Once again, I am constrained to consider the University of Lagos and its increasingly intolerant attitude towards student rebellion. I have previously written on this in reference to the school’s high-handedness when it dealt with the aftermath of a student protest. I was–and still am–astonished by the degree of repression imposed by the university’s Senate. During that episode, the students had protested a lack of water and electricity in their hostels. Things escalated and the school was closed. Upon resumption, the Senate “stamped” its authority. It dissolved the student union and suspended the student constitution. In an academic environment populated by teachers of sociology, psychology, political science and constitutional law, the best response that the governing body could fashion was a military-coup approach.
This attitude seems to be a reflection of the socio-political environment. Our politicians react to dissent from ordinary citizens by shutting it down. The default approach is to destroy the symptom while ignoring the root cause of an issue. Public officials have only three reactions to a challenge: ban it, fine it, or jail it. Intellectuals—who ought to know better and whose title suggests critical engagement and discussion—have adopted this despotic political style in their own sphere of governance.
It is a troubling idea that our professors are ignoring the tradition of debate and discourse. It is sad that our professors only consider debate as a tool for advancing careers through journal articles. It is understandable if time has erased or distorted their individual memories of student exuberance. But it is unforgivable that they should substitute their authority for their understanding, and brute force for persuasive logic.
And so, not long ago a 400-level student of the University of Lagos found himself at the receiving end of official intimidation. Indeed, the student had written a full-blown rant on Facebook. He had challenged the administration of the school, and questioned the academic qualifications of some professors. To me, it was clear that he was writing from a position of frustration. A lot of Nigerians would agree, though, that his words—whether posted on Facebook or spoken out—were disrespectful to those he called out.
On their part, the school authorities had the choices of: ignoring the diatribe and getting on with their work; taking up the issues via statement or rejoinder; or policing social media accounts and making a big issue of the disrespect. They chose the last option and thereafter rusticated the student.
Rustication is a serious punishment. It is appropriately applied to students whose academic work is subpar, and to students who have committed criminal offences: particularly acts of violence and fraud. It is not quite appropriate for moral acts: for example, non-marital sexual intercourse, alcohol consumption, or as in this instance, a rude and critical commentary. Universities are not religious institutions. They ought to accommodate all types of moral standards, not assume the functions of moral guardians. To be clear, being respectful is a social norm, not a legal norm. We may dislike rude citizens, but we do not jail them unless we want to act oppressive. And when a university uses its powers to enforce—as distinct from encouraging—social norms, then it has become an oppressive institution.
Still, if a university intends to encourage social norms in young adults in the guise of “character building”, there should be some principled justification. In this case, what is the justification for discouraging free expression? Why rusticate protesting students? What is the social benefit if people are afraid to speak freely? Why is it better that students should fear, rather than question? If academic history is replete with intellectual antagonists who constantly insult one another in debate and criticism, then what principle is Unilag defending?
The usual defence, as with most issues of unjustified reaction, is provocation. “He abused me—so I stabbed him”; “She dressed indecently—so I raped her”; “They insulted our religion—so we killed them.” Or, as in this case: “He insulted us, so we rusticated him.” A misguided egoism is often involved in these defences rather than any firm principle. And so, it is not so much that the UNILAG professors want to influence social conduct as much as that they just cannot stand being questioned by “an ordinary student”.
This egoistic perspective is often displayed in relationships between Nigerian soldiers and civilians, employers and employees, public officials and ordinary citizens, or husbands and wives. In more civilised countries, counterparts in these relationships are often equal, not domineering or servile. Do the UNILAG authorities have a limited understanding of human equality, social psychology, and civic rights? If so, then the young man who questioned their qualifications is on the right track, after all.
Yes, the student went overboard with his rant. But, the tone and style of his writing is a different issue. At worst, it deserves a Facebook rejoinder from a fellow student or admonishing comments from a less busy lecturer. These, after all, are the consequences facing him if he continues writing pesky articles post-graduation. Why then try to destroy him before graduation? An argument that he has made defamatory statements is shoddy. The student’s status is not influential enough to injure the professors’ reputations, as the law on defamation requires.
In short, the reaction of the University of Lagos was, simply, despotic. It was an assertion of power and little else. Other societies are researching ways to reform career criminals and utilise them in society. We are happy to shut down our schools and rusticate strong voices for “rebellious” conduct. We are not ready.
It is ironic that we should try to teach young people “polite character” through methods of violence and despotism. Hard words should always be appreciated as substitutes for hard blows. But if a student cannot throw hard words at a professor and live to tell the tale, then we will only succeed in teaching students that what matters is power—not character.
Originally published in slightly modified form here in my weekly column for Sunday Punch.
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