How did our universities become centres of sexual harassment?
During my university days, I watched with horror as lecturers victimise and harass female students sexually. I tried to mobilise some fellow students to take action by gathering evidence against one notorious lecturer and presenting it to the relevant authorities. That was when I discovered the exact reasons why virtually no one bothers to report or take up sexual harassment or even rape issues in our universities. Although there are robust provisions in the law books against academics who abuse their powers, they are practically unenforceable except when there is a falling-out and/or management wants to get rid of an academic. Lecturers are quite united and act in consort to protect one of their own who gets into trouble for sexual harassment or abuse of power. Besides the authorities looking the other way even in the face of mounting evidence against an academic, his colleagues will also conspire to punish any student that dares report a colleague. I barely avoided getting into trouble and decided to face my studies in peace.
Even when the university acts, the offending academic only resigns or is advised to resign honourably so that he can move on to another university to continue from where he left off. Thus we have cases of serial sexual predators moving unchecked from one university to another. When some foreign Nigerian academics, concerned with the problem in Nigeria, tried to lobby for one of such known and notorious sexual predators to be fired by the university where he currently teaches, the authorities asked one of them a simple question: “do you really want the professor to lose his job because of sex?”
I came face to face with the rot in the system during my national youth service days when I was posted to a private university in the South South region. I worked as a graduate assistant, teaching some introductory courses and handling the departments’ exams records (I got to know leakage of exams questions and alteration of marks was a problem in the department and since I came highly recommended, they decided to trust me with the task).
While there I saw another variant of sexual assault and abuse of power. Whereas academics in public universities can pick on any student because university education is free or greatly subsidized by the state or even because there’s zero accountability in the system, in private universities, for obvious reasons, academics target mainly vulnerable or unserious students, who, although, fee-paying students themselves, struggle with their academics or want an easy way out without putting in the required hard-work. And in this particular university, the latter happen to be in the majority. So, for males, it is all about money while the females had to either pay in cash or kind. And these were done so brazenly and without fear of repercussions – and there was none for the duration I was there.
Any thoughts I had of insulating myself from the madness around me ended when exam period came around. First, I was shocked how very few students attended classes whereas many registered for my course. A week or two to exams, the class was full. I later got to know that was the period for sorting, blocking, or exchanging sexual favours for marks.
When I proved difficult to deal with, I started receiving calls and visits from lecturers with pleas and offers to pass particular students in my course(s). My lodge also became a Mecca of sorts for students who wanted to get the questions for their forthcoming exams from me.
It didn’t take long for me to become a public enemy both to students and academics. It became obvious to me I had only two options: join them or get out. Of course, that marked the end of my association with any conventional university in Nigeria.
For those who know, our universities have long become centres of sexual harassment, rape and transactional sex. So bad is the situation that in a pilot study of corruption in the university system in 2012, by the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) the National Universities Commission (NUC) ranked sexual harassment and exploitation of students as the most prevalent corrupt practice in Nigerian universities.
In fact, the rampant cases of reported cases of sexual harassment in our tertiary institution forced the Senate in 2016, to propose a bill, known as the Sexual Harassment in Tertiary Education Institution Bill, which prescribes a 5 year jail term for lecturers and educators convicted of sexual harassment of either their male or female students and also ban lecturer-student relationships altogether. But the Academic Staff Union of Universities, AUSS, was at the forefront of the lobby to squash the bill. According to them, the bill unnecessarily targeted educators. They proposed rather, a legislation on dress code.
At the root of the rape and sexual assault problem in our universities is the larger question of accountability – that hated word in all of Nigeria. Like in Nigerian politics where politicians want more and more powers without accountability, our mini-gods in the universities too cherish the powers they wield and often resist all attempts to curb their powers or make them account for the powers they wield. But like John Dalberg-Acton remarks, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” If this outrage does not lead to reforms and the erection of structures of restraints; and which will make academics account for the awesome powers they wield over students, we may not make any progress in curbing the vice.