Sexual Harassment as Academic License: Arresting the Rot in Our Universities

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This week, the University of Ibadan inaugurated an ad-hoc committee to investigate claims of sexual misconducts and harassment of students on the campus. The vice chancellor of the University, Professor Olayinka, who announced this, said the recent exposé of sexual misconduct in the Nigerian Universities by the BBC was deeply disturbing. Also, this week, the management of the University of Lagos (UNILAG) has set up a Task Force on Sexual Harassment in continuation of its campaign against the menace and other related forms of inappropriate behaviour. The Task Force would serve as a Standing Committee which will send monthly reports of its activities to the Vice Chancellor. UNILAG management had earlier set up a Panel headed by Professor Ayodele Atsenuwa to probe the allegations of sexual harassment levelled against its lecturers, Dr Boniface Igbeneghu and Dr Samuel Oladipo. They were both suspended by the University management following their involvement in a sex-for-grade documentary published by the BBC targeted at some suspected lecturers.

One of the realities of Nigerian public life is that foreign media reports, especially BBC and CNN lead to action while local reports, even of exceptionally high standards are often ignored. As far back as 1981, a presidential commission charged with investigating wages and conditions of work in Nigeria’s public sector, the Cookey Commission, revealed that they had unearthed evidence of significantly high levels of sexual harassment in the universities. They reported that passing or failing for female students was often a function of their acceptance or resistance to sexual advances from some lecturers. There was no follow up to the findings of the presidential commission. I am glad universities are listening to the BBC report today but it would have been better if earlier reports had been taken seriously.

Sexual harassment by academics is particularly insidious because they are supposed to play the role of parents to their student. They abuse their position by engaging unethical, unprofessional and indeed criminal conduct traumatising and ruining the lives of many of their students.A recent study has shown that 51.7 percent of female undergraduates have suffered one form of sexual violence or another in school. The findings are from a survey conducted by a consortium of civil society organizations led by Youth Alive Foundation (YAF). The national survey, carried out in 19 tertiary institutions across six states, sampled over 3000 students. According to the Executive Director of the YAF, Dr Udy Okon, the survey provided evidence of the prevalent rate of sexual harassment in higher education in Nigeria (Daily Trust, 16th October 2019). She said the survey was part of the Youth Participation Against Corruption (Y-PAC), a DFID funded project aimed at strengthening integrity in tertiary institutions, which identified sex for grades as the most prevalent corrupt practice in tertiary institutions. Think about it, over half of our daughters and sisters in tertiary education are potential victims of sexual harassment.

We cannot allow our universities to continue as spaces in which essentially, male lecturers use their institutional power to commit horrible crimes, mostly against women and girls. A number of studies by Charmaine Pereira have shown that the prevailing justification in the university system is that civil servants corruptly enrich themselves in their offices and lecturers have to also enjoy what they can based on what they have access to. As an academic myself, I have always been disgusted at how some of my colleagues have been very defensive about sexual harassment of their female students. The core argument they make is that many girls are corrupt and seek to seduce them to get higher marks, which they do not deserve. This is absolute nonsense as it wishes away the core ethical responsibility of teachers not to exploit their students. The reality is that many lecturers are misusing their position in the academy as license to harass, exploit and criminally assault their students and if this is not fought, the universities cannot be revived as places or learning.

The good news is that the fight back has started over the past few years and many lecturers are being exposed. For example, a 17-year-old student of the University of Ilorin has reported that her Arts Education lecturer, in February 2019, “locked his office while she was inside, pushed her to a table and raped her. The man covered her mouth to stifle screams and later left her alone in the office after the encounter” Premium Times 24th June 2019. The accused staff, Solomon Olowookere, a senior lecturer, denied the allegations but multiple interviews with senior university officials, including the head of Department of Arts Education, the dean of Faculty of Education and the dean of Students’ Affairs, confirmed the attack occurred.

