How Nigerian Universities Stifle Free Speech

 

Free speech endangered
Authorities in tertiary institutions are increasingly intolerant to free speech, thus stifling constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression in, of all places, an intellectual environment 


By Funsho Balogun

For nearly nine months last year, Fisayo Adekunle Adebajo, a 400 level Law student of the University of Ibadan, UI, constantly had sleepless nights. He was endlessly troubled, as his fate hung in a balance, being unsure of eventually graduating from the university.

His travails had nothing to do with his academic performance. He was one of the leading students in his department.

But his nightmares were a result of an opinion he wrote and published on the university’s Campus Journalists’ online platform, ucjui.com, on the UJC noticeboard on campus and its Facebook page.

The Guardian newspaper also published the opinion in April 2016.

The article titled “UI: The Irony Of Fashionable Rooftops And Awful Interiors”, was a scorching criticism of what the students regard as misplaced priority of the school’s management which chose to beautify the rooftops of Kenneth Melanbi and Sultan Bello halls with tiles, while, curiously, no attempt was made to repair dilapidated facilities in the halls.

It was this penchant for cosmetics above what students’ consider as essential, which the article highlighted that roiled the universities authorities. He consequently became a subject of witch-hunt and death threats, allegedly orchestrated by the authorities of the university for a period of nearly eight months.

The school authorities could not stomach his criticism and ensured that he got two queries for his “effrontery and audacity”. He got his first query from his hostel warden, three days after his article was published in The Guardian newspaper.. In the query, he was asked to explain why he wrote such an article that “brought the university to disrepute”.

He was served the second query through his faculty. The authorities listed almost 70 offences he allegedly committed by publishing the article, including the accusation that he made rude remarks and false accusations. He was told a disciplinary committee would decide his fate. Expecting the worst, Fisayo awaited the final decision of the authorities.

The committee sat in December 2016 to decide his fate and that of other “erring students ”who committed sundry offences.. Fisayo’s nightmares ended when his name was dropped from the list of students to face disciplinary action.

This was due to the spirited and relentless efforts of the UCJ body, which embarked on consultations and appeal to the authorities to save Fisayo.

Fisayo’s experience is not an isolated one as many other writers in other universities are facing similar challenges. Students who wishto express themselves on issues such as the welfare of students on campuses or offer criticism of some policies that might not sit well with the student population, have to weigh the consequences before their views.

Across campuses, from the University of Lagos, Unilag, to Ladoke Akintola University of Technology, LAUTECH, Ogbomosho, University of Ilorin, Unilorin, Obafemi Awolowo University, OAU, Ile – Ife and other tertiary institutions, there have been instances when university authorities resorted to threats, intimidation and even outright punishment of students bold enough to write or speak about matters concerning their welfare or other seemingly unpalatable developments, indicating the intolerance of critical opinion on these campuses.

The UCJ in some of these campuses like the University of Ibadan, OAU and Unilag – where campus journalism is particularly vibrant – have ensured that journalists operate based on the ethics of the journalism profession.

Writers are encouraged to be objective and fair in their write-ups. But this has not been enough to insulate them fully from the wrath of the authorities when they are deemed to have produced articles that attempt to probe certain developments on campuses, which the authorities would prefer not to be questioned.

Fisayo’s ordeal in the hands of the UI authorities is similar to that of Sulaimon Akeukanwo, a 400 level student of the Computer Science Department, Faculty of Communication and Information Science, University of Ilorin, Unilorin.

In July 2016, Akeukanwo wrote an open letter to the SUG on sundry issues that he deemed inappropriate concerning the welfare and treatment of students on the Unilorin campus.

Akeukanwo disclosed to icirnigeria.org that although his write – up was addressed to the SUG, his aim was actually to reach the university’s management through the article, which seeks explanation or clarification on the matters he raised.

“To be candid, I was only addressing the school management on some of their policies via the student union”, he said.

However, while open letters are now common as a means of expression for students on campuses, the authorities at the Unilorin could not stomach the contents of Akeukanwo’s write – up, even as it raised questions deserving answers.

When the institution’s authorities saw the article on May 18, Akeukanwo was threatened by the Student Affairs Office and told he would be made to face the Students Disciplinary Committee.

