The Obafemi Awolowo University should be opened immediately while both parties are resolving the issues at stake

In a dramatic decision that bodes ill for tertiary education in Nigeria, the Osun Internal Revenue Service (OIRS) on Wednesday sealed the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife, over some unremitted taxes and levies. After shutting the institution’s senate chamber and the administrative building, the main entrance gate to the campus was also sealed because the university reportedly owes the state government a total of N1.8 billion under the Pay As You Earn (PAYE).

Ordinarily, members of staff of a university should pay PAYE and other personal income taxes that apply in the state. But the university itself as a federal institution is exempt from corporate taxes and land use taxes as the land on which the university is located is federally granted. So, on a purely technical ground, there may not be anything wrong in the action of the Osun State authorities even though the penalty for default in personal income tax payment is not to disrupt the business of the defaulting employer. There are clear legal avenues for seeking redress in matters of tax default, tax avoidance, underpayment, etc.

Moreover, in the instant case at Ife, we do not have enough evidence that the state government has exhausted the avenues of negotiation and discussion which ought to include an agreement on a mutually convenient payment plan. It is not enough either for the university administration to insist that the tax debt was inherited from previous administrations. Obligations duly entered into especially on tax matters should include an assumed undertaking by the university administration to deduct taxes from staff emoluments at source for onward remittance to the relevant state government internal revenue. Serial default in this regard by successive university administrations smacks of financial recklessness and administrative irresponsibility.

Nonetheless, there is an overarching historical context that ought to have guided the Osun State government in the handling of the Ife tax matter. In the history of higher education in Nigeria, Ife along with Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka stand out as embodiments of the vision of our founding fathers for a more enlightened and modern federal republic. These universities embody vision as mission as it were.

In the case of Ife in particular, the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo after whom the university has been befittingly re-named built the institution as an exceptional centre of excellence for a new national elite. He posited Ife to challenge and transcend the colonial heritage of the much older University of Ibadan. That then explains why the architecture, landscape and curriculum of the university at inception reflected this renaissance outlook. Therefore, the unsightly chains of the tax man of Osun State blocking the entrance of the university is a symbolic desecration of the sanctity to that hallowed place of learning and culture. It should never have been allowed to happen by both the Osun State government and the university administration.

Besides, at a period when our campuses are hardly ever open because of incessant strikes by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) aside other disruptions, adding a new window is rather dangerous. Very soon, local governments and states across the country will follow this same model of sealing up campuses at the slightest excuse. That cannot be the way to go if we are to develop our society.

We therefore insist that the chains of shame at the gate of Ife campus must quickly be removed while sensible dialogue and administrative reason on both sides should prevail to resolve the issues involved. On a scale of reason, chaining the gates of a university campus is more barbaric than the administrative oversight of those who have failed to remit personal income taxes of university workers as and when due.