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Burning of students’ phones, act of discipline or aberration?

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In recent times, Nigerian students have been under widespread attacks from the management of their various institutions, ranging from the recent arrest and detention of students of Madonna University, Okija, Anambra State, over a facebook post about their university, to last Wednesday’s burning of phones at Ibadan Polytechnic, Oyo State. Human rights advocates find the act absurd, writes UJUNWA ATUEYI.

There are right and wrong ways of disciplining a child. The wrong way, of course, is when that discipline turns bad and goes too far. In Nigeria today, undergraduates have suffered numerous human rights abuses, all in the name of discipline, with government, local and international human rights organizations doing little or nothing about it.

It is established that students’ rights are civil, constitutional, contractual and consumer rights, which regulate their freedoms and allow them to make use of their educational investment.
 
These include such things as the right to free speech and association, due process, equality, autonomy, safety and privacy, and accountability in contracts and advertising, which regulate the treatment of students by teachers and administrators. Sadly, there is very little knowledge about students’ rights globally, and the situation becomes worsened when only a handful of students are aware of such.

 
In an organized society, the rule of law is usually observed in punishing or disciplining offenders, and every organization is expected to be guided by those laid down rules.
 
But the incident that broke out at Ibadan Polytechnic last week where the management of the institution burnt over 1000 students’ mobile phones has again brought to the fore the extent of abuse students suffer in their respective schools, according to human rights advocates.
 
They described the action of the management as a violation of civil and constitutional rights of students, as well as an arbitrary exercise of power. The rights activists said the institution’s management went overboard as nowhere was it stated in the school’s document that the burning of phones is part of the school’s disciplinary measures.

As far as the human rights advocates were concerned, it was a discipline gone wrong, as due process and fair hearing, ought to have been followed, while the final judgment should have been decided by a regular court or tribunal. Others are even worried that a such a number of students could be involved in examination malpractice, adding that genuine student activists could be the targets.
 
In all, the hasty decision of the management to set the mobile phones worth millions of naira on fire calls for proper scrutiny as it speaks volumes. The incident, which had already generated hues and cries from certain quarters, according to a legal practitioner is contrary to section 440 and 451 of the Criminal Code Act (CCA), of Nigeria Law.
 
Recall that the management of the Ibadan Polytechnic, last Wednesday set ablaze mobile phones of students worth millions of naira. The phones were confiscated from students during the school’s examinations. The school management said it decided to burn the over 1,000 phones seized in the last one year to reaffirm its commitment to fighting examination malpractice.
 
But legal practitioners faulted the school’s action saying it is a discipline gone wrong and the “management deserves outright dismissal for such act.”According to reports, deputy rector, Bayo Oyeleke, who led other officials to the scene where the phones were set on fire, said the decision was also aimed at ensuring that examination in the school is seen as sacrosanct.

“We are here to take further action on our resolve to ensure that the crop of students and product being produced by the school are students with exemplary character and are those who really work and worth the certificate of the institution.“There are rules guiding the principles of our examinations and one of it is that no student under whatever guise should come into the examination hall with cell phones but you know that some students are very recalcitrant.
 
“We have resolved to confiscate them because it has been expressly stated on their examination paper that any phone found on any students during the examination shall be confiscated and in order not to allow any of the phones to filter out, the school has resolved that such shall be burnt,” he said. He further said there are rules guiding the school examination and that any student that goes against any of the rules would be made to face the consequences.
 
But an Associate Professor of Law at the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN), Nelson Chegwe, is one of those who kicked against the decision of the school.

Chegwe, who holds a doctorate degree in International Law and Jurisprudence, said the decision to burn the phones and the burning thereof constitutes an exercise in the malicious and intentional destruction of private property contrary to section 440 and 451 of the CCA.

“It amounts to high handedness and arbitrary exercise of powers. The act amounts to punitive excesses. I have read the regulation of the institution and there was nowhere burning of the phone was prescribed as punishment for examination misconduct.
 
“The act violates section 36 dealing with fair hearing and section 44 dealing with compulsorily taken possession of an interest in movable property. The management of the institution has committed a crime and breached constitutional (civil right) of the student. Also, their rights to freedom of communication have been abused.
 
He continued, “The management should be sacked, the student restored to their property and a public apology tendered. The punishment was inhuman and degrading. The phones did not commit the offenses (that is assuming that there was an offense that was committed). The students did. Not the phones, which their parents bought with their hard-earned money to be able to communicate with their kids.
“If a student misdemeanor warrants seizure or destruction of any property, then it becomes an offense that is triable only by a regular court or tribunal under a law that has provisions for destruction, seizure or auction of property used in committing such offenses.”