Although he initially meant the open letter to be an in-house matter for the school authorities and the student union to address, Akewukanwo decided to give it broader readership when he came under threat of facing the Students Disciplinary Committee, prompting his decision to take it further by posting it on his Facebook wall, the Unilorin Facebook wall, the Student Union Facebook wall, on WhatsApp and putting it online.

The decision apparently paid off as the authorities had to tread cautiously concerning any disciplinary measure that would have been taken against him.

The open letter subsequently emboldened other students on campus who have initiated campaigns against the management’s policies via social media platforms like Tweeter, which is very popular among students.

One of such campaigns is the raging one against the school’s compulsory tablet acquisition by students of the institution, which is included in the registration fees payment.

Students have also been tweeting to condemn the Internet bandwidth subscription made compulsory by the management.

A number of students have come up with the hashtag #EnoughIsEnough on their Tweeter handles and Facebook walls to express their misgivings concerning the compulsory tab acquisition, following Akeukanwos’s action, particularly because those that paid N35,000 for the devices in the 2015- 2016 session are yet to be given the tablets.

When Akeukanwo demanded for an explanation for this from the Student Union, he got no answer, and he took it further by writing to the Vice Chancellor.

‘’Although the VC may be ready and willing to operate an open door policy, some people have ensured that the door is perfectly not open to such matters being tabled,’’ Akeukanwo told this website.

Akeukanwo and others believed by the authorities to be behind the tweeter messages have since been receiving threat calls by persons allegedly sponsored by the authorities who have labelled them rebels, and threatened with expulsion or failure.

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When our reporter visited the Student Affairs office of the UniIorin, the Sub-deen, Abdulkareem Yusuf maintained that the VC has left his doors open to students on bringing up any matter and denied that Akeukanwo was ever threatened over his open letter.

According to him, he was merely instructed to ensure that further articles by him were properly channelled and should not be articles that would engender any form of crisis on campus.

He stated that Akeukanwo was not the first or only student to have been so corrected as another student who had also written an article that could have led to friction on campus had to be educated on the proper step to take before coming out with subsequent write-ups.

“The school told him that he has to be very careful on what to write,’’ Yusuf said, insisting that Akeukanwo was warned but not threatened.

However, Yusuf also said there cannot be total freedom of expression on campus.

“There is what is termed guided freedom. There is nowhere in the world where you have unlimited freedom, because there are rules and regulations guiding our conduct and the process we do things,’’ the Sub-Dean said

At the University of Lagos, the authorities have also demonstrated intolerance to criticism by students. In September 2016, Femi Adeyeye, then a 400 level student of the department of building, Environmental Sciences Faculty, was rusticated for four semesters for a post on Facebook criticising the authorities for failing to address the complaints of students over welfare issues on campus.

He listed the welfare issues to include poor electricity and water supply, and the fact that only one ambulance served the entire university community.

Students of the university and their leaders had previously gone on a peaceful march to the senate house between April 6 and 8, 2016 to make their grievances known to the management.

They had discussed most of the issues highlighted in Adeyeye’s Facebook post over which the management of Unilag came down hard on him. Leaders of the protest, including the Student Union President were rusticated for daring to organise such defiance action against the authorities.

The SUG President, Mohammed Olaniyan, was rusticated for four semesters while the Speaker of Unilag’s Student Union parliament, Adeyanju Olaonipekun,was sent away for two semesters.

As an undergraduate, Adeyeye, who is neither a registered campus journalist nor one of the SUG leaders, had merely sought an outlet to ventilate his pent up frustration about the state of the welfare of students on his campus.

He told icirnigeria.org that he never imagined that his article on Facebook would become an issue with the university’s management, which, rather than address the matters he highlighted, condemned the post entirely as an illegality.

He also had no premonition that his post would warrant a punishment of rustication for four semesters, as decided by the Senate Disciplinary Committee.

However, in its defence, the Unilag management had pointed out that Adeyeye’s Facebook post derided the personality of the VC and other top personalities in the university, thereby breaching a part of the university’s regulations in the 2015-2016 student information handbook.

Adeyeye maintains that the university’s claim is a falsehood and insisted that the management had sneaked in the so-called breached section into a new version of the students’ handbook recently published and not made available to most students on campus.

