Nigeria is appointing many of its former heads of state - some of them linked to brutal military regimes - as pro chancellors of its 34 universities.
Tunde Adeniran, the minister of education, said the universities would benefit from their wealth of experience.
The new pro chancellors include three generals: Ibrahim Babangida (1985-93), who annulled presidential elections that gave a clear mandate to Chief Abiola and paved the way for General Sani Abacha; Yakubu Gowon (1966-75), Nigeria's military leader in the bloody Biafran war; and Muhammadu Buhari (1983-85).
The lecturers' union said some of the ex-presidents had personally contributed to the decay of the universities and an exodus of lecturers. President Olusegun Obansanjo, who is also the visitor of the federal universities, is under pressure to rescind the decision to avoid further tension.
Dipo Fashina, the union's national president, claimed that Mr Babangida had deliberately denied funds with the aim of weakening the universities. "Mr Babangida twice proscribed our union, dismissed some of our brilliant academics and retired others without justification. Appointing such an individual would encourage the culture of repression within the universities," he said.
Frank Dimowo, a leading lecturers' union member at the University of Benin-City, said: "Buhari organised arbitrary arrests of lecturers with well- known views against military dictatorship. Can such a person champion the culture of criticism for which the academic environment is renowned?" National student association spokesman Ahmed Shuaibu said: "Those who took part in the annulment (of the 1993 election) are not qualified to lead Nigeria's university system."