Army man leads stricken campus

February 2, 1996

The Nigerian university where a senior administrator died late last year after a beating by junior staff is expected to reopen in March with a retired army officer appointed by government at its head.

It is the first time in Nigeria's university system that an army general, who holds only a BSc degree in engineering, has been imposed on a university. The vice chancellor Daniel Saror has been on indefinite leave since an investigation into difficulties last year.

The appointment of retired major-general Mamman Tsofo Kontangora as the sole administrator of Ahmadu Bello University in northern Nigeria was announced by the federal ministry of education. A statement said: "The ABU crisis is more of a civil disorder than the usual academic problems identified with some universities and other tertiary institutions.

"Factionalisation, tribalism, general insensitivity, arson etc. have taken over the reins of affairs in hitherto one of the most respected, highly remarkable, extremely productive and famous higher institutions in the whole West African sub-region."

According to the 1962 edict founding ABU, the head of the university must be a professor with several years academic and administrative experience. The vice chancellor is not appointed, but elected by university senate and council.

Mike Ikhariale, dean of the faculty of law at Lagos State University, said: "The appointment of General Kontangora is illegal, null and void because he was simply imposed upon the university by military fiat. This kind of militarisation of the university system will simply destroy it."

There was also concern that General Kontangora had headed an investigation into ABU, which reported two weeks before the ministry announced his appointment.

The Guardian of Nigeria, influential among lecturers and students, has warned of a trend to muffle the divergence of views, dissent and open criticism celebrated as virtues in universities. The idea of a sole administrator "has no place in the modern, plural society, much less in a university", it said.

ABU, in the ancient northern city of Zaria, has been plagued by two big crises: one of transparency and accountability, particularly financial, and the other a religious and ethnic power struggle.

A Muslim fundamentalist group known as the Northern Elements Coalition declared it would try to remove Professor Saror, who it accused of "removing northerners from responsible positions and replacing them with Yorubas and filling the university council with southerners.

"This state of war has been forced on us. We will not lose this war," declared a press statement. The coalition swore to attack members of rival ethnic groupings.

Professor Saror told the investigation that the allegations against him were unsubstantiated. "I was operating a system where there are individuals who feel strongly that because of their parentage, their ethnic background, their religious beliefs, they should be above the law," he said.

Several times late last year the chancellor and some academics were attacked with snakes and knives. Lecturers suspected of being sympathetic to the vice chancellor were said to be living in fear.

Tension came to a head last October when junior workers, allegedly coalition-organised, assassinated Bamidele Bandipo, chief medical director of ABU's teaching hospital. About 40 people have been charged with murder.

Since then ABU has remained closed. Students who reported to the campus shortly after the New Year were told not to come back before the end of March. "This is to allow us to renovate the campus and make the infrastructure more conducive to learning," a university administrator said.

Meanwhile virtually all the foreign lecturers, mostly from Sudan, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, have resigned and left Nigeria because "life and property are no longer safe in ABU", said one who had spent more than 20 years there.

Lecturers originally from the southern part of Nigeria are applying to universities in the south. Even if ABU's infrastructure is rebuilt there will be acute staff shortages. Many lecturers will find it difficult to work with a career soldier as the head of the university.

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