One of the major challenges rocking Nigerian tertiary institutions is the high incidence of allegations of sexual harassment.
PREMIUM TIMES has reported many cases of randy lecturers in tertiary institutions, including one involving an Obafemi Awolowo University professor, Richard Akindele, caught on tape demanding sex from a female student to pass her in an examination.
Mr Akindele was later dismissed from the university and jailed for two years over the scandal. Victims in many other universities have accused their teachers of sexually harassing them. The victims are in most cases left with depression, insecurity on campus, and sometimes drop out of school.
While cases that gain public attention are sometimes handled well, others are swept under the carpet.
Using FOI to seek information
On February 24, 2011, the National Assembly passed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The aim is to give the general public access to data and information held by government agencies; exempting a few like issues of national security.
According to sections 4, 5 and 7 of the law, public institutions must grant access/response to any request for records or information within seven days. Wrongful denial of such information by any institution or public officer attracts a fine of N500,000.
Following a recent four-part series by PREMIUM TIMES on how lack of clear policies against sexual harassment in universities makes cases difficult, our correspondent in December submitted an FOI request to 20 top universities in Nigeria, seeking details of cases they had handled in the last 10 years.
The aim of the request is to test the effectiveness of the FOIA in tertiary institutions. Many of the universities failed to respect the law.
Only one university gave the desired response.
Two offered excuses for not obliging the request, one acknowledged receipt but failed to respond, while 16 neither acknowledged receipt nor provided a response.
This newspaper randomly selected 20 universities in Nigeria for the enquiries.
The schools are Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), University of Ilorin (UNILORIN), University of Port Harcourt (UNIPORT), University of Lagos (UNILAG), University of Jos (UNIJOS), University of Abuja (UNIBUJA), University of Benin (UNIBEN), University of Ibadan (UI), Lagos State University (LASU) and Taraba State University.
Others are Tai Solarin University of Education (TASUED), Nasarawa State University, Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (LAUTECH), Ekiti State University (EKSU), Federal University of Technology Akure (FUTA), Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Bayero University Kano (BUK), Akwa Ibom University, Ambrose Alli University (AAU) and Bauchi State University.
Although UNILORIN provided adequate response to the FOI request, it did not come until a month after. Our correspondent wrote the university on December 14, 2020, but its Registrar, Fola Olowoleni, responded on January 21, 2021.
According to Mr Olowoleni, the university handled three relevant cases in the last 10 years. Two of the incidents occurred in 2016 while the last case happened in 2019.
In 2016, a student accused Mohammed Idiagbon, the Head of the Department of English, of sexually harassing her.
The university suspended Mr Idiagbon and set up a panel to investigate the allegation. Mr Idiagbon later voluntarily resigned his appointment from the school.
In the same year, another student accused a lecturer, Tunde Saliman, of harassment. The accused lecturer was tried at the National Industrial Court (NICN) in a suit marked NICN/IL/05/2016.
The university said the court pronounced Mr Saliman guilty and he lost his job. Not pleased with the court decision, he proceeded to the Court of Appeal where he won and has since been reinstated to his job in the university.
The last case which occurred in 2019 involved a senior lecturer, Solomon Olowookere. Mr Olowookere was dismissed but his case is still before NICN in suit NICN/AB/2019.
BUK, UNIPORT give excuses
While the University of Port Harcourt in Rivers State and Bayero University in Kano State responded to PREMIUM TIMES requests, they did not provide details of cases they have handled.
UNIPORT, according to the response by its registrar, Dorca Otto, said the request was on issues that were “largely confidential.”
“The University of Port Harcourt’s Sexual Harassment Policy came into effect in October 2019. It is pertinent to note that sexual harassment proceedings within the University are largely confidential.
“By the provisions of Section 12 (1) of the FOIA, 2011, ‘A public institution may deny an application for any information which contains – records compiled by any public institution for administrative enforcement proceedings and by any law enforcement or correctional agency for law enforcement purposes or for internal matters of a public institution, but only to the extent that disclosure would – unavoidably disclose the identity of a confidential source, constitute an invasion of personal privacy under Section 15 of this Act, except, where the interest of the public would be better served by having such record being made available, this exemption to disclosure shall not apply.
“Personal Information is defined by the FOIA, 2011 as any official information held about an identifiable person, but does not include information that bears on the public duties of public employees and officials. The University has also noted that there is no evidence to show that the staff and students have consented to the disclosure of such information. In the light of this, by the combined effect of Sections 12 (1) and 14 (1) FOIA, 2011, the University Management cannot oblige you with your request”, the school argued.
