Public holidays in Nigeria used to be very welcome. It afforded the majority of the populace, who work like elephants and eat like ants, a rather rare opportunity to rest and spend some time with their family and friends, or pursue their personal business to improve their already inadequate take-home. It also provides an opportunity for the government to wax political, preaching messages of peace and unity, and other noble stuff they do not really mean. We have kinda gotten used to the ritual. But since January 1st 2012, public holidays in Nigeria appear to now have a Sword of Damocles hanging over them – simply because the President has cultivated a new and rather damning pastime: to deliver killer blows in his speeches that both reflect his insensitivity to the feelings of Nigeria, and show that he’s a rather poor drama queen who craves public vilification.
And so it was that on the 29th of May, we got another sharp taste of the President’s pills (he’s not a medical doctor, just in case you were wondering), when he, amongst other things, unilaterally ill-affected the destinies and reputation of all products of the University of Lagos, past, present, and future, when he unequally yoked us with the MKO Abiola legacy, all in a bid to immortalise the martyr who, despite winning the best elections ever conducted in Nigeria, was killed as he fought to actualise his June 12 mandate. However, it would appear that that declaration was yet another in a long list of gaffes by Mr. President as it was met by protests of discontent by students of Nigeria’s University of First Choice and Pride of the Nation, who flooded the streets and the online space with vitriolic outbursts demanding an immediate reversal of the name.
And oh, have they been upbraided, reprimanded, abused, insulted, cursed even, because they exercised their right to demand that they be named by a name of their choosing, and not having a name foisted on them, all in a bid to score cheap political points. They have been accused of being children of yesterday who have no knowledge or regard for Abiola’s sacrifice. They have been misrepresented by students of other schools who secretly crave a UNILAG status (some of my friends will kill me for this) as being selfish, thinking only of ‘swag’ when the government is trying to honour someone whose blood was the manure for the ‘democracy?’ that is enjoyed today. They have been told that their protests should stop because Abiola deserves the honour, that the Abiola name is bigger than UNILAG, and that UNILAG should consider itself privileged to carry the Abiola name. They have been accused of causing public disturbance, and not protesting for more deserving causes such as government lethargy in dealing with the Boko Haram scourge. They have been accused of being inconsiderate of the Abiola family who suffered during the incarceration of their patriarch, and who deserve this attempt at immortalizing his name, which is the least that the polity can do for them .
I have read several articles on traditional news media and online platforms, and I have seen the enormity of the animosity towards this new ‘act’ of the federal government, and just as well, I have read the opinions of a few who hailed the move, stating that the legacy of Abiola should rightly be preserved and honoured, and that it is the right decision for all concerned. A few others try to play both sides. They say that while the decision is best in the long term interest of democracy, the way and manner of its execution by presidential fiat falls short of the tenets of rule of law. I am a logical man, and I have tried to weigh the pros and cons of these people’s postulations, but alas, I have yet to be convinced that this decision is in the best interest of all parties concerned, including the products of the UNILAG, past, present, and future.
First and foremost, before I take my stand, I would like to apologise to the Abiola clan. I think it is rather unfortunate that the government of the day always contrives to put them out the spotlight with negative shades; consciously or unconsciously trying to discredit them (not that the media has not helped in this regard); or worse, condemn them to oblivion, with no references made to them. Whichever it is, they clearly do not deserve it, and while I hope they get some form of closure, I fear it may not happen anytime soon, and I clearly do not want my school to be used to achieve that.
Now my position. First, I think that there’s more to a name than just an appellation or a means of identification. It is a reputation, sometimes even, it could be the difference between who gets what and who doesn’t. And when care has been taken over a period of 50 years to associate a name with distinction, industry, and excellence, something that people the world over fall over themselves to associate themselves with, it is only imperative to note that it has become a tradition, a culture, a way of life and means of livelihood; that is what the UNILAG has come to mean. It has become the collective destinies of all its products, past, present, and future, their ‘surname’ in a way and changing it in the atrocious way the President did is tantamount to a man waking up one morning and finding out that his father was never his father – nobody takes that with a smile, even if he was told that his true father is Abiola!
Furthermore, the concept of immortalising someone is supposed to be considered strategic. It is ideal to do so, when it is directly linked to the cause/course the person to be immortalised is associated with during his lifetime, not that I’m implying that people have to die before their legacy is preserved. Which begs the question, what is Abiola’s enduring legacy? His business success? His massive philanthropic activities? His media empire – Concord of blessed memory? His contribution to sports development in Africa? Or June 12 and his denied mandate? Many people do not know Abiola beyond June 12. Rightly so even, especially since his businesses have whittled down, Concord is defunct, and his title of “Pillar of Sports in Nigeria” has since been given to Orji Uzor Kalu (who by the way has back-pedalled on making contributions to sports since he was removed as Governor of Abia State). What is remembered of the great man is his dogged fight to restore his stolen mandate, a torturous journey which took him to exile, then to prison, and finally to the cold, welcoming hands of death when it seemed that victory was near. Many were never beneficiaries of his largesse, but almost everyone has heard of June 12 and attached Abiola’s name to it, almost in the same way that our Lord Jesus Christ is attached to December 25 – before most things went south. What Abiola is known for is true democracy, the one which features free, fair and peaceful elections, alongside the observance of the rule of law. What Abiola represents is the unity of Nigerians linked by a common goal – to determine the best way by which they will be governed. What Abiola stands for is the determination to ensure that democracy, which is good fodder for improved living standards, is gotten at all costs appropriately necessary – including the ultimate sacrifice. And with every election since 1999, we have consistently failed to fittingly honour the man’s memory through our penchant for rigged and bloody elections, governments that rule through brigandry and a flagrant abuse of the rule of law, government officials who are conspicuously corrupt and inept, and the list goes on. How the man must turn in his grave when the government says they are immortalising him, when even the President casts aspersions on the veracity of the June 12 mandate by saying Abiola was the “presumed winner” of that election. This shows that renaming UNILAG after Abiola as a way of immortalising the man is clearly a tongue-in-cheek move, a political stunt that is designed to endear the President to the South-West as we head towards 2015, which is why Soyinka warns that it is a gift horse, a Greek gift which cannot be taken on face value alone. It is shameful therefore that Abiola’s legacy has been reduced to a mere pawn on Nigeria’s political chessboard, which can be moved by the powers that be whichever way they please. However, that UNILAG is brought into this political charade is unacceptable, and must not be allowed to stand because of the numerous long-term implications.