For the President, Women Arise and Centre for Change, Dr. Joe Okei-Odumakin, the action of the management was cruel, and therefore need to be thoroughly investigated.
 
According to the human rights advocate, “The burning of students mobile phones, as recently witnessed at the Polytechnic Ibadan appears so barbaric and requires a further probe, particularly by the media, in order to ascertain if there are existing laws that prevent possession of such items and the prescribed punishment for such. 

“There are prescribed disciplinary measures for various degrees of offense in tertiary institutions and I know the polytechnic won’t be an exception, therefore every stakeholder within the institution must be seen to be committed to the dictates of the laws and regulations governing the schools. Each institution has its code of conduct and law guiding its operations. It is therefore left for individual institutions to determine how it hopes to manage and discipline its students, but all must fall within the laws of the land.” 
 
On whether the action of the polytechnic is the best way to tackle issue of examination malpractice, Okei-Odumakin, said, “There is no doubt, that students now engage in the use of digital equipment particularly the mobile phones to cheat not only in the tertiary institutions but also at lower levels such as the secondary schools and during the conduct of entrance examinations.

“This culture is taking an ugly dimension and it’s beginning to take its toll on the standard of our education. It is therefore not out of order; to put in place measures that are strict and can deter students from engaging in examination malpractices. Yet, such measures must conform with the laws governing the institutions and overall, the country’s rule of law.”
 
Also, a human rights group, Joint Action Front (JAF), has also expressed worry over the incident and the volume of mobile phones destroyed, pledging to dig deep into the matter and unravel the truth. General Secretary of the organization, Comrade Abiodun Aremu, told The Guardian, that the action of the management should be investigated to ensure that it is not an act of vendetta on union leaders.
 
“We will do our own investigation before passing judgment. It is not unusual for authorities of higher institutions to lump genuine students activists together in such an act, so they use the slightest opportunity, to make a hasty judgment on them, and also label them cultists or exam cheaters.”
 
Again, “considering what we know about the Polytechnic Ibadan, in terms of standard, it will be difficult to believe that such a figure was involved in examination malpractice. So this calls for proper investigation as the matter speaks so much of the standard in that school, it is even an indictment as the number is outrageous when compared to the total population of the school.”

The National Coordinator, Education Rights Campaign (ERC), Hassan Taiwo Soweto, described the decision of the management as a product of poor judgment.“The event could be situated in a scenario where traffic officers burn the vehicles of alleged traffic offenders. It is just as irrational and as illegal as that. But it is not surprising, tertiary institutions are now run like military barracks with the rectors and vice-chancellors seeing themselves as garrison commanders.

“That is why students and staff unions are being routinely banned and activists victimized. The authorities do not consider students and members of staff as human beings who have some rights that must be respected. This is the only way to rationalize the irrational and shameful conduct of the institution’s management. 

Suggesting other ways, the issue could have been handled, Soweto said, “The Polytechnic Ibadan is an old institution, with clear bye-laws and regulations. Rather than being overzealous, these regulations and attendant punishment could have been meted on the erring students through a democratic disciplinary process as enshrined in the laws of the polytechnic.
 
“But it would be another case entirely if the school rules make provision for such outrageous punishment; and in such case, the regulation would be quite dehumanizing and destructive.

 
Stating that the act is surely not the best way to tackle malpractice, Soweto said examination misconduct could be caused by many factors other than technology. “Harsh teaching environment, poor teaching facilities, and economic pressures on students could altogether create disinterest in learning that may cause students to cheat the system. Destroying students’ phones would not remove these factors.

While the institutions are not responsible for the underfunding at the root of almost all problems in Nigeria’s tertiary institutions, they are in any case responsible for mismanaging the little funds made available by government and draconic policies like this only help to compound the crisis.
 
On whether the action should be emulated by other institutions, he cautioned: “In a civilized and democratic clime that we all hope Nigeria can be situated, such action should not be emulated. It can only further reverse our journey towards the dignified treatment of our citizens irrespective of age or origin, a focal point to be protected by any democratic state.“Instead of emulating it, parents, staff and the student’s movement need to condemn this illegal conduct. In fact, the ERC demands an immediate congress of students to discuss these issues and map out a strategy of collective struggle to ensure the school’s action is condemned and such is never repeated again.”

 
 


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