By Owei Lakemfa
THE most exciting period for most humans is their youth. Many youths look forward to better lives. In fact, some wish they can grow faster and be independent of parental care. That is in a normal society. Many youths in Nigeria do not have such experience. They are either abducted, killed, intimidated or denied their fundamental human rights not just by terrorists but also government and school authorities.
It can be argued that a lot of atrocities are as a result of cultism, banditry and terrorism over which the country seems helpless. But what about cases where our tertiary institutions are holding students hostage? For example, the Obafemi Awolowo University, OAU, has since 2017 denied its students their fundamental and constitutional rights to freely associate or assemble. Since almost all programmes in the university system are four-year, it means the OAU authorities, backed by the Senate, has denied a whole generation of the students the right to unionise, to experience governance at their union level, speak for themselves, represent their own interest, participate in national student unionism and play their role in national development.
Tertiary education is not just academics, but also the moulding of youths for nation building and contributing to human development. It is a training ground to groom successor generations, preparing them to take their rightful place in society. It is even more perplexing that the OAU’s motto: ‘For Learning and Culture’, reflects this truth. So why would the current OAU authorities who inherited a vibrant institution be allowed to get away with such criminality? The ban is a brazen violation of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights which in Article 20 states that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” Specifically on education, Article 26 (2) states: “Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Secondly, it is a crime against the Constitution which in Section 40 expressly states that: “Every person shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons, and in particular he may form or belong to any political party, trade union or any association for the protection of his interest.” Also, Section 34 provides that: “Every individual is entitled to respect for the dignity of his person.” By denying the OAU student his basic rights, including to representation and to speak for himself, the OAU authorities have stripped him of his human dignity. It is incredible that the institution has one of the oldest faculties of law in the country. What is that faculty teaching if basic fundamental rights are so liberally violated? Is it not better to scrap it?
Thirdly, it is a defeat of why an institution is established as a ‘universe’ which is partly why it adorns the gown of a university. Fourthly, the actions of the OAU authorities, do not allow their victims the right to develop mentally because the conditions they are made to study are enslaving; only slaves have no right to associate with themselves or sit in a union.
Fifth, the OAU tragedy speaks volumes of our state of decay; how come teaching and non-teaching staff are running their unions conscious of the fact that the students for whom they are employed are not allowed to have their union? Six, it is a sad reflection of the state of our student movement that students would allow the university run while it is dehumanising them. My seventh point is that the OAU tragedy, tells the sorry state and role of a university in an assumed democracy where the will of the people is supposed to prevail. How can a country claim that the Constitution is its grundnorm, yet allow dictatorial institutions like OAU to rape it serially over the years?
While the OAU case is straight forward dictatorship, men and women robed in academic regalia trying to play god, that of the Kwara State University, KWASU, is a bit twisted. The university having made it compulsory for fresh and final year students to stay in the school hostel, put a princely price tag of N65,000 per bed space. Students who decide not to take up such offer were forced to pay a hostel exemption fee of N5,000. Then some weeks ago, the university increased the exemption fee by 300 percent, meaning students who opt out of hostel arrangement are fined N20,000. This payment was then made a prerequisite for the registration of courses for the semester.
When the students protested the extortion, the university authorities threatened them saying: “We hereby remind the affected students of their Matriculation oath that they will be obedient to the rules and regulations of the university and to not disrupt peace and tranquillity on campus.” If a school makes it compulsory for its students to stay in the hostel, it must also provide the enabling environment. Having made such by-law and then imposing a hostel fee of N65,000 per student, is not only exploitative but also insensitive.
KWASU cannot assume that parents and guardians who manage to keep their children in school, including feeding them and paying a sundry of levies, would also have such an amount to pay for hostel accommodation. But I am much more intrigued by the fact that the university imposes a N20,000 fine on any student not interested in its accommodation. This shows that the primary objective of the school is to squeeze money out of the students. This extortion is a crime for which KWASU authorities ought to be charged.
Let me conclude with the private tertiary institutions where lecturers are denied the fundamental right to unionise, and many dehumanise their students. Yet, we have a Federal Ministry of Education purportedly supervising these institutions that rape the constitutional rights of Nigerians. In the on-going repression of the OAU and KWASU students and the denial of lecturers in private universities their fundamental right to associate, the state and federal governments behave like the policeman who despite being witness to crimes being committed, says he will do nothing to apprehend the criminals because the victims have not cried to him.
The option for a country that wants progress is not just to enforce the rights of its citizens, including the youths who are its future, but also to bring to justice all those who violate fundamental human rights, rape the Constitution and commit crimes. We can start with the basic step of sending all those who have been vice chancellors, registrars or student affair deans of OAU since 2017 to prison. If we do not stand for something, we will fall for anything.