The dark side of Nigerian boarding schools: former students open up about being bullied in school
On Wednesday 28th November, Sylvester Oromoni Jnr, a JSS 2 (Junior Secondary School) student at Dowen College, Lagos tragically died under controversial circumstances. While the school authorities initially claimed that Sylvester sustained his fatal injuries while playing football, his family revealed he was instead tortured by school bullies, and posted a video of Sylvester in severe pain, crying about his victimisation. “He told us that he was not playing football, he did not go to the field. he said he was in his room with his classmates sleeping on his bed in the evening,” said Sylvester Oromoni, the father of the deceased schoolboy. Not long after the video was filmed, the 12-year-old student sadly succumbed to wounds allegedly suffered from a violent beat-up by school bullies.
The death of Sylvester has triggered widespread public outcry, not just in Nigeria, but also amongst the Nigerian diaspora across the globe. Social media users, activists, celebrities, and government authorities have expressed shock and anger at the horrendous way Sylvester died, noting that it was just one example of countless incidents of bullying that has gone too far in Nigerian boarding schools. Sylvester’s death brings to mind the cases of other Nigerian schoolchildren who have been victims of school bullying. Late last year, the story of Don Davis Archibong, an 11-year-old, JSS 1 student at Deeper Life High School, Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, made the headlines when his mother, Deborah Okezie, raised alarm bells about the sexual molestation and bullying of her son by senior students and teachers in the school. In June, Nigerians were also startled by the case of 14-year-old Karen-Happuch Aondodoo Akpagher, a student at Premier Academy, Lugbe, Abuja, who was allegedly raped in the school, a tragedy that eventually led to her contracting sepsis, which sadly resulted in her death.
To find out more about this dark side of Nigerian boarding school life, Gen-Z Talks Magazine spoke to several students who attended Nigerian boarding schools some years ago. We sought to find out what their social experience of boarding school was like, and whether age hierarchies play a role in the prevalence of bullying within them.
Did you witness or experience any bullying during your time at boarding school in Nigeria? If so, can you share details of it?
Francis, 23: I witnessed a lot of bullying in secondary school. I also experienced bullying. I was made to sleep under a bunkbed for the whole night. The normal punishments were always to lie down flat anywhere (even if you were wearing white they didn’t care) or to be locked inside lockers. I was locked inside a locker one time by senior students. There were a lot of things that I was told to do, or I witnessed.
Esther, 23: Yes. One time, during prep time (mandatory study time from 7-9 every evening) I was talking to my friend and we were laughing. There was this girl, a senior student – she was in Year 12 and I was in Year 9 at the time – she calls me over. She was like “What’s funny?” and I responded, “Nothing”. It was like five minutes till the end of prep time so I didn’t think talking would be an issue. Everyone was packing up their books and it was getting rowdy anyway, so noisemaking shouldn’t have been an issue. But because she was a bully, she told me to kneel down and knock my knuckles on the floor as a punishment. I was on my knees towards the end of prep time, for about five minutes. Then she told me that when I get to the hostel, I should come to her room to come and continue the punishment.
There was also another time when I was in Year 10… this prefect in Year 11 asked me to kneel down. I can’t remember why exactly but I remember it was over something silly and unfair. I was literally begging her to let me stand up, but she didn’t let me. She was enjoying punishing me because I hardly used to get punished, so she was feeling powerful. I knelt down for so long my back was aching me for days.
Tomisin, 22: Yes. I was in my last year in high school. I was in SS3. He had been my classmate for about 3-4 years. There had been a fight between a boy and a girl about an hour before which caused a raucous in the class, but the teacher had gone to get them out. Almost an hour after the fight, this classmate of mine started to scream “Why is everyone making noise?”. This seemed to be an extremely delayed response to the fight that had occurred long before. I considered this boy to be a friend of mine, so I told him that he was the only one that was making noise and disturbing everyone. He started to shout profanities at me, and then proceeded to go to the next classroom to tell our other classmates to “warn [me] to keep quiet, otherwise [he] would dislocate my head” or something like that. He then came back into the classroom and dared me to call him stupid again, threatening me. I responded, “I would never have had to call you stupid if you didn't do a stupid thing”. He then slapped me, and I instantly flew off my chair. After that, he picked me up and held me by my neck against the whiteboard. I tried to defend myself, but he was a really big guy, one of the biggest in our class actually, plus, he was holding me by my neck so there wasn’t much I could do. He started punching me in the head. Apparently, some other students tried to stop him, but one of his friends was defending him with his belt, threatening to whip anyone who intervened. It wasn’t until a male friend of mine, who was equally as big as both my aggressor and his protector, got involved and started to fight both boys that the beating stopped. I sat there in the same spot for hours because I didn’t want to go back to the dorm and face questions. I never told my family anything. I have always been perceived as being able to hold my own but this one time I felt so defenceless.
What role do schools play in the issue of bullying? Are senior students still allowed to discipline junior students in boarding schools, and if so, how is this regulated by school staff?
Francis, 23: Not all senior students were allowed to discipline other students. It was mostly prefects – senior prefect boy, senior prefect girl, the labour prefect, etc – those are the ones that were actually allowed to discipline other students. However, I feel like, with time, the discipline stopped being caning, and started being more regular forms of punishment, like community service and kneeling down. That’s what teachers is most school tell prefects to do. But at the same time, I wouldn’t say that they were oblivious to the caning.
Esther, 23: It depends on the school. It really varies from school to school. I don’t think what happened to Sylvester would have happened to my school. [Bullying] is not really regulated by teachers per se, it’s more regulated by the dormitory staff, because most of the time, where senior students assert their authority is in the dormitory area, not in the school area, because in the school area you have teachers [as figures of authority].
Why is bullying so prevalent in Nigerian boarding schools?
What all of the above experiences demonstrate is that inequality in either age or gender plays a significant role in who bullies seek as their victims. Whether is the rigid age hierarchy that is promoted in Nigerian schools, or the difference in physical strength between boys and girls, school bullies play on whatever power they have to assert their authority over their victims. What’s more, on an institutional level, schools encourage these inequalities, or, at the very least, ignore them. Following the death of Sylvester Jr, Dowen College was also been unhelpful in disclosing the details of exactly what happened to Sylvester and who bullied him. They initially told Sylvester Jr’s father that the child sustained his injuries while playing football, and the first official statement they put out read “We are distressed that a child sustained a leg injury and passed on a week later”. This statement received backlash for ignoring the true causes of Sylvester’s death. Similarly, leader of the coalition of Gender Based Respondents and Executive Director of Men Against Rape Foundation, Lemmy Ughegbe, accused late Karen-Happuch’s school, Premier Academy leader, of covering up crimes of sexual abuse within the school, stating that there is incontrovertible documentary evidence indicating this.
What is clear, now more than ever, is that bullying and harassment are widespread in most Nigerian schools, particularly boarding schools, but not much has been done to stem it. According to online newspaper Ripples Nigeria, the tragic stories of Sylvester, Karen, Don and other victimised kids have “opened a Pandora box and is clearly an inflection point for all schools in the country, both private and public”. Nigerians all over the globe are now calling for an end to bullying and other forms of assault on young students. Enough is enough.
More personal experiences with bullying in Nigerian schools can be found at @onlyinnigeria on Instagram.
Estelle is our Founder and Editor-in-Chief. She is a final year student studying BA English & Sociology at the University of Leeds, but is currently spending a year abroad in Montpellier, France. She is pursuing a career in journalism, writing and activism, and is interested in society, politics, foreign languages and cultures. Her Instagram handle is @estelleuba.