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Challenges of running a university in Nigeria – Prof Otunta, MOUA VC

The Vice Chancellor of the Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike, Abia State, Prof Francis Otunta, has said that he is being inundated with distractions from the security agencies that are carrying out unending investigations of the institution over allegations that took place before he assumed office in 2016. He disclosed that he had met a university of agriculture that had everything wrong then, pointing out that he has since been striving to set things right, but has been faced with many distractions.

In this interview conducted by CHIDI NNADI, Prof Otunta also lamented that funds have been a major challenge for the university, pointing out that 25 years after, the institution has not been given take off grant.

You became the Vice Chancellor of Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike about 20 months ago, can we know the situation you met on ground upon assumption of office?

I have said it time, without number that it was horrible, today; I want to use the word devastating, to describe the situation. It was so bad in the sense that I had some documents just a few months before I came here, I was building on the fact that I was going to begin on what was on paper, but when I came, it was totally a different thing. I had taken everybody as the usual university staff where we do work knowing full well that everybody can hold any position at any time, but when I came, I found a completely divided workforce, completely negative of what was reported; dilapidated buildings, projects that will never end, except God directly intervenes, a situation where there was no light in the university, where students have forgotten the use of electricity, everything was bad. However, before I came, I had in mind that I was not coming to work on the hardware, the infrastructure, so to say,  the tangibles; I thought  we were coming to show our experience in running a university and that  means I was coming to concentrate on the software, the intangible projects, in the sense that when you run a university well nobody comes to say, I was supposed to be promoted, I was not promoted, I was supposed to be head of department, and my junior was made it. The reason is that there are rules guiding promotions, there are rules guiding appointments, so I was actually coming to exhibit the running of a university as it should be and  that meant concentrating on the software, using the rules, applying the regulations properly and let everybody  in  the university  know precisely  what it means to run a university, what it means to be a lecturer, what it means to be  subordinate staff in the university,  what actually we should be doing in the university; you know very many students today  are non-academic students, it will be shocking to hear such word,  they are students yet they do not know  anything about academics, they do not know where their classrooms are, they don’t even know how to pay their school fees, they know nothing about ICT. So, when I met this situation, I said ‘oh, that means we have to start from the negative.’ I do not know now whether we have reached there,  but I think so, because people now know that there will be promotion exercise between this time and that time, people now know that seniority  is important and also people now know that even if you have become vice chancellor before, you can as well  become head of department; the major thing is that I have now come to show how a university should be; number one, what do we do in the university? We teach, we learn and  we do research, very important; and we do community service, and what are these community services we should do? We live in a society, the university is not an island, the university is a society in a society, it is a city in a city, but  it is supposed to be the most refined part of the city;  unfortunately, we find our university, Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, not at all being refined not to talk of the most refined in the system.

We know that the tenure of the vice chancellor is five years and you have enumerated myriads of problems confronting this institution, do you think in the remaining four years of your tenure you will be able to solve all of these problems?

It is impossible to solve all the problems; it is only Jesus Chris that can solve all these problems in under a short period. All that I want to do, is while leaving here, to look back and say this is a university; this place is running the way a university, should run, that is all I want to do. When I’m stepping out I will look back and say yes, we now know how a university should be run, a dean now knows what he should do, the chairman of a committee knows what he should do, the head of department knows what he should do; so I cannot say that I will solve all the problems, because if you say that, the physical problems, the infrastructure littered all around without funds originally approved for the projects, what will you do? There are several projects, NEEDS Assessment, TETFUND projects and funds for these projects are fixed.

What efforts are you making to ensure that students who are here actually want to specialize in agriculture since this is a university of agriculture?

Well, the university is not the first step of education neither is it the final step, so for you to study agriculture, you must have done some relevant subjects in the secondary school. Even when you are studying biology, chemistry, agriculture in the secondary school, you are preparing the ground. Besides, President Muhammadu Buhari has already decreed that we must be agric, agric, and agric. So gradually we are taking care of that, but it is quite painful that I have a university very nearby and I cannot attend it and that is why I cannot blame my predecessors who began to run other courses because the law establishing the university has also said agriculture and allied subjects, you can award degrees. So, this is difficult to explain and everybody explains it the way he likes. But we have tried to streamline all the programmes that they must be relevant to one another, and at the end of the day, all should be relevant to agriculture. Therefore, anybody coming to Michael Okpara University of Agriculture should know ab initio that he must do some kind of agriculture and my brother, I tell you this, agriculture is a very interesting hobby, I don’t want to say subject. For instance, I’m a mathematician, my wife is a lawyer, but we do not buy meat in my house, we do not buy fish in my house, we do not buy oil, we did not start today, we do not buy eggs, we have chickens, in fact, we sell eggs;  in my residence in Benin, we have two fish ponds; after a couple of months, we stock, so it is a very interesting hobby. Yes, very many young persons seek for white collar jobs; but everyday I wait for my retirement to go back to do serious farming, because it is interesting,  so we do know that people just want to go to the university, but when you come here you see that you have a farm to work on.

