Former vice-chancellor of the Osun State University, Prof ‘Labo Popoola, talks to BOLA BAMIGBOLA about his disagreement with the leadership UNIOSUN branch of the Non-Academic Staff Union during his tenure and the controversy that ensued
Not much has been heard from you since you left UNIOSUN as the vice-chancellor. Did you take up another job?
I have been busy as usual. I was busy before going to UNIOSUN, and for the five years that I was there, I was busy. I completed my five-year tenure on November 4, 2021, and the following day, I was back in my office at the University of Ibadan. So, I resumed in my office at UI on November 5, 2021, and continued what I love doing most – teaching, research, and attending to those I supervised. In any case, I was doing all of that, even when I was the vice-chancellor (of UNIOSUN).
You faced opposition from workers at UNIOSUN when you were there as the VC. For example, the then chairman of the Non-Academic Staff Union, Isaiah Fayemi, was reported to have accused you of using your position to deny workers their rights and making sure some of them were sacked unjustly. Is that true?
I am publishing a book and many of the facts will come out. Which rights is he talking about? Did I owe anyone salaries? I was there for 60 months and I paid (salaries) for 60 months, on the 25th day of every month, and at times, even earlier, depending on the season. Was any worker deprived of their promotion? You didn’t have to come and lobby me before you got promoted. Promotions were carried out as and when due. Did Fayemi miss a promotion despite his hatred of me for reasons best known to him? The records are there. (In terms of) capacity building, what we had during my period was something they never had before. People who deserved training were trained across the board and even outside the country. So, I don’t know what he meant. The guy had his issues with me and I will publish them.
People hide under unionism to commit atrocities. That you are a president of a union doesn’t make you the owner of the union or a lord over members of the union. I know that the majority of the workers at UNIOSUN were happy with me. Many of them still reach out to me with expressions of love, even after 22 months of leaving the university. Having a motley crowd abusing the use of social media does not tell the whole story.
You said they were happy but many of them celebrated your exit. What is your reaction to that?
How many? I doubt if they were up to 10. They said they were performing rituals. This is the problem we have with the Nigerian media. What about all the celebrations before my exit? The students organised a symposium in my honour. The management and staff did their own. The governing council did theirs. The students pulled me out gloriously. Because somebody decided to be notorious does not reflect reality. He (ex-NASU chairman) was like a lord before I came to UNIOSUN, but I am happy I demystified him. Those that I came to serve appreciated me and they still appreciate me till tomorrow. So, ask him to define whatever he meant by depriving workers of their rights. I am not a vindictive person.
People were shocked when we were processing the papers of those who were giving us problems, including himself. But I insisted that matters be separated. Yes, I did not allow people to abuse the resources of the university the way they used to. So, if that is what he meant by right, maybe right has a different definition. I did not permit indolence, frivolities, and cheating as the vice-chancellor. No apologies for that.
As a university administrator who didn’t enjoy the support of some of the workers at UNIOSUN, did you face physical hostility or threats to your life?
Don’t say, workers. I know the number of workers that I inherited and I know the number that I left. We only recruited people that we needed. Also, what do you mean by hostile workers? Workers were not hostile to me. The fact that two or three people got themselves together, made some noise, and went to the press does not mean workers were hostile. I think the media would need to be circumspect on some of these issues.
It will be published in my book for you to know it was beyond unionism. I know that I blocked leakages and it is like the then chairman of the (UNIOSUN) Governing Council, Mallam Yusuf Alli would say, “Labo, you are a reformer and you should expect all these attacks. How do you expect those who were benefitting unjustly from a commonwealth to love you now that you have blocked that avenue?”
Were there threats to your life?
There were threats. At a point in time, the Department of State Service had to attach someone to me to follow me about. I later told them that it was not my lifestyle and I wanted to be free. I had a domestic driver by the letter of my appointment. That driver had to plead with my wife and me to allow him to be deployed out of my premises because people were giving him instructions to do something untoward to members of my family. I had to accept his plea to get him posted out of my place. He said he got to my family and found out that all that Fayemi and co were saying about me was not true.
You said in an interview that nice guys don’t run the university system in Nigeria. Don’t you think being nice is an attribute that can endear a leader to their followers in a university and promote harmony between a VC and the different unions?
No! When people say to you, “Bobo yen nice,” you know what that means in Yorubaland. It means you are a fool. Those who know me know that I can be so meek. The students ended up loving me so much, even though Fayemi and co almost turned them against me but they failed because the students got to know that I was doing everything in their best interest. How can Fayemi have any good thing to say about me when some collected TEFFund travel grants and did not make the journey even after some two years? Of course, when I could I made sure every kobo was retrieved and we reported the same to TETFund.
So, when I say nice, it is not in the sense that people are putting it. Nice in the sense that approving everything that was presented without scrutiny because you want people to hail you is definitely not part of good administration. Feigning ignorance of malfeasances cannot be good for a system either. It is nice in the sense that there is an infraction and you overlook it. That’s what I meant. Otherwise, the workers knew that they had it better because none of their rights and entitlements were denied them.
When we reviewed fees upward, I was the one who took it to the governing council that every member of staff of UNIOSUN whose children were enrolled in the university should have a 50 per cent rebate in fees subject to a maximum of four children. In the first congregation meeting I had, I made a statement and somebody decided to misinterpret it, but he later came to me and said he misunderstood me.
What did you say?
