By Gboyega Alaka
Recently caught in the web of sexual harassment, the University of Calabar some weeks back trended for the very wrong reasons, as some students of the Law faculty staged a protest against a certain professor. But just how rife is this vice on the campus? Gboyega Alaka, who interacted with some students of the institution, reports.
Words are like eggs, once broken; they can no longer be packed and put together. This is a popular African saying used to preach circumspection in everything one does, as damage control may not always be effective.
This may be especially true, when juxtaposed with the scenario that unfolded at the University of Calabar some weeks back, when the video of some Year 1 students protesting and brandishing placards with obscene inscriptions, accusing a certain lecturer in the faculty, the dean actually, of sexually harassing them. Aside the fact that the video immediately went viral, it also set tongues wagging and put the university in the news trending for weeks for a very wrong reason. Parents with wards in the school also got apprehensive; as they struggled to digest the situation their wards may have been dealing with or may have to cope with for the rest of their undergraduate days.
A direct implication of this incident on the school would be the response of one anonymous Year 1 Law student of the university, who, in an interview with an online newspaper, said the incident so scared her, that she contemplated leaving the school.
“I thought of doing transfer to another institution but then, I realised it can happen anywhere”
But is the situation on that campus so despicable? Is the accusation levied against the dean a reflection of the situation in the faculty and indeed the entire campus?
While one may not deny that sexual harassment has been a feature of higher education across the world forever and may not likely disappear anytime soon, having a dean of a faculty enmeshed in it can have very strong image implication on a university.
This reporter took time out to interrogate some of the students, especially from the faculty in the eye of the storm, the Law Faculty, to ascertain the true state of things. Virtually all the respondents craved anonymity, but nevertheless volunteered their insight into the real situation on campus.
Responding, Kufre (not real name), a student of the Law faculty’s said he was not aware of cases of sexual harassment, whether in his faculty or any other faculty on the campus.
He, however, said the recent case didn’t come as a shock to him, as the same professor, Professor Cyril Ndifon, was once accused of rape the last time he was dean of the faculty.
“As a Law student, I will tell you that rape cases or of sexual harassment are difficult to prove” implying that this may be why the professor was acquitted the last time.
Unfortunately, he said the odds are stacked against him.
“You know when you already have an issue of sexual harassment against you and some other people are saying they are victims, it is a very strong case against you. However, you still have to prove your case beyond reasonable doubt; and that was why I warned them to beware of what they were accusing the man of. You must have enough evidence, otherwise it could come back to you as liability for defamation. Personally, I know two ladies who claim they have been victims of sexual harassment (not necessarily at the hand of this same professor), but can they prove it? Can they come up with concrete evidences aside their oral testimonies?
“Aside sexual harassment, there are other allegations like misappropriation of funds for the law journal and other stuff, hanging on the professor.”
Kufre is also of the opinion that there may be some political undertone to the whole matter.
‘Why is this matter coming out at this time? It may have to do with secular politics or faculty politics, as the LAWSON faculty election is fast approaching. The current president, Ben Otu, has overstayed his tenure, and I think he has this fear that the dean is not on the same page with him and may be an impediment to his Law School ambition. So, this for him, may be his best opportunity to fight the dean. Of course when you throw this kind of allegation against a person who has been so accused before, it’s always going to be easily believable and create a whole lot of concern. So while the man is battling this issue or probably on suspension, he would be able to graduate and go on to Law School.
“The funny thing is that after the whole thing, he was apologising that he did not tell the students that they were going to protest. He had actually told them they were to have a meeting with the VC on the issue of the law journal. Even some of the students have confessed that he never told them they were going to protest; and that it was when they got there that he gave them placards.”
Is he suggesting that the protest was staged? That is a strong allegation against the faculty president.
“I am one hundred percent sure of what I’m telling you. The faculty president planned the whole protest without informing them. These are Year 1 students who are very vulnerable and can be pushed into what they know little or nothing about. In fact, when some of them saw the placards, they began to leave while some others stayed back. I also heard that the university authority is in the know in this, and that it was a top officer in the institution that told Ben (Otu) to come with his people. I also know that the VC had issues with the dean. Either ways, a scandal such as this would be a good ground to edge out the dean.”
John (not real name), a year three Law student, who pledged neutrality in the whole matter, expressed doubts as to the genuineness of that ugly protest incident. According to him, most students in the faculty have also expressed this same doubt.
As far as he is concerned, an allegation must be proven and it is only a court of law that can declare a party guilty.
Like Kufre, John dug up the rape case of 2015 in which a female student accused the professor of rape. He, however, said this recent allegation surprised many, as no female student has come out in recent time to accuse the dean of sexually molesting them at any point in time.
“In that 2015 case, the student came out and took the matter to the authorities, the lecturer was suspended and it went all the way to the court. In the end, the court couldn’t find enough proof and the case was thrown out for lack of evidence. Don’t forget that in Law, he who alleges must prove beyond reasonable doubt. But in this particular incident, no female student has come up individually or as a group to say she or they were sexually harassed.”
