In the last few weeks, Edo State-owned Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, had been in the news, but not for something to cheer. The institution is at loggerheads with its lecturers under the aegis of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, following the suspension of its local chapter chairman, Monday Igbafen, associate professor, department of philosophy over allegation of gross misconduct bordering on sexual harassment. Igbafen believes the allegation was orchestrated to intimidate the union for insisting that the right thing be done in the university. In this interview with Adekunbi Ero, executive editor, the embattled chairman debunked the allegation leveled against him by the authorities of the university, describing it as “pure witch-hunt and pure blackmail” by the vice-chancellor, Ignatius Onimawo, a professor of nutritional biochemistry. Igbafen who has slammed a N200 million suit on the institution for alleged defamation of character, stated defiantly that “I am even challenging them that if they say I victimised her, they should go and bring all her scripts; let them assess the scripts outside the university”. The face-off between the duo, however, took a dramatic twist just recently, when the family of the alleged sexual harassment victim dissociated themselves from the travails of the embattled ASUU chairman, threatening to sue the university. The family also disowned the said family member who purportedly wrote to resurrect the contentious sexual harassment case while Igbafen has also reported to the state Commissioner of Police, a case of defamation of character and forgery against the vice chancellor. Between Igbafen and Onimawo, it is fight-to-finish as the journalist turned university teacher bared it all, exposing how the vice-chancellor resorted to blackmail when the various desperate attempts to comprise him failed. It is most revealing.
Recently, you were suspended by the authorities of Ambrose Alli University on an allegation of sexual harassment, but you claimed you were being blackmailed. The question is why would the vice-chancellor want to blackmail you with such a grievous and damaging allegation?
Let me give you the genesis of the whole problem. In 2011, in fact, just to let you know the political dimension to the whole problem, it was in the heat of our ASUU election and the information went out that I may likely emerge the chairman. Meanwhile, the university said they received a petition against my person and one Dr. Blessing Agidigbi in the same department with me, department of philosophy. To cut the long story short, a panel was subsequently set up to investigate the petition and at the end of the day, they said they submitted a report. I wasn’t sent that panel’s report. What we just heard was that they warned the other person who is no longer alive today because he died, I think three years ago. Mine was to be queried, and I received that query; that was, I think in early 2012, and I responded to the query stating my innocence very clearly to the university administration. As I speak to you, until very recently, nothing was heard about that story any longer. And as at that time, I was Lecturer 1. From then till now, I have since been head of department of philosophy- for two years – and I have enjoyed all my working career there, including my promotion from Lecturer 1 to associate professor in 2014; nothing was said.
But the funny aspect is that once they hear about ASUU, that Igbafen is coming, they would start shouting that they have a case with him. And when I now became chairman of the union in 2015, this vice-chancellor came in. His attitude was that he could take over the whole university and do what he liked without any challenge from anybody. But as a responsible union on ground, we felt that everything we do in the system should be done according to due process. That is what the union had been insisting on, and of course, the current vice-chancellor’s hands are full of so many arbitrariness and others. So, our union had always been at loggerheads with him until last year when we were to do another election. The man showed open interest that Igbafen cannot come back as chairman. We were able to dig it out and at the end of the day, I won even with his sponsorship of candidates. And so, what is bringing up this one is the recent development over our strike. When the wife showed open interest and was insulting professors; she was directly calling our members to break the strike, and the union felt that was not going to be possible. So, we had to issue a release on her conduct; and since then, the man had been aggressive. And before I knew it, he told me that he endorsed a petition to me over an issue of 2011 and for which even as we speak, I don’t even know what that report said then. Before I knew it, he had gone to resurrect the problem; he sent a suspension letter. And before we knew it, it was already in the press shouting Igbafen has sexual harassment case based on which he’s being suspended. I have stated my own side of the story that it is pure witch-hunt, pure blackmail; and of course, his plan is to get at the union for insisting that he should do the right thing in the university.
