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Flashback: The University of Lagos Crisis of 1965

Opinion

Flashback: The University of Lagos Crisis of 1965

‘Nigeria’s University Age: Reframing Decolonisation and Development, left; Professor Eni Njoku (1917-1974) top right and Professor Saburi Biobaku (1918-2001)

What is happening right now at the University of Lagos evokes the feeling of déjà vu! In other words, the leadership crisis in the institution is somewhat a replay of what took place in 1965.

Professor Oluwatoyin Ogundipe was, in August 2020, removed as UNILAG Vice Chancellor by the Council. He was replaced by Professor Theophilus Soyombo. This has been generating heated arguments from the sides of the Chairman of Council, Dr. Wale Babalakin on the one hand, the Academic Staff Union of Universities, the local branch and Senate, on the other.

There was a historical parallel to this when Professor Eni Njoku was removed as Vice Chancellor and was replaced by Professor Saburi Biobaku. That also created conflicts.

According to Tim Lisvey, in his book ‘Nigeria’s University Age: Reframing Decolonisation and Development’ (2017) pp. 157-160., recently shared on FB’s The Nigerian Nostalgia 1960 -1980 Project by Ugo Ezeh:

“A crisis broke out in February 1965 when the university council announced that [Prof] Eni Njoku, the founding vice-chancellor, would be replaced by [Dr] Saburi Biobaku. Njoku was considered a capable administrator, and his dismissal was widely understood in ethno-political terms because he was Igbo and supported the NCNC. Biobaku was a proven scholar and administrator, but he was Yoruba and his political partiality was suggested by his actions during the [1963] dispute at [the University of] Ife, when he called for the university’s loyalty to the NNDP Western Region government. ‘It will be difficult for the Council’, noted the ‘West African Pilot’, ‘to escape the charge that it has practiced naked tribalism’. The University of Lagos senate, which represented the lecturers, unanimously recommended Njoku for reappointment, while the council was split on ethnic lines.”

Read the full narrative below:

THE UNIVERSITY OF LAGOS CRISIS OF 1965

By Tim Livsey

I

“The University of Lagos, which accepted its first students in 1962, was a federal institution. Federal politics, together with the university’s transnational connections, sparked problems there. [The University of] Lagos, like [the universities at] Ibadan and Ife, was affected by the rise of the NNDP, which had formed a coalition with the NPC in federal government. The NNDP took the federal education portfolio, and installed nominees on the University of Lagos council. A crisis broke out in February 1965 when the university council announced that [Prof] Eni Njoku, the founding vice-chancellor, would be replaced by [Dr] Saburi Biobaku. Njoku was considered a capable administrator, and his dismissal was widely understood in ethno-political terms because he was Igbo and supported the NCNC. Biobaku was a proven scholar and administrator, but he was Yoruba and his political partiality was suggested by his actions during the [1963] dispute at [the University of] Ife, when he called for the university’s loyalty to the NNDP Western Region government. ‘It will be difficult for the Council’, noted the ‘West African Pilot’, ‘to escape the charge that it has practiced naked tribalism’. The University of Lagos senate, which represented the lecturers, unanimously recommended Njoku for reappointment, while the council was split on ethnic lines.”

II

“According to [Sir] Eric Ashby, who was in Lagos during the crisis, an emergency university council meeting was scheduled in secret. Njoku somehow found out and attended, ‘to the embarrassment of Council’. Njoku arrived to find the council discussing three nominees for vice chancellor: himself, Biobaku, and [Prof] Dosekun of the university medical school. Njoku argued that the meeting could not make an appointment as it did not have up-to-date information about the candidates. The decision was postponed, but when the council met again on 26 February, [1965] Njoku’s appointment was terminated by seven votes to three. ‘I feel like a father who after bringing up his son, watches the lad die or about to die as he reaches maturity’, Njoku told a journalist while he packed his possessions at the vice-chancellor’s residence. Students erected barricades in protest, and the campus descended into violence, exacerbated by what a British diplomatic report described as ‘imported NNDP thugs’. An extraordinary pamphlet war developed, in which lecturers who supported the NNDP claimed that other staff had ‘actively managed a student rebellion’. The university was closed and police called onto campus.”