The University of Abuja has set up a committee to investigate allegations of falsification of examination records and sexual harassment against the Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture, Professor A. A. Adeniji, made by one Miss Duru Deborah, a student in his faculty. The professor was actually caught pants down during a sting operation by the police. The student had reported to the security service in the university the professor’s demands and they invited the police who organized the sting operation in an Abuja hotel where he was caught pants down – (see full report: https://www.dailytrust.com.ng/uniabuja-sex-scandal-7-man-panel-to-investigate-dean.html).

An even more terrible case occurred in the Faculty of Education of Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, where a girl was raped by a lecturer, who was supposed to be her guardian. The police were called in and it was discovered that the lecturer involved “was both HIV and hepatitis positive and had infected the girl” – (Daily Trust, 17th August 2019). In a second case in the same university, this time in the Faculty of Social Sciences, a lecturer threatened his female students in a 300-level course he teaches. A sting operation was organized because: “He plainly told the girl she can’t pass the course without submitting herself to him. Left with no option, she came here to the Security Unit and reported. We set a trap for him by asking the girl to play along. He went and booked a hotel room, and we arrested him while he was attempting to have sex with the girl” – (Daily Trust, 17th August 2019”.

These sting operations are being organized in Ahmadu Bello University because the university ran into problems when it sacked a professor for sexual harassment and he went to court to challenge the termination of his appointment. He was alleged to have invited the student for sex in the hotel room. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which believed the story of the professor that he had gone to the hotel room to receive chapter three of the thesis she was writing. The Court ordered the University to take him back. The standard of proof of sexual harassment has become very high as more cases are emerging. According to the Chief Security Officer of Ahmadu Bello University,  Colonel Tukur Jibril (Rtd), “We have to use evidence that even in a court of law, these people would not escape justice.” – (Daily Trust, 17th August 2019).

The most celebrated case of sexual harassment in the Nigerian university system is that of Professor Richard Akindele. He was demanding sex for marks from a female student and she decided to tape him and leak the recording. The audio recording went viral and was even reported on CNN. The conversation was used as evidence by the University Committee that investigated the matter (Punch, 20th June 2018). He was immediately dismissed from the services of the university. A new twist emerged after his dismissal. He was arraigned in the Federal High Court, Osogbo by the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission; (ICPC) for corruptly attempting to have sex with one of his students in exchange for marks in his course and was tried, found guilty and jailed for two years. The case has therefore set a new jurisprudence in which “sex-for-grades” has become a criminal offence that could lead to prosecution and jail.The Akindele issue got mileage because the university has a long tradition of advocacy on gender matters are students have been sensitised on fight-back mechanisms. In addition,  a legal rights NGO – the Women Advocates Research and Documentation Centre led by Dr. Abiola Akiode-Afolabi played a major leadership role in guiding the student through the difficult phase of interrogation at the level of the university investigating committee and they were the ones also that referred the case of the (ICPC). The fight back therefore requires institutional response mechanisms and mobilisation as well as support groups to help girls fight against the numerous sexual predators around them.

The general corruption and spread of sexual harassment in the university system deepened over the years because both the university administrations and ASUU have not invested significantly in developing and implementing a code of ethics to guide conduct of staff and students. ASUU actually lost the moral high ground in 2016 when the Nigerian Senate proposed the – Sexual Harassment Offences Bill. The ASUU President at the time, Professor Biodun Ogunyemi, went to the public hearing of the Bill in Senate and argued that the nation’s universities and tertiary institutions would not accept the passage of any law to punish lecturers because it would “violate university autonomy” (Vanguard, 20th June 2016). The Bill has just been represented in Senate so let’s hope ASUU will not fight it this time. While it is true that sexual harassment is indeed a general problem, various studies have shown it is very prevalent in tertiary institutions and university administrations and ASUU have not taken significant initiatives within the university system to contain it. This trend is changing today and the fight back is on.

 

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