By Owei Lakemfa
THE Covenant University, Sango Ota, is like most of the private universities established by religious missions, one of the costliest in the country. A former student, Mr. Vmamh Lonngji Felix who sued the university for wrongful expulsion, told the court that in less than four years, his parents spent over N10 million as fees and basic upkeep. Yet, the seeds of these universities were sowed, nurtured and harvested with the tithes and offerings of the poor, working and lower middle classes who due to the high fees, have little or no chance of sending their children to such universities.
Some of the rich who can afford the high fees of Covenant University are complaining about the administration turning the school into a military garrison where little or no initiative can be taken by staff and students, and the latter deprived of their basic freedom. The latest is last Wednesday’s suspension of some 200 students for between four weeks and one year. Their offence was, committing the grievous sin of failing to attend an Easter Youth Programme on campus.
Some of the victims who claimed they got tired of attending morning and afternoon services while preparing for examinations, said they were stopped from writing their examinations as part of the punishment. A number of the victims are final year students scheduled to graduate within ten weeks.
The university’s Head of Corporate Communications, Mr. Emmanuel Igban, justified the suspension on the basis that church services are compulsory for the students: “Chapel attendance is mandatory for all students. A student is expected to attend chapel; either the Tuesday or Thursday Chapel service and all other programmes as directed by the Chaplaincy and University Management. Provision is made for signing of attendance and students are expected to be on their seats at least 15 minutes prior to service. Excuse from chapel requires permission from the office of the Dean of Student Affairs. Absence from chapel and Sunday services and other university Assembly (services) attract penalty ranging from letter of warning, suspension to advice to withdraw.”
First, it is unacceptable that parents would be made to pay for an extra semester or session not because their wards failed or rioted, but for failing to attend a non-academic function. Secondly, such antiquated rules are not part of the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board condition for university admission nor are they in any of the rules of the regulatory National Universities Commission, NUC. If during accreditation, the Covenant University had presented such antediluvian rules before the NUC, I am sure it would not have been registered because they are a rape on the Nigerian constitution which guarantees freedom of belief and worship without interference.
Not all the students in a Nigerian university must be Christians, and whatever religion they belong to, they cannot be forced to practice. There must be no compulsion in belief or religion. In any case, a student like any other human being can decide to change his religion. He can proselytize or even become an atheist. Religion cannot be the basis to discipline an undergraduate, at least not in a secular state. If a church wants to create a theocracy, it cannot be by running a secular university. Are the Sadducees and Pharisees in Covenant University going to hold the students accountable before God; didn’t the Holy Bible warn that it is not all those who shout ‘Lord! Lord!! Lord!!! that will enter the Kingdom of God?
A university is neither a monastery nor a church; it is a universe of ideas. It derives from the Latin, universitas magistrorum et scholarium, or “community of teachers and scholars.” It is the citadel or pinnacle of learning, study and research. That is why it is also referred to as the Ivory Tower. So, a university is a place where everything and anything can be interrogated.
Some might argue that students who do not accept the theocratic proclivities of a Chancellor, can go to other universities. This will be standing logic on its head; it is the Chancellor that has the option of not establishing a university if he cannot abide by the country’s constitution or respect the fundamental rights of Nigerians. I would not have made these arguments if the institution were a seminary, but anybody who opts to establish a university, cannot run it like a theological centre. Even in seminaries, I know that critical reasoning and philosophy, are core subjects, so a university like Covenant cannot claim that its core value is “instilling the fear of God”.
A Vice Chancellor who suspends students for not attending a religious programme, is not an academic and cannot be an intellectual. Intellectualism entails critical reasoning and thorough research; it requires the development, application and utilisation of the intellect, and not a collapse into mysticism and spiritualism. This will not be the first time the university will engage in such arbitrariness; in 2012, 126 students were suspended for failing to attend a ‘Departure Service’.
But the school has been emboldened because the NUC tolerated such rules in the university including banning secular music and possession of ‘unholy’ films and home video! It also does not appear to have taken disciplinary actions against the university for widespread complaints that it forces students to submit themselves to all sorts of medical examinations including pregnancy tests. Also, there is no record of NUC action against the Covenant University for ‘making-up’ marks.
In one case, due to alteration of marks, a student (names withheld) who should have had a Third Class reportedly graduated with a Second Class Upper Degree. The practice was so widespread that a lecturer in the Mass Communication Department, Dr. Omojola, allegedly petitioned against the culture in his department which led to the replacement of the Head of Department. However, after a session, the former Head was reinstated and the practice became endemic. In the Chemistry Department, a student who scored 5 percent – which is an outright failure – allegedly had his marks jacked up to 45 percent to enable him pass.
Although the university a few years ago set up a panel headed by Deputy Vice Chancellor (Administration) Taiwo Abioye, a Professor of Stylistics and Applied Linguistics, to examine the worse cases of mark alteration, there is no certainty that this unholy practice has stopped.
Which brings me to a basic point; even where a university claims series of awards and gets itself listed in some nebulous ranking of universities, it does not mean it is a university. The NUC and the Federal Ministry of Education have the duty to call the Covenant University to order and ensure that it runs as a proper university respecting academic freedom, culture and truthfulness.