And one of those things is the irregular appointments that he has done. For more than one year, he was running this university as a sole administrator because there was no governing council; so, he committed so many unprocedural things that the union said he should not and should be reversed. Some of the illegal appointments he did, conversions, where he personally moved his wife that is so desperate now, from non-academic cadre to lecturing cadre – to Lecturer 1 which of course is unprecedented. Our union says that is not going to be possible – for you to move somebody who had no teaching experience in the university from nowhere to Lecturer 1; and even as at then, without a Ph.D.
But the university’s Public Relations Officer exonerated the vice-chancellor; he said it was the former VC who did the conversion of the VC’s wife.
No, it’s not true now. It is not true. The files are there in the university; we wrote to the Council to investigate it. And of course, the irregular appointments and others, we told the Council. We also wrote to the vice-chancellor to investigate his allegation of fake Ph. Ds amongst our members. As I speak to you, no report on it. We understand that some of the people he’s using are people with fake Ph.Ds. I don’t want to mention names. The union has been insisting that he must fish out those people with fake Ph. Ds that he’s shielding. For God’s sake, we cannot even vouch for him now that he can carry out that job because he has deep-rooted interest. That is why we are calling on Council to do it.
Under what circumstance did he make that allegation?
Yes. Let me explain to you. In 2015, I was head of department when he came in as vice-chancellor. I was also ASUU chairman. I was in Senate when he brought a report to Senate that there were fake Ph. Ds in this university. He specifically mentioned a department. And as chairman of a responsible union in senate, I was not comfortable. So, we took the matter to our ASUU congress; it was extensively debated and based on that, we wrote to him that the union would cooperate with him to fish out the fake Ph. D holders in this university. We have all those resolutions. After writing him, he refused; meanwhile, you originated the allegation. We wrote to him a second time, he didn’t do it. Then the third time, we wrote to him; then he now grudgingly set up a committee. Till today, the exercise did not see the light of day. But our congress insisted that we must not allow the matter to be swept under the carpet. I understand he promoted a dean without Ph. D in the area of his discipline. They are the people he’s using.
So, there are so many things ASUU had been insisting must be done right and that is why he’s after the soul of ASUU in this university. And they believe that because Igbafen is the arrow-head as the chairman of the union, the best thing is to get at Igbafen. And that is why he went back to 2011, over a matter that was already settled – look, I want to challenge the vice-chancellor to bring out the lady or bring out the man he said wrote the petition. I am even challenging them that if they say I victimised her, they should go and bring all her scripts; let them assess the script outside the university.
What the university is saying is that it was the lady’s parents who petitioned the university, alleging that the matter was swept under the carpet and threatened to petition ICPC to take it up.
That is what I am saying. I am disputing that claim. What we are hearing now is that the VC presided over the forgery of that paper. If they doubt it, let the man come out. As I speak to you, I have already consulted my lawyer; they are already serving the university, serving the man. Let the man come out, let the lady come out.
From what we learnt, there are other issues against you that the university is threatening to blow open.
Let them bring all those issues out. If you are running an ideal system, there is an infraction somewhere, won’t you deal with the infraction, and by conclusion of dealing with the infraction let the whole world to know if it is important for the whole world to know? Do you shout to the whole world that well, I am looking for something that I will use to nail somebody? Does that make sense? Just because you approached me, you said Chairman, I should step down all these matters. I told them no, I am not the owner of ASUU. ASUU has a structure; I am just the chairman, and as the chairman, I can’t run the union alone. So, all these issues, they are issues that we normally debate on the floor of congress, and some at the leadership level. If a decision is taken at the leadership level, I cannot go back on those decisions. So, my business is to enforce them, and that is what is going on. Let me tell you, when this vice-chancellor came, he didn’t meet anything on ground to work with. Since he came, the university has received more than N5.5 billion for the past five years. Out of that money, this vice-chancellor has received more than N3.4 billion from TETFUND, and N1.2 billion from NEEDS assessment. Are you saying we don’t have right to ask questions whether these funds are properly used or whether they passed through due process in awarding contracts? How can a vice-chancellor be in the university, only him is running the system; there was no Council. He alone is doing all those things, ideally, he’s supposed to get approvals from a higher authority, then ASUU should not speak when ASUU struggled for the money to be brought to the university?
They are saying that you should have known that TETFUND is being closely monitored and there is no way it can be misused because there are checks.
