Merchants of Injustice, Muddling, & the Worth of Conscience

This photo, taken at the Epe Magistrate Court in Lagos, is used for illustrative purposes only.

I’ll probably never truly understand why it had to be me. I’ve come to accept that now, relegating to my mind’s fringes those unsettling questions to which answers are all but nonexistent. Bright lights are out. Blue hues are all there is to illuminate my 144-square-foot bedroom. Pen dotting paper, the words pour in; the tremor and urgency in each scribble serving to confirm what I would later find was belated rage.

I’d been dealt my own fair share of bullying and high-handed corporal punishment back as a school kid.

Behind shut eyes, a superfluity of dizzying memories hit me in quick flashes that soon morphed into a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions. Reminiscing two decades back would see me return to the rather too colourful classroom block that hosted the trauma I never really shook off for most of my childhood; the troubled bully constantly nibbling at my focus during school sessions in a routine I couldn’t rationalise.

The bell goes off and sends the scenery into sudden hysteria. Previously sleepy schoolboys cheer at the thought of reuniting with their families after waiting for what had seemed like an eternity to escape the four-wall confine we called our classroom. It’s a windy afternoon and the rest of the class, apparently bored from the Math session, had thronged out with their book-filled backpacks, empty lunchboxes, and starving bellies. Most couldn’t wait to leave but I stay back a while to beat the senseless gateway rush.

It’s an empty class now, quiet too, save for the infrequent echoes from a bunch giggling in another block northwest of the school. The round-headed bully was in character, his lips fully pouted like the baby he is.

He’s a nightmare of mine; I could never make out what was going on in his head at any given time. He looks me in the eye, balls up his right hand in a fist, and donates a punch that landed right on my nose.

It was unprovoked, yet, I couldn’t retaliate. Home didn’t teach me to tackle conflict with confrontational outbursts. I didn’t tell on him either. He storms off, leaving me dazed. Blood, with periodic stings of pain, drips down my petit chin to stain my cream-maroon uniform. The school was empty at this time. There was no staff in sight, so first aid was out of reach. I’m forced to walk the path home alone, bloody, and dizzy. An unnerving screech-and-ring sound is reverberating in my skull but I would later get an ice massage.

My assailant, whose name I couldn’t forget to date, had a proclivity for random outbursts and tantrums.

It didn’t help that his seat was just a few meters away from me, who then was so quiet, my name hardly made it into the much-dreaded ‘noise makers’ list for our class. The flowers by the entrance, far from an insignia of serenity, were a reminder that mentally prepped me for each day’s round of being picked on.

I’d transferred from a previous school for a number of reasons, prior to which I’d had my elementary studies at another from where I returned daily with fingernail bruises my seatmate would often inflict.

All through, I attended private schools that charged cut-throat tuition and enrollment was never a thing to break a sweat on. Merely paying fees got you your oversized uniforms after which you’re expected to report to the class the next day. There were no preparatory handbooks to help newbies fit into their new learning environment or any enrollment programmes to preclude bullying and guarantee child safety. Extra-curricular activities were no more than 30 minutes of singing and holding hands on Wednesdays.

Corporal punishment was a different ballgame. At one point, not understanding a sum, I ask questions but the instructor instead smashes her fat whip cut from a car tyre on my head which was so clean-shaven and oiled, it shimmered under sunlight. I itched frantically and could have sworn she wiped my memory of whatever it was I had learned over the previous week. We would nickname them for their cruelty; our relationship with teachers was defined more by morbid fear than it was about learning and mutual respect.

This ordeal made learning in a school setting so hard I was petrified at the thought of going the next day.

Twenty years later, I would be saddled with death cases involving teenage students in the background of school negligence, bullying, harassment, and corporal punishment. As a journalist, I would traverse local communities and fly across states, relentlessly following court sittings and perusing documents spanning multiple pages. I’d engage bereaved parents and consult experts on the place and pace of police probes of these cases, many of which drag on for long in court or fall through in a rigged criminal justice system.

I would author a series on how extortion and faulty probes frustrate the quest for justice in these cases.

A wad of notes for your conscience

It is Feb 14, 2022, and there are over 18 lawyers cutting across the ones representative of the bereaved, the accused boys of Dowen College, the school, the Lagos government, and the Nigerian Bar Association.

The court is probing the death of a pre-teen pupil of the Lagos school who was bullied and allegedly fed a chemical purported to have claimed his life. A bereaved father is set to testify in court and get cross-examined by the lawyers on the defence side. Clips are being played as the court registrar, the coroner, the technical assistant, journalists, and other observers have their gazes fixated on the projector screen.

The video being played is of interviews the father granted the press on his late son Sylvester Oromoni.