He claimed that he saw the ‘emergency’ handbook a day after he was rusticated with a student who said only three out of the 73 students in his class were issued the copy

Adeyeye said that he went to the panel with a copy of the 2014-2015 hand-book, which had not been reviewed and was still the most recent by the time he wrote his now contentious Facebook post, which had nothing of such in it.

However, for now, the rustication order still stands, despite observations from legal experts, including Monday Ubani, former Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, Ikeja branch that the step taken by the institution was unduly harsh and should be reconsidered.

According to Ubani, every Nigerian citizen is entitled to a fair hearing before any disciplinary measure is taken.

Seeking legal redress or even a fair hearing would be a difficult task for Adeyeye. After the authorities passed judgement on him, his request that he should be given a recording of his encounter with the panel which lasted for about 45 minutes has been ignored.

A.O. Durojaiye, the panel’s secretary with whom he should relate to facilitate the process of getting the recording, has severed further contact with him by barring his line and blocking him on WhatsApp.

He has also been unable to get in contact with the acting Sub-Deen, Karo Ogbinaka, after the punishment was served.

Unilag authorities would have preferred that grievances like that of Adeyeye’s be channelled through the SUG, which incidentally was fighting the same course on such issues raised concerning the welfare of students.

This, according to a staff of the university’s Student Affairs office, should have sufficed in terms of an appropriate means of expression.

But Adeyanju Olaonipekun, Speaker of Unilag’s Student Union Parliament who has also been suspended for two semesters over the protest held on the state of the welfare of the students, said that the management of the institution had shown that the voice of the student leaders, who should be the mouthpiece for all students, has little or no impact.

On April 8, 2016, the student leaders had marched to the university’s Senate building to confront the management and relate the displeasure of the students about water, electricity, inadequate ambulance service and other matters, but no one attended to them.

This informed a congress held the next day with 66 students in attendance and the protest march to the Senate house was repeated. They were also not attended to by any official or the management of the Institution.

On April 8, when the march was again held, the students and their leaders were met by the Rapid Response Squad of the police, with armoured tanks militarizing the whole campus.

The management also gave an ultimatum of 10.00 am for students to vacate the campus. As a condition for resumption three weeks after, the students were mandated to sign an indemnity form and also swear to a re-absorption oath.

Olaonipekun stated that if the authorities had any regard for what the student leaders or the SUG tried to pass across in the first place and the issues addressed accordingly, such measures would have been unnecessary.

In the latest twist in the Unilag/Adeyeye saga, the student was arrested on Monday at the graduation ceremony of the institution. Adeyeye had gone to cover the event as a member of the crew of Saharareporters, the online newspaper. He was released hours later only after the intervention of public spirited Nigerians.

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At the University of Ilorin, the authorities have achieved the same purpose of curtailing criticism by the students through a different approach of ensuring that the Student Union executives are more or less an appendage of the management.

The Public Relations Officer of the Student Union, Omotoso Ahmed Damilare, disclosed concerning this approach by the management that right from when the present executives came on board, as had been the practice over the years, they were co-opted into being officers of the institution.

Being treated and regarded as such, and even holding regular meetings with the management, the Student Union executives are no longer in a position to serve as the proper channel for the criticism of the authorities as expressed by the students over some policies deemed to be unfair.

Across the campuses, the authorities have shown that they are particularly against critical write-ups by students being published in the mainstream media. Students who have made recourse to national dailies or even popular blogs as alternative avenues for publication to avoid victimisation have often come under threat by the authorities.

For the schools’ management it has always been about trying to prevent damage to the university’s image.

Lukmon Fasasi, a student of the Obafemi Awolowo University, OAU, Ife and President of the Association of Campus Editors, recently came under such threats.

He was prevailed upon by his department to discredit a report he wrote about an assault incident, which was published online, and in the dailies. The article, which appeared on his blog, lukmonfasasinews.com, the Punch and on Linda Ikeji’s blog, was widely syndicated online.

It was on the assault of a reporter he invited from The Nation newspaper to cover a parliamentary sitting of his department on campus over a year ago.

A fight broke out between the House and the Executive Council and Fasasi and the reporter were in the process of gathering facts for a report on the incident when they were attacked. Fasasi still went ahead to publish the story.

