

TPCN: There have been controversies surrounding the selection of a new Vice-Chancellor of the UNIPORT, and you are at the forefront of some of these struggles, what are the core issues in contention?

Efemini: Thank you very much for this question. I hope this will allow me to adequately explain to the general public what the controversies in UNIPORT are all about because so many persons do not know the foundation and the real issues at stake. Choosing the Vice-Chancellor of a University is based on laws and rules. It is like a game, and in a game, it has to be fair. If you play any game that the referee is not impartial to all, definitely, there will be a problem. Imagine in an Olympic game , one top athlete was disqualified because they said he jumped the gun and was disqualified. That is because the game is bound by rules. When there is a false start in any competition, what do you do? You pull back the athlete and restart the game so that the rules at the beginning will be seen to be fair, not just to the person firing the gun but to the entire public. If they know that you allowed one person to false-start and you don’t call him back, there will be complaints by the public. It is the same thing at the University. To become the Vice-Chancellor of a University, it is expected that the rules are applied fairly to all concerned so that justice is not just done but seen to be done.

Here in UNIPORT, I will give you instances of violation of our law; laws that should not be violated because it will lead to this crisis that we are having now and it has affected it. In 2017, I was in the Senate of UNIPORT. In the Senate meeting, unannounced to us, we saw the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ndowa S Lale raise the issue of change of council members. We made the point that people who were there had not finished their four-year tenure because, by our University laws, a tenure for internal council members is four years while external council members serve at the pleasure of the visitor. So President Buhari can withdraw or change any external council member at will, but internal council members are elected to serve four years. They are supposed to resume on the 1st of August and finish 31st of July. It is there in the law. It is an act of parliament signed by the President, who is the visitor to all Federal Universities. So in 2017, legitimate council members were illegally withdrawn from the council. I will give you 3 or 4 names, let them give you the letter that confirmed their appointment to the council, and you will see how many years they are supposed to serve and when they were withdrawn. Ask Professor John Ikimalo, who is a popular name in this town. We know where he works. He is a man of integrity. The current Deputy Vice-Chancellor Administration, a respected member of this community, let her bring her letter of nomination to the council. Professor Anthony Ibe, a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor; Professor Efrebo and the current registrar, let them bring their letter confirming their appointments so you can check if their tenure was exhausted before they were removed in 2017. The moment you remove people from the council and cut short their tenure, you have destroyed the council that you set up, it becomes an illegal council. So between 2017 and today, we have had an illegitimate council as a result of the nature of the representation of the internal members of the council.

TPCN: What approaches have been taken to resolve these issues?

Efemini: I have been protesting. It is part of why I am suffering here. I have written letters to the President, minister and other stakeholders.

TPCN: Have the affected members sought legal redress as an alternative?

Efemini: The facts are there, and those facts are the foundation for the crisis that you are seeing. These are the basis for the long list of suits that are now before the courts where people are arguing that an illegal council cannot make a decision to produce a Vice-Chancellor. There are court cases. The judge in his wisdom ruled the way he ruled, but it has been appealed. I have my opinion of the ruling as a philosopher which I am entitled to, but I won’t join issues with any judge. Lawyers are there to do their job. The case is on appeal. He cannot neglect these court processes because he wants to pick a successor. We must learn to be law-abiding.

TPCN: Professor Lale’s tenure is supposed to end in a few weeks from now, and there should have been a selection of a new VC. Will the crisis lead to UNIPORT having an acting VC till the issues are settled?

Efemini: We have been having acting Vice-Chancellors in UNIPORT; it is not new. The law will take its course. How do you resolve the issue of illegal members of council? Are you going to allow these people who you know shouldn’t be in council midwife a Vice-Chancellor? It means that in the next five years, we will be fighting illegitimacy battles instead of reforming the system to produce the best students. Lale should just go so that we can fix this University. This is a broken system. Even convocation membership in council which is supposed to be elected, the person there today is not elected. Let the University tell us when he was elected, who voted and when they advertised for the position, how many votes were counted. There was no election, and the law said that there should be an election, but that isn’t the case. They go into a private arrangement and send someone to the council. These are issues in contention. This person that was not supposed to be in council because he was not elected is in the selection committee that would choose the Vice-Chancellor when he is not supposed to be in council. They found a way of pushing him into the committee to select a Vice-Chancellor for us. One of the persons who came in through Lale’s two years council membership from the congregation is also in the selection committee. The selection committee interviews those who want to be Vice-Chancellor and sends recommendations to the council. I have mentioned two persons who should not be in council but are already in the selection committee. You don’t need to be Maradona to know when a goal is scored. The facts are on the table. They should go and contradict these facts

TPCN: What is the way forward?

The way forward is very simple. I don’t expect a substantive Vice-Chancellor when Professor Lale and this council is in place. We have to let Lale go, and the University will put itself in order. I am sure the Senate will do the right thing and will start the process of picking who will become the Vice-Chancellor according to the laws of the University with full government awareness. So, people should be patient. Anybody who thinks we will allow these people bulldoze their way, whether we like it or not, they must produce a Vice-Chancellor with all these ‘mago mago’, that person does not understand that we are in a democracy. We have made our case in the highest quarters of this country. I have made my case sufficiently. It is now time to educate the masses because many of the students and lecturers do not know the issues at stake not to talk of the general public.

We have rights to support somebody. We know the VC is supporting someone which is natural, but you cannot do it through the abuse of the system. You will be resisted completely. There will be no break in resisting attempts by the Vice-Chancellor to use these illegal approaches to produce a successor. He will not win. He has barely seven weeks to be Vice-Chancellor. I wish him luck; however, he must respect others. We are using reason to make our case. Let me use this opportunity to call on foremost alumni of this University, Ex-President Goodluck Jonathan, not fold his hands while his alma mater passes through this crisis. Governor Nyesom Wike graduated from this University. He has a duty, even as a lawyer, to look at the facts. Everything is not politics. This University is collapsing.

TPCN: Education in the era of coronavirus. How do you see the Nigerian University system adapting to changes ..

Efemini: Cuts in..my brother, that one, go to professors of education and ask them that one.

TPCN: But you are a philosopher. Philosophy is the mother of all disciplines.

Efemini: Not when it comes to coronavirus because this thing is a new experience. I am also watching. I have never seen anything like this before. When I read about other pandemics that broke out in 1920 and so on, I thought they were stories. It is now that I know they are real.

TPCN: Rivers State University announced the other day that they would resume online classes to meet up with their academic calendar, why is UNIPORT not doing same?

Efemini: How do you teach physics online? How do you do the experiment? You just wake and talk anyhow? All these villages where they do not have electricity, how many persons have computers? You think we have suddenly become developed like America because there is coronavirus? How many professors in Nigeria know how to relate to students online?

TPCN: What are the likely impacts of this break on the academic calendar?

Efemini: The Federal Government will have to say that. All I know is that in this crisis, we need to be careful. If we hurriedly bring students back and this thing escalates, then we are finished, all of us will die, and I am not ready to die. Covering of nose is not enough. The government should provide life insurance for lecturers before sending them to the classroom. You don’t just wake up and call back students. Do you know how many doctors have died in the US while treating others? Schools should not open until we are clear about this issue. If you lose one academic year, it is better than losing your life.

TPCN: But people are complaining of mental health issues, that they are tired of staying at home..

Efemini: Cuts in..Me I am tired but is it better to die? These are two extreme cases. I am tired, should I go to class and die? The cases are rising every day. What I see on the Nigerian streets, I am scared.