By Emmanuel Ukpong
IN a matter of days, a few thousand students are set to graduate from the Lagos State University (LASU). But Titi may not be one of them. Not that she isn’t willing to, not after a four-year programme that has been stretched to nearly five, thanks in no small part to incessant students’ riots and teachers’ strikes. It is just that her lecturers and project supervisor have vowed that Titi (not her real name) won’t graduate. It is her lot for stubbornly spurning their sexual advances, which is putting it mildly.
By my reckoning, Titi is not a prospect for the Nobel Prize in Economics, which is my polite way of saying she is an average student, who just gets by. Her lecturer knew this early enough: such intellectual vulnerability made Titi the perfect prey, you get the picture.
This set the stage for the lecturer, whom I shall call Sule. About three years ago, he pulled Titi aside after class and asked her out. She politely declined. Believing she was a typical female playing hard to get, Sule launched another round of advances but met a stiff wall. It was a strange experience for him; he wasn’t used to being rebuffed. Enough, he thought and began to deploy the tactics that have been perfected by the fairer sex: use what you have to get what you want. In Sule’s case, scores or grades. So he threatened Titi with low grades if she didn’t yield. But every threat seemed to stiffen her resolve.
For the uninitiated, this should ordinarily be no big deal: casual sex for good grades. But as I researched the subject further, it turned out to be more complicated than that. If Sule had his way once, chances were he would ask her out again and again and again. At LASU, sex with students isn’t just for personal pleasure; it is a trophy, something to display on the mantelpiece or brag about at staff club. Female students are passed around like an interesting book. It is common for perverted lecturers to say to each other over a drink, “She is sweet, you must try her.” Nor is it unheard of for a lecturer who has been rebuffed to ask a colleague who has more potent ammunition, usually a core course, to continue from where he flopped. Working hand in glove, and sometime in a 1-2-3 formation, they would plot and scheme and wear the poor thing into submission. This is why Titi’s resolute stand became such a sensation around the Faculty.
Titi suddenly became a person of interest; failed pursuers wanted to know more about her. Who is this cocky student? She was now in the crosshairs of not one, not two but at least three lecturers, all of them enlisted by Sule. The lecturers, including a professor, took turns but drew blank. Each devised an individual strategy, attacking from an exposed flank. It was a dud.
As the plot thickened, they unleashed spies after her, to dig up dirt and report on who she associated with. Some of her close friends became willing tools, largely in a bid to curry favour from the jackals who pass for lecturers.
As they piled up the pressure, Titi broke down, took ill often and, at one scary moment, told me she might hurt herself. “Sir,” she sobbed, “Assuming I accept, how will I do it? Undress, lie down, open my legs, close my eyes and say, “Oya”? To be frank, I had no answer, even if she was expecting one.
At that moment I thought to myself that Sule, like many men, just want women at all costs but makes no effort to understand them: if a woman isn’t interested in a man and has made up her mind about it, no force on earth – whether it’s mental, material or social – can persuade her.
With his mission now known to the wider circle of jackals and failure starring him in the face, Sule became even more determined. Failure would be a humiliation. He shifted to Plan B. With possible connivance of departmental authorities, he wangled his way to become Titi’s project supervisor. Sule broke the news to her in his office one afternoon. “I am your project supervisor,” he announced. “I will see where you will run to now.” Titi nearly had a fit. The cold words and the smirk on his face haunt her till this day.
Once that happened, there was little or no escape route for Titi. A project is critical to the award of a degree. It was a pressure point, and Sule pressed it rather skillfully at every turn: he refused to approve her topics; he kept finished chapters on his desk for weeks on end pretending to be busy. At one point, he cancelled two finished chapters, warning, “You think you are the only stubborn and proud girl in this department? I swear, you won’t graduate. Ask other girls…”
For Titi, each encounter with Sule ended with tears and bouts of frustration. She came under more intense pressure to yield, frighteningly from some lecturers and even from her fellow students who felt she was needlessly rigid; that one or two dates with Sule would have since settled the matter. She was causing herself and the entire department undue stress, they cautioned. Yes, entire department because by now some wiser academic heads had also intervened in the matter, urging Sule to let Titi be. You cannot force a girl to sleep with you, they pleaded, as if that point needed to be overstressed. In one comedy of errors, a junior lecturer that Titi had begged to intervene on her behalf approached one senior lecturer. It turned out that the senior lecturer was one of the three jackals, further complicating matters.
