In September 2015, students of the University of Lagos brought activities at their school to a halt when they came out to protest an invasion of their halls of residences by bed bugs and mosquitoes. The university responded by fumigating the heavily-infested hostels as well as replacing infested mattresses with new ones.
Normalcy was thought to have returned to the campus until last month when the university started rusticating students that participated in the protest, including a visually-impaired student, Lawrence Success Umezinwa who headed one of the hostel associations and Ochuba Polycarp who had already graduated and was retroactively rusticated.
As though this witch-hunting were not bad enough, the university went further to have the police arrest 14 students who had gone to seek an explanation from the school’s Dean of Student Affairs, Mr. Ademola Adeleke over the decision to rusticate their colleagues. But rather than have their questions answered, they found themselves dragged before a Special Offences Mobile Court, charged with breach of public peace and unlawful invasion and remanded in prison awaiting their trial which starts today. Mr. Umezinwa was kept in a police station where he was tortured by the policemen on duty.
This distasteful gang-up on the students by the university management and the police is a throwback to the dark days of military dictatorship where Nigerians were intimidated and harassed into silence over their conditions. It has no place in a democracy that constitutionally guarantees the right to freedom of speech and the right to freely assemble peacefully.
There is no indication anywhere that the protests of the students two and half years ago were anything but peaceful. There was no destruction of property and no one was physically harmed – and hanging their bedbug-ridden mattresses on school’s main gate cannot be said to constitute a breach of the law.
This act by the university management continues to erode the trust and confidence its students, for whom it exists and to whom it provides a service have in it. It continues to put the students and their school on a collision course rather than explore ways of collaboration for the furtherance of the university.
Not only that, this act establishes a dangerous precedent where universities will use laws to clamp down on student activists and student union leaders on their campuses. Even if the cases keep ending in the favour of the students, the students will still be at the losing end as the cases will keep them away from their academic activities.
The end result will be that students will be afraid to challenge the high-handedness of university managements and speak up against what they feel to be going wrong on their campuses. The risk of intimidation and losing their academic status will be too great to bear, and they will prefer to play it safe.
Like every other authority, university managements need to be subjected to checks and balances from every other stakeholder in the university system. The importance of students in such a system cannot be overlooked, and if they are silenced, it will make the system worse overall for everyone.
We wish these brave students luck in their court case and more power for standing up to abuse of power. We also hope that justice will be adequately served, and most importantly, that university managements change the way they engage with their students.