III

“When it reopened in June 1965, Biobaku still faced determined opposition. He arrived to find his new office empty. Lecturers opposed to his appointment had seized the vice-chancellor’s files and set up a rival university administration, and Biobaku’s first address to students was met with shouts of ‘shame’. As he left having doggedly completed the speech, one student stabbed and wounded the new vice chancellor. The crisis was widely seen in ethnic terms. The NNDP newspaper ‘Daily Sketch’ characterised the attack on Biobaku as ‘an outright declaration of war on the Yoruba by the Ibos [sic]’, blamed ‘Ibo students with their expatriate backers’, and alleged that the University of Ibadan too was ‘dominated by Ibos.’ The federal minister of education, Richard Akinjide of the NNDP, denounced the NCNC and the Igbo State Union, an ethnic association, for ‘introducing tribalism into the University issue.’ However, the student who stabbed Biobaku was reported to be Yoruba, like Biobaku himself. As at [the University of] Ibadan, [where Prof Kenneth Dike, the Igbo vice chancellor clashed with N. K. Adamolekun, the Yoruba registrar] ethnicity was mobilised during the dispute, but did not wholly explain what happened. Many of the protagonists were partly motivated by what were seen as universal norms of university administration, and the dispute was often discussed in these terms.”

IV
“Expatriate lecturers played an active role in mobilising support for Njoku, as the ‘Daily Sketch’ pointed out. As in the Dike-Adamolekun dispute at Ibadan, the expatriates generally sided with what became seen as the Igbo faction. Expatriate staff, including Professor L.C.B. Gower, the British dean of law [at the University of Lagos] who had previously taught at the London School of Economics, wielded considerable prestige. Their uncompromising stance helped to escalate the crisis, but they did not take orders from American and British diplomats, who perhaps surprisingly disapproved of their compatriots’ involvement. At the British High Commission, officials considered that expatriate deans ‘showed little understanding of the realities of political life and expected too much of a country where tribalism and politics are so inextricably interwoven’, while the American legation in Lagos actively discouraged expatriate involvement. A report noted that ‘Embassy/USAID efforts to persuade the American Deans to take less exposed positions were unsuccessful’. In addition, a few foreign staff backed Biobaku’s appointment, suggesting the multifaceted role of expatriates in the crisis. Akinjide nevertheless condemned the expatriate lecturers. He accused them of behaving ‘as if Nigeria is still a colony’ and promised ‘to use ironhand and if possible, steel hand, to deal with those Confusionists’. The university council, packed with NNDP supporters, agreed. By June 1965, five of six expatriate deans had been dismissed, and 44 staff including many expatriates had resigned. The crisis threatened to discourage the foreign assistance that made the [U]niversity [of Lagos] so valuable, although [Richard] Akinjide defiantly maintained that he had received offers to replace foreign lecturers ‘from Russia, the Middle East, the U.S. and the UNESCO’, comments which showed the political importance of continuing flows of foreign aid.”

V
“Many of the Igbo staff who resigned from posts at [the University of] Lagos took up new positions at [the University of Nigeria] Nsukka, including Njoku himself. This migration of Igbo scholars to the East contributed to a growing sense that Nigerians could be completely safe only in their home region, and anticipated the larger migrations in 1966 and 1967. The University of Lagos crisis consolidated perceptions of universities’ central role in political competition, and of the escalating importance of ethno-political frames for development. If the University of Lagos crisis did not kill the goose that laid the golden egg, it left it wounded. [Sir] Eric Ashby wrote in March 1965 that what he called a ‘deplorable bit of tribal politics … has done great harm to the University (whose ‘buildings’ are immensely impressive).’ His comments perfectly captured the growing disconnect between the practice and the spectacle of university-led development. In 1960, American and British donors envisaged a national Nigerian university system, kick-started with foreign help, which would rapidly develop the country. By 1965, these plans seemed hopelessly optimistic, and jaded expatriates began to wonder if their presence in Nigeria was making the situation worse. The widening cracks in the university development consensus posed particular problems for American involvement in Nigerian universities, which was still growing.”

SOURCE:—Tim Livsey, ‘Nigeria’s University Age: Reframing Decolonisation and Development’ (2017) pp. 157-160

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