One of the most socially significant bills to be introduced by a legislator is now before the Senate. Its proponent is Mr Ovie Omo-Agege, only about three months old in that conclave of self-inflating legislators who crave the bogus adulation of “distinguished senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.” By this bill alone, Omo-Agege has surpassed what older tenants of the Senate, some in their third or fourth terms, can ever hope to achieve besides living large and laundering our stolen money in offshore tax havens. The object of the bill is the prohibition of all forms of sexual harassment of students by educators in tertiary institutions. It defines broadly “sexual harassment” and the all-important term “fiduciary duty” or “relationship of authority, dependency and trust.” The bill seeks to punish offenders with imprisonment for 2-5 years, and any head of an institution who fails to take appropriate disciplinary steps under Section 12 (not Section 13 as erroneously stated) with two years or an N2 million fine.
Precisely one week ago, I visited Omo-Agege in his Senate office to congratulate him for the good luck of salvaging his victory from the ferocious jaws of our obnoxious present-day electoral jurisprudence. Pleasantries over, I asked how he had fared so far in a Senate that shamelessly abandons its urgent duties while the country sinks in the quicksand of corruption and maladministration to follow, like a herd of cattle, its embattled shepherd to the court whenever said embattled shepherd is obliged to appear for his trial or seeks to evade it through frivolous appeals. Imagine my delight, then, when he reeled out his constituency and legislative preoccupations!
Anyone familiar with Nigeria’s tertiary institutions knows that our campuses of supposed higher learning are more or less veritable sexual jungles where academic staff, especially, but also senior administration staff, are prowling predators. Sex for marks or other favours has become so entrenched as to have acquired the status of a law of nature. Put bluntly; it is as if our university, polytechnic and college of education campuses were sex colonies where rape or any other form of coerced copulation and intimacy may be practised without sanctions. The ungovernable libido of lecturers has led to some harried female students resorting to desperate means of looking sexually unappealing or putting themselves within the assumed safe bounds of moral and social norms. Such as wearing wedding bands even though unmarried; strapping cushions to their bellies to feign pregnancy; foregoing a bath, dressing down and shunning make-up before office visits; pleading the monthly visitation, etc., all to no avail. Always, the sex-obsessed lecturer wielding his illegitimate power asks drily: Do you want to pass this course, to graduate, or not? To a lesser degree, horny female lecturers also prey on any male Adonis that overawes their sense of moral restraint.
Truth be told, many a female student have no qualms about trading their bodies for grades. They are the ones who wear to class the skimpiest attire outside a brothel or a “video vixen” musical performance to sit where the lecturer is guaranteed the best view of the wares on display, who would even proposition the lecturer directly where he seems too timid. But as with the famous faux justification for rape — that the female victim was begging for it due to the way she was dressed or because she did not scream STOP loudly enough for the deaf to hear — consent shouldn’t be a defence in a case of amorous breach of fiduciary trust, as the bill rightly provides.
I am heartened by the fact of forty-six co-sponsors of the bill. I looked carefully for one name in vain: that of a certain senator who has distinguished himself as an unrepentant foe of the equal humanity of men and women. Since his speciality is child-brides, especially of North African provenance, I had thought that this bill which covers only females above the age of eighteen would enable him to join the ranks of civilised humans for once, but what was I thinking!
A few things would need to be done to fine-tune the bill before passage. For instance, it must jettison the loophole of knowledge, reasonable or not, by the predator that his or her attentions would be unwelcome by the student; that they would be deemed offensive, intimidating or humiliating, as in the definition of sexual harassment in Section 2. Or that an “intimidating, hostile or offensive environment” would ensue for the victimised student as in Section 4(3). Furthermore, Section 7 on commencement of proceedings seems to be in conflict with Section 12(1) on the initiation of a disciplinary procedure by an institution to the extent that the former unreasonably limits a student’s complaint options by stating that a “complaint about (sic) the offence of sexual harassment” has to be made to the Nigerian Police or to the Attorney-General who shall take necessary measures to commence criminal proceedings against the educator.”
The Senate has a shameful record on gender equality but has yet another chance now to prove it is in the 21st Century. Voting on this bill ought to be unanimous, but don’t bet against those who might find it possible to plead a special mandate from Allah or Yahweh to wear their abominable subordination of women as a badge of piety and courage. By their votes, we shall know them (again).