What I am saying is if there are procedures, are those procedures being followed? If you have a university where there is no Council, almost all the committees of the university have been moribund; they’ve not been properly constituted. That is what we are saying. If you say there is a TETFUND allocation to the university and that allocation is expected to be used for the physical development of the university, there are committees. And those committees, there are council representatives in each of those committees. We didn’t have Council for more than one year. How were those contracts awarded? In fact, the last one we wrote to him a few days ago; may be that is what is adding to this fire of Igbafen must go. For instance, the NEEDS Assessment funds, when he came in, he met N714 million that the union was fighting that it should be quickly utilised so that the university can access the second tranche. Then the second tranche came, over N500 million, making it about N1.2 billion. Now, before you can use that fund, there must be a functional BMC – budget monitoring committee. He awarded 12 contracts, since August till today, he didn’t call that BMC. He was inviting inspectors from Abuja to come and inspect the contracts he awarded without BMC. And when they did on-the-spot assessment of what was going on, the BMC delegation, they went there; they discovered that so many things that were on paper, like where you have 10, you have three there. We just wrote a letter to the chairman of the BMC to say that our union will not be able to cooperate until they verify all those things. How were those contracts awarded? Who conceived those projects? What about the bill of quantities, BOQ; where are they? What are the estimates for all those projects? So, these are all the issues. So, when somebody will sit down and look for everything to nail somebody because you feel that if you get rid of the person, you can have your way and run the system the way you like; and the union is saying no, that cannot be possible here.
Another thing we learnt was that before the strike was broken by the management, ASUU and some stakeholders were invited by the VC to deliberate on how to get the lecturers back to school because the university had run into financial crisis and could no longer pay salaries as school fees were not being paid, but you refused to cooperate. Did this actually happen?
You see the blackmail? Why is it that it’s Igbafen, Igbafen? When the strike started; the strike was declared in FUTA, Akure. That was November 4, 2018. It was a national strike, and so when I came back, as chairman, of course you must summon congress to brief congress. After briefing congress to formally declare the strike here, I went to meet this vice-chancellor. I said VC sir, you know it’s through this struggle that we get more funds to the university; the state does not give you money for now for capital projects. All the projects you have in the university is by TETFUND or by NEEDS Assessment and the strike that we are in now is to attract more funds to public universities, including AAU. So, it is not against you, it is not against our state government, but for government to increase funding to public universities in Nigeria; so, please we need to be on the same page so that we can prosecute the strike. He agreed with me and at the end of the day, told me that he had suspended his inaugural lecture series. And secondly, that he had also postponed part-time exam. We brought him to congress; he re-affirmed those things. We now went to bed thinking that we were on the same page.
Do you know that less than a week, I started getting reports in the secretariat that the VC was insisting that they should go and break the strike and write the exam? I said after having understanding with him? I said that cannot be possible. Before we knew it, they had brought out time-table. I said why should the VC be behaving like this? How can we make arrangement to prosecute this strike, the same man agreed, then he is going behind to do all these things? And of course, there is no responsible union that will stand by and watch while the strike is collapsing on its head. The leadership of the union met and said we must resist it. We wrote to our members to stay away. We have monitoring teams in all the branches; Ekpoma has one. As chairman of the branch, I am not a member of the monitoring committee. They go to the field; they don’t fight anybody. If they see any of our members violating the strike, they only put your name down and go away. While all these were going on, we thought we could manage it.
I was never invited to any meeting. The only meeting that I was invited to, was the meeting that Council said we should come; that they wanted to see us and that was after the inauguration of the new council and we were already on strike. If you are on strike, you cannot attend any meeting until you get clearance from the national leadership. And we wrote to our national headquarters to say we were being invited by the pro-chancellor for a meeting. (Lawson Omokhodion). When we now got instruction from our national leadership, they said we cannot attend any meeting, but that we should write a letter explaining to the pro-chancellor that we are sorry, we would not be able to honour the invitation until after the strike. And we just called for his understanding. And that was all. Before we knew it, this man went to open the school. Nobody called me again. Even when I was making efforts to reach him, he refused; he didn’t bother. So, he thought he had more than enough lecturers to teach and break our strike. So, nobody invited me to any management meeting, or stakeholders meeting to say we need to open the school so that we can be getting money. It is not true. So, when he discovered that he was unable to break the strike here, the wife now started intimidating our members, calling them on phone, threatening them.
