The CDHR is alarmed at the turn of events over the proposed National Sports Festival scheduled to hold in Benin City, Edo State from 4th to 14th April 2021. The first casualty as reported in the news media is the indefinite suspension of the University of Benin Students Union Government.
A Sports Festival is about the agile and the youths, as well as those who may not be so young but are fascinated by the spirit of competition. These days, sporting activities represent an enjoyable pastime, an elixir of a sort from the boredom of idleness induced in the main by unemployment. There is no denying that of the youth population of any nation, students in the University Campuses are the most organized, educated and sports savvy. Many of the athletes are likely to be students, and the spectators, whether physical or virtual are also likely to be largely composed of students. So there cannot be talk about a sporting festival without Youths.
We are concerned that no recognition appears to have been given to the role of the youths in general and University of Benin Students, all 77,000 of them in particular in the scheduled National Sports Festival holding in Benin. We are reluctant to accept that COVID-19 considerations could have informed the neglect of this otherwise important role of the UNIBEN Students, as spectators in a festival of the envisaged magnitude. Had this been the case, one would have expected that the Student Union Leadership would have been taken into confidence, and involved in the planning by the Local Organizing Committee.
As the squabble appears to be over the accommodation of the athletes and officials, we wonder whether all the halls residence in both Ugbowo and Ekehuan Campuses would be needed? If not, why can’t some of the University Students remain on campus, while some of the athletes are accommodated side by side? We wonder what efforts had been made to utilize facilities that had been lying fallow at the College of Education Ekiadolor and College of Agriculture at Iguoriakhi, which will only raise the issue of transportation costs.
We dare say that the promptitude with which the hostels of the University of Benin were targeted does not pay compliment to much importance being attached to the educational pursuits of the students, which have suffered great setbacks in recent years on account of avoidable strikes by University Staff and the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can it be said that all options have been considered? It doesn’t seem to us that the Federal Ministry of Sports and the Edo State Government considered the option of collaborating with Hoteliers who may offer accommodation at discount rates. We ask, must all the events take place in Benin City, in the light of the experience of the hosting of sports competitions in different parts of the world. In this regard, we wonder to what extent consideration was given to the facilities at the numerous private Universities in Edo State. All of these would have come to play, had there been commitment to striking a balance between the holding of the sports festival and the avoidance of a total disruption of the educational program of the students.
We remember that a housing project was embarked upon to host FESTAC 77, which today is beneficial. It would seem that the University of Benin Administration in their zeal to do the bidding of the Edo State Government and that of the Federal Ministry of Sports, had chosen to reach for the time worn big stick of dissolution of the Student Union Government, ordering of the Student Union Leaders to vacate their hostels and the to hand over their student Union identity cards to the Chief Security Officer of the University. This is highly regrettable, as University Administrators, who in times past have toed this line, have a permanent slur, cast on their image and record. Prof. Jubril Aminu and Prof. Grace Alele Williams, readily come to mind.
In this instance, the Students’ complaint, beyond the undue rushing of the examination schedules, extend to interference with their research projects, the induced costs of their forced trips back home, with all the attendant exposure and risks. They argue that they are being forced out of accommodation for which they have paid; without any consultation or notice being served on them. One cannot fault their argument that the relationship between them and the University authorities as it relates to hostel accommodation is that of Landlord and Tenant; and that the law applicable in Edo State in the recovery of residential premises should not be so casually thrown overboard.
What the CDHR would have expected is some kind of dialogue, to give serious thoughts and consideration to the issues raised by the Students in the spirit of mutual respect. Rather disappointedly, what the University Administration has done is tantamount to a coup d’etat; the gun in the hand of the military style perpetrators being their administrative prerogative. We condemn the dissolution of the Student Union Government as undemocratic and unacceptable, being a violation of the collective right of the students to hold an opinion, canvass and express same, in defense of their best interests.
Sadly, this development coming at this time speaks of the proclivity in our Country of persons in authority, be it at the home front, in the work place or this time in University administration, readily resorting to dictatorship and strong arm tactics, not being shown not to be the exclusive preserve of persons in uniform. This is a practice which many patriots have paid the Supreme price to have eliminated from our Country that it still holds true within a University environment is particularly distressing. Regrettably, it is blight on the relatively young administration headed by Prof. Lilian Salami as Vice Chancellor; University of Benin, just like it speaks volumes about the hawks that predominate in the University Senate. We hope that the abusive words ascribed to the Head of the University Public Relations Department are not true.
The CDHR wishes to remind, that students are citizens and persons who have attained the age of majority and are entitled to vote in elections. Many of them are married, with children, particularly at the level of postgraduate students. The status of being students does not constitute a basis for derogation from the rights they enjoy under the Constitution and other laws. We dare say that after over 20 years of return to civilian rule, and the movement of our country away from military usurpation of governance, our nation as a whole should be moving in the direction of administration of public affairs on a foundation that upholds the right of the populace, in whom sovereignty lies. In our University Campuses which are supposed to be islands of ideals, autocracy ought not to have any footing.
Where the University Administration persists along the path of highhandedness and the students refuse to be intimidated, the CDHR can foresee a situation where a continuing mismanagement of the issue at hand can lead to the shooting of unarmed students, for no other reason than the opinion they hold. The violent suppression of the ENDSARS protest is still fresh in our minds.
We recall the avoidable killing of students at Ahmadu Bello University in 1986 which provoked a nationwide strike led by the Nigerian Labour Congress. Why should there be a reenactment of that sordid experience in our national life 35 years after? Following the epochal Supreme judgment in Garba v. University of Maiduguri, we wonder when University Administration will learn that truncation of the educational pursuits of Student Union Leaders is not a pastime tolerated by the Highest Court of the land. We hope the hawks in UNIBEN Management will reflect more over this issue.
In view of the foregoing, CDHR demands that the Edo State Government and Federal Ministry of Sports prevail on UNIBEN Authorities to reverse the dissolution of the Student Union Government in the University of Benin and to facilitate the holding of dialogue with the Students or risk the possibility of the mobilization of a boycott of the Sports Festival by Students and youths as athletes and/or spectators, alongside the generality of the Nigerian People.
The integrity of the Sports Festival is already on the line.
*Dr. Osagie Obayuwana is the National President, Committee for Defense of Human Rights (CDHR)