PRESIDENT Goodluck Jonathan's decision to rename the University of Lagos, UNILAG, Moshood Abiola University has not had the desired impact. Abiola's family is, of course, pleased and grateful. I'm also touched by this development for personal reasons. Abiola, a great philanthropist and democratic icon, was close to my late father and was extremely kind to me and my siblings when we were youngsters. And I am friendly with a couple of his children.
And there have been smatterings of applause from more emotionally detached quarters. But the nation's reaction seems to have been pretty negative overall. Several prominent and regular citizens - including Yorubas who held their brother Abiola in high esteem, journalists who used to work for his newspaper (Concord) and democracy activists who solidly supported him during his lifetime and continue to revere him to this day - have roundly condemned the name change. And quite a few have contacted me to express their displeasure.
Meanwhile, so many Unilag students took to the streets earlier on this week to protest that the campus has been closed down in order to facilitate the restoration of peace. And I know that a large number of current and former Unilag academic staffers are privately echoing the students' frustration. And I can, to be honest, understand why some of the above are not happy. Now I don't share the views of critics who are accusing the President of "playing to the gallery" or of trying to deflect attention from his administration's failures or of indulging in trivial, patronising gesture politics. They are, in my opinion, being too curmudgeonly and too cynical.
Honours should sometimes be taken at face value and are sometimes sincerely offered for the right reasons; and a man who was imprisoned and (I think) murdered because he was the people's choice, won an election and became an obstacle to power-crazed rivals deserves to be remembered with immense respect. And what better way is there to display this immense respect and keep Abiola's name alive than to emblazon his name on a major establishment?
However, why not pick a place that has a neutral and purely professional image? The Institute of International Affairs, for example, would have been a befitting and ideal place to rename after MKO, especially since he had a high international profile and was warmly received in many countries. When you have several choices at your disposal, why risk controversy by choosing a place that inspires emotional reactions and has been around for ages and has acquired a strong identity of its own?
Unilag is not just an insipid label that merely reflects the location of a university. It is a very famous and longstanding (by Nigerian standards) brand. And the general public in every country tends to become very jittery and tetchy when you tamper with brands they have grown up with and become attached to. I imagine that a similar outcry would ensue if Mr President or anyone else attempted to do away with cosily familiar household names like Milo or Super Eagles or Coke.
Furthermore, Unilag is not just a brand name or an anonymous set of buildings in which people earn a living or acquire degrees in law or physics or whatever. Unilag has been a treasured HOME to the millions of students and lecturers who have passed through it since it was founded.
They have slept there and eaten there and cried there and laughed there and learned how to stand on their own two feet there and matured there and fallen in love there and married in its chapel and reared their offspring in its residential spaces.
When I was a youth corps member in Lagos three decades ago, I often socialised with Unilag students and they were always grumbling about their halls of residence or lecture theatres or professors. But it was obvious that they adored the place despite its shortcomings. And I know that it will always hold a dear place in their hearts because I am still in touch with some of these former students.
An educational institution that one has graduated from is often described as one's "alma mater" (or "nourishing mother") - very significant words that convey a deep bond between old schools and ex-pupils. And I wouldn't have dared to mess with the Unilag name if I had been in President Jonathan's shoes! And I urge him to listen and be flexible and to kindly reverse his decision.
Feeling and bitterness
To further illustrate the strength of feeling and bitterness that this issue has aroused, here is a letter a Vanguard reader who hails from Lagos State recently sent me: The sad irony is that the renaming has even attracted some hostility towards MKO himself. The Federal Government of Nigeria has always been known to destroy institutions in Nigeria, due to their half-baked education and absolutely no exposure. Goodluck Jonathan had to compound this trend further by changing an original institution, a renowned and reputable University of Lagos, to Moshood Abiola University!!! All in a desperate effort to please who? He had to further prove to the world by this foolish act that the education sector in Nigeria is at the bottom of his agenda! This confirms he is surrounded by dozens of clueless and sychophantic advisers and assistants who obviously did not attend an institution like UNILAG!
I bet it was a political decision to make the 'Yoruba folk' happy. Well, he has just infuriated us further as the enlightened and exposed Yoruba indigenes understand the meaning of building and maintaining institutions as well as being proud of one's 'Alma Mater'. Who does a thing like this? Only a NIGERIAN President who thinks he can do as he pleases to gain political points! Thank God my scroll proudly reads 'University of Lagos'.
MKO fought for democracy, agreed, but I would say it was for his ambitious spirit, anyway! He was brave enough to...(rebel) because he wined and dined with the monsters who killed him with a 'stab in the back. He didn't attend UNILAG and none of his children, I dare say, attended either.
There are other monuments that could have been named after him and a host of schools already bear his name! Like it or not, I would not be proud to announce that I am a graduate of MKO University! So this 'spineless government' should reinstate the name 'UNIVERSITY OF LAGOS' and learn from institutions like 'Oxford, Cambridge, Havard, Yale, to name a few, and never mix politics and education, ever. Reinstate the UNILAG name Goodluck Jonathan!