Some have scoffed at this argument of the “long-term implications”. They have cited examples of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife, and the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, which both have had their names changed in the past. They however failed to realise that it is likely that the kind of reputation those schools have now would have been better enhanced if the original names were left as were. They also failed to put into perspective the regional interests which formed the establishment of these universities in the first instance, which is different from the UNILAG situation, in which an Act of Parliament was invoked to establish the school. Nduka Obiagbena, owner of ThisDay newspapers cited the examples of John Hopkins University, Princeton, Yale, and Harvard, who also at some point in their history had changed their names. These are not exactly similar situations compared to the UNILAG. In the first instance, these American universities are private establishments, without any political undertones or affiliations. They are run by a Board whose members would have no doubt been conducted before the new names were adopted. More so, the beneficiaries of the name change are known philanthropists, who in their lifetime had assisted the schools with endowments, and in their wills, ensured that the contributions continued well after their passage. UNILAG’s case is different. It was set up by an Act of Parliament, the first ever university to be so set up. Changing it via presidential fiat, without consort to the National Assembly, and consultations with the Governing Council and Senate of the UNILAG is a clear attempt at rubbishing the ideals of the rule of law, which demeans the legacy of Abiola.
I am a brand person, and so my argument will also take a branding perspective on the issue. For all its 100+ years of existence, Coca Cola dare not consider changing its name. If it dares, it risks heavy losses on the value of the brand, which is worth about $67.5 billion. Same applies for Nigeria. The standard of education at the school is sustained by its name, as currently is. The name UNILAG is a strong market platform for its revenue generating mechanisms such as its Diploma programmes, UNILAG Consult, UNILAG Ventures, UNILAG FM, etc, and the revenue these avenues generate help to supplement the meagre federal allocation that the school gets. It is the name, UNILAG, that helps endear it to companies, foreign universities, international donor institutions and agencies, as well as local philanthropists, who then aid through grants, cash donations, infrastructure support, exchange programmes, etc. It is the name that foreign universities know and respect, which is a key factor in assessing applications for Masters programmes and scholarships, and determining which would be successful and otherwise. It is also that name that gives its products an edge in the labour market, often proving the difference between those who have jobs and those who don’t go past the first stage of an interview. Changing the name puts the school in jeopardy of losing these income streams and other opportunities for its products, which have negative implications for the standard of education, especially in the light of the fact that government spending on education has consistently reduced since the Obasanjo era. Mr Obiagbena in his article points to the fact that the late ‘President’ donated N100 million to UNILAG in the 80s. I believe this is because the name had come to represent excellence, and worthy of an investment of that nature, as there were other schools in the country at the same time who he could donated that money to. That is the power of the brand. Respected as Abiola is, he may not be liked in all quarters from a sponsorship/brand association perspective, and therefore it reduces the value of the UNILAG entity. Besides, marketing experts have placed, by implication, the value of the UNILAG brand as N1 billion. I say it is undervalued at that price – which begs the question: Is the Abiola brand worth that much? Can it help UNILAG to continue to sustain itself, albeit partially?
I admire, respect and aspire to the Abiola legacy. But I believe that there are better ways to honour the dead that does not inconvenience the living. Immortalising Abiola is best served be ensuring his legacy is not forgotten and merely naming places after him only ensures that people remember the name and not the man. Is Abiola taught in our schools at all levels? No! I made mention of the fact that I am not too aware of his business success, which is no direct fault of mine. We idolise our heroes best when we know what made them tick. Immortalising Abiola will really start when we start to teach about Abiola in schools, the way American universities teach about Fela. We need to include in our curricula, subjects that will introduce people to Abiola the man, Abiola the mogul, Abiola the philanthropist, Abiola the politician, and Abiola the martyr. Our social studies, government, political science, and mass communication textbooks should have chapters on Abiola, treating his philosophies, just as is done in Ghana with Kwame Nkrumah. We need to officially recognise June 12, not as Democracy Day, but as MKO Abiola Day, a national holiday complete with the rallies and jamborees which will be themed after Abiola. An MKO Centre for Political Studies can be set up in any one or more of our universities to encourage research into political and electoral trends in the country, and therefore serve as a breeding ground for the re-orientation of Nigerians as we hope for a time when politics will not be termed “a dirty game”. These are just some options which may serve to better immortalise Abiola than ruining the heritage of an illustrious institution which has served admirably to put Nigeria on the map positively for the last 50 years through the outstanding contributions and achievements of its products such as Taslim Elias, Dele Olojede, etc.
Like one of my friend put up on his Blackberry display picture: we love Abiola, but we love UNILAG more! It’s UNILAG or nothing. And based on my position, I think the status quo better serves the Abiola legacy, the UNILAG, and Nigeria as a whole – and the Alumni Association of my school seem to think so as well.
God bless MKO Abiola!
God bless the University of First Choice, Pride of the Nation, and Home of Aquatic Splendour – the University of Lagos!!
Skillz just spoke!