Fact Check: “does UI VC have the power to suspend Students’ Union activities without senate approval?” and other legal questions

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By: ‘Kunle Adebajo

[Analyses]–That Nigeria’s premier university is on sudden vacation is a long-established and widely-circulated fact. Students of the institution had embarked on a peaceful demonstration just outside the school gate on the National Democracy Day, 29th of May 2017.

In a swift reaction and on the same day, the Vice Chancellor of the institution, Professor Abel Idowu Olayinka, went on air to declare that “on behalf of the Senate of the University of Ibadan … all undergraduate students are to vacate the halls of residence not later than 6pm today.” As a result, students of the university are currently spending the second out of seven laps on recess in anticipation of resumption by mid-July.

But while it is a fact that the school is on vacation, the fact that the facts that led to this situation are properly grounded on law is not that evident. It has been contested whether or not the Vice Chancellor has the power to make such declaration “on behalf of the Senate” without the prior consent of the said Senate. While the University Management, through its officials, continues to maintain that such powers exist at law, there are others who think otherwise.

On the first side of the coin, for instance, is the University Director of Public Communication, Mr O.M. Oladejo, who stated during a social media engagement with alumni that “the Vice-Chancellor can suspend the activities of the Union or close down the institution by relying on the University Act 1962.”

“Thereafter, he must convene a special meeting of senate to brief the senate on the circumstances that led to that development whereby the senate may ratify that action or otherwise,” he added.

In a phone call to Mr Sunday Saanu, Media Assistant to the Vice Chancellor of the University, he also tagged along that line of thought. In his words, “the Vice Chancellor has power to do such on behalf of Senate and later seek approval. It is in order. And that is more reason the Senate did not fault him on some of the actions he had taken. The University can even take action on behalf of Council and later go back to Council to table the whole thing.”

When asked if there was any law that specifically provides for this, he responded: “Check the University of Ibadan Act. You will see the functions and powers of the Vice Chancellor there.”

Upon a closer look, however, at the nineteen (19) Sections and four (4) Schedules that make up the University of Ibadan Act (available here and here), which became operative on 21st September 1963, no such explicit provision exists. There is no mention of the words “union”, “suspend”, “ratify” or even “close down”. Section 11 which deals with the discipline of students only talks about individual students and not bodies of students. And Section 7 which deals with the functions of the Vice Chancellor merely confers upon him, with its second and last sub-section, “the general function … of directing the activities of the University.” It is hard to see which parts of these provisions are being relied upon, or are capable of being relied upon.

There is a likelihood that officials of the University have fallen into the error of unjustifiably comparing the offices of the Vice Chancellor of the University with that of the President of the Federation. This is because Section 305 (1) and (2) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria grants the President the power to issue a Proclamation of a state of emergency, copies of which shall be immediately transmitted to the National Assembly for approval. Needless to say, the spirit of this section may not be so easily transplanted into the workings of a university.

Alternatively, it may simply be a convention thought to have legal backing out of an unchallenged, long-term usage. We should also not shut our eyes to the possibility of it being a general principle of law applicable in a typical work environment.

As a way of shedding more light on the mystery, the expert and unbiased opinion of Mr Ola Adeosun, a respected lawyer and human rights activist, was sought, and he did not dissent from the stance of officials of the University. To him, the Vice Chancellor’s action “is lawful.”

“The Vice Chancellor can take decisions on behalf of the Senate and later get it ratified. It is normal and backed by law. It is a correct procedure in law. If you are a Director of a company, for example, you can act on behalf of the company before the board sits when there is urgency. And then, such decision can be ratified by the board,” he said.

It should be noted though that the Vice Chancellor’s power to declare a compulsory and emergency vacation prior to Senate deliberation and subject to its ratification is not the only on-going legal debate. There are a number of others. One of these stems out of the University Administration’s claim in its Special Release of 29 May 2017 that the Congress sought and held by the Students’ Union was not lawfully called. In its exact words, “… a ‘Congress’ was convened by the leadership of the Students’ Union on Saturday, 27 May, 2017, at Students’ Union Building without due process which required that the Dean of Students be informed and his permission obtained.” The specific source of this provision was however not published.

The Union, on its own part, has denied the truth of this claim. In its Press Statement of 1 June 2017, delivered by the President, it was stated that “while the Congress was an exercise of our fundamental right to association as contained and enshrined in the provisions of Section 40 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended in 2011), which supersedes every other law or
regulation, it was also a duly constituted Congress under the Students’ Union Constitution which informs our Union’s principles.”