BUK in a response by its Registrar, Fatima Mohammed, said “disclosing detailed information regarding cases of sexual harassment if such exists, may lead to the disclosure of the identity of a confidential source as stipulated in Section 12 (1) (a)(iv) of the Freedom of Information Act 2011 (FOI).
“People who have made confidential reports may prefer to remain anonymous as exposing their information may not be in their best interests. It is, therefore, necessary to obtain the consent of all parties involved in order to avoid exposing the University to potential legal liabilities in the aftermath of such disclosure. Furthermore, it has been stated in Section 14 of the FOI Act that personnel files and personal information maintained with respect to employees and students are exempted under the Act.
“Except if the individual to whom it relates consents to the disclosure. In view of the above, Bayero University is constrained to provide the information as requested. ”
PREMIUM TIMES contacted the two universities, explaining that if they cannot disclose personal information, they should give a breakdown of the cases but neither of the schools responded.
While LAUTECH acknowledged the receipt of enquiries with a promise to respond accordingly, three months after, there was no response from the institution.
Other institutions like OAU, UNILAG neither acknowledged our correspondent enquiries nor responded to the enquiries.
Why the schools are ‘wrong’
Reacting to PREMIUM TIMES’ experience over the requests, legal experts and media specialists condemned the refusal of institutions to respond to FOI on sexual harassment cases.
They also punctured the arguments of the University of Port Harcourt and Bayero University Kano that information on sexual harassment should be treated with “secrecy”, saying that would cause more harm than good.
A lawyer, Festus Ogun, said it is wrong for the universities to hoard information of public interest such as those on sexual harassment cases.
“The position of the law is clear that information of public interest cannot be hoarded. Information of sexual harassment cases should even be published on university’s website just like examination malpractices and other offences. Who determines public interest? It is the court that determines public interest. The university system should answer question in relating to the university, of which sexual harassment is part,” Mr Ogun said.
“They should not keep information on accountability because the essence of university will be defeated if issues of sexual harassment are swept under the carpet. They can as well respond that they do not have any case in their schools, that’s better and could be said that they responded. Ignoring enquiries shows that the institutions are abetting lawlessness.
“Section 14 (3) of the FOI law states clearly that when it comes to the issue of privacy and public interest, and the interest of the public outweighs the protection of privacy, then the interest of the public will prevail. The privacy of a lecturer who harassed a student should not be shrouded in secrecy. We cannot be talking about privacy when the humanity of another is in danger.
“The schools’ position for not providing you with information is absurd. They have a duty to respond to your FOI as a matter of law. Another point is that the argument of privacy is lame and unproductive because section 37 of the constitution indeed guarantees the right to privacy of all citizens.
“However, this right is not absolute because section 45 of the Constitution made it clear that right to privacy can be derogated with a valid law and the valid law here is the FOI Act.
“If the school managements are hiding under the pretext of privacy, it does not hold water. There is no issue of law that can bring confusion. The schools should not use the law against the people,” Mr Ogun said.
In his submission, Lekan Otufodunrin, a media career specialist, said the information requested by PREMIUM TIMES cannot be said to be “confidential.”
“Normally, every institution should have a desk on FOI and the desk would help them understand the need to attend to enquiries. Sexual harassment is a matter of public interest. When a lecturer harasses students, and such a person has been tried, he should be made known.
“You have even tried by justifying your request and asking them to provide statistics of cases. The information you required cannot be classified as confidential information. Such information will even help to protect students from evil people on campus,” Mr Otufodunrin said.
In an earlier report published by PREMIUM TIMES on FOI, Kolawole Olaniyan, a legal adviser for Amnesty International in the United Kingdom, noted that “the FoI is so central and relevant to the fight against corruption because it is essential for actualising the people’s right to know, and for transparency and accountability in the management of public resources”.
Also, Idayat Hassan, Director, Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) said “monopolising the power to make information public negates the need for which the FOI Act was passed into law. And that is the need for openness, transparency and decentralisation of information from the side of the government to the people and thereby build trust which in turn makes room for good governance delivery.
“It is heartbreaking that in a time when other countries are looking for better ways to promptly disclose information to the public and pave the way for accountability and transparency, ours is hiding theirs (its) and asking that whoever wants certain information should institute a court proceeding to compel the institution to divulge the information needed. That is not right,” she said.