What’s UNN doing with a new 12,000 bed hostel when it is littered with deliberate dereliction?
On Tuesday, June 16, 2020, a report in the Daily Sun newspapers proclaimed that the Vice Chancellor of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Prof Charles Igwe, marked his one year in office with the flagging off ceremony of the construction of a 12,000-capacity hostel project at the Nsukka campus of the country’s premier university.
According to the Vice Chancellor in the report, the hostel project, embarked upon under a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement, was in line with his promise to “prioritize students’ welfare during his inaugural speech to the university community in June 2019.”
I almost glossed this news report, except for a couple of reasons. First, I had wondered the point in embarking on a new hostel construction project when nearly all the existing hostel structures in the university were in various deplorable stages of unhabitable dilapidation. I will come back to this later but the second thing that made me pay a bit more attention to this report was the soundbite of the Dean Student Affairs, Prof Edwin Omeje, who was reported to have thanked the VC for his interest in students’ welfare.
We are living in an environment where time and resources are invested in praising politicians for doing exactly some of the things they were voted to do, but little did it occur to me that time would come when a Vice Chancellor, primarily elected to enhance academic excellence by providing conducive learning environments, would be commended for commitment to the welfare of students. If the VC is not committed to the welfare of students, whose welfare would he commit to? The staff?
I recall that following a series of articles I published here when this same Vice Chancellor made it his ignoble business to be courting local council chairmen in the Nsukka geo-cultural area for bags or rice, noodles and vegetable oil in the name of COVID-19 palliatives at the expense of poor local community people, it was this same Dean of Student Affairs that was given the task of responding on behalf of Prof Igwe. I was therefore not surprised when I saw his name featuring quite strategically in this news item.
I had wanted to do this report back in June 2020, just a few days after I got the story but the journalist in me demanded fact-checks and this has, strangely, taken six months. One of the things that needed investigating was Viagem Investment Property Ltd., the firm that signed this partnership agreement with UNN’s Prof Igwe. This was because I had reasoned that an institution of the pedigree of the University of Nigeria should not be seen to be engaging contractors with no track record for such critical projects as students’ hostel building.
I therefore contracted my lawyer for a search at the Corporate Affairs Commission on June 20, 2020. Up till now and over N25,000 invested in CAC’s hideously nebulous search operations, my lawyer has not been able to return with any useful information other than for me to keep waiting because they could not find the file on the shelf and that someone might have removed it for work-related purposes.
Six months digging for the particulars of directors of Viagem Investment Property Ltd couldn’t yield anything. Whether this was down to the inhibitive, regressive cobweb of corruption in the CAC or the fact that this company does not even exist anywhere except in our elite supposedly UNN is hard to say. While CAC was floundering, I explored the digital ecosystem for footprints. You cannot exist in today’s global community without littering the internet with your personal and corporate DNA.
But sadly, the only strands of Viagem Investment and Property Limited visible on the internet were the same stories published in the Daily Sun that was apparently syndicated to a couple of other media establishments. The other is a Facebook Page belonging to one Prince Adewale Oriola Amos, who claims to be the “Captain General” of Viagem Property and Investment Ltd.
Adewale Oriola Amos, his Facebook account states, is from Igbokoda in Ondo State; resides in Lagos and prefers to be seen as a “political leader” rather than a civil engineer of a real estate developer. I was forced to go back to the story in the Daily Sun where I noticed that a certain Evangelist Chijioke Okonkwo was presented as the Managing Director of the company.
It sure does not smell any funnier.
While I was busy digging the world for information on this strange company, the Vice Chancellor and his cohorts were progressing with the construction of the hostel blocks, and without the concurrence of the University Council. I will still return to this.
When information became impossible to obtain, I took recourse to my sources inside the university hierarchy where I was informed that Viagem was a company introduced to the Vice Chancellor by billionaire “philanthropist,” Prince Arthur Eze, as compensation for the role he played in the purported “installation” of Prof Igwe as Vice Chancellor, against better qualified candidates. It was also mentioned to me that Viagem is allegedly a registered entity somewhere in Brazil and is routinely used for non-competitive, compensatory “deals” for the Anambra-born billionaire that have recently been in the news for alleged land-grabbing in his native Ukpo/Abba communities in Dunukofia Local Government Area of Anambra State.
To ensure that Viagem recoups its investment and make huge profits in record time, the deal allegedly gave the company a 21-year Build-Operate-Transfer lease. This, our sources say, is skewed to favour the partner in this project, especially given that the company did not pay for the vast expanse of land allocated by the VC for this project.
I also learned that part of the strategies employed to ensure the 12,000 beds in the hostel are fully occupied immediately after commissioning, is to make it mandatory for all first-year students to live in that hostel. UNN admits just about that number each academic session. Official cost for an accommodation space in the school’s hostels is said to be N12,000 per annum, but to be accommodated in Prof Igwe’s “historic project”, students will be made to pay N90,000 per annum.
How this will be allowed to happen is still buried in the silence of those who should have spoken up but who have chosen to murmur in hushed tones, perhaps waiting to be invited to the dinner table where the growing decadence of the university and the misfortunes this breeds for ordinary Nigerians are shared among the privileged few like party jollof rice.
Although it has not been communicated anywhere, inside sources think Prof Igwe and his cohorts are trying to take advantage of a 2015 recommendation by the Federal Government to make hostel accommodation compulsory for all Nigerian undergraduates. Julius Okojie, Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC), had, at the graduation ceremony of the University of Uyo, said the move was “aimed at ensuring better living conditions for students with a view to producing better graduates.”
But if the talk is about “better living conditions” for students, Prof Igwe and the two Vice Chancellors before him have all conspired to bury the idea of decent hostels for students.
Neglected for so many years, the student hostels in UNN now look like centres for disease incubation than places for human habitation. From Zik’s Flats that have gone beyond deterioration many years ago to Akintola/Akpabio halls that was gutted by fire some years ago but have received no intervention from the university authorities, the list is endless. There is no single hostel that is habitable. The environment is so unsightly you wonder how a Vice Chancellor would move to build new hostels when existing ones are in treated with pathetic neglect.
People have even wondered whether the Vice Chancellor has the power to unilaterally commit the university to such a long-term deal without the concurrence of the Senate, the university council or even the Federal Ministry of Education that are officially the “landlords” and owners of the institution? As I mentioned earlier, the University Council was not aware of the deal with Viagem Investment and Property Ltd. Our informant revealed that on a couple of occasions the matter had been brought up at meetings, with the VC promising to address it subsequently. However, during the most recent meeting of the Council, the issue was conveniently not listed in the prepared Agenda, a factor that makes many suspect the Vice Chancellor is deliberately keeping stakeholders in the dark until the project is commissioned by March this year (2021).
I have often said that the corruption in our centres of excellence when properly mirrored could make what we are used to reading of our public sector pale in significance.
I have often said that the corruption in our centres of excellence when properly mirrored could make what we are used to reading of our public sector pale in significance. I recall that when Nsukka people were up in arms, protesting against the emergence of Prof Igwe as VC of UNN against indigenes of Nsukka, I took a strong, yet unpopular position in favour of the Professor who came to Nsukka as a technician and grew to such lofty greatness. I am not about to regret taking such position, considering my belief that a university environment should be insulated from the kind of parochial politics of the outside world. But what is playing out now is reinforcing the argument of those that held that having allegedly risen to that office by the egregiously influence of ugly politics, expecting a different outcome from and of the VC would be hopelessly farfetched.
I hope that those who should ask the right questions; the University Council and of course, the Federal Ministry of Education; will begin now to do so.