The menace of sexual harassment of female students across Nigeria has hit a major setback in Benue State University, Makurdi in central Nigeria. The university council has ratified and enforced the dismissal of a Political Science lecturer after a protracted disciplinary process that lasted four long years. Although the lecturer, Dr. Donatus Aondona Mkor, is still protesting his innocence, the university has made its move and he may require no less than a high judicial pronouncement to get back his job.
The case does not present the most heart rendering of sexual harassment in Nigeria which is usually the daughters of peasants who arrive university campuses relatively intimidated and most vulnerable to academics without good grooming. But it presents its own paradox that a lecturer with powerful political and social connections mentioned in the 28 page documentation of the disciplinary committee could be sacked.
By a September 4th, 2018 letter to that effect signed by Mrs Catherine Terlumun Bur, his sack is a done deal, for actions deemed by the university council as constituting gross misconduct under Section 6.4.8 (1) of the Regulations Governing the Conditions of Service for Senior Staff, (1st October, 2009). His name would not only have been removed from the payroll of the university by now, he would have been paid whatever entitlement he has minus whatever indebtedness to the university.
Outlining the gross misconduct, the “Letter of Dismissal from Service” narrated how Dr. Mkor met a then 20 year female student of Political Science, Miss Mchivir Whitney Verr at a Restaurant in the Eastern Wing of the campus, offered to give her lift to her hostel but diverted her to a friend’s house at the Judges’ Quarter against her wish and with sexual advances. Beyond this specific, Dr Mkor is also ‘convicted’ for seeking to use his authority to coerce Miss Verr to give him her telephone number as a condition for submitting her Continuous Assessment paper. All these happened in 2014 when Miss Verr was 20 years old.
Since then, the case has gone to the police who charged Miss Verr’s parent to court obviously because the student did not identify the house in question when taken there. It was thereafter the parents who preferred the option of reporting the case in writing to the university management did so and hence the December 2017 disciplinary committee. It was these intervening processes that explain the four years it took to dispose off the case.
The trial session showed interesting cross-fire between Dr Mkor and Mr Bernard Vrr, Mchivir’s father. Dr Mkor denied ever calling the student, daring anyone to go to MTN to check that out. He also wanted the female student to answer yes or no to the question of whether they met at the restaurant by arrangement or by coincidence; if she could identify the two boys she claimed hauled her into the lecturer’s car; if she had any proof of being forced into the car and if there were any other persons in the house they went. But Mr Verr countered, asking Dr Mkor whether it was usual for him to visit his friend with a strange girl.
Independent sources in the university think the university council might have decided on dismissing Dr Mkor because Miss Verr’s case is one case too many against the lecturer. The theory is that Dr Mkor’s reported boast of powerful links did not help him because of previous cases of acts considered unsavory on the part of an academic. But the question lingering on lips on the campus is how far this particular action would go in containing a menace that has become a risk in Nigeria in general and, some would say, in Benue State in particular.
There is a powerful inference even among established academics on the campus that extreme poverty has made virtual prostitutes of female students who are hooked to the food item called ‘24 hours’ at the university’s Labour Market. ’24 hours’ is the cheapest but slowest to digest staple affordable by desperate female and even male students surviving on pinching N1000, N500 or even N200 from any male at all on and off campus. The prostitution thesis is that all female students surviving in that manner are, collectively and individually, vulnerable to temptations, including the most otherwise virtuous ones. Not when Intervention understood that parents who can still afford to give wards and children about N6000 a month are often heard quipping, “have I not tried?”.
The other side of sexual harassment in this context is the vulnerability of male lecturers to what a very senior academic called ‘electronic harassment’ by female students permanently seeking lifeline from even their lecturers, especially lecturers that have developed political connection within the establishment and are perceived to be rich or above the average in the Benue context. The situation in Benue State is worsened by the fact that only lecturers have successfully used their collective intellectual power to ensure the state government pays their monthly salaries as and when due. In a situation where all other categories of government workers are being owed salaries, lecturers are bound to come under intense, irresistible ‘electronic harassment’ unseen before, particularly from female students living through an equally exceptional time.
Beyond Dr Mkor, a professor, (name withheld) at the nearby University of Agriculture in Makurdi has fallen victim to the situation. In his own case, he absconded because he could not wait to face the shame of a trial for sexual harassment involving a female student who had to pay for a hotel room and notify him of her readiness to offer him pleasure. It was a trap. Nabbed in the act, he absconded. What his case shows is how sexual harassment is bleeding the university system, considering the material resources and the length of time it takes to produce a professor.
The tragedy, says analysts, is how the crisis is not being critically situated. While administrators and political leaders are emphasizing disciplinary action as the answer, moralists and religious leaders are more interested in explaining it as a crisis of moral relapse in the society. Gender equity campaigners take a one-sided understanding of the phenomenon. Not much emphasis is put on the socio-economic context of lack of moral rectitude and of efficacy of disciplinary actions. Needed is, therefore, a more holistic approach which recognises how the moral, administrative and the economic must work together as far as stamping out sexual harassment.
How interesting would it be for the authorities of the Benue State University to publish the full text of the Senior Staff Disciplinary Committee because the question is, would the daughter of a peasant have sustained going through that process? In a predominantly peasant community such as Benue, this question is considered important for gender equity campaigners and for democracy. The document might help moral, gender and anti-poverty campaigners likely to pick interest in one aspect or the other of this case.