Nigerian universities and the death of free speech by Buchi Obichie (Opinion)

Nigerian universities and the death of free speech by Buchi Obichie (Opinion)

Editors’ note: The writer, Buchi Obichie, laments over the stifling of free speech by Nigerian university authorities. She cautions that this would be detrimental to the nation in the long run and urges universities to take a different approach in handling criticism.

On May 9, a 200-level female student of the Akwa Ibom State University, Joy Nkanang, was suspended indefinitely by the institution. Her crime? Putting up a post on Facebook, in which she referred to the school’s VC as ‘foolish’.

Joy had been lamenting over the increased state of insecurity around the school’s campus and her post had elicited comments from other users of the social media site.

One such comment had called for a protest; to which the young lady responded: “No…. we don’t want to spoil the schools image…. foolish vc.”

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That singular “foolish vc” comment was enough to attract the attention of school authorities who subsequently slammed the indefinite suspension on Nkanang, accusing her of “gross misconduct” and a “breach of matriculation oath”.

As outrageous as Nkanang’s case sounds, however, it is not unique.

In universities around the country, there seems to be a rising clampdown by authorities, on students who criticize them. Every word or phrase posted about universities by undergrads (and even graduates) online, seems to be monitored closely; with authorities ready to take punitive action, in a bid to “preserve their image”.

A young lady, Goodness Chidinma, had previously taken to Twitter, to call out her brother, Chijioke Nnamani’s alma mater, Madonna University, for getting him arrested over a social media post.

According to Goodness, the young man who was serving in Delta state, had made a post describing Madonna as a school where good lecturers are scarce. He further implored the institution to treat its lecturers properly or a good number of them would resign.

She said the after the post was made, the institution involved the police and arrested the young man on the grounds of kidnapping, armed robbery and cultism. He was charged to court, but the court threw out the charges.

According to Goodness, the allegation was then changed to cyber crime, just so the young man could be held in prison!

Again, one Debo Adedayo, a student of the Redeemer’s University, was expelled by the school’s management in 2017, just a few weeks to his graduation, because he criticized the school’s management in a social media post.

In the Facebook post, Adedayo had insinuated that the school’s VC was a hypocrite who paraded himself as an upright person.

After investigations were conducted, the institution decided to expel the young man for ‘portraying it in a bad light’!

It is sad to note that Nigerian higher institutions, which ought to be seen as beacons of light and safe environments for the expression of free speech, have now become autocratic environments, with authorities acting like modern day despots.

What these universities vehemently disregard, is the fact that every person - including these students who make these comments online - has a right to free speech and freedom of expression.

And within the university system – especially within the university system - all over the world, this right to free speech is literally sacrosanct. It is for this reason that university students around the world have usually been at the center of protests for various causes.

Whether it’s in the USA where students protested during the Vietnam War, or to South Africa where black students protested against apartheid, or even in Nigeria where undergrads protested against the brutal regime of Sani Abacha, university students are famous for exercising their rights to free speech and expression.

And universities have typically allowed – even if they didn’t always support – such protests.

So, why have Nigerian universities become thinner skinned lately? What is it about criticism that they find so abhorrent and intolerable that without even addressing the root complaint, they choose ruthlessness, in a bid to maintain some false impeccable image?

It is one thing if an individual makes a malicious statement which is inherently false. It is another thing to point out ‘real issues’; even if this is done in a manner which may not be so pleasant to the ears of those concerned.

Joy Nkanang was lamenting over heightened insecurity around the campus; Chijioke Nnamani was distraught over the treatment of lecturers in his alma mater; and Debo Adedayo was repulsed by what he viewed as hypocritical behavior by a VC of a supposed Christian university.

Yet, instead of putting emotions to the side and handling the issues constructively, the universities decided to take punitive action against these students.

Agreed, there are instances where people just sound-off negatively because they can. But those situations are not difficult to decipher; and in such cases, appropriate measures can be taken.

However, even in those circumstances, leaders would find that there is a thin line between calling out misdemeanors and clamping down on individual rights.

Wisdom is key!

This issue of stifling speech in higher institutions of learning is even more saddening when one considers the fact that our universities are training grounds for the next generation of Nigerians who will be expected – hopefully – to facilitate change by constantly speaking truth to power.

So what happens when there are attempts to quell free speech in universities? We produce graduates and a future generation which will be afraid to hold those in authority accountable for their actions (and inactions)…a recipe for underdevelopment, stagnation and disaster!

Our universities can do better!

One does not take up a leadership position without being prepared to withstand criticism and engage opponents constructively. This is supposed to be a democratic country afterall!

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Autocracy (in our higher institutions) will only create an environment that breeds disgruntled individuals who subsequently resort to launching attacks in manners even more deadly than what the authorities tried to curtail in the first place!

Instead of clamping down on free speech, universities will endear themselves to students by actually listening to them, engaging them in constructive dialogue, effecting needed change and striking compromises where necessary.

Nigeria is in dire need of strong, courageous leaders; and we cannot produce such if we constantly seek to deny our young people an atmosphere to air their grievances without fear.

Our universities must let free speech prevail!

This opinion piece was written by Buchi Obichie.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial policy of Legit.ng.

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