By Professor Kiikpoye Aaron
Literary scholars have observed that the epic hero typically overcomes physical and spiritual obstacles to restore normalcy to his community through fulfilment of self. Professor Ndowa Ekoate Lale’s appointment and service as Vice- Chancellor of the University of Port Harcourt largely followed the archetype of the epic hero- from the selection phase to the battles he was forced to contend with as he established legacy projects and reforms.
In 2015, when Professor Lale applied for the post of Vice-Chancellor of the University of Port Harcourt, many conceded that he was the best man for the job, but very few believed he would be appointed. It was felt that despite his academic credentials and demonstrable administrative competence, his brutally frank, play by the books character would work against him.
Just for the records, Professor Lale is a world class academic and consummate administrator. He graduated with a First Class Honours and went straight to the PhD programme. His publications have appeared in premium journals globally and have been cited by many academics in his field of specialization. The founding Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Port Harcourt, he started the faculty, literally with bare hands. Today, the faculty has the enviable status of full accreditation for all its programmes, due largely to the quality of staff recruited under his supervision. Only the best and brightest were employed, irrespective of ethnicity or state of origin.
Lale’s contributions at the congress meetings of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) were unequivocal in advancing the perennial struggle for a better university system in Nigeria. In the Senate of the University of Port Harcourt, he built a reputation for speaking truth to all issues and persons. As a member of the Appointments and Promotions Committee, he fought for the qualified but victimized staff in their quest for promotion and prevented the promotion of undeserving people, through reasoned, evidence-based arguments. It was therefore no accident that in the ASUU referendum for the choice of a vice-chancellor, Professor Lale recorded a resounding victory over nine others.
Ironically, this reputation did not endear him to the Governing Council of the University of Port Harcourt in their preference for a VC. Despite his unassailable performance in the selection interview, the selection committee ensured that he was placed second. It was only when it became clear that the preferred candidate could not fly, that council reluctantly pronounced him vice-chancellor in its meeting of May 26, 2015.
Even after his emergence as vice-chancellor, some members of the council tried to make it impossible for him to do his job. He was regularly harassed in council so much that attending council meetings became an ordeal for him. Land mines, baited traps as well as booby traps were arrayed against him. He fell to none. The student unrest of April 11, 2016 in the university provided the veneer to get rid of him. Consequently, he was hastily suspended from office without a query – the most basic expression of the right to fair hearing in administrative settings.
Since it was difficult to justify the removal of a vice-chancellor on grounds of student protest, some reasons had to be invented to legitimize that illegality. In a letter personally signed by the Pro-Chancellor and not the Registrar and Secretary to Council as should normally be the case, he was accused of approving expenditure beyond his approval limit.
More to the point, council suspended him for approving the purchase of a Toyota Prado and furniture for himself, expenditure that was clearly above his approval limit of N2,500,000. These were lame allegations. Professor Lale was ushered into his official vehicle at the end of the ceremony of his investiture as VC. It was unimaginable that he approved the funds for the purchase of his official vehicle before he assumed office.
Clearly, the council had acted beyond its lawful mandate in purporting to suspend an innocent man and appointing an acting vice-chancellor. For this misadventure, the council found itself under the hammer of the federal government: the council was dissolved.
The dissolution of council removed the strictures preventing Lale’s journey to realizing his vision for UNIPORT, captured in his inaugural address entitled ‘A Wholesome and Prosperous University of Port Harcourt is Possible’. Before the reconstitution of a new council, he commenced the building of 32 units of flats for staff accommodation and renovation of hostel blocks that for many decades had remained decrepit. All these were done within the requirements of extant Public Procurement laws and regulations.
It might be worthwhile to address the issues at the heart of the student protest. Before Professor Lale became the vice-chancellor, the Senate of the university had decided that only registered students would be allowed to write examinations in the school. Being a registered student meant that the applicable fees and charges would have been paid by the student.
