Last week, authorities of the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife, Nigeria, suspended a lecturer, Monday Omo-Etan, of the school’s distance learning centre, for allegedly harassing a 19-year-old female student. A statement issued by the institution’s Public Relations Officer, Abiodun Olanrewaju, disclosed that the university authorities also handed the tutor over to the police for investigation. The statement reads: “Less than three weeks after the management of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, expressed its zero-tolerance for sexual harassment by investigating and suspending a lecturer of the Department of International Relations, Mr. Olabisi Olaleye, the university has suspended a staff of the university’s Centre for Distance Learning for sexually molesting a 19-year-old female student. The university has also handed over the Tutor, Mr. Monday Omo–Etan, to the police.The management has reinstated its commitment to the total eradication of any form of sexual harassment, molestation or other social vices.”
In a subsequent update, the school authorities explained why the suspended lecturer was handed over to the police. According to Olanrewaju, “It is no longer news that the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, does not condone any form of sexual harassment by lecturers and students alike. The school management investigated the matter and took drastic actions by suspending Omo-Etan and handing him over to the police. The case of Omo-Etan is different from Olaleye’s because the student he assaulted sexually was a minor, so we had to take him to the police after we concluded our investigation.”
Omo-Etan, a 2014 first-class chemistry graduate of the university, was employed by the school to teach the subject at the CDL. According to reports, he allegedly blackmailed the unnamed CDL female student into performing sexual acts on him by threatening to expose her to the school authorities after she mistakenly sent her nude picture to her class’s WhatsApp page. Richard Akindele, a professor in the same institution, is currently serving jail time for sexually harassing a postgraduate student, Monica Osagie.
To be sure, sexual harassment is not an OAU affair, even if the institution has been in the news in recent times following its management’s efforts to tame the menace. Last year, during an investigation by BBC Africa Eye, female reporters were “sexually harassed, propositioned and put under pressure by senior lecturers at the institutions – all the while wearing secret cameras.” Boniface Igbeneghu, a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Lagos, was caught on tape making prurient remarks that have since earned him a place in the sexual harassment hall of shame and suspension from office.
To say the least, sexual harassment at all levels in the country’s institutions of higher learning is pervasive. For years, it has hobbled the institutions in so many ways, enabling the abortion of the dreams of hapless students and causing irreparable damage to their lives and psyche. Sadly, an unreported number of the victims, flustered and frustrated by the nasty experiences to which they were subjected at the hands of their depraved tutors, threw in the moral towel and went through life offering themselves on demand to their superiors at the workplace, expressing and acting out the belief that a woman cannot get by in the Nigerian society without giving in to lecherous advances by men. It is also important to recognise that the regime of sexual exploitation in the institutions would not have reached the present criminally high level of frequency if the perpetrators had, in the years gone by, been dealt with in accordance with the code of conduct governing their respective institutions.
If the heart-rending stories of survivors, many of whom never mustered the courage to speak out about their ordeal, let alone making formal reports, the authorities in each department protected the perpetrators, especially when they wielded substantial influence in the system. The corollary was that sexual exploitation and perversity became normalised and reports of harassment, few and far between, never deterred the perpetrators, the majority of whom have never been exposed, let alone investigated and punished for their crimes. And yet another reason for the present pernicious state of affairs is that victims of sexual harassment hardly speak up because of the social stigma attached to victimhood in the Nigerian society. In any case, victims, even when they summon the courage to speak up, generally have an uphill task getting even members of their own immediate circles to believe their stories, in part because some students have been known to actually throw themselves at lecturers for academic favours. And so many simply shut up and suffer in silence.
To say the least, sexual harassment has still not received the kind of attention that is commensurate with its spread and pervasive hold not only on the country’s universities but also its colleges of education and polytechnics. Admittedly, while the universities are at least doing something, even if inadequate, to address the issue, the colleges of education and polytechnics have been carrying on as if all is well. Still, the point must be stressed that what is being done at the universities is only a small part of what needs to be done to create an atmosphere of academic freedom where sexual harassment would be the exception rather than the norm. One way of addressing the menace is to create a whistle-blower framework whereby students can report sexual harassment without fear of molestation by the powerful cliques within the academia. Again, the universities need to ensure that all reported cases are investigated thoroughly and impartially, with both accuser(s) and the accused treated fairly and given ample opportunities to state their respective cases. In addition, the punishment system should be bi-directional, such that students who offer themselves to their lecturers for academic or other favours with a view to subverting the system are treated with the same level of severity as lecturers proven to have sexually harassed students. By the same token, students engaging in perverse acts such as the circulation of nude pictures via social media platforms should be severely dealt with, even if they claim to have done so in error.
The university system is supposed to serve as a guiding light to the society. It must be rid of sexual exploitation in whatever guise, which is why official policies to tame the menace must benefit from research in the area.