FUNAAB, FACEBOOK AND FREEDOM OF SPEECH
By Omole Ibukun
Roughly three years ago now, I sat at a round-table in the Office of the then Acting Vice-Chancellor of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Prof. Elujoba and I saw public resources in hundreds of thousands being expended on my Facebook post. I could not get my head around the fact that Principal Officers of the University (VC, DVCs, Chairmen of Committee of Deans and the University Security Committee, Registrar, Dean of the DSA etc) who were being paid close to millions or in millions per month were all sitting at this table only to confirm whether I wrote a Facebook post or not. A Facebook post! I had already been queried over a Facebook post I allegedly made calling the members of the University senate “animals”, and without any disciplinary panel to ascertain the truth I was already tactically suspended (the way we call suspensions that are not formal, but are done with the backdoor deactivation of a students’ portal page). I wrote to ask for evidences of me making such post, and to defend the fact that I reserved the Freedom of Speech to insult the University Senate if I want, and in response I got a media trial from the management announcing that I was mentally unstable to the public, without any evidences again. Instead, at that negotiation table on that day, I was being threatened with the fact that Mark Zuckerberg was in Nigeria as at that time and he will be brought in to investigate whether I made the post and deleted it, or not. The meeting ended in a stalemate with the Acting Vice-Chancellor walking out angrily, after trying to force to admit to writing the post while my voice was being recorded. Whether I wrote the post or not, is a revelation for another day!
I brought up this history because of the recent expulsion at the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta (FUNAAB), over an open letter a 200 level student, Ifemosu Adewale, wrote over transportation and welfare crises on the campus, and the harassment of students by the police. Is it not interesting that the same universities that are supposed to teach the liberal ideals of freedom of speech are the ones repressing free speech on their campuses? It will be inappropriate to disconnect this repression of free speech from the general repression of free speech in the country generally with the arrest of journalist, activists and civil society campaigners, but it must be noted that the university should be the teachers of the government. What will we do when our teachers now teach us nonsense? What happens when the academia gives legitimacy to the attempts by a serial liar Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, to curb free speech under the guise of fighting hate speech and fake news?
Victimization over Facebook posts is even legally delicate for the victimizers, because Facebook and other social media platforms can pass for personal correspondence under the law, since people get to have personal accounts. That means victimizing someone over their personal correspondence could amount to spying and stalking, which is punishable under the law. If anyone’s writings misrepresents an institutions image or insults a person, the instinct of any institution or person should be to drown out such falsehood with the truth and give the correct representations to the public. It must also call such person or institution to the realization of the fact that they must correct some parts of their image to make it hard for others to even misrepresent in the first place.
In OAU then, the populist slogan used by my victimisers was “Learning and Culture” which happens to be the Motto of the school. This was used to victimise me for allegedly writing something offensive about the University senate. It is then important to ask which culture the university which must be multicultural should imbibe. Is it a Yoruba culture that relatively preaches respecting the elder, or the more egalitarian culture structured into the Igbo society? The only universal culture that is typical of the university is the culture of criticism and rationalism. The culture of asking the kinds questions that can aggregate the qualities of our independent original thoughts towards progressing our world. So how then do students criticizing their university on their Facebook pages flout this culture?
It is the university that should caution the government from limiting free speech, and advocate for the more opportunities for dissent in the society. Even the most hateful, harmful, and offensive expressions should be protected by the law even though they should be vigorously denounced and ridiculed by anyone interested in progressing the global community away from the violent crises that they can incite. Knowledge cannot develop without free public discussions, and the freedom of thought and opinions is part of our humanity. Any progress that does not factor in this human need for free expression cannot change society. Free speech invites disputes that only free speech can resolve, not repression or victimisation, and I think our universities need to learn that as soon as possible.
(Omole Ibukun is the National Secretary of the Education Rights Campaign, and can be contacted on 09060277591)