Lale’s administration did not increase the charges before or after the students protest – till he left office. This contradicts the false narrative that he increased fees and charges in utter violation of the federal government’s recommendation of not more than N45,000 only. His only offence was that he courageously implemented a decision taken by the University Senate! This was the false propaganda by which they sought to define and present Lale to the public.
In reality, Professor Lale is an affable, fair-minded and fine gentleman, with a deep commitment to integrity, ethics and values. Like all humanity, he might not be perfect. However, the Professor Lale I know is one who would do the right thing and displease you than please you and do the wrong thing. In the context of Nigeria as we know it today, my impression, based on my close interaction with him is that Lale is a man ahead of his times.
Professor Lale’s Legacies
The archetypal epic hero is usually appreciated by his bequest to posterity, when he has left the scene of battle. Professor Ndowa Lale’s stewardship at the University of Port Harcourt bears close resemblance to the epic hero. It is trite for good leaders to be thought of as bad guys while taking decisions that hurt people. They are often remembered long after they have left. I am of the firm conviction that several years down the road, people will look back at his era and say ‘here was a man.’ The following specific decisions may well be remembered as Lale’s lasting legacies.
As part of the last minute project commissioning by his predecessor, a gas power plant was handed over to him. It became operational almost as soon as he became the vice-chancellor. The terms of the contract required that the university pay the contractor N53 million monthly for power supply. He struggled to honour the contract but after the first few months it became apparent a N53 million monthly bill for energy alone could not be paid by a cash-strapped, poorly funded university. To make matters worse, contrary to expectation, the power supply was neither sufficient nor stable. This contract, it must be mentioned, was entered into for a period of ten years. The Lale-led management took a hard look at the project and engaged the company for a re-negotiation of the terms, particularly the monthly bill. First, they made a case for the bill to be scaled downwards. While this was still not a feasible thing to do given the lean resources of the university, he summoned up courage and made a case for outright termination of the contract. But for this drastic decision, Lale would have been reduced to an electricity bill paying VC. While this was an act of courage and pragmatism, it earned him the ire of some members of the council and other powerful interests.
That apart, Prof Lale took on the Physical Planning and Development (PP&D) Unit and initiated reforms that have proved very beneficial to the university. Until the reform, this unit was made up of the Estate Department, Physical Planning and TETFund. For some reasons, this unit had proved very inept in the management of TETFund projects, making it impossible for the university to access its funds at TETFund. Indeed, at some point, the University of Port Harcourt account at TETFund was frozen. Professor Lale unbundled the unit and created a desk office solely for TETFund. The university was subsequently able to access all its funds with TETFund. With those funds, the university became, as it were, a vast construction site, with both completed and on-going buildings.
Another legacy of Professor Lale is the positive disposition of students to payment of charges and fees. For many years, students of UNIPORT were accustomed to a culture of non-payment of school charges. They would normally register properly in the first year and no more. Upon graduation, they would pay petty bribes to some university officials and have their clearance forms signed. The university was losing millions of naira annually in revenue, not because of the absence of policies to address this challenge; but because of the absence of courage to implement the regulations. To be sure, before Professor Lale became the Vice-Chancellor, there was the extant rule of ‘no fee, no exam’. Convinced that lawlessness should not define the products of the university, Professor Lale insisted that the Senate rule be implemented. This was what his traducers used to mobilize students, staging an extremely destructive and violent protest in the university.
In hindsight, his insistence that the policy be implemented was the right thing to do. Today, a new culture has been enthroned in UNIPORT. Students now pay their fees within the specified periods and register their courses online. Three things flow from this singular decision. First, fraud has been eliminated in the process of clearing students upon graduation. Second, the process of result computation has been vastly improved, making many UNIPORT graduates to proceed on National Service faster than was the case before him. Most importantly, by paying their charges, the university is in a better position to provide for municipal services more regularly than the pre-Lale years.
Another lasting legacy of Professor Lale is the redefinition of attitude of students and staff to their studies and work, respectively. For many years, the first three or four weeks of resumption of academic activities in the university would be wasted. Neither students nor lecturers would be available or willing to learn or teach. Even if there were students willing to learn they would be so few that lecturers would consider it a waste of breath to teach. Professor Lale felt this was unacceptable and empowered the Quality Assurance and Quality Control (QAQC) Unit to address the anomaly.
