By Reuben Abati
The death of Sylvester Oromoni, a JSS 2 Student of Dowen College in Lekki, Lagos under controversial circumstances, has understandably sparked outrage – with both parents and other concerned citizens expressing shock and anger. Sylvester Oromoni Jr’s death speaks to the failure of the Nigerian school system, the collapse of morals and the evil that has overtaken not just the education sector but virtually every segment of society. Many parents toil day and night to be able to give their children the benefit of a good education.
With the Nigerian public system having failed – many public schools do not even have blackboards, or chalk or duster, many do not have decent classrooms, the children sit in decrepit buildings threatening to collapse, the teachers are poorly paid or they do not even get their salaries, the learning environment in many schools would seem fit only for goats and poultry, certainly not for those we describe as leaders of tomorrow. Faced with such a harum-sacrum public education system and demoralized teachers, many families opt to send their children to private schools. These schools vary in terms of structures, facilities and standards, depending on location and ownership. But what has been seen is the failure of the entire system, both public and private.
The standards of old have disappeared. Nigeria’s places of learning have become environments of strife and chaos. The moral turpitude which has turned Nigeria into a land of failure – failure of ethos, governance and leadership – has crept into the schools. In the Northern part of the country, terrorists routinely kidnap students for ransom, for conversion to the Islamic religion, for recruitment as child brides or soldiers, or as pawns in a sustained assault against the Nigerian state.
Over 600 schools were shut down in 2021 alone due to terrorist attacks. In the South, patterns of violence have also been observed in schools. The students are on drugs, they form cult gangs, they bully one another; they join armed robbery gangs. Each time, there is a report of kidnap or disruption in any Nigerian school, there are loud ooohs and aaahs, and soon the noise dies down and we all wait until the next crisis occurs.
The latest is the death of Sylvester Oromoni Jr. He was said to have been bullied by four of his colleagues at Dowen College. They beat him up. They gave him a substance to drink. Every effort by his family to rescue him failed. He died in the hospital. Before he gave up the ghost, he reportedly mentioned the names of his assailants. The school had tried to cover up the incident by insisting that he was only injured during a football session and that he was not bullied by anyone.
His father, who celebrated his 12th birthday, post-humously, on December 4th (what a way to handle grief!) insists that he wants the truth. He wants justice. And he would not bury his son until justice is done. He has the support of the Delta State government and community where he hails from and concerned parents across the country. Every family is united in condemning the death of the innocent 12-year-old. Master Oromoni could have been the child of any other family. Many testimonies have been given by other parents about how their own children were bullied too and the cost of the negligence of school authorities. But one question: why did it take so long before the deceased was taken to hospital for help?
The Lagos State Government has shut down and sealed off Dowen College indefinitely. The Government and the Nigeria Police have also commenced investigations into the incident. The school authorities finally managed to issue a statement on December 2. The school denied flatly that Sylvester Oromoni was ever beaten, bullied or assaulted, by any student and that any other story is at best “wild social media tales.” Dowen College authorities also disclosed that the school has a “very cordial relationship” with the Oromoni family as Sylvester Jr. was “the fifth child of the family Dowen College had the privilege to train…” We are further told that the school is “built on core values of Godliness and Excellence and will not tolerate any acts of cultism…” Thus, there are two sides to the story of the painful death of Sylvester Oromoni, and it is the more reason an investigation is important: to establish the truth and to ensure that justice is done. I have heard some concerned parents threatening that if Sylvester had been their child, they would have gone to the school to burn it down and demonstrate “serious madness.” No parent ever wants a child to die. Parents send their children to school to prepare them for the future and help them achieve their dreams. Sylvester Oromoni wanted to be a pilot. That dream is dead, a whole future has been buried. It is indeed painful.
It is even the more reason that both the Lagos State government and the police must do a thorough investigation. There have been similar promises of investigations in the past which yielded no results. This particular case must not be swept under the carpet. This has come to public attention because it was reported by a whistleblower. The question is: How widespread are cases of this nature within the school system? Lagos State has over 20,000 private schools from primary to the tertiary level. Can the state boast of a strong inspectorate division to enforce standards in both the public and private schools? How many personnel work in the Inspectorate Division of the state’s Ministry of Education and how well equipped are they? How many times do they visit the schools? Once upon a time in this country, school inspectors were an important part of the education sector.
They even inspected teachers’ notes, school facilities and engaged with students. I recall they used to time their visits to coincide with lunch time. They tasted the food too! During school hours, there was a task force that patrolled the streets. If you were of school age and you were found loitering around during school hours, you could be arrested! We now have a Universal Basic Education (UBEC) Law with strict provisions about school enrolment including penalties for parents but nobody enforces any law anymore. Is it possible that the school inspectors of today collude with school proprietors and simply look the other way?
There has been a reference to the existence of a cult or a gang in Dowen College, as in many other schools. Is it possible that the school authorities do not know this? The school claims that there was no bullying or assault. Does the school have House Masters? And how diligent are those House Masters? There have been allegations that the owners of the school are opposed to the idea of a Parents Teachers’ Association (PTA), and so the school does not have one. Is that true? It would be most strange indeed if it were to be true. What kind of school would not have a forum for regular interaction between the school authorities and parents. And what kind of parent would patronize such a school? Even universities these days set up PTAs. The University of Lagos (UNILAG) has a vibrant PTA that gets involved in everything from students’ registration to hostel allocation and the welfare of students! Parents should be the most important stakeholders in the school system. The Dowen College investigating panel should look into this and other issues. By the way, has anyone set up a panel yet? What is the composition of the panel? What are its terms of reference? Who are the members? Who is the Chairperson? The public needs to know. An investigating panel of civil servants will not pass the trust test, Mr. Governor. And by the way, Dowen College has issued another statement dated December 4, which seems to have been written by a wiser person.
