200 Broken Covenants

On the final weekend of the year 2012, we awoke to the news that Covenant University had expelled roughly 200 students for the gross malfeasance of missing the final church service of the semester (or “term”, some would say). One by one, people trooped into the village square that is Twitter to air their views. The more popular trend of thought was that if indeed there was a violation of school rules (again with the secondary school terminology), the punishment was egregiously excessive. This was more so because the news report suggested that the students were only expelled because the Chancellor of the school was especially angry at the poor attendance at church and the expulsions were summarily handed out.

At the other end of the opinion spectrum were people who believed, given that the expulsion letters reportedly cited violation of a section of the university’s student handbook, that people generally know what they’re signing up for when they enrol at Covenant University and students who knowingly break rules ought to face the punishment.

In the middle, a position taken by many of my learned friends (a cautious lawyer, what a cliché), were people who decided to reserve categorical comments until they had seen the wording of the rules allegedly broken and the punishment prescribed.

Eventually, some wording emerged but not from Covenant University. Some, of the excessive impunity camp, believed they had found support for their position on the website of the National Universities Commission (NUC). According to the excerpt, “(1) A proposed institution shall have an adequate environmental base and shall be open to all Nigerians irrespective  of ethnic derivation, social status, religious or political affiliation. (2) Accordingly, its laws and status shall not conflict with the conventional responsibilities in academia or interfere with avowed traditional institutional autonomy.” Much was made of the first of these two requirements but, for me, it does not go much further than the issue of a candidate’s admissibility into the institution.

Shortly after that, a screen shot of a very pertinent section of the student handbook, the contents of which students reportedly sign to adhere to, began to circulate, the text of which is reproduced in full below.

  • [Unclear but presumably a list of school assemblies]
  • These assemblies are mandatory for all students.
  • No student is allowed to remain in the rooms whenever there is a university General Assembly
  • Any student caught in the hall of residence during any General Assembly shall be issued a letter of warning and may be expelled if the act becomes habitual.
  • Any student caught in the hall of residence during any General Assembly, particularly Chapel Services, Sunday Services and variety Night shall be suspended for four (4) weeks at the first instance and may suspended for One (1) academic session or expelled from the University if the act becomes habitual by being caught twice for this same offence.

This last text puts paid to any controversy. Every organisation, even a religious one, must be governed by rules. These rules cannot be subject to the effervescence of the governing authority’s temper, no matter how divinely we may choose to believe it is being inspired. That is the recipe for chaos and anarchy. What is more, the typical university, private or not, has a proper governance structure. The Vice-Chancellor is the head of administration, with the professors and other senior academics forming the senate. The senate is usually the supreme disciplinary body on campus. It is extraordinarily strange for a student (let alone 200) to be summarily expelled (ie without a disciplinary hearing) merely because the Chancellor (the ceremonial head of the university) commands it. A university that charges top naira for tuition cannot be run like a fiefdom.

However, the reality is that 200 students have been expelled. Two hundred young adults have had their dreams, ambitions and lives truncated without due process being followed. In fact, expulsion isn’t available to the University, even for “habitual” offenders. It is also unclear if the University bothered to sift habitual offenders from first timers. What can these students do about their situation? The idea of a law suit has been bandied and the students would be well within their rights to pursue legal redress. However, they need to be mindful of the fact that law suits in Nigeria take time to reach a conclusion. If Covenant University chooses to appeal a most likely unfavourable judgment (and this isn’t too far-fetched if the Chancellor is as given to whims as the reported command to expel 200 students suggests), they could very well be in court until 2018. Litigation should be the last resort, when all else has failed.

The first step would be to write to the University’s Council, requesting a reversal of the expulsions, highlighting the fact that the punishment meted out was far in excess of what the University rules stipulate. This is not only inappropriate, it is also unconstitutional (s. 36 (6) (8), 1999 Constitution). A copy of the letter should be sent to the head of the NUC, also requesting its immediate intervention. The parents of these students also need to pool their resources together to wage a public relations campaign to get Covenant University to reverse these expulsions. Publish the expulsion letters side-by-side with the relevant sections of the student handbook. Nigerians are typically fearful of ‘victimisation’ but you/your child currently stands expelled – what’s the worst the could happen?

Everyone else who is concerned must also apply as much pressure as they can. Focused, articulate, logical pressure, showing that while we appreciate the need for discipline and conformity to laid down rules, we are also trying to build a society in which constituted authority respects the confines of its power within the same legal framework.

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