He was first approached by the president of his department’s student association to remove the write-up from his blog and other sites where it had been published.

“I was also summoned by the department and got warned, although they tried not to sound too harsh about it, being aware that if they just went ahead to suspend me, the matter might spin out of control, with even more write-ups following it,’’ Fasasi said.

However, subtle or not, the threat had its impact. Fasasi was forced to call Linda Ikeji not to credit him as the writer.

“I had to call Linda Ikeji and other media houses that syndicated the report that they should understand my plight and remove the credit to me to save me from expulsion,’’ he disclosed.

Another OAU campus journalist, Taiwo Akintunde, noted that writers on campus tend to do critical reporting through the mainstream national newspapers as it would be hard for the school to tackle these dailies over reports from student journalists since they are usually factual and on-the-scene accounts of whatever took place.

‘’Since the school always wants to present to the outside world that it does not gag freedom of expression, it treads softly in such cases. Such reports can come out with the writer’s name but once it is published, there is this immunity it gives to the writer as the school’s management believes it is no longer localized and by moving against the writer, the whole world will question such a step,’’ she said.

Campus journalists in OAU observed that unlike what obtains in Unilorin, the institution’s authorities are not particularly keen about pocketing or lording it over the executives of the student union, as it would not be an adequate measure to stifle critical opinion.

There is a proliferation of independent opinion leaders on the campus with diverse following and different blogs so gagging the lot would be a tall order.

‘’But sometimes when the news has to do with the student union, which usually concerns the management, they do try to use fellow students to kill it. The management has often adopted divide and rule tactics in the past, pitching sponsored students against fellow students when they are bent on introducing some policies. Some writers are influenced and compelled to write articles that justify the action of the authorities and they slit the slant of publications to pave the way for management to actualize such policies,’’ Akintunde stated.

A student journalist in his final year at the Nursing Department of Ladoke Akintola University of Technology, LAUTECH, Israel Fawole, had an unsavoury experience that underlines the gagging of critical opinion on the campus.

This was through a sly approach by the authorities of the school, which turned blind eyes and deaf ears to campus journalists’ complaints about violent attacks or harassment by student union leaders.

Fawole suffered one of such attacks for daring to write critical reports concerning some terrible happenings in the school.

The nursing undergraduate told the icirnigeria.org that after he was brutally attacked by the leadership of the student union of LAUTECH on two occasions over his write-ups about the ugly incidents in the university, he reported to the authorities, expecting the management to address the matter.

But it was a wasted effort as the school management refused to take any action. He claimed that some people later told him that the attack was done with the tacit approval of the school authority.

Fawole said that his first report, about rampant rape incidents involving eight LAUTECH female victims, which was published in The Punch newspaper, earned him his first brutal assault from the student union executives in October 2015.

‘’I did some investigations and wrote in The Punch and after the story was published, the then Student Union President, who was close to the management came with some other SUG members and some students to attack me,’’ he said.

The second attack on him by the SUG leadership, he alleged, took place early 2016. As a member of his faculty’s student association leadership, he knew the contents of the financial books and discovered that the past faculty leaders had misappropriated sums amounting to N700,000 out of the N2.3 million raised, he said.

“I wanted to take up the matter but was warned by some lecturers in my faculty who went ahead to threaten me with my results, I then discovered that N800,000 has been stolen in our present tenure,’’ Fawole disclosed.

At an Inaugural meeting that should have held where he meant to ask questions on the missing funds, the student union executives and top members of the main socio-political organizations on campus invaded the venue of the meeting, chasing everybody out of the premises.

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On his way home, Fawole alleged that members of the student union executives assaulted him brutally once again, leaving him with a laceration on his face that required stitching and days on admission in a hospital.

“I wrote about this and other incidents on campus, only to receive calls from the management that I was writing nonsense to tarnish the image of the university,’’ Fawole said.

He said that the management also warned him that if any other write – up is seen, he would be severely dealt with.

‘’The Deputy Vice Chancellor said he would deal with me and other campus journalists even if they see any report on the rape incidents online,’’ Fawole disclosed.

Journalists and other students on campuses are reacting to this seeming intolerance to critical speech by the authorities in different ways. At the University of Ibadan, the UCJ has tried to rally under one umbrella several students who are interested in any form of writing.

