The appointment of a new Vice-Chancellor for the University of Port Harcourt has run into a stalemate following attempts by the Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of the Governing Council, Engr Gesi Asamaowei, to impose on the University, a candidate with questionable NYSC credentials from the home state of Nigerian President. In what has come to be known as the ‘Bayelsa Agenda’ within the University of Port Harcourt circles, there would appear to be a carefully well-worked out scheme by the Pro-Chancellor, himself an indigene of Bayelsa State to foist it off on the Governing Council, an indigene of Bayelsa State as the next Vice Chancellor however inappropriate the choice of the candidate may be.
The processes for the appointment of a new VC began on 26 January 2015 when the University called for applications in nationally circulated newspapers to fill the position which will soon be vacant. Among other things, the candidates were required to have a minimum of ten years post-professorial experience and be in excellent physical and mental health. Checks revealed that at the close of applications, ten candidates applied. They are: Professors Ozo-Mercuri Ndimele, Israel Owate, Bio Nyanayo, N E S Lale, Ebi Awotua Efebo, Francis D. Sikoki, Blessing Didia, Patrick Uadia, Tamunopriye Agiobenibo and T.B Johnnie. Of the ten applicants, four of them, namely Professors Sikoki, Efebo, Johnnie and Nyanayor are indigenes of Bayelsa State while the rest are from Rivers State except Prof Uadia who hails from Edo State.
The close of application was followed by the inauguration of two committees by Council, namely the Search and Selection Committees. It was gathered that the Search Committee was to search out qualified candidates who in the opinion of the Committee are eminently qualified but failed to apply while the Selection Committee was saddled with the responsibility of conducting interview on shortlisted candidates and subsequently recommend the top three candidates to Council from among whom one will be appointed after voting by Council members.
Shortly after the completion of the work of the Search Committee, what followed was the referendum by the university community which is a standard conventional practice of selection of Vice-Chancellors in Nigerian Universities. It was revealed that the candidates polled the following votes in the referendum: Prof. Lale -245; Prof. Didia-89; Prof. Owate-28; Prof Efebo-26; Prof Ndimele 9; Prof Agiobenibo-1; Nyanayor-1; and Sikoki-1. Professors Uadia and Johnnie did not participate in the referendum as rules do not allow external applicants to participate. Thus Prof Lale was declared winner of the referendum, having polled 245 out of 400 validly cast votes.
Investigations revealed that trouble began when the Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of the Selection Committee literally confiscated the raw grades by individual Committee members and went home with them without allowing room for collective collation of the results on the spot. This runs contrary to the conventional practice where the panelists are expected to collectively collate and take a position as to the standing of each candidate. When they reconvened the next day the Selection Committee came up with a result which shows that Prof. Sikoki who polled 1 vote in the referendum surprisingly topped the list while Prof. Lale who polled 245 votes at the referendum came second. The third candidate on the list is Prof Efebo. It is interesting to note that Professors Sikoki and Efebo are from Bayelsa State while Lale is from Rivers State.
It is important to point out that during the interview; Prof. Sikoki failed to show proof of one of the most basic requirements for appointment into public service in Nigeria- NYSC discharge or exemption certificate! It was authoritatively gathered that when Prof. Sikoki was asked to produce his NYSC certificate, he claimed he lost it. Even so, the Pro-Chancellor still presented him as number one candidate for consideration by Council. This did not go down well with some members of Council. We gathered that they argued that if Prof. Sikoki has questionable credentials, he ought normally to have been excluded from the process. As the next person is not from Bayelsa State, the Chairman reportedly objected. Indeed, in a fit of anger, he queried why people were digging into other people’s records, arguing that some of those who were very vocal may also have tainted records. Given the stiff opposition he encountered from members of Council, he caused Council to be adjourned to the next day so that Prof. Sikoki would present a sworn affidavit to give legal backing to his claim. Expectedly, Prof. Sikoki appeared before Council the next day with an affidavit dated 2nd February 2015 from the Choba Magistrate Court to the effect that he served with the University of Jos, Plateau State but that the certificate has been lost. This immediately generated suspicions in the minds of some members of Council as the Courts in the state have been shut down for nearly one year. A case for verification of his claim was therefore made. In this regard, Council is to sponsor a trip for an investigator to the University of Jos where he claimed to have served and possibly, the Secretariat of the NYSC in Plateau state. The Council is to reconvene on May 26 2015.
While the outcome of the investigation is being awaited, some members of the university community who spoke on condition of anonymity have been asking questions which speak directly to the propriety of the whole process. These are: where on earth is an entire interview process stood down just because of an applicant who is unable to produce the required documents? Further, by the Pro-Chancellor’s insistence that one out of three candidates be selectively invited to appear before the entire Council to validate a claim, how might a level-playing field be guaranteed for the other two candidates involved in the selection process? This is particularly worrisome as it was learnt that the responsibility for short-listing and screening of candidates is solely the statutory role of the Selection Board while that of Council is to appoint. In the circumstances, how might the Pro-Chancellor discharge the moral burden of the charge of bias, double standard, impunity and violation of due process? Importantly, what justification does Council have for wasting public resources in the misguided search for a required document on behalf of a candidate, particularly a document that is ordinarily a condition precedent for appointment into the nation’s public service?
Furthermore, apart from being from the same state with the Pro-Chancellor as well as Nigeria’s President, is there any special quality that Prof. Francis Sikoki possesses that is manifestly absent in the other candidates? More fundamentally, is it possible for an affidavit to have been validly sworn to at the Choba Magistrate Court on the February 2nd 2015 bearing in mind that the Judiciary has been shut down in Rivers State since June 2014? The answer to the last question is a categorical no. That being the case, the inescapable conclusion to be drawn is that the preferred candidate of the Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council can hardly escape the serious charge of forgery. What this suggests is that the search for Prof. Sikoki’s NYSC certificate is of no moment, having produced an affidavit that common sense and logic suggest must be a fruit of fraud. In an interview with one of the candidates who did not make it to the top three, he argued, on condition of anonymity, that ‘this is potentially dangerous for ethics and values for the University of Port Harcourt. If the moral content of a Vice-Chancellor is tainted with fraud, how might he discharge the responsibility for training young people in character and learning which is what a university does?’ Even more significantly is what happens to the appointment of a VC for the University if the Pro-Chancellor is irrevocably committed to promoting a candidate with questionable credentials that is found unacceptable by a critical segment of Council? Might this lead to a further stalemate when Council meets on 26 May 2015? If that turns out to be the case, what happens after 29 May 2015 when the mantle of the country’s leadership changes hands and with it, the likelihood of dissolution of Governing Councils of the nation’s universities? As the university community awaits the final outcome of this whole drama, these are questions the Pro-chancellor cannot wish away.