For the umpteenth time, peace at the Obafemi Awolowo University (formerly the University of Ife), Ile-Ife was shattered last week as the students trooped into the streets to protest the very sad, very unfortunate, and very untimely death of one of their colleagues, 24-year-old Omowumi Aishat Adesina, a Part 4 student in the Department of Foreign Languages, allegedly as a result of the nonchalance and negligence of the institution’s Health Centre. According to a statement issued by OAU’s PRO, Biodun Olarewaju, Omowumi “reported to the Health Centre with signs and symptoms of a severe infection” on Tuesday, 28th September and “was promptly treated with some drugs prescribed and (was) asked to report back as an out-patient. She reported back to the Health Centre in the morning of Thursday, 30th September, 2021. Upon examination, she was referred to the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital for further management where she regrettably died on Thursday, 30th September, 2021”. Her death led to the crisis which compelled the university authorities to close down the school again last Friday, October 1, giving the students up till 12 noon of the next day to vacate the campus.
The students’ protests, which started immediately when the news of Omowumi’s death hit the campus, soon took a turn for the worse as the Ife-Ibadan and Ilesa-Ife roads were reportedly blocked. Hoodlums, who took advantage, hijacked the protests for their own diabolical purposes and turned the blocked roads into toll gates. Politicians and other people with axes to grind weighed in, ferrying lorry-loads of food items and drinks to the protesters to keep the fire burning. Those not happy with the university administration over some of its “unpopular” decisions boasted they would ‘ENDSARS’ the protest to effect regime change in the university.
If Nigeria has never before been as divided as it is today, so also is my illustrious alma mater, Great Ife! The last change of baton at the university was bitterly fought. The then VC, the Governing Council, and their preferred candidate were run out of town by the unions. In the end, the majority opinion prevailed and those rooting for the current VC, Prof. Eyitope Ogunbodede, had their way but the minority or the disgruntled elements remained to seize every opportunity to throw spanners in the works. As with politics, so also with our universities: Alliances do not last forever, especially when expected selfish benefits fail to manifest. Thus was Ogunbodede corrupted by some into Ogunmegbade (he comes wielding the whip)!
Four years ago, Ogunbodede promised to run an unusual administration – and he has not disappointed. I witnessed his inauguration. He has zero tolerance for corruption; he will not steal and will not allow anyone else to do so. How many in today’s Nigeria will love such a leader? His avowed zero tolerance for sexual harassment, sex-for-marks and other forms of social vices has already recorded two casualties. How many predator-lecturers will be beholden to such a VC? Not long ago, it was reported that portions of OAU land were being grabbed by powerful land speculators. Ogunbodede went public with the discovery and warned the land grabbers he would not play ball. No one does that in Nigeria and do not expect repercussions! Corruption fights back – and it can be vicious! OAU is also one of the universities where the rank of lecturers is split down the middle. There is the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and there is also the Congress of Nigerian Universities’ Academics (CONUA). That Ogunbodede has successfully navigated these landmines is a function of his transparency and tenacity of purpose together with the support of a large section of the university community that see eye-to-eye with him on his reforms.
Nevertheless, the proverbial “eku eda” or agent provocateur of the current crisis – the OAU Health Centre – is not new to controversies. Students have protested against it from time immemorial. The present crisis, however, threatens to make a bad case worse for the university, students and parents alike in terms of an academic calendar that was out of sync before and which has now been thrown into a tailspin. Second semester examinations were nearing completion with a new session scheduled to commence in November. Now, no one is sure what is on the cards. Going by the statement issued by the OAU PRO, due diligence was done by the Health Centre. The eventual death of Omowumi, then, could be an act of God or that she reported late for treatment. But if Omowumi exhibited “signs and symptoms of a severe infection” on Tuesday, 28th September, why was she not immediately admitted and placed under observation by the Health Centre? But, as the French will say, “Que sera, sera”
During my own period at Ife (1978 – 1982), we protested on a number of occasions against the Health Centre. So, students’ protesting against the Health Centre is not new. Students usually will have cause once in a while (real or imagined) to give the Health Centre thumbs down. As Nigerians, we know that hospitals everywhere have degenerated; even the Aso Villa presidential clinic which gets billions of Naira votes reportedly lacked working X-Ray machines and drugs – so we were told by the First Lady and one of the president’s own daughters! So, if gold rusts, what will silver do? Shortsges of state-of-the-art facilities, modern equipment, and drugs apart, where are the qualified and experienced personnel with the rate doctors and other medical personnel are checking out of the country and seeking greener pastures and better working environment elsewhere? But I have it on good authority that the OAU Health Centre still boasts some of the best in many respects. What, then, is the problem? Work ethics or what?
The OAU authorities must take another hard look at its Health Centre. Ogunbodede’s tenure as VC has recorded many firsts; a shake-up at the Health Centre will be a worthwhile addition before his tenure comes to an end in mid-2022. But how time flies! It looks like yesterday when Ogunbodede was inaugurated as VC! Despite the current setback, he must strive still to berth a virile and vibrant students’ unionism at Ife before his exit. In his methodological way of doing things, Ogunbodede consulted far and wide, seeking advice on how to give birth to a rancour-free student’s union election and a responsible and responsive Student Union Government. The OAU Students Election Committee and the Election Petition Committee members were trained by INEC and the election, held on 1st September, 2021, was a huge success without a single petition against its conduct and outcome. Not done yet, the OAU VC went as far as sensitizing the National Institute for Legislative Studies, Abuja on the need to begin the training of our youths as the leaders of tomorrow from the SUG level; both the OAU and the Institute were working on a training programme for the elected SUG leaders before last week’s crisis. The OAU experiment was to serve as a pilot scheme to be replicated all over the country.
Mockers will mock, VCs adverse to students’ unionism on campus will say “serves them right” but my advice to the OAU authorities is to continue to think out of the box and see their novel experiment to its logical conclusion. Scripture says “For a just man falleth seven times, and riseth up again…” Remaining on the floor after a fall is what translates into defeat. Remembering the folklore of the thieving tortoise and his in-law, the OAU authorities must also work hard to re-open the school within days. The remote and immediate causes of the crisis should be painstakingly investigated with adequate student representation on the panel. As an ex-student union leader, we made similar mistakes as today’s students but with the benefit of hindsight, age and experience, I will counsel as follows: Students should endeavour to exhaust all avenues of discussion with the university authorities before embarking on protests. Protests should be confined to the campus to avoid their being hijacked by undesirable elements. Student leaders must discontinue the practice of visiting and doing the bidding of politicians. In our own days, we treated those in power with suspicion; how come nowadays student leaders mill around them like ants mill around sugar? When a crisis occurs, student leaders must neither stand aloof nor remain bellicose but should reach out to the authorities for a quick and amicable settlement of the matter. And they should refrain from precipitating actions that could lead to school closure, such as the SUG announcing the cancellation of ongoing exams! When universities are shut, students and their parents are the ones marking time and losing resources. When you close universities and give students marching orders to quit the hostel within hours, it is the students that suffer; what of those without transport fares? In travelling to and fro, they are also the ones who bear the risks involved. And when school reopens and they are hauled straight into examination halls, they are still the ones that bear the brunt. It is time to wake up and do things differently!
May Omowumi’s soul find sweet repose! May her parents, family and friends receive the strength to bear the irreparable loss! May affliction never again rear its ugly head at Great Ife!