I said I would step on toes, but it did not mean that toes in the right places would be stepped on. If you go beyond your bounds, you should be ready for the consequences. Could I have denied workers their rights if I put in place a health fund for workers, not workers like me, not professors but ordinary workers? This money was pooled from sources that some people normally benefitted from unjustly. From the money we saved from our first post-Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination test when I came in, there is a building cropping up around the Odi Olowo area (in Osogbo). We used part of that money to procure the land on which that edifice is.
Was that idea welcomed by the workers?
Some people would not like it because that was the kind of money they normally shared. The building was almost completed before I left. What do they have to show from the revenue they earned from post-UTME tests before we came in? The first examination conducted when I came in cost the university over N15m. I ended up spending less than N5m to conduct the examination, and that was prudently maintained all through my tenure.
Where were the differences in the costs going in the past? Private pockets! Records must be put straight, and there are several such tangible outputs of our prudent management of the university’s resources. Facts have stamina. They don’t get tired. This is Nigeria. I don’t want to generalise, but we have mean human beings here. It is so easy to blame governments and politicians but the kind of things that go on in our backyard are unimaginable.
When I came in as the VC, they had already approved money to buy SUVs for the pro-chancellor and vice-chancellor. At that time, they were anticipating the coming of the VC and at my first council meeting, I saw the document and they were saying the value of the naira was depreciating so the price had gone up. So, they were going to buy the SUVs for the pro-chancellor and VC at the cost of N89m and I just scribbled a note to the pro-chancellor saying that it was impossible.
How much did it eventually cost the university to buy the SUVs?
We ended up buying the vehicles at N65m. I was not the VC when they cooked the scheme, but I busted it. Where was the difference going to go? They had put the cost of the SUV for the vice-chancellor at N55m but I ended up buying it at N39m. For God’s sake, why would anybody want to buy something at N89m when it could be bought with N65m or something at N55m when we could buy it with N39m? Where was the difference going? So, it is natural that some people would not like me, but do I care? I thank God that I had a good council. I didn’t have a council that came to ‘eat’. Of course in Nigeria, people equate an opportunity to serve as an opportunity to ‘eat’. I even learnt that some people were saying that it was good that the noble council was dissolved because they had ‘eaten’ enough. Sad!
The then leadership of NASU accused you of financial misappropriation. What is your reaction to that?
As VC, I never took any extra kobo beyond my entitlements. I would even return unspent duty tour allowances. We know how some of our colleagues do these things but I never did because my upbringing didn’t allow it.
How much influence did you have in the choice of your successor?
There is a general saying that success without a successor cannot be defined as a good success. So, it would be out of place to say that I wasn’t interested in who would succeed me. Who that person was probably would be a matter for conjecture, but we had criteria that were queried and I wouldn’t know why. It is the council that advertises the vacancy for the position of vice-chancellor, not vice-chancellors, but the VC as a member of the council can give an opinion. I wouldn’t call that influence because it was an open . and you see, we often make some mistakes about some of these issues.
Every . is supposed to put some people at a disadvantage. Every . is supposed to eliminate some people, otherwise, someone with a school certificate result, or a diploma will also apply for the position of the vice-chancellor.
How did your successor emerge?
Somebody needs to tell me that the man who eventually emerged did not have all those criteria that were advertised. With those criteria, I learnt that they had interviews with about eight candidates in three areas of competency, and the person that came first did so in all three areas. The CVs were assessed; there was a computer-based test, there was an oral interview and the person who came first led in all. Similarly, the person who came last did so in all the areas. Being a professor does not automatically make you a potential vice-chancellor. It’s like a football league; you have divisions three, two, and one.
Did he merit the position? I think that is the question we should ask. His person is a different thing entirely. You can never know people 100 per cent. Don’t forget he worked with me and a good administrator will know the capacity of people who work with him or her but to say that I influenced it, I couldn’t have.
Did he not face any opposition?
There were other issues that could have dropped him. There were petitions against him. It has happened before in the Nigerian university system when someone came first and did not have the approval of the Visitor to the university because of petitions that turned out to be spurious. In his case, the pro-chancellor played his role properly by encouraging the then-visitor, Governor Adegboyega Oyetola, to approve the selection process as properly conducted. The rest as they say is history.
The important thing is that the man satisfied all the known and seen conditions. Other things like personality, character, and approach to issues are different things entirely. There is no way you will know that until the person gets on with the job. In any case, I have never seen a perfect person. I am not one. But in terms of the basics of the job, he was the best.
You were known as a vice-chancellor who did not consider strikes as an option to address industrial disputes. What other measures do you think could be used instead?
I do not know of a VC that would encourage strikes. I have moved around the world, and not in the last two decades have I seen a country where people would go on strike for 10 months and almost indefinitely and yet feel comfortable doing so. Some people have analysed the number of months that universities have been on strike in the last 20 years. It is worrisome. This is not happening again elsewhere. Weaponising strike is not in vogue. It is outdated. This is what our colleagues don’t want to hear. Of course, I have had issues with them but I don’t bother. I have to speak my mind. We are ruining lives first and foremost. They may think they are fighting the government but they are ruining lives.
In a programme of four years, a student spends seven or eight years not because they failed. I guess that is why the labour law was applied, and the court upheld it. I was already back in UI when the last strike started. I didn’t believe in the strike and I couldn’t have joined the strike but like the Yoruba will say, “Won ko eran mo ero,” (animals were packed with human beings). So, I was an unwilling victim but I am happy that the court has settled the matter.