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That BBC’s sting operation in UNILAG

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UNILAG. Photo/buzznigeria

The sex-for-admission offer by Dr. Boniface Igbenegbu as caught on video in a sting operation (this does not qualify as investigative journalism) by the BBC African Eye programme is disgraceful and deserves condign punishment. This is not at all in our character, a point made clear by the widespread condemnation, including the University of Lagos (UNILAG) Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Oluwatoyin Ogundipe, who rightly, described it as ‘‘a shameful thing.’’ This university teacher, has, most regrettably, brought shame on himself and an institution that is well respected for nurturing men and women of learning and character. Citizen Igbenegbu as a teacher of young people is, in principle, supposed to be a parent-in-school.  His duty goes beyond the impartation of facts and figures: he is a mentor, a guide and a counsellor, in sum, a parent away from home. He has, like every other person similarly accused, betrayed the trust of society, and the ethics of his profession. It is proper therefore that preliminary actions have been taken against him by both the university and the Christian denomination where he also occupies a leadership position.

The point must be emphasised, however, that the University of Lagos has demonstrated a firm intolerance of sexual harassment by putting in place a detailed policy and steps to implement it. A 56-point document approved by the Senate since 2017 and titled, “University of Lagos Policy on Sexual Harassment, Sexual and Romantic Relationships” states that, “sexual harassment is a misconduct and it will respond promptly and effectively to all reports of sexual harassment and take appropriate action to prevent, correct, and if necessary, discipline such behaviour.” This policy applies to all members of the university community including ‘‘admission seekers.’’ Besides, a well-articulated procedure titled “Reporting Sexual Harassment” allows an aggrieved person to report cases verbally or in writing to any of 10 listed officials including  the university chaplain, the imam, and even the vice-chancellor ‘‘whether or not such breach of the policy occurred on or off campus.’’ Furthermore, the policy states “Methods of Dealing with Sexual Harassment” and tabulates the disciplinary measures and sanctions applicable to what gravity of offence.

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Not done, Prof. Ogundipe, (vice chancellor of the University of Lagos)  revealed in a press interview that, “we have recently developed an app with a panic button that, if you are in any uncomfortable situation…press the panic button, a GPS will show where you are and help will come to you.”  With such a thorough procedure to address this existential aberration, any one has enough means of redress.

Doubtless, the way that the BBC went about its task gives room for doubts of its objective. Given the existence of this thoroughly enunciated policy, it is strange, most strange, that Kiki Mordi, the BBC staff member who posed as an admission seeker for the sting operation did not take recourse to redress mechanism. That, we should think, would have been a far more professionally responsible way to test the efficacy of the policy and in turn, the commitment of the university authorities to walk their talk.  Why she, and the BBC she worked for chose to not do so is open to conjecture. It bears repeating: this was a serious flaw that a global news medium should not, and cannot, afford.  There is now a growing suspicion of the motive by the BBC to target African universities (Nigeria and Ghana specifically) by deploying not respectable, professionally accepted investigative journalism, but sting operation to rubbish corporate reputation. Some opinion goes so far as to perceive, against the backdrop of the aggressive selling of UK universities to Nigerian parents and prospective students, a sinister effort to ‘de-market’ Africa’s relatively good centres of academic excellence. These may be perceptions; but perceptions are ‘facts’ to the extent that people take them seriously enough to base decisions on, as well as act on them.

Sexual harassment (some would term it sex-for-favour negotiation) is a global problem that occurs as a function of a combination of power asymmetry between the sexes and a lack of self-discipline by the superior party. This predatory behaviour occurs at all levels of socialisation including the lower institutions where teachers prey upon their pupils, in the work places where bosses take improper advantage of their subordinates, and in religious organisations where leaders abuse their congregants.  It occurs under the nose of the BBC, in Britain where a damning report in early March 2017 by The Guardian (UK) quotes a partner in a law firm to say that, “sexual harassment of students by staff members has reached epidemic levels in British universities. Most universities have no effective mechanism to stop staff from pressuring students into sexual relationships, and when it happens, any sort of disciplinary action is pretty much non-existent…”

The interviewee noted that, “young women are often terrified about the consequences if they make a complaint about a staff member. So often, when they do, the university’s chief concern is to downplay any wrongdoing and to protect its own reputation by keeping the whole thing quiet.”  Not even the top-of-the range universities of Oxford and Cambridge are free of this malaise according to The Guardian report.  Indeed, a certain Anna Bull, described as ‘co-founder of the 1752 Group’ is quoted by the paper thus:  “there is evidence to suggest that the actual figures in the UK will be staggering.”

Besides, her comments reveal that sexual harassment occur in American universities to the extent that the Association of American Universities conducted “a detailed survey of sexual assault and sexual misconduct in 2015.”  We should think that the BBC be sufficiently concerned with this grievous social malaise to begin its sting operation from home. Not so, again for reasons only the BBC can explain.

These are in complete variance to the way that Nigerian universities have responded to such grave misdemeanour. Beside the University of Lagos policy, a professor of another university, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State, is currently serving a jail term for sexually harassing a student. A lecturer of the Kano State School of Technology is on trial for a similar misconduct. At a higher level, Nigeria takes sexual harassment seriously enough to approve a bill by the last Senate against it. President Muhammadu Buhari curiously failed to sign it into law.  We therefore support the call by former President of the Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki that the bill be brought up again in the current Senate.

Even as Dr. Igbenegbu and his ilk stand condemnable for their lack of self-discipline, we must note the ignoble role of some female students in many of these incidents. Not all students are forced into improper relationship with their teachers, not every subordinate is forced to sleep with his or her boss. Some do, in what is termed ‘‘sex-for-favour transaction,’’ offer themselves in return for the grades that they are too lazy to study for, or the promotion that they do not deserve in the work place. Furthermore, a university is supposed to impart not only learning but good character. Regardless of the freedom allowed young adults, character necessarily includes decent dressing and appearance.

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Alas, there is much to condemn in the provocative manner of female dressing in our higher institutions. To look good is not to dress indecently, or provocatively. No. And we must be mindful of the saying that, ‘‘you are addressed as you are dressed.’’ This is not to say, however, that decently dressed ladies are less likely to encourage ‘passes’ from the opposite sex. The universities and other organisations must institute and enforce dress codes that ensure respectability of their members. It is gratifying to note that the University of Lagos adopted a ‘‘dress code’’ policy years ago.

Sex-related misbehaviour will continue as long as men and women fail in the self-discipline required in this connection. This is the reason that, as the UNILAG authorities have done, institutions must continually refine their policies and procedures to address it.  Not a few victims, here and elsewhere, lack the courage to report their unhappy experience for fear of being ignored or even victimised by a system that would rather protect its reputation than ensure justice.

Britain is reported to have an Office of the Independent Adjudicator’ that ‘‘assesses whether universities …correctly follow their procedures.’’  We urge the National Assembly to include this clause in the proposed bill on sexual harassment. Beyond policies, first, it is necessary that lecturers do not have too much power over the grades of students. Some lectures take more than one core courses that enable them to blackmail students on the one hand, or encourage desperate students to seek the goodwill of such lecturers, on the other. No teacher should be allowed that much power. We, therefore, recommend that courses be shared among lecturers in such a way as not to give room for inappropriate acts. Second, it is trite to say that all the laws in the world will not prevent crime unless people wilfully commit to do what is right. Ultimately, therefore, it behoves every lecturer to do only that which he or she is engaged for namely, to impart learning and good character in their students.

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