He said what happened on that fateful day was that the president of the faculty association, the Law Students Association of Nigeria (LAWSAN), Ben Otu, had organised some Year 1 students of the faculty and select number of Year 2b students, to stage a protest at the management block, in which they accused the dean of harassing them sexually. Consequently, he said the management set up a committee after suspending the dean, to investigate the matter.
He argued that if indeed something of the sort had been happening, the student or students should have at least made a report of the case before staging such a protest.
Is he suggesting the whole thing was a charade and that there was no sexual harassment as alleged by the protesters?
“I cannot say there was no sexual harassment or that there was, I’m just trying to be neutral here. Up till now, no female student has come out to say she was or has been sexually harassed by the suspended dean. This is unlike the 2015 incident when a lady came out to pointedly accuse the professor of committing rape against her.
“Besides, John argued that the students that partook in that protest were Year 1 students. When some of them were interviewed later, they said they were not aware it was going to turn out a protest of that nature, and that they were told they were going to have a meeting with the Vice Chancellor over their year book, only to get there and they started sharing placards bearing different accusatory messages to them.”
He argued that if indeed something of the sort happened, it should have been a collective faculty protest, and not Year 1 students alone.
“Except if they want to tell us that it is only the faculty president they informed, in which case he should have rallied the whole faculty. Again, why only the vulnerable Year 1 students? Don’t forget that when the news went viral, it was ascribed to the Law Faculty and not just Year 1 students.” He argued.
Could it be that the lecturer had been taking advantage of the naivety of the year 1 students?
“That could be true,” John responded, but insisted that “it should have been brought to the knowledge of the entire faculty.”
Samuel (not real name), a 400-level student of the Faculty of Law and a unionist on campus, echoed the position of the previous speaker, when he said no student came out in recent time to openly complain of sexual harassment, and that he was among those who were surprised at the protest.
Even as he admitted that there is no Nigerian university where you would not hear of sexual harassment, he however insisted that what the protesters did was tantamount to making a wild allegation. “If anyone was harassed, why not come out openly? As we speak, there has not been one person who has been bold enough to come out with facts to indict the man. You can’t just come out and make such an allegation without any effort to substantiate. As students of Faculty of Law, the law begins with us at the level of the university; so I feel that if there is any issue of harassment, it should have been a general protest, not videos of our Year 1 students carrying placards of ‘We’re tired of sucking dicks’. In fact this is the first time we’re hearing of a protest in the University of Calabar, where no other class is involved. So I believe this is a case of manipulation, a plot executed with a purpose. If not, why were the senior students who have been in the faculty for long and understand the system not carried along?”
Responding to the question that the lecturer could have been targeting the vulnerable Year 1 students, Samuel asked: “Who does a female child run to when there is an issue of sexual harassment? Is it not the mother? Why didn’t any of them run to the senior female students? I’m not sure that a Year 1 student would have the audacity to stand alone and start such a protest on their own. So I feel the whole thing was not necessarily because somebody was harassed but because somebody wanted to hurt and decided to use them because of they were naive and could be used.”
In what seems like pointing finger at the LAWSAN president yet again, Samuel said, “The thing is the LAWSAN president came out with a memo where he apologised that the Year 1 students were not informed ahead of the protest. He did not tell them they were going to protest over anything whatsoever and it was when they got to the VC’s office that they were given the placards. In fact there was a disclaimer by these same Year 1 students, that they were not aware of the protest. Besides, how is it that it is only the LAWSON president, a male, who was in the know of this misconduct?”
Asked if the faculty president had any axe to grind with the dean, Samuel replied: I think they once had an altercation when he was trying to run (for the faculty presidency) because he was not the choice of the dean. But this is not peculiar to our faculty, and to the best of my knowledge, the matter was resolved and he eventually won.”
Prof does not teach Year 1 students
The first female contributor to this discourse, Mfon (not real name), however brought an entirely different but critical angle to it, which is that the said professor does not teach Year 1 students.
But first, she would state that there have been cases of sexual harassment on the campus.
“Over the years, cases of sexual harassment have come up and the school has taken decisive actions against them, even placing some lecturers on suspension. Across departments, I’ve heard students casually talk about how this and that lecturers are asking them out; some even bothering on subtle threats; but nobody has come forward officially to accuse these lecturers of sexual harassment or of coercion to that effect, or even file a report to that effect.”
She admitted though that this may be due to the fact that the society most times turns around to blame these victims. “So, most students who go through this harassment are just like, ‘let me just graduate and go.”
She was also quick to point out the fact that some of these relationships are consensual.
“Some of them (relationships) are quite consensual; most actually. It’s just a minimal number that come out to say this person is asking me out but I don’t want it. Most are consensual; you go to parties and you see them getting very casual.”