Have you made any breakthrough in your researches?

You don’t need to say it again, yes, you see I call myself ‘onyechukwu gozieri,’ (one God has blessed),  a man in this university has been on a certain research, and he worked hard, a professor of this university, Professor Ezeibe, he has made a ground-breaking research by coming  up with some kind of medicine that he now says cures HIV/AIDS. I will join to make this statement because  we have had cases of people, who by the way they call it, they say  viral load, people  who have depended on his treatment and management have dropped from viral load of 1,200 to 20 and 30.  I don’t know whether it is possible to have viral load of zero, if it is possible to have viral load of zero that is completely cure of HIV, he is still working on that, but I know that he has brought the viral load of 7,000  to as low as 50. So, if that announcement is true and his research has been published in health journals, you can see that people are not sleeping here in researches. There are several others going on. Two days ago, the farm manager brought a new specie of banana that has very many bunches and they brought it to my house. It is nearly a five-feet banana and getting hybrids from one plant to the other does that. So, that is why I said yes. We started again our campus FM radio, but for political or technical or whatever reasons, people who are  jealous went to report here and there and they came to say, no, you did not do all the testing  and the rest of them and when I said come and do the  test, they will say no, you  are supposed to have only 20 megawatts, but you have come out  with 150 megawatts, that is the offence we have committed and that’s why we are hanging on, waiting for them to come to inspect and correct it. But the outlet is to let the people know that we are here.

Recently, there were reports of mass sack in this institution; can we know what actually happened?

On arrival in March 2016, the first thing I saw was that we were unable to pay salaries, and I wondered why? So, on first visit for our budget I was informed directly from Abuja that our system was overloaded and not taken care of in the budget, this was in April 2017, that the best that will happen to Michael Okpara University was for a certain 416 people, who were employed in 2016 to be sacked.  I said well, I won’t do that because I was employed in 2016. If you want to sack, begin from me. So, I came back. Initially, we borrowed to be able to pay. And the next time we got our shortfall in January, February and March, we discovered it was still impossible to pay, we returned to percentage payment of salaries, sometimes 70 per cent, we continued and continued but the problem also continued. So, somewhere in early 2017, the then registrar got information that these people on temporary appointments were too many and not regularized. Did council know? They said no, and everybody should know that council is their employer, the council is my employer. When they said I’m Chairman of Appointments and Promotions Committee, I’m only a member representing council as chairman of that committee. So everything about appointments, temporary or regular is the council’s. But it is important to note that  the vice chancellor has the authority to employ people on temporary appointments based on need and that appointment must go through the process of head of department, knowing and reporting that I need this, and Dean of College, or the faculty, saying that yes, we really need this person and then that is when the vice chancellor, after asking these questions  will appoint a few people temporarily, and before the end of the year they should be regularized; regularization means informing the council that I have got so, so and so number of persons on temporary appointment and the university E&P,  will invite federal character, Federal Ministry of Education to conduct an interview for regularization; it is not rigorous because you are already doing the work, we just want to be sure that you are fit and qualified to do the work, so council does this.  So, when this information got to me, I asked, did council know, they said no, how many, they said 463; which continued to change; tell me the actual number, they said 453, so I said no, no, no; everybody on temporary appointment knows that it has elapsed, you are given a letter and after one year if it is not regularized, it is over. So, all the people we are talking about were on temporary appointment; council did not know about their appointments, there was no official regularization. Council did not take part and yet council is their employer; so I said all of them should re-apply for renewal of the contract and 365 re-applied. I decided to create three committees, one committee to study all the applications and because I said every head of department must take part. I formed three committees, one for the academic staff, another for the senior non-teaching staff, then the third one for the junior staff, that was in April to look at the files, to know those who are qualified or not. But because of the problem, we still put their names in the budget,  but they won’t be considered, for instance, in July 2017, we asked for N6.7billion or so for salaries, they gave us N4.2 billion, so it continued to cause payment shortfall, sometimes 75 per cent or 70 per cent of salaries. Now, in the process of trying to look at everybody to see who we will renew, so that while waiting for council because then there was no council; when we started asking for renewal, council was on ground, so when the other council left, the process slowed down, but when a new council came, people from all walks of life bombarded the chairman of council, saying he wants to sack us, he has told us to re-apply, without knowing that it will be counter-productive. Then council came on their first meeting and asked if it was true there were some people who are on temporary appointment and have re-applied, I said yes, and council said can we see them and we said look at their applications, but council decided that all of them should go first for us to know where we are. But I watched clearly on the television in the Senate when a Senator from Abia State bowed and laid on the table submission that Francis Otunta sacked these people, he said that ‘he just came and he sacked these people.’ And they said put it on the table, in two weeks we will investigate and return. First, it only showed that the senator does not know how a university is run, that the vice chancellor cannot sack; it also meant that all the people making all the noise on earth do not know also that the vice chancellor cannot sack. The vice chancellor has all the whims and caprices to hire, but not to fire because immediately you sack me I will go to court because you must tell me what I did before you fired me, so the council is the ultimate system.