Students now return to school from the first week and active teaching and learning begin immediately. The result is that Professor Lale is leaving behind, a more stable and predictable academic calendar in the university.
Furthermore, Professor Lale introduced a merit-based system in the career progression of staff. There have been instances in the past when ‘loyal’ candidates for professorial assessments would arrange with their deans and heads of department to send their assessments to their friends to speedily and without regard to acceptable standards, conduct the assessment of staff. All that changed under Professor Lale. At the point of sending the papers out for external assessment, he would personally call fellow vice-chancellors to supply him with names and credentials of experts in the fields in which professorial candidates would be assessed. He supplemented this by making use of the compendium containing the names of Nigerian professors and their fields of specialization published by the National Universities Commission (NUC). The result is a more merit-based assessment process and thus better quality of professors. With regard to non-academic staff, progression to the positions of Deputy Bursar and Deputy Registrar was based on subjective evaluation which easily lent itself to abuse. The Professor Lale-led management introduced a merit-based system in which candidates are to write a competitive examination, which, among other skills, required demonstrable competency in Information and Communication Technology (ICT). As is to be expected, those who could not pass the examination would think of him as a bad person.
Again, Professor Lale lawfully recovered university land that had been encroached upon by host communities and land speculators. Whenever the courts gave the university judgment, he ensured the illegally built structures on university land were promptly demolished. Today, the University of Port Harcourt land is no longer attractive to land speculators as the law would be invoked against them.
It would be hard to chronicle the achievements of Professor Lale without a mention of the relative peace that reigns on campus since he assumed duty as vice-chancellor. Elimination of cultism in UNIPORT can be attributed to his zero-tolerance stance on cult-related activities. Throughout the period of Prof Lale, UNIPORT students enjoyed unprecedented peace due largely to the absence of cult activities on campus.
Staff discipline was also a priority. Staff who went against the rules of the public service or professional ethics and values were subjected to appropriate disciplinary proceedings. Professor Lale’s administration has been courageous in applying the processes, rewards and sanctions prescribed by the public service rules. It is this army of bad guys that constitutes the forces against Professor Lale. The result is that while it cannot be claimed that staff with the proclivity to be unethical have been totally eliminated, those who do so are much more circumspect when the temptation to be unethical in their conduct tempts them.
Above all, a much more enduring legacy of Professor Lale is the redefinition of the role of council in the administration of Nigerian universities. Until Professor Lale became Vice-Chancellor and throughout his early months in office, the council awarded contracts where the value of the contract exceeded the vice- chancellor’s authorized limit. In the eyes of the law it was wrong. It is actually the Tenders Board that is saddled with the responsibility of procurement matters. This realization came after Professor Lale took a good reading of the relevant provisions of statute following his bitter experience with the first council that was dissolved during his stewardship. The university has been better for it as the processes of contract award have been properly streamlined.
Undoubtedly, being a stickler for due process, Professor Lale was often vilified by those who would rather operate under the business as usual mode. He was the subject of more petitions than were written against any other vice-chancellor in the history of the university. Written with the wrong motives, the petitions were often dismissed as lacking in merit in the relevant quarters. In some cases, the petitions boomeranged. For example, two governing councils that were poised to kick him out of office were themselves kicked out.
You may call him a bad man if your opinion has been influenced by the propaganda of traducers. Those who know Professor Lale as I do can only think of him as simply an ordinary man with extra-ordinary commitment and courage to leave the University of Port Harcourt better than he met it. In spite of the plethora of distractions that came his way, I am confident that the verdict of history on Lale’s stewardship as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Port Harcourt would be more than fair.
As Professor Lale bows out as the 8th Vice-Chancellor of the University of Port Harcourt, ladies and gentlemen, join me to celebrate this academic giant, this administrator par excellence, a man of unusual courage, and veritable beacon of hope!
Professor Aaron teaches Political Science at the University of Port Harcourt