What eventually assumed the toga of a national crisis started within the domain of University of Ilorin in January 2001. Those involved are Academic Staff Union of university (ASUU) – Unilorin branch activists who were battling the then vice-chancellor, Professor S. Oba Abdulraheem and the institution’s authority over the delay in the payment of salaries, allowances, and other sundry welfare issues. They were vociferous in their demands and the authorities considered them as a clog in the wheel of their plans for the institution. In such a conservative environment, the university authority considered such radical demand for rights a taboo.
The allegations against the institution’s authorities were still on when the parent ASUU commenced a national strike in April 2001. The nationwide university strike was embarked upon against the backdrop of the general rot in universities across the country. Problems of poor infrastructure, poor funding, university autonomy, conditions of service for academic staff and academic freedom budgetary allocation were among the demands of ASUU.
As usual with successive administrations, attempts were made to break the strike. In most of the universities, including the University of Ilorin, attendance registers were opened for lecturers who came to work to sign. This sent jitters down the spines of most of the lecturers who for fear of losing their jobs rushed to the institution on a daily basis to sign the registers. Those of them who believed strongly in the cause of the struggle shunned the register, daring the institution’s authority threat to sack those lecturers who defied its order.
At the end of the day and consequent upon series of negotiation between the Federal Government and the ASUU leadership, the strike was called off not without an agreement to be implemented by both parties. ASUU reportedly ensured the insertion of a “no victimization clause” into the agreement. The essence of this was to guarantee that none of its members who partook in the strike would be persecuted because of their involvement. However, the University of Nigeria, (UNN), Nsukka and University of Ilorin terminated the appointment of some lecturers perceived to have played prominent roles in ensuring the success of the strike by ASUU. UNN authorities after public hues and cries reinstated its sacked lecturers. But in Unilorin, its authorities refused to reverse itself. 103 lecturers were given sack letters that did not state the reasons behind the decision.
The breakdown of these figures are: 15 professors, two associate professors. 15 senior lecturer, 18 lecturers: 40 doctors and 12 medical school lecturers out of which 11 were consultants. Consequent upon this sack, the Ayo Banjo-committee was set up to look into the crisis. The committee report did not find any of the UNILORIN 49 guilty. While several others were re-absorbed into the system, the institution’s authorities did not see any wisdom in recalling the UNILORIN 49 lecturers. Afterall, they were seen as a fraction of about 700 lecturers in the university. However, among the sacked were deep intellectuals and key functionaries, which led to the stagnation of some classes especially in the medical field which could not graduate students due to the sack of key lecturers. Still, some of the lecturers who could not immediately get alternative accommodation were forcefully ejected from their staff quarters.
Recourse to litigation: When the University of Ilorin authorities remained recalcitrant in its resolve not to reabsorb the Unilorin 49, several external bodies acting as pressure groups intervened, sometimes pleading with the institution’s authorities to reconsider its position. Traditional rulers, Yoruba Council of Elders, National Assembly and Nigeria Inter-religious Council (NIREC), all tried to no avail to bring back peace to Unilorin and the entire university system in the country. The Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), the International Labour Organisation (ILO), UNESCO and a coalition of civil society organisations led by the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR) also intervened to no avail. At this point, five of the Unilorin 49, led by Dr. Taiwo Oloruntoba-Oju, approached the Federal High Court, Ilorin to seek redress on behalf of their other colleagues.
Precisely on July 26, 2005, the Federal High Court, Ilorin under Justice Peter Olayiwola, ruled that the termination of the appointment of the affected lecturers on account of participation in the strike without a fair hearing was “illegal and unconstitutional.” The termination exercise was declared “null and void:” and the court ordered their earnest reinstatement.
Nevertheless, the institution exercised its right of appeal when it challenged the judgment at the Court of Appeal. On July 12, 2006, the Court of Appeal sitting in Ilorin, Kwara State upturned the judgment of the Federal High Court by declaring that the university was in order by sacking the 49 lecturers. Out of the three Justices that sat over the case, two Justices, Muntaka Coomasie and T. Abdullahi ruled against the lecturers while Justice Helen Ogunwumiju ruled in favour of the lecturers.
The Court of Appeal ruled that the lecturers should have taken their case to the National Industrial Court being a trade dispute matter as Union leaders: that the lecturers were not sacked for their role in the strike: that since the lecturers were not sacked for any offense, the issue of fair hearing did not arise. At another point, the court upheld the university’s claim that the lecturers were given an opportunity for fair hearing while observing in another part that the lecturers were not sacked for any offense.
The judgment of the Court of Appeal was challenged by the lecturers at the Supreme Court.
After about eight years and 10 months of a tortuous legal battle, the 44 sacked lecturers of the University of Ilorin (UNILORIN) in Kwara State were ordered to be reinstated by Nigeria’s Supreme Court on December 11, 2009. The apex court ordered their immediate reinstatement and the payment of all their entitlements from February 2001, the date of their illegal disengagement, to date. The 5 UNILORIN ASUU leaders had earlier had their sack reversed by the same Supreme Court on June 12, 2009.
This was reported to be the basis of the two decade – long feud between the University of Ilorin Chapter of the ASUU and the National Headquarters of the Union. Until 2009 when series of consultations between the two factions of the UNILORIN chapter of ASUU, led by Dr. Usman Raheem and Dr. Kayode Afolayan, and a delegation from the national headquarters of the union led by Dr. Ben Ugbeoke were made.