So, they were sacked by the council?

Yes, of course. If you want the council extract we will give to you. So, Council said that they should wait and formed a committee to go through the university and actually identify the vacancies that should be filled immediately, which they have done. However, along the line too, those who were sacked said there are other people like us; if you sack us, you must sack them too. So, in another council meeting the question was asked, is it true, and they said please go and do research. And I did not know that there was a time people were going to the registry to drop their letter of temporary appointment to receive a new one without passing through due process; very many persons have written. One person wrote that he was called to go to Owerri and that he went to Owerri, to a certain house and when he got to the house there were other people and they collected appointment letters of the Michael Okpara University of Agriculture and then they were told to go to Umudike to begin documentation. When they came here, as they were doing documentation for medicals, they were told to write application for that position and backdate it, people wrote it down, it’s a council document. Then I moved in council, saying for these two people telling us the truth, a woman and a man, they should be recalled, but they said no that they must go through the process they were setting up, but at least they made life so easy. So, irregular things had happened here.

We were told that by the time this university started, there was no take off grant.

Yes, every time I go for any meeting in Abuja, I echo it. When at the beginning of the year, we were told that we are now in the Ministry of Agriculture, of course, we have to meet with the minister, minister of state, and other important persons in the ministry and during the meeting I lamented that 25 years after the university started, it is now that we are planning effective perimeter fencing, we have been lamenting, even when Professor Anya O. Anya was here as chairman, he led us to the governor of Abia State, begging that our survey plan of the university should be released to us, but as we speak it has not been released. So, we don’t even know where and where belongs to the university. But the previous administrations have mapped out some portions that the bigwigs around us have also encroached and built some hostels. So, every day, I echo it that there is take off grant given to this university. Even TETfund has never given this university high impact fund because in 2009, the then President Umaru Yar’Adua allowed one university to enjoy high impact project per year from a geo-political zone. I’m aware that University of Nigeria, Nsukka was given that year 2009, but up till now, Michael Okpara University has not been given. So, till now and even tomorrow, Michael Okpara University has not received take off grant and that is why if you go to the back of this building, you will not know the difference between this campus and the city; but now we are planning to put perimeter fencing to show where belongs to us.  So, we have many problems, perimeter fencing to show what belongs to us, no take off grant, no high impact fund. But I can tell you that if we have started and reasoned like an agricultural institution, we wouldn’t have bothered about such things. But the truth is that 15 years back, we got a farm and the farm was on for six years and was dead. What happened to it? Lack of fund, I have been avoiding saying it, lack of fund is a big problem.

What will be the high-points of your 8th convocation?

A convocation ceremony is an academic ceremony, it is not where we come to bring masquerades and beat gongs like I see in some places now; it should be a serene celebration with the awardees walking straight and taking a bow. So, we will celebrate our graduands, our number of years, we have survived 25 years and that is something to celebrate. But it is not yet time to say that Otunta has done this, no, the time will be when Otunta goes away, and then you will look back to say there is a change or the man wasted five years here. I was a federal Rector for eight years and it happened that a year after I entered into that place, it was their own 25th anniversary, but I didn’t have wars to fight there; I began immediately to move forward. But here, I landed and met negative and when I was about to come out of the negatives, it was wars and distractions; every day we go to the EFCC, ICPC and what do we go there to do? To defend how our money was spent between 2011 and 2015, I am going there again on Tuesday, my bursar and registrar were not in the office yesterday because they were in the EFCC to say how TETFund allocation for postgraduate students was handled and the VC, the bursar and the registrar are all new here, these are projects that were started before we came and have not been completed and we are told to come and testify. So, there are distractions all over the place.

In the face of these distractions and shortage of fund, do you still find a way of sending teachers from here abroad for international conferences to interface with other intellectuals across the globe?

The answer is a big yes, no matter what is happening, the rule still remains the rule. You see I’m a slave to rules, that is why every day I say, follow the rules. Every year TETfund  sets aside some money for the training of academic staff and so we have maintained it very religiously, everybody applies for missions abroad provided you have spent two years in this place; in the past it was not the case, then you will see a staff who was employed yesterday and the next day he will find himself abroad, which was wrong. So, we have corrected that and now we are sending people; for instance, this year, we got N300 million, N120 million for local and N180 million, abroad, and those who applied, we have recommended to the TETfund and some of them have been approved and people are going in every October and December even in January.

What legacy will you like to leave at the end of your tenure?

When I will be leaving I will be glad to look back to say, thank God I instilled university habit in this place.

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