Motivated by media reports of habitual harassment and abuse of young women over a period of three decades by powerful Hollywood director Harvey Weinstein, Alyssa Milano on 15th October, 2017 tweeted: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.”
Within a period of 24 hours, the hashtag was used more than 500,000 times on Twitter. The revelations that followed reverberated across the world as they broke the silence regarding issues that were previously hushed and facilitated conversations that exposed enablers of sexual abuse. From America to Europe, Asia and Africa, several women began to write, speak and share their experiences with the hashtag ‘me too’. While some women in our country made feeble attempts to also share their stories, the hashtag did not gain much traction and the issue died. Or so we thought.
That ‘Me too’ moment finally arrived Nigeria on Monday, following the airing of a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) documentary on how university lecturers have been sexually harassing and exploiting their female students. Aside the fact that a Professor at the University of Lagos, who also doubles as a pastor, has already been suspended from both duties, the scandal has triggered a national conversation.
Since the theme for the 2019 International Day of the Girl Child which comes up tomorrow is, ‘GirlForce: Unscripted and unstoppable’, it is appropriate that hitherto oppressed women have found their voices. Feeling emboldened, these women are now naming and shaming lecturers who allegedly harassed them while they were students. One account on Twitter was most shocking: “A girl in my class told a randy lecturer, ‘your daughter is my friend Sir’ and the man responded, ‘go and give my daughter to your father’. That Professor was a serial abuser. (He will) sleep with girls and still award 40 marks.”
I commend Ms Kiki Mordi for the courage to share her story in the BBC documentary. Whatever happens in the coming days, weeks and possibly months, what is now certain is that things would never remain the same on our campuses. Careers will be terminated. Some marriages will crash. A few families will scatter. But if we are to make any significant gain from this moment, the conversation must be structured. We need to interrogate the culture that encourages and abets this vile crime, rigs the educational system against female students and undermines the credibility of their qualifications. We also need the enlistment of critical institutions like the National Universities Commission (NUC) and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) whose members must close all ‘cold rooms’ on the campuses, if we are to successfully combat the malaise.
Following the conviction last year of Professor Richard Akindele at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife, I felt that an exposé on the culture of sex-for-marks would not only help highlight the malaise, it might also kick-start efforts as to how to curb predatory behaviour on our campuses. With a small research grant from Ford Foundation, and the assistance of the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) that has elected to take on the crime, I had from January begun gathering material for a book that is scheduled to be out by the first quarter of next year. But I am also benefitting from the ongoing conversations and will welcome any ideas that will enrich the effort.
On Monday, respected Nigerian record producer, Mr Michael Collins Ajereh, popularly known as Don Jazzy posted a controversial Tweet: “I understand that some ladies are also guilty of offering their lecturers sex for good grades but I believe this documentary will be a deterrent. If the students know their lecturers will reject their offers, they won’t dare make an attempt.” Quite naturally, Don Jazzy has faced a barrage of attacks from those who believe he was either making excuses for irresponsible behavior or trivializing a serious issue. Whatever may be the merit of the point he was making, I believe Don Jazzy chose the wrong time to air his view and Mr Chris Ihidero addressed this point in his response to another post where he wrote, “When people speak their pain is not when you offer a contrary opinion in the name of balance.”
In the course of my research, I unfortunately validated the point made by Don Jazzy as there are indeed female students in our universities whose philosophy is to “use what they have to get what they want”. But to pursue that line in the context of the ongoing conversation is to obscure the fact that power goes with responsibility. While a sexual relationship between consenting adults (in instances where such ‘offers’ are indeed made by female students) may be excusable, the reason why lecturers are held to higher standards is that the balance of power is very much titled in their favour.
In her piece on “Sexual relations between students and faculty” which examined sexual harassment policies at Canadian universities, Shirley Katz made this point quite succinctly by arguing that sexual relationships between students and faculty are fraught with peril. Consent and conflict of interest are the key issues which make such an affair unethical and unprofessional. The central thesis of Katz is that given the power differential between students and their lecturers, it is difficult to believe there is consent in any sexual relationship between them.