The union now met over it and said this is wrong. What is the role of a vice-chancellor’s wife in the running of the university? We had to issue a statement to demand for what is the status of the wife of a vice-chancellor. And the union is saying that there is nothing like a first lady in the university. So, that was what happened. So, when he now discovered that the union was too strong for him to break, and shortly, the strike was suspended, they now resorted to this, particularly because they wrote something about the wife. Even what the union wrote about the wife was not circulated to the press. We merely raised some questions. So, what is going on is that you have a desperate vice-chancellor who believes that he can cow everybody in the system so that he can run the system the way he likes. And the union said no, it’s not possible. He made several attempts to compromise me, but he failed.
How did he attempt to compromise you?
He called me, for instance when we were challenging the irregular appointments he was making, he said I should go and bring candidates for employment. When I went to his office with the secretary, he said no, no, no, I am inviting you as a staff not as chairman. He took me inside. This is a secret thing. He was telling me you see, go and bring your own list. I now said list? I just laughed. When I came out, my mind said this man, what he’s trying to do is to compromise me so that all those his illegal activities, the union can no longer challenge them. Shortly after that, the wife called me and told me look, chairman, anything you need, just call me; don’t call anybody. And one of them also called me to say bring your bank account. Few weeks after, the registrar called me and told me we are still waiting for your list. I told them I don’t have any list. Then before I knew it, they set up one committee that was working on interview of a so-called list of staff that they wanted to employ. They put my name to come and sit on a panel to interview them and I wrote them that we are not part of that because there is no council on ground so he cannot be doing those things. Before I knew it, they sent my name to bursary; they kept money there for me.
They started calling me from bursary; come and sign for your money. I said I am not a contractor. Really, I have not done any work for the university that would warrant me to go and sign for cheque in the bursary; the only thing I get is my salary. So, at the end of the day, I went there; I discovered that they paid me some money for a job I didn’t do. I didn’t sit on that panel and they were paying me sitting allowance. I had to write to the bursar to withdraw that money and the bursar wrote back to me to say sorry, they have gone to pay that money into the university’s account; see the evidence. They brought the evidence to me.
How much was it?
Sixty thousand naira that time – sitting allowance for one day – all in desperation to compromise me. And so, it’s not that I’m against this man. You do what you know is right, that had been the insistence of the union. So, when they discovered that they were not getting the cooperation, this man insisted that I would never be chairman again – the second tenure. That year we did election, there was nothing the vice-chancellor didn’t do – campaigns of calumny – oh, we have stolen the union’s money, we have done that to the point that he now divided the union and created a parallel exco he appointed. That was how we dragged that matter to government house. Government intervened; government said look, there cannot be something like this; go back home and conduct your election. We came back home, for the first time in the history of our university, the vice-chancellor spearheaded campaign against me and he ensured that he mobilized his cronies there. They sat there till in the night. And what happened? Sponsored people, all his candidates failed. In the history of our union, that was the highest turn-out of our members, professors and all that. And they insisted that Igbafen is our chairman. And as I speak to you, they met recently and re-affirmed that Igbafen is our chairman, and he remains our chairman; we have implicit confidence in him and the problem that he is having – the suspension – is a fallout of the union’s insistence on due process and all.
And they have mandated the union to take all steps, including legal option, to check the tyranny of the vice-chancellor here who believes that blackmail and witch-hunting are his weapons. I have been due for a full professor since 2017. Just recently, he stepped down my promotion and the promotion of the secretary, and so many ASUU members here. This man came and removed all local ASUU members from positions as directors and others. This man came, for just a minor issue on the floor of congress, removed the secretary of the union at the branch level as head of department, queried him. He removed the guy before he queried him for an issue that happened on the floor of congress. So, he believes so much in intimidation. He had tried so many things to destroy me, it didn’t work. And I stood my ground. And what you are seeing is also a play-out of his desperation and I also believe that this one would fail. If not because of the damaging effect, it will fail.