As the final exams approached, Sule and the jackals changed formation and switched to Plan C. While Sule retreated to a defence position, the other two, who had supervisory roles in the exams, attacked. With the project side already taking its toll and wearing down Titi, they tightened the noose with the exams, rather like sharks tasting blood. It was a minefield and Titi acted like the proverbial offender who, after being condemned to be roasted at the stakes, poured oil on her body. She would soon be toast.
It was the very first paper and barely 30 minutes into it when Titi passed a crumpled piece of paper to her neighbour. Precisely what Sule had been waiting for. One of the jackals, who was not in the exam hall but appeared to be watching through the window, sneaked behind Titi, seized her papers and ordered her out of the hall. Let’s be clear: there is absolutely no justification for cheating in exams, and Titi’s excuse that others cheated and were spared is hollow.
As you can imagine, the pack of jackals was over the moon and you could almost hear them popping the bubbly. Prematurely perhaps. Because last time I checked, Titi was still digging in her heels.
I have a teenage daughter in a UK college, far out of reach for Sule and his ilk, but I shudder to imagine her sharing the same fate with Titi. Titi’s story highlights the plight of young women in our universities. Every parent should be duly horrified.
Still, it is a credit to LASU authorities that they have managed to churn out graduates even though the environment is hardly conducive for learning. My wife graduated from LASU many years ago. Then, students’ population was already bursting at the seams, with only standing room in lectures halls. There have been significant improvements since then but a vast majority of the students live off campus, many in abject squalor. Titi resides among the natives, housed by an abusive and greedy landlady. The area is choked full of people and sanitation is almost zero. In just one year, her “hostel” has been burgled four times and robbed twice at gunpoint. In the last attack, she and her roommate escaped rape by whiskers. She has been threatened multiple times by local thugs and cultists, some demanding what has long eluded Sule.
It seems Titi just can’t win. It is not her fault that she is very attractive. But she should accept responsibility for choosing to wear false eyelids, which she doesn’t need, and for walking like Paris Hilton, which draws undue attention to her on campus.
But education in Nigeria is not what it used to be, just like little else is. At LASU, it seems all teachers think about is teaching and girls – sometimes in reverse order. I can’t help looking back at the University of Lagos and its lecturers. I listened to Prof. Ralph Akinfeleye on my car radio recently, and was pleased that he hasn’t lost any of his intellectual verve, his inventiveness with words, his sense of humour, his relevance. I have never read an awkward sentence from Prof. Olatunji Dare, the sainted journalism teacher who turned 70 recently. Prof. Idowu Shobowale has attained virtually all there is in Mass Communication research. As for Prof. Fred Opubor, it was a privilege studying at his feet. Ditto Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi, who made his mark in the academia before proceeding to become perhaps the best foreign affairs minister Nigeria ever had. Prof. Onuora Nwuneli’s lectures were a delight; you just wanted him to continue.
It would be utterly unthinkable to associate these distinguished teachers with the kind of revolting putrefaction that a section of LASU now emits. My teachers were more interested in teaching, research, grants, prizes, UNESCO appointments, publishing. Even when they were bored, they kept their eyes – and hands – off the fairer sex and instead were more interested in sparring with Prof. Akinfeleye for the exalted seat of the Head of Department. Now, can Titi say that about her teachers?
It rankles because LASU is not some third-rate polytechnic located in the backwaters of Nigeria. It is in Lagos State, the Centre of Excellence.
Thousands of Nigerian girls are suffering in silence at the hands of lecturers in our universities. This calls for intervention from women leaders and groups. Titi’s is a classic case; her travail was tailor-made for Oby Ezekwesili, come to think of it. But Dr. Ezekwesili is too controversial at the moment and it might turn out to be a distraction. That leaves us with Joe Okey-Odumakin, that paragon of good social causes. She is the voice of the voiceless. She just might be that voice that Titi and other young women need to keep the jackals off their backs.