President Goodluck Jonathan, in his Democracy Day address to the nation on Tuesday, May 29, 2012, announced the decision of the Federal Government to rename the University of Lagos, Akoka, in honour of the late icon of democracy, Chief Moshood Kasimawo Abiola, the widely-acclaimed winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election. The election was reputed to be the freest and fairest poll Nigeria has ever had, but was unjustly and inexplicably annulled by Ibrahim Babangida, thereby denying Abiola access to the Presidency. With the Federal Government order, the name of the university was changed from the University of Lagos to Moshood Abiola University, Lagos just like that!

The renaming of the university immediately evoked various feelings, which can all be summed up in the question: What is in a name? A name is an identification tag. It tells people who a person, nation, an institution or organisation is and by which the object is called. Once a name is given, it assumes an identity which transcends and is bigger than the individual, organisation, institution or nation to which it applies. It is by the name that other people, organisations or institutions identify and relate to the person to whom the name applies. In the case of UNILAG, the name is an international identity because the university has international relationships, partnerships and collaboration programmes. For the University of Lagos, as for other similar institutions, the name is also a brand identity. Many people generally identify the University of Lagos as UNILAG. With the renaming of the university, the identity will inevitably change. International partners are likely to continuously seek clarification/reassurance that Moshood Abiola University, Lagos, is the same University of Lagos that they had a relationship with. This also has serious implications for the certificates issued by the university and its teeming alumni who carry the university’s certificates and degrees. It will also have serious implications for current students whose certificates may bear the new name, Moshood Abiola University, Lagos, especially if they wish to go abroad for further studies, as many foreign institutions would ordinarily think the Moshood Abiola University, Lagos is a new university. Their certificates are likely to be held in abeyance until satisfactory clarifications are made. Thus, such students may suffer for actions that they had no hand in making. The argument here is that as an identity tag, names should not be changed arbitrarily. Otherwise, there will be confusion about identity and identification, and there may be a denial of access to certain privileges and opportunities. International travellers who have passports bearing different names can attest to this.

There is no doubt that the decision to change the name of the University of Lagos would have been taken after deliberation by the Federal Executive Council. It is also indisputable that the owner or proprietor of a structure, organisation or institution can decide to change the name as it pleases. Therefore, it is indisputable that the Federal Government has the power to change the name of one of its institutions – in this case, the University of Lagos – as it pleases. However, weighty decisions such as the renaming of an international academic institution should be taken only after a careful consideration of the pros and cons. What are the pros and cons in this instance? Could the desire to honour a well-deserving national icon have been achieved through a different decision with minimal negative consequences?

Chief M.K.O. Abiola deserves this honour by the Federal Government and much more. Perhaps, what the government could have considered doing is to name some other federal institutions or structures that would not have as much destabilising consequences as renaming the University of Lagos. Or the government could have established a new university which can be named after the democracy icon. In another vein, it may be argued that as a national hero, the honour accorded the late Abiola should not be restricted to the South-West – the geopolitical zone that he came from – perhaps naming a befitting structure in the Federal Capital Territory would have accorded him a better national honour.

This is an undemocratic way of honouring the icon of democracy in Nigeria! There was no consultation with the stakeholders (the University Governing Council, the management, the University Senate, the staff and the students, the alumni, etc.) before the order for renaming was announced. In this regard, it stands to reason to observe that the leeway to take arbitrary decisions such as this without carrying the stakeholders along is one of the reasons for the foot-dragging by the government about the granting of university autonomy in Nigeria! The renaming by fiat has serious implications for institutional autonomy. Arbitrary decision-making, political interference and erosion of university autonomy are also part of the reasons for the relatively low ranking of Nigerian universities in the global ranking of universities. It is unimaginable for any government or political leader to change the name of Oxford University or Cambridge University or Harvard University or any other international university! Whatever we do, we should adopt the Best Practices. We should also go in the direction of international institutions in order to ensure better ranking of our universities and to ensure that our universities are accorded the respect they deserve and that they occupy their rightful place.

So, what is in a name? The Yoruba believe that a name has implications for a person’s behaviour (This is what they mean when they say oruko nro o). Moshood Abiola University, Lagos (MAUL) – what does it mean to maul somebody or an institution?

Now that the Federal Executive Council has ordered the renaming of the University of Lagos, the next question is: what impact is the renaming going to have on the fortune of the university? How does the Federal Government intend to make the renaming reflect in the funding and infrastructural development of the university? Apart from image problems, as well as social and psychological consequences for the university and its stakeholders, the renaming of the university will also have serious financial implications, including the cost of changing name plates, tags, advertisement, etc. It could also lead to a reduction of reputation, which may also have financial implications, It would be interesting to know how the Federal Government plans to assuage these effects. Also, what are the legal implications? The University of Lagos was established by an Act of Parliament. Of course, it may be argued that the same government that ordered the change of name would also effect the necessary legal changes.

This is an unpopular decision that the government would be best advised to rescind, as it is likely to have more negative consequences than positive ones. Again, what is in a name? Whatever name we call it, the University of Lagos will remain the University of First Choice and the nation’s pride!

We may conclude by noting in the usual parlance as follows: “By the order of the Federal Government of Nigeria, the institution, formerly known as the University of Lagos, is now to be known as Moshood Abiola University, Lagos. All former documents remain valid”.

•Prof. Soyombo teaches Sociology at the University of Lagos. He wrote in via [email protected]