I have watched with keen interest the raging debate over the May 29 announcement by President Goodluck Jonathan renaming the University of Lagos, Akoka (UNILAG), as Moshood Abiola University. The decision by the president was made to honour the hero of our present democracy, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola, who won the June 12, 1993 presidential election but was denied the opportunity to exercise the mandate freely given to him by the Nigerian people.
My interest in the debate is best understood by the fact that though Chief Abiola is a nationalist whose popularity and support base transcended Ogun State where he hailed from and where I happen to be presently serving as governor, I also had the privilege of representing his senatorial district, Ogun Central, in the Senate between 2003 and 2007. I therefore feel obliged to contribute my own viewpoint to the debate.
For some obvious reasons, any honour done to Abiola’s memory should not generate any controversy. There is, in my view, a national consensus that he made the supreme sacrifice to enable us have democratic government. His decision not to fold his arms after the unjust annulment of the results of a free and fair election jolted the nation and called world attention to our situation in Nigeria. He mobilised our people to stand for their democratic rights to choose their leaders. In the process, he and one of his wives, Alhaja Kudirat Abiola, died in controversial circumstances. The nature of his nationwide support as exemplified by the results of the annulled election also indicated that it was not impossible to build a national mandate, even in Nigeria, with our different diversities. It is unfortunate that some of the positive and patriotic symbolisms derivable from that election were not allowed to be entrenched in our system.
It should also be stated at this point that one of the greatest constituencies which formed the pillar of support for Bashorun Abiola during the pre and post June 12 1993 election was the university population. The students solidly voted for Abiola and were constantly on the streets to protest the annulment of the election. We should also remember that student bodies at various levels had demanded that Abiola should be honoured by the Federal Government to immortalise him and institutionalise the ideas and ideals that he lived for.
While Abiola was alive, he was arguably the greatest donor to the cause of developing the university system. These facts therefore help to put the various arguments on the renaming of UNILAG in a proper context. I have read opinions by students and lecturers in UNILAG who stated that they were not opposed to Abiola being honoured but they were unhappy about the manner and the choice of honour done in his memory by President Jonathan. The students, their lecturers, alumni of the university as well as their supporters believe they ought to have been consulted before the announcement. They further argued that the announcement came as a disruption to the then on-going mourning period for their late vice chancellor, Prof. Babatunde Sofoluwe, another prominent son of Ogun State and Abeokuta, like Abiola. Some of them also canvassed that Abiola could have been honoured by renaming other national institutions like the National Stadium in Abuja or the National Theatre in Lagos in his memory. These arguments make me to conclude that the controversy is just a question of form and not substance.
Therefore, the question is not whether the man, MKO, deserves to be honoured. While I respect the emotional attachment all the past and present great Akokites, and their lecturers attach to the name UNILAG, I want to plead with them as well as call their attention to the fact that what made UNILAG and its products great is not only the name. Rather, it is the quality of teaching, learning and research, the creativity, ingenuity and innovation for which the institution is known across the globe. Renaming the institution will definitely not change or demean any of these qualities. It can only enhance them. Abiola himself represented brilliance in our leadership. He represented ability of a Nigerian to conquer poverty. He represented entrepreneurship, the decision and determination by one man to uplift his society by conquering the challenges posed by his environment and background. Abiola was one tree that arguably made the forest.
It is my belief that UNILAG under its new name will continue to grow like Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Cornell and other world renowned universities renamed after individuals, once we are all determined to sustain its greatness and support its development. Even if we retain the name UNILAG and refuse to do what is needed for the growth of the institution, God forbid, it will turn into a source of shame to all of us.
It is with this conviction that I, on behalf of the good people of Ogun State, commend President Jonathan for hearkening to the voice of Nigerians to give national recognition to the role played by Basorun Abiola in entrenching democracy in Nigeria. He has chosen to honour a true hero of our democracy. I am sure all democrats who appreciate the gains we have made in the last 13 years of the longest democratic era in our country will support the fact that we can do with positive symbolisms to celebrate our tortuous journey to where we are today.
However, while one sincerely appreciates the positive gesture of President Jonathan, I want to urge the president to go the whole hog and give Abiola the ultimate recognition and honour. The president should immediately commence consultation with the National Assembly towards declaring a national public holiday in honour of Abiola. In doing this, President Jonathan may declare June 12 as a national public holiday. In the alternative, Abiola’s birthday or even the day he died may be considered.
Declaring a day in honour of Abiola will help to etch his memory in the minds of present and future generations of Nigerians who will be spurred and inspired to want to know about the importance of the man to our country. Many years down the line, Nigerians who were not around when the June 12 election took place will be compelled to ask question about who Abiola was and his significance in our national history. They will then know about how the man abandoned the comfort that his money could guarantee to seek to offer public service. They will equally learn that Abiola galvanised Nigerians to resist repression when some anti-democratic forces sought to stifle and stultify his noble goal.
I believe President Jonathan has started well on the journey to right the wrongs in our national history. History will be kind to him for this big initiative but he needs to conclude this positive beginning and consummate the process to immortalise a man who died while protecting the integrity of this nation and her people by declaring a public holiday in his honour. In the final analysis, as the lawyer will say, this should be substance over form.
•Amosun, a chartered accountant, is governor of Ogun State. -Thisdaylive news