The Calabar episode
The report, according to the newspapers, is that a civic teacher in the college named Mr. Owai Owai had flogged some senior secondary school girls including one Grace Loveth Asuquo for forcing a junior pupil to sweep their classroom during school hours. All the flogged pupils absorbed the sting of the strokes with equanimity but Grace Loveth Asuquo thought that some strokes of the cane administered on her were the exact opposite of being loved. She called her mother who obviously loves her and narrated the story of her ill-treatment by the teacher. The mother called her sister, thank God for sisters in powerful places, who works for the Department of State Security and narrated the story to her. Grace’s aunt, who shall be known in this column as the DSS ma, sprang into action like an accomplished gymnast, gathered her colleagues armed to the teeth as Nigerians love to say and headed to the college.
At the college they did their job efficiently by teaching the teachers a spanking lesson on how not to treat the niece of a powerful woman. Mr. Owai says he and other teachers were flogged in front of his pupils by the DSS ma and her husband. I believe him because when it comes to cruelty they are very efficient. I was detained, without food, by the DSS in Calabar in 1994 in a cubicle with giant mosquitoes for something that I knew nothing about: the David Mark interview. But that is a story for another day.
Corporal punishment in schools is receiving some spanking now because there have been a few cases that have reached the level of wickedness. In October 2015, a secondary school teacher in Ibadan was arrested for flogging a teenage pupil to death. Offence: coming to school late.
One of the more sensational flogging marathons involved a 14 year old pupil, Ogechi Anyalewechi, of Eva Adelaja Girls Secondary School, Bariga, Lagos. She was allegedly rude to the headgirl of the school who then served her with what we call in Nigeria “a dirty slap.” Ogechi returned the favour with an even dirtier slap. So the headgirl reported the matter to the Principal, Mrs C.O. Coker. Mrs Coker, in her wisdom or lack of it, more the latter, set up a team of slappers comprising herself, some teachers and a senior prefect. They flogged her mercilessly in turns and as the icing on the cake they also gave her a grass-cutting assignment. Her buttocks ached so much that for weeks she could not sit; she only had to lie on her stomach. She said she was still having nightmares.” I don’t want to go back to that school again,” she said grimly. That must be a modern day school for scandal.
The Lagos State Government was alarmed. It investigated the matter, suspended the Principal, Vice Principal and four other teachers. Ogechi’s mother, Esther, unable to convey the depth of her disappointment only put it lamely: “I felt bad when I saw all those marks on her body.”
Some years ago, I had the unpleasant duty of having to confront the wickedness demon at school. I got a call that my seven year old son was badly hurt at school. There was blood all over his body. I got home and saw his elbow bleeding badly. What happened, I asked, my class teacher beat me, he answered. I rushed him to the hospital for treatment and asked to be given a medical report on his wound. Two options occurred to me (a) take the teacher to court for assault and battery or (b) hire some thugs and get them to spill the teacher’s blood from his two elbows. Since he apparently specialised in selecting the most painful parts of the body to harm a young boy I thought I could make him swallow his own medicine. Although I am opposed to corporal punishment in school I would not have bothered if the teacher did not spill the boy’s blood. Spilling a child’s blood is the height of wickedness. The next day, I went to the school with the medical report and the boy. I showed the headmistress the medical report. She promptly apologised. With that apology I brought the matter to a closure but warned that if it happened again no apology would suffice.
Three issues have arisen from the Calabar incident. One, the genesis of the whole brouhaha is that some senior students had asked some junior students to sweep their (senior students) classrooms during school hours. The question is: why should some students, senior or not, make other students their own slaves? Why shouldn’t senior students sweep their own classrooms? Schools must create a level playing field for all their students instead of creating a dichotomy between those who should work and those who should not. Work is a logical necessity and children must be made to understand, right from school, that it is a noble thing to do and that it is not something that some people can do and others are exempted from doing. If the schools miss that message then they have failed in imparting the right values to the children.
Two, is corporal punishment the only effective form of punishment? Flogging pupils with a cain on any part of the body inflicts instant physical pain. It may also inflict some psychological pain because no child likes to be flogged. Corporal punishment tends to tell the child who is flogged that the best way to settle interpersonal conflicts is to respond with force and inflict pain on the other person. Physical punishment always arouses negative feelings such as feelings of humiliation and anger. That is why recipients of physical punishment sometimes become aggressive in response to that humiliation.
Teachers who manage pupils must realise that the effect of flogging kids might elicit the thought that school is a place where people are flogged and possibly injured. After the cruel flogging of my son it took quite some effort for me to convince him that school is not a place where wicked things are done to children.
Sweden is a country that has established a solid reputation for caring for the wellbeing of its people. In 1979, it published a parental code that says that “children are entitled to care, security and good upbringing. Children are to be treated with respect for their person and individuality and may not be subjected to corporal punishment or any other humiliating treatment.” It is one of the 51 or so countries that have banned corporal punishment in schools, homes and work places. These countries include our neighbours Benin Republic and Togo as well as Kenya, Cape Verde, Congo, and even South Sudan. However, in Singapore and Malaysia flogging is permitted for boys only; no girls must be flogged. Is that gender equity or iniquity?
But there are other countries, about 35 of them, that retain corporal punishment for judicial settlement of cases. Such countries include Botswana, Singapore, Malaysia and Tanzania. Nigeria’s case is complicated by the lethargy shown by the states in protecting the rights of the Nigerian child. In 2003, the Federal Government enacted the Child Rights Act but only 16 states have so far passed the Act in their domains. The remaining 20 states have not considered it something worthy of their urgent attention. But even the Act does not specifically ban corporal punishment.
Beyond the law, there ought to be a huge enlightenment programme for adults, whether parents or teachers, to know that children are not to be treated like firewood. There have been several cases of severe dehumanisation of children in the country by parents. There is a man who chained his nine year old son in a room for more than a month for stealing meat from the family’s soup pot. In addition, he was starved for the period and when he was rescued the boy looked like a skeleton. What a father!
Another person, a woman, a mother, reportedly used hot pressing iron and burnt the private part of her 11 year old daughter for coming back from school late. What a mother! There are many more of such bizarre stories in the media every week. So the cruelty we find in the school system is not an exception.
What is perhaps even more worrisome is the regular partisan intervention of institutions of state in such matters at a personal level. The DSS ma rushed into the Federal Government Girls College, Calabar with her colleagues with guns to save Grace. Supposing Mr. Owai had a brother in the Army in Calabar and placed a call to him asking for help. The answer: there would have been mayhem. Two institutions of state would have used weapons bought for them by the taxpayers to victimise the taxpayers over matters that can be settled amicably by the appropriate authorities, without this senseless show of force. I hope the DSS management will take a serious view of this illegal, unlawful and ruffianly power show in Calabar.
I admit that there is quite a lot of unruly behaviour in schools today. But that is an extension of the unruly behaviour we experience in the larger society. So it seems to be a major challenge for teachers to bring sanity into schools. Some students go to school with arms. Some of them go with dollars and try to “toast” their female teachers with the green back. Others go to schools with drugs, or cigarettes or alcohol. It is a brand new world. But despite this degeneracy I don’t think corporal punishment is the answer. It is not. Other disciplinary methods combined with regular counseling may do the trick.
In an era when the world is emphasising human rights and dignity of the individual, corporal punishment is outdated. The Federal Ministry of Education and other authorities in charge of schools should ban corporal punishment completely. It is, ironically, a great source of indiscipline and deviant behaviour in schools. It is not a cure but could be a cause of juvenile delinquency in schools because it sends a message that says: “violence pays.”