This is the way she explained it, based on her findings: “The professor has powers over student’s work, the power to provide references for graduate and professional schools and for jobs, the power to serve as intellectual or career mentors and sometimes as role models. Whatever powers the student may have, they are not of the same sort. Because the professor’s powers affect the student’s life in a significant way, say these observers, the student cannot say no to the relationship, so her consent is actually coerced compliance. A female student may enter willingly into a sexual relationship with a male professor, ‘willingly’ in the sense that there is no promise of reward or threat of punishment. But her vulnerability and her desire to please make the relationship always exploitative.”
The stronger point made by Katz is on abuse of trust and conflict of interest – both of which explain why any sexual relationship between lecturers and their students is difficult to defend. Again, Katz: “The other problem for faculty who begin sexual relationships with students is the issue of conflict of interest and abuse of trust. It’s well recognized both within and outside the academy that professors occupy positions of special trust and confidence. Professors enjoy autonomy to determine how and what they teach, how they go about their research activities and how they serve the university and the larger community. Because of that autonomy, they have been called fiduciaries under the law. As fiduciaries, they have a duty to avoid conflict of interest and to exercise their powers over students only in the students’ interests, and not in their own interests.”
The statement on Tuesday by the University of Ghana, in response to their two lecturers featured in the documentary, centred on this very point: “While the University of Ghana believes sexual harassment is fundamentally about exploiting power imbalance and voicelessness, we also understand the harmful impact it has on individuals, families and institutions. It is for this reason that the University has taken steps to encourage students and employees to report any form of sexual harassment and misconduct, and has also instituted measures to punish anyone found guilty of the offence.”
When the current public hysteria wanes, policy makers in the education sector in Nigeria will have to fashion out workable solutions to the challenge that, if we must be honest, is not restricted to the campuses in a society where people in positions of authority have been conditioned to believe ‘nothing goes for nothing.’ This transactional sex on the campuses of institution of higher learning in Nigeria is first and foremost a reflection of the moral anomy in our society. It also reflects the abysmal decay of standards in our educational system.
The higher moral issue in this scandal arises from the nature of sexual consent. If it is consensual, no problem. But if a superior power position is used as an instrument of exploitation, blackmail, intimidation or harassment or implicit threat, then society has an obligation to bring to bear its moral codes. How we deal with this scourge is therefore an issue of urgent national importance. We must put an end to a culture in which female students who refuse to accede to sexual demands from their lecturers would have their academic careers delayed or truncated with irreparable damage done to their self-worth, sometimes for life.
Death of the road sweeper
A few weeks ago, a street sweeper on the Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos, Mrs Folasade Ogunniyi was knocked into the lagoon by a hit-and-run driver while performing her duty. According to the report in The Guardian newspaper, the deceased’s corpse was only recovered underneath the bridge three days later. “Until her death, the late sweeper, a mother of three, was under the employment of by Highway Manager, an environment sanitation firm working in collaboration with the Lagos State Government.” Her husband Sunday Ogunniyi told The Guardian: “Some of the people that saw the incident said she was even yet to start work when the accident happened. She was still placing cones when a certain Honda vehicle ran at her and hit her to the lagoon.”
The report went further: “To compensate her family for the loss of their loved one and service she rendered for the 24 months of her engagement, Highway Manager said the family will be paid a meagre N45,000, which represents three-month salary. ‘We have communicated with the family and we are doing our part,’ Highway Manager’s head, Rotimi Sotanmi told our correspondent.”
There are several issues in this report. One, it is a shame that anybody would be earning a monthly salary of N15,000 (which is far below the minimum wage) in Lagos. Two, should people who work under such a risky environment not have some sort of insurance scheme? Three, how can someone who died on duty in circumstances that could only be described as gruesome be entitled only to three months of some miserable salary?
While the family of Mrs Ogunniyi deserves much better treatment, the management of ‘Highway Manager’ and the Lagos State government should look into some of the issues that have been thrown up by her unfortunate death and begin to address them.
Bola Shagaya @ 60
Business woman and politician, Hajiya Bola Shagaya is 60 today. I wish her happy birthday.