Students allegedly ‘expelled’ for social media protest

Two students from the University of Abuja in Nigeria’s federal capital have been expelled because they allegedly tried to incite the student body against a management decision to increase tuition fees by almost 50%.

The action has sparked criticism from human rights lawyers over the stifling of student voices across the country when they are interrogating or opposing decisions by their universities.

Cyprian Igwe and Olalekan Oladeru disseminated messages on social media, inviting others to a meeting to discuss the fee hike, reported Punch.

Previously, Igwe and Oladeru served as officials of the university’s Students’ Union Government (SUG). They finished their second-semester examinations in April 2023 and were waiting for the results before starting their compulsory National Youth Service.

Igwe took to Twitter to share a screenshot of his WhatsApp post that sparked the problem, along with the letter of expulsion.

He said: “Good evening house. We will be having a meeting tomorrow at 6pm regarding school fees, and we need to discuss our next steps. I am deeply pained; many students are unable to afford the fees. I hope the SUG president is a member of this group. I value everyone’s input. I would rather risk my own life and admission than witness thousands of students dropping out. If the spirit of Aluta resides within us, it must awaken. Please join us for this meeting.”

Oladeru, the current SUG director of sports, is believed to have shared Igwe’s comment on his own WhatsApp status update.

In the letter of the university it accused both students of circulating an “insightful press release” that could jeopardise the peaceful conduct of academic activities and breach the University Matriculation Oath, which outlines the rules and regulations of the institutions.

The letter, dated May 26, and signed by the deputy registrar (academic) on behalf of the registrar, stated that the Vice-Chancellor, Abdulrasheed Na’Allah, acting on behalf of the senate, had directed their immediate expulsion from the university. They were banned from all university campuses pending the resolution of the case.

The expulsion sparked a public outcry, leading the institution’s management to claim on Saturday that Igwe and Oladeru were “suspended”, contradicting the initial letter issued to them.

When Igwe spoke to University World News, he stressed that he was coerced and threatened into signing the form.

Additionally, Oladeru was expelled by the school management for sharing Igwe’s post regarding the fee increment on his status.

“The action doesn’t justify suspension or rustication,” Igwe said. “I was accused of impersonation [of the institution] and was already labelled before coming to fill [in] a statement in the University of Abuja security unit.

“The rustication [expulsion] letter was already there, without even a fair hearing or panel. I was forced to sign it after they detained me for about eight hours.” He added that the school management misunderstood his intentions, as he believed he should represent the voice of all students since he was one of the institution’s student union officials.

Igwe expressed his disappointment with the violation of his human rights and the damage to his reputation. He said many students were dropping out because they could not afford the sudden fee increase.

In response to Dr Habib Yakoob, the school’s director of public affairs, who claimed that the students were suspended for complaining about the fee increment and were not expelled, Igwe expressed doubts.

He said: “I don’t think it’s true. There is no official statement from the school on its social media accounts. I only saw a message that I should return the [expulsion] letter on or before Tuesday.”

Yakoob did not respond to questions from University World News.

Human rights lawyers knock actions

Doyinmola Ogundokun, a legal practitioner based in Osun State, Nigeria, said the two crucial factors in such cases are the student handbook and the principles of a fair hearing and natural justice.

According to Ogundokun, these elements play a pivotal role in determining the outcome, and their absence hampers the proper application of section 36 of the constitution.

Ogundokun explained: “The first thing the university management ought to do is to send a letter to the students, asking them to provide a written response to the allegations against them.

“Then, a disciplinary committee meeting should be convened, where the students can present their case. It is essential that this committee comprises key members of the school.”

Ogundokun stressed the importance of having legal representation for both the students and the school management in these meetings.

“By ensuring legal representation, we ensure that the proper processes are followed and that both sides have a fair chance to present their arguments,” he remarked.

Ogundokun placed great emphasis on adhering to section 36 of Nigeria’s Constitution. “It is crucial for the school to listen to the students’ side of the story,” he stated. “If the students are dissatisfied with the outcome, they have the right to seek legal recourse.”

He also touched upon the fundamental human right to protest, highlighting that, whether or not the police are informed during a protest, it is within the students’ rights.

Ogundokun emphasised that the student handbook should not prohibit protests or undermine the students’ rights.

Expressing his concern, Ogundokun criticised the prevailing situation in which student voices across the country are being stifled, with their complaints disregarded by school management.

“The handbook cannot supersede the constitution,” he noted. According to the constitution, any law contradicting the constitution is null and void.”

Ogundokun firmly believed that any law depriving students of their right to peaceful protest should be considered invalid. He said the students should not have been rusticated without their side of the story being heard.

The importance of ‘critical’ graduates

Festus Ogun, a human rights lawyer based in Lagos State, condemned the rustication of the students, labelling it as illegal, unconstitutional and fundamentally unfair. He argued that the school’s regulations did not offer a valid justification for such a harsh punishment.

Ogun was adamant in asserting that the students had not partaken in a protest, but had simply expressed their dissatisfaction, which he believed was a natural response to arbitrary policies.

In an effort to illustrate his point, Ogun compared the expectation for students to remain silent about arbitrary policies to expecting a child not to cry after being subjected to physical harm.

He firmly believed that the expulsion was in clear violation of the law and the constitution, calling upon everyone to unequivocally condemn this act. Ogun urged the affected students to assert their rights by seeking legal recourse through the court system.

Moreover, Ogun appealed to the institution itself, urging them to reconsider their actions and reinstate the students. He pointed out that, by suppressing the students’ ability to question and rally against arbitrary policies, the institution had only brought shame and ridicule upon itself.

He questioned the value of producing graduates who could not ask critical questions and challenged the school to deeply reflect on the consequences of its actions.