Back to her new angle, Mfon said, “If I were to respond to the issue of that demonstration, I would say that I can’t say categorically that the allegation was true or that it was false. And this is my reason. I’ve stayed in the faculty for quite a number of years; this man does not teach Year 1 students, so one cannot say he has personal encounters with them or that he sees them regularly. The classes he teaches are usually Year 2 (Legal System), Year 3 (Equity and Trust) and Year 5 (Jurisprudence). So for a student to say he has a personal encounter with him, he or she would have to be in one of these classes, or he’s her project student, or she has a case of missing result or running for political office and needs to see him. Other than these, the chances are minimal. Of course he interacts with students when he goes around but such incident would have to take place in his office or closed place.”
Why then would they engage on such serious allegation, if indeed there was no basis?
“I have been opportune to play students politics, and I can tell you for free that the most gullible people to have around you are the Year 1 students, diploma or some Year 2 students who are still trying to find their footing on the campus. Almost anything you tell them, they take in and swallow. I’ve been a victim, so I know. They are usually excited and quick to have a feel of the university activities and end up joining the bandwagon without quite understanding what is really going on. These people were told that they were going to protest over the law journal that they had paid for, which was not given to them. How come it became a protest against sexual harassment?
“From some of the recording that I saw, some of them were even trying to read the inscriptions on the placards, which means they were not privy to it before.”
Not a saint
She, however, maintained that the embattled professor is no saint.
“Nobody is perfect anyway; this man himself is not a saint. He has also said and done things that makes him come across as being high-handed, tribalistic and all that; but most of them in that faculty are guilty of these things. I’m also not saying he is innocent; there is no smoke without fire. It could also be that this thing has been happening but nobody has been bold enough to speak out. What I can however say for sure is that he has not done it to me, and I have not come across any student who told me he has done such to her.”
Ifeoma (not real name), a prominent 400 level Law student stated categorically that “there have been cases of sexual harassment but no lecturer has been publicly accused.”
She also said students have had to come out in the past. “In fact, they make propaganda online; the only difference is that in the case of this professor, there seems to be an external hand.”
Ifeoma is of the opinion that the right thing to do was to first confront the party with the allegation and then constitute a panel to investigate it.
At the moment, she said the Vice Chancellor has set up a panel but the man in the eye of the storm has taken the matter to court, saying he does not have confidence in the panel.
“From what I learnt, he is suing the VC and others.”
When asked how bad the situation is on the campus, Ifeoma said, “There is no university that the issue of sexual harassment does not pan out.
She also has a word of advice for fellow female students: “That man once asked me, ‘why have I not harassed you? So I want to ask, ‘Why were you the one harassed?’
VC reacts as minister’s audio threat to testifiers at panel goes viral
Meanwhile, Minister of Women Affairs, Uju Ohaneye, in a leaked viral audio, was seen issuing threats to students who may want to testify on the matter.
The minister, in the leaked video was heard saying: Whoever lies in this Calabar sexual case will go to jail. I will personally make sure that all (guilty persons) involved in this shameful act shall be prosecuted and jailed. I am pleading with you, I want justice to be done.
“If you have complaints or anything to talk about concerning this case, head to the panel because the investigation is still ongoing. Go there and lay the complaint but don’t lie. Because if you lie, I will make sure you are prosecuted and jailed if found guilty.”
However, the University Vice Chancellor, Professor Bisong, Friday, said the minister’s threat in the leaked audio, brings a completely different dimension to the matter.
“A new dimension has unfortunately reared its head in a way that has left us nonplussed with the leaked viral audio of intimidation and jail threats from the Minister of Women Affairs, Mrs Uju Kennedy, on a few girls who were bold enough to come out to testify on an alleged age-long sexual harassment of female law students against Professor Ndifon.
“While I do not consider it expedient to respond to the disturbing audio, I wish to generally state that the students of the Faculty of Law on their own wrote and submitted a petition and protested against the suspended Dean. And as I know, those who have testified before the panel on both sexual harassment and other violations were not prompted by anyone.
“The University should rather be commended for being on the right path which is directed towards academic excellence and creating an environment which is key to their survival in an “oppressive and dominant patriarchal culture that yields little or no space for women”.
According to the VC, the embattled Prof Ndifon is being investigated on a plethora of issues and not just sexual harassment and it is hoped that at the end of the investigation, the outcome will be helpful to the University and society at large.
She added that, “to demonstrate the Management’s interest in ensuring an objective, unbiased investigation, we accepted the request from some agencies and groups to serve as observers. Consequently, on the panel are representatives from Public Complaints Commission, Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, Nigeria Bar Association, Nigeria Police, Federation of Female Layers and University of Calabar Alumni.
Meanwhile, Professor Ndifon has instituted a suit against the vice-chancellor, Florence Obi, and other administration members at the National Industrial Court in Calabar.
The suspended law professor explained that he dragged the VC and others to court to remove his name from the allegations against him