In an interview with a member of the Students’ Union executives, he referred to Article XX of the Students’ Union Constitution (available on the university website) in his defence against the management’s decision. The said Article, under Paragraph c, states that “Congress shall be summoned by the President on the approval of the council. The President shall on the receipt of 250 signatories of the Students direct the General Secretary to summon the congress” and, under Paragraph g, states that “the quorum for a valid meeting of Congress shall be 500.” The document further maintained that “all the conditions stated above were met and, as such, the congress was lawfully called for.”

That said, the issue is however not as clear-cut whether the Students’ Union was right, in line with the university regulations, to have called for a protest. According to the same web page on the university website, Senate Regulations require that for a boycott or demonstration to be “effective”, a resolution in its favour must be ratified by at least 51 percent of the general body of students voting in a referendum supervised by the Deputy Registrar (Students). Not only that. Even after the referendum, the resolutions shall not become operative until “University authorities have approved them.” It is further stated that any student acting in accordance with an unapproved resolution “shall be guilty of misconduct.”

No doubt, this regulation is so hard as to be construed indirectly as an outright ban on demonstrations and boycotts of academic activities. One, it is very difficult – if not impossible – to get “the general body of students” to vote on an issue. Two, it is only an unreasonable “University authorities” that would give students the green light to protest against its perceived shortcomings.

Besides the – perhaps inevitable – illegality of the demonstration by virtue of the university Senate Regulations, another pertinent law to take account of is the Students’ Union Activities (Control and Regulation) Act of 1989. This Federal Act provides, among other things, under Section 3 that “where any society, by whatever name called or known, operating within the campus of a university or any institution of higher learning in Nigeria is pursuing activities which are (a) not in the interest of national security, public safety, public order, public morality or public health; or (b) illegal, inimical, destructive or unlawful, the Governing Council, Vice-Chancellor or any authority or person in charge of or in control of the university or institution of higher learning may, after conducting investigations with respect thereto, proscribe any such society.”

The implication of this is that the Senate of the University has the power to proscribe the Union if it is found engaging in an activity not in the interest of public order or which falls under any of the other eight grounds for proscription. Though the University may be questioned as to its adherence to the criterion of “conducting investigations with respect thereto,” it can still evade this responsibility totally by claiming it did not proscribe the Union, but merely suspended its activities (indefinitely). There is a popular public figure who would likely react to this by saying the difference is like that between Tweedledee and Tweedledum, a set of identical fictional characters.

Another contentious subject is that which borders on the use of hotplates in the University. While the University has severally asserted that the use of hotplates is illegal, the Union staunchly stands at the opposite end of the argument. In the University’s Special Release, it is written that “the use of hotplates and other cooking appliances could not be granted as the prohibition of these devices are contained in the tenancy agreement the students signed in their various Halls of Residence.”

On the other hand, the Students’ Union retorts that the use of hotplates in kitchenettes is permissible while leaning on the Student Information Handbook and the Ethics Governing Halls of Residence. In an obtained copy of a letter addressed to the Dean of Students, Professor A.T.P. Ajuwape, the Union cited Chapter 6, Page 84 of the Handbook (2014/2015 session), which permits the use of electrical appliances including hot plates only “in rooms especially provided for this purpose in each hall.” Likewise, Section E, Subsection 7 of the Ethics Governing Halls of Residence was cited along these lines, “…all cooking should be done in the kitchenettes.” It thus remains to be seen which of the laws of the University shall be given preference – the Tenancy Agreement, or the Handbook and the Ethics Governing Halls of Residence.

It is noteworthy that the University Vice Chancellor is entangled in yet another on-going debate on law. In March, Mr Femi Alamu, a legal practitioner and alumnus of the institution, had sued the Vice Chancellor and school over an alleged faulty process in the recent appointments of two Deputy Vice Chancellors. The Human Rights Lawyer claimed the university tradition was violated with the appointment of Professors with only five years’ experience, and sought a declaration that the appointments were not based on relevant university laws.

All in all, it is obvious from the foregoing that the on-going battle between students and management of the University of Ibadan is not only one of moral superiority, or emotional attachments, it is also one of legal correctness. So while both parties are trying to err on the path of caution, they should equally be wary of erring on the lane of law, for when the conflicts are resolved and the plot draws nearer to its denouement, the rule of man might have brought some comfort but only the rule of law can stand the test of time.

‘Kunle Adebajo, is a Law Student and a member of the Union of Campus Journalists, University of Ibadan. He can be reached via adekunlebaj@gmail.com  and +2348177006861.




Copyright 2017 The Page. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.thepageng.com as the source.

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