It has even gone to the length of co-opting campus bloggers who have adopted the avenue of blogging to showcase themselves as writers to register with the union, with five credible blogs now under its umbrella operating on the campus.

But despite such effort to ensure that the campus journalists produce content that conform to the basic journalistic codes of ethics, UCJ still has to fight some battles with the authorities to defend writers.

Student journalists in UI make use of about 100 pressboards positioned strategically on campus, with publications churned out by utility press groups in the halls, departments and faculties. There are also religious press organizations, all registered with the UCJ at the start of each semester.

‘’Among other reasons, they register so that when issues like the management victimizing them happens, the UCJ can take it up as a body so that individual writers do not face such alone ,‘’ Oredola said, noting that the UCJ is constantly wary of any intolerance on the part of the institution’s management.

Over the years, students across campuses have mostly adopted online platforms and the social media   for expressing themselves as the traditional publications of magazines and bulletins in hard copy have proved to be unsustainable in terms of cost to the students.

Oredola points out that there has been almost a full transition from the traditional to online publications.

“It is not as if the traditional means is still not here, but we will certainly go completely online and even the bulletin boards will eventually fade off,” he said.

Oredola also said the uiucj.com, the dedicated online platform of the university’s journalists body, gets wider and faster readership than articles put on boards on the campus.

He pointed out that in the past, when campus journalism was equally vibrant, even lecturers and staff went to the bulletin boards to read stories, and they took such stories serious.

‘’They could even punish you in their own way when you are in your final year, about to graduate, for writing something unflattering about them. But now I think the management just don’t care about reading from the boards anymore, since there is this general belief that after all, its like what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. But, with the Internet coming, that is fast changing and that was the reason why we had to come up with the website idea. ‘’ Oredola said.

Presently, the universities pay more attention to write-ups put on these websites and in the social media, which informs why a facebook post like the one from Adeyeye did not go unnoticed.

At Unilorin, the UCJ has restricted its publications mainly to its online and social media platforms, steering clear of the cost of printing bulletins and articles.

Across the campuses, the UCJ gets no financial support from the universities.

“You do not expect the university to be funding publications of the UCJ,‘’ said Yusuf, Sub-Deen Student Affairs, University of Ilorin.

At the university, the Student Union could only manage to publish its bulletin, The Stewardship, only once last session.

Despite the transition to the new media and online platforms, a general requirement across the campuses is for writers to officially belong to the unions of writers on these campuses.

While this may not suffice as a measure to stay shielded completely from the wrath of the authorities, on campuses where the unions exist, it has certainly saved a few student writers from the most severe of punishments over their write-ups.

At Unilorin, it is required of campus journalists or writers to join the UCJ. But a former President of the UCJ on the campus, who does not want his name mentioned, disclosed that there are areas of campus life that the management has forbidden the journalists from writing about.

“The authorities have a zero tolerance for critical or negative writings concerning the school, and we have been threatened as a union that if stories on some incidents emanate from us, our studentship status is at risk,’’ the erstwhile UCJ President said.

Another form of censorship in Unilorin is that the authorities insist on vetting publications by students before they can be published.

The Sub-Deen, Student Affairs in the university confirmed this and told the icirnigeria.org that publications produced by the SUG or even the UCJ, have to be brought to the Student Affairs table to be scrutinized before the copies are endorsed for circulation. ‘

’Even when they have issues regarding the university’s policies, they come to ask questions and are answered,” he said.

Yusuf, who noted that it would be uncharitable for anyone to suggest that the university does not allow enough freedom of expression, also added that the university even allows students to air their views through the school’s radio station, Unilorin F.M.

‘’The Student Union has twohours airtime to talk, allowing students to ask questions on issues, and phone in system is allowed, ’’ the Sub-Deen said. However, Akeukanwo, on his part, told our reporter that the phone in session on the radio is not exactly open to all.

“I had attempted to phone in before but when I told them my name, I was not allowed to speak on air,’’ he said.

What is prevalent and clearly evident is that the authorities in many universities are mostly concerned about the protection of the image of their institutions.

In that regard, Yusuf noted that the campuses are yet to become grounds where there can be complete freedom of expression.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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