Now, let me return to our preliminary comment about how the school system in Nigeria has failed. What has happened to our schools is frightening. Reported cases are frightening enough but imagine the number of cases that have been swept under the carpet. The Oromoni case has resulted in a prodding of public memory in this regard. One, people have again remembered the case of Don Davis Archibong, a JSS 1 student of Deeper Life High School, Uyo whose mother, Deborah Okezie, cried out to the High Heavens, early 2021, that her son was emaciated and had been a target of sodomy in a Christian school. Months later, the school principal, and four others, including the vice principal and housemasters, have now been charged for involvement in the starvation and sexual abuse of Don Archibong. They have been remanded in prison custody pending when they meet their bail conditions.
In January, when the story became public knowledge, Okezie alleged that her son contemplated suicide. She said her son was bullied by a teacher and some senior students in his school. The case has only now shown up in December! Two, there is also the case of Karen Aondoo Akpager, a JSS 2, 12-year-old boarding student of Premier Academy, Lugbe, Abuja, who died on June 22, 2021. She took ill in school and was unable to walk. When she was eventually rushed to the hospital by her mother, doctors observed a discharge from her vagina, and this was found to be from a condom in her private part. Her urine also revealed dead spermatozoa. She died. Who on earth slept with a 12-year-old student in a boarding school and left a condom in her body? Her parents have been asking for justice since June. Of course, Premier Academy also blamed the social media for misinforming the public and peddling “unfounded statements.”
Three, in Delta state this year, an SS3 student, Michael Ogbeise, was reported to have beaten a teacher at Erimu Secondary School in Abraka to death for flogging his sister who was also a student in the same school. The teacher, Ezeugo Joseph was beaten black and blue, he slipped into unconsciousness. He never recovered. This is a classic case of how even teachers in Nigerian schools are no longer safe. Four, before the Abraka incident, a final year student at the University of Ilorin, one Salaudeen Waliu Anuoluwa, was reportedly expelled by the university, for having the temerity to beat up a lecturer, one Mrs Rahmat Zakariyau of the Department of Microbiology. And five, in the last week of November, in the Asero area of Abeokuta, students of two secondary schools engaged themselves in a bloody fight. When the police from Obantoko moved in to ensure peace, the DPO was attacked and drenched in blood. And six, only yesterday, December 6, students of Idogbo Secondary School, Benin City, Edo State, disrupted school activities as they went on a rampage. The school principal was said to have called in the Police. The students (secondary school students!) overpowered the police men, gave them a thorough beating and seized their uniforms. There are probably many more examples out there, but the aforementioned must be shocking enough. What kind of country runs a school system that breeds cultists and hooligans who readily overpower teachers, the system and the rule of law? A straightforward answer is that the Nigerian school system is a reflection of the entire society itself.
The government bullies the people, assaults their sensibilities daily, beats the people, cheats them, deceives them and so the younger generation simply reproduces the same patterns. The real danger is that Nigeria’s youth society is proving to be worse than the adult society. There are no innocent children anymore, no safe havens either. A few years ago, a Pentecostal Church in Nigeria established a University and came up with the idea that any female students seeking admission into that Christian University must undergo a virginity test. We railed at the time against what looked like a discriminatory idea. The university stood its ground. But it didn’t take long before the idea died a natural death, as the university itself discovered the ugly truth that there was no point looking for a virgin in a thriving abortion clinic! A few years later, one University Vice Chancellor in Ghana protested that foreign students from Nigeria were introducing cultism to universities in Ghana. Children have a way of imitating their parents.
What must we do? Parents need to be vigilant. Many parents think of the education of their children in terms of cost and class. There are many useless schools across the country with fanciful names, and strong snob appeal. Parents send their children there just so they can be seen to belong to a certain class – the nouveaux riche. My son is in so, so and so school… the snobs know themselves and how much some of these schools cost per term… even if many of them are relying on bank loans and borrowings to maintain their fake lives. A school should be chosen for a different set of reasons: standards, values, quality. State authorities must also be awake to their responsibilities in the areas of policy and regulation. There are policies, rules and laws in the books, but they are invoked only when there is a crisis. For the most part, nobody would remember that there are laws in Lagos State against cultism in schools or that the state has a Child Rights Law. It took the Don Davis Archibong incident in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State for the Magistrate Court to throw the law at the defendants.
The state must be more vigilant. The laws relating to violence, cultism, and child rights, are strong enough. It is just that nobody enforces them, because the will to do so is absent. Everybody knows everybody in Nigeria and so the right thing never gets done. In France, there are about 700,000 cases of bullying per annum in schools, resulting in social media humiliation and increased cases of suicide among adolescents. Last week, the French parliament decided to introduce stiffer legislation. The proposed law imposes a 3-year jail term, and a maximum fine of 150, 000 Euros in most serious cases, on anyone that is found guilty of school bullying. The law was proposed by Education Minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer. It has been approved by the lower house. If it is adopted by the Senate in February 2022, it would be one of the harshest laws against school bullying in the world. Combatting bullying is also part of Brigitte Macron, a school teacher, and the French President’s wife’s area of focus. Jean-Michel Blanquer says the law is “a way of enforcing the values of the Republic.” What are the values of the Nigerian Republic? Do we know or agree on what those values are? How do we begin to enforce them? We can start with our troubled school system by confronting the ugly truths. Sylvester Oromoni, the father, has taken a useful step in that direction, by engaging Femi Falana, SAN, to sue the school and demand a coroner’s inquest.