Illegality of Covenant University undergraduate students’ suspension

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Festus Ogun

The management of Covenant University, Ota, Ogun State has suspended about 200 undergraduates of the faith-based institution for missing an Easter ‘Youth Alive’ programme. The school had earlier organised a four-day Easter retreat for the students and had also made attendance mandatory. However, while some of the students were fed up – for various reasons – with going for church services in the morning and evening for the four uninterrupted days, they couldn’t but miss some days out of the retreat. Surprisingly and unfortunately for them, they have been punished through suspension by the school management. Some were suspended for a year.

Suspension is a very serious punishment. As serious as it is, however, there are instances where it will and must necessarily be applied on erring students. Yet, the means by which students are suspended from school must be reasonable and must be within the confines of our laws.

This case of the Covenant University suspending about 200 of its students for not attending an Easter programme is a prima facie case of unconstitutional suspension of university students.

Before continuing with this piece, there is a need to state clearly that if there is any enacted law in the university that has made attending religious functions compulsory against the beliefs of the students, such law is void and of no effect whatsoever.

I am quite sure that the school would have relied on a particular written law of the institution before the suspension since “nulla poena sine lege” – there can be no punishment or penalty without law.  And if such law exists in the school, the law is clearly against the provisions of the constitution – the sacred book where all other laws derive their validity. And if not, that will amount to the height of total unconstitutionality because there ought to be no punishment without a law. See Section 36(12) of the 1999 Constitution.

Interestingly, the school itself is a creation of the law and the law is above the school authority or laws. The implication of this is that the school’s actions must be within the provisions of our laws, particularly the constitution.

By virtue of Section 1(1) of the 1999 Constitution, the constitution is supreme and its provisions shall have binding force on all authorities (including Covenant University authority) and persons throughout Nigeria. See MADU v. ONUAGULUCHI (1985) 6 NCLR 365.

Therefore, any law made by the institution that is inconsistent with the provisions of the constitution shall be declared void and unconstitutional. Section 1(3) of the Constitution goes further to provides very clearly that “if any other law is inconsistent with the provisions of this constitution, this constitution shall prevail, and that other law shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void.” See ABACHA v. FAWEHINMI (2000) 6 NWLR (Pt. 660) 228; F.R. N. v. IFEGWU (2003) 15 NWLR (Pt. 842) 113; A.G ABIA STATE v. A.G. FEDERATION (2002) 6 NWLR (Pt. 763) 264.

First, the students’ right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion guaranteed under section 38(1) of the 1999 Constitution has been breached.

The implication of this section is that even though the school is established by a church, it will be unlawful to deny students the right to freedom of religion. Even when, for example, all the students are Christians, the constitution has granted them the right to change their religion or belief without notifying anyone. The constitution has also granted the students the freedom to manifest their beliefs either alone or in public and this can, in fact, justify their sitting in their hostels instead of joining the congregation.

Section 38(2) of the Constitution goes further by providing thus: “No person attending any place of education shall be required to receive religious instruction or to take part in or attend any religious ceremony or observance, if such instruction, ceremony or observance relates to a religion other than his own or religion not approved by his parent or guardian.”

The above provision has expressly precluded any institution from imposing religious instructions on students for any reason whatsoever. However, there are two main clauses that need to be clarified.

They are: (1) Where the religious instruction relates to a religion other than his own.

(2) Where the religion is not approved by his parent or guardian.

Thus, if the school religion is approved by the parent of the students, it will amount to a lawful instruction. And where the instruction is in consonance with the student’s religion, it is legally binding.

After all said however, in my humble view, clause (1) relates to where the person relying on the provision is an adult and is deemed fit under the law to make decisions of his own without any interference from anybody including the parent or guardian. And clause (2) will be applicable where the person relying on the section is still an infant under the law and is incapable of making some decisions without the parents’ or guardians’ consent. And that was why the drafters of the constitution were careful in making use of OR instead of AND. You either fall within a category. I stand to be corrected!

There is need to categorically state that an adult does not necessarily need the approval of parents for the religion he wishes to practise.  More importantly, the students, presumed to be adults, have been granted the right under Section 38(1) of the constitution to change their beliefs and religion without the approval of anyone. Thus, where some of the students have exercised their constitutional right to change their beliefs by no more attending the Easter retreat, it will be unconstitutional to force them to attend religious functions other than theirs.

Apart from the fact that section 38(1) has vested in the students the right to worship alone or in the midst of others, making it an imperative for the student to be in attendance has also violated the students’ right to peaceful assembly guaranteed under section 40 of the 1999 Constitution. See the celebrated case of AGBAI v. OKAGBUE (1991) 7 N.W.L.R. (Pt. 204) 391 and the provision of Article 10 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act.

Additionally, one of the students was reported by The Punch Newspaper to have said this: “They stopped me from sitting for a paper last week because I did not go for a service and I don’t know if I will be allowed in today either.” This statement has the effect that the student was not in fact aware of his suspension until he got to the exam hall. Since the students appear not to have been summoned before being suspended, it is therefore safe to submit that the place of fair hearing is missing!

Fair hearing is a very sacrosanct provision of the constitution that relates to administration of justice. Section 36(1) of the 1999 Constitution provided for the right to fair hearing or trial. Since the students were not summoned and interrogated formally before the suspension, it will be trite to submit that this fundamental right has also been violated.

It is a cardinal principle of natural justice that “nemo judex in causa sua”; no one must be a judge in his own cause. But here, the management of Covenant University has assumed the role of the complainant and the judge which is against the above principle. The school authority has also failed to hear from the other side before meting out punishment since it is the law that “audi alteram partem” – both sides must be heard in determining cases.

Having established the grave violations of the authority of the said school, it will be instructive to assert that the school should, as a matter of urgency, withdraw the suspension in order to promote the rule of law in this country.

Ogun is a 300 level Law student of Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago-Iwoye, Ogun State

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