Locked in within the witness cubicle, with a wireless microphone in his grip, the father takes occasional breaks to ease him as he yielded with a laboured smile to jokes by the counsels, despite the tensed nature of the sitting. The ceiling fans are blowing hard and the air conditioner is giving off a negligible buzz.

Five concrete beams are holding up the hall which hosted a total of about 43 to 45 observers. The father of the deceased, as he listened to himself narrate the events preceding the death of his last son, wore a calm demeanor that morphed into a pensive countenance, his left fist propping up his jaw and his elbow leaning on his thigh as he sank further into his chair. In front of him is a microphone stand positioned for a man his height. To his right are court documents he’s to reference while being grilled by the opposing counsels and to his left are a copy each of the Bible and Quran with which he had sworn an oat of truth.

The witness cubicle is made of translucent glass with aluminum frames high enough so that only the head of an average-height witness is visible from the outside when all parties to the court session are seated. The lawyers occasionally whisper to each other, giving off scoffs as arguments abound. Some are fiddling with their gadgets; others are reviewing the stacks of paper on their desks. Some others are pointing away at their PCs with touch pens while others are scribbling points on journals, the infrequent budge of their metal chairs giving off squeaks that disrupted the silence of the courtroom. Another is chewing casually at a piece of apple while engrossed in the videos being displayed. The room is dimly lit to sharpen the display of the projector screen and the windows are covered with black-brown curtains.

About two hours after the court played the videos, the hall is silent as the magistrate preps his verdict.

Andrew Efole, a counsel to the Oromoni family, alleged double standards. His submission morphed into a rather civil argument with Godwin Omoaka, a lawyer representing one of the accused bullies. At this time, the court had sat for seven straight hours and observers could be seen taking turns for a walk to stretch their stiffened legs behind the exit door. It was, as expected, another long-haul of arguments.

The court is to adjourn and jokes went back and forth between the magistrate and the counsels. Laughs ranted the air, dousing tension and rancour. The court rose. Omoaka, the white-bearded ‘learned silk’ in a blue suit, flashes a smile. Earlier during the session, another lawyer I’d rather keep anonymous turned to the seats for journalists to propose a hangout of drinking after the sitting “in the spirit of Valentine’s”.

“How about a drink with the press after?” they ask me in a hushed tone, motioning that I draw closer.

My reportage and news judgment on the case had always been discretionary. Hence, not wanting to be co-opted by any party, I said dismissively: “I wouldn’t know how to respond. But it’s a good gesture.”

Sensing my decline, they turn away. During the sitting, the lawyer had given an unsolicited narration to a journalist friend and me about his successful exploits in the legal profession, chipping in arguments as to why the prosecution’s defences were faulty. I listen with attention enough to pick the import of what he was driving at but with a facial expression indifferent enough to feign disinterest. The lawyer narrated to us — who I’d assumed in his estimation are just another set of reporters from local newspapers thronging after brown envelopes — something about how he upturned a murder conviction for one of his clients.

“I’ve seen things,” the lawyer enthused, their mannerism exuding confidence. “I’ve handled murder, rape, robbery, assault, and kidnapping. So I don’t get emotional anymore. We deal with facts here.”

To them, the Oromoni case was just another gig, one they’d earlier stated, with dry humour, that they’d been well paid to deliver on. The lawyer is brilliant; their arguments are well thought out and sandwiched in the hilarity of legal jargon. Their vast mastery of all the tricks in the law book is no doubt admirable. But, as I looked closely, I couldn’t help but marvel at how a lawyer so tactful turned out to be so flawed.

During our first meeting, they had asked what media house I stood for; posing questions that attempted to gauge my perception of the case. As the sitting ended on the 14th yet again, a journalist approached one defence lawyer to ask for “highlights” on a case we’d just observed together. I didn’t particularly see any wrong in it after this pattern repeated itself with some others but the fear that it potentially exposes one’s story angle to defence counsel bias was undesirable. Lawyers made for the exit in teams of twos and threes but two reporters from a major outlet warmed up to our smart lawyer with pleasantries as they made for the stairs. At the exit of the main building, I spotted our smart lawyer slipping out several pieces from a wad of ₦1000 bills they had pulled out of their laptop bag while the two aforementioned edged closer to take what I later understood to be handouts. Our smart lawyer’s gaze casts on me. I was too close when what was up struck me. Drawing back to take secret photos would have raised brows.

The place of education policy

From the outset, I’d always toed the path of soul-searching to reexamine my inner motivations for some of the reports I authored, continuously seeking to confirm I wasn’t being biased toward any of the parties and sometimes going out of my way to draft follow-up stories on the case during weekends I was meant to be off work. Many cases like that of the Oromonis had ended up going off the grid and I’d argued to my boss that staying on the case would ensure it doesn’t end up like its precedents. Far beyond the gains of storytelling for journalists, I felt it was a moral imperative to document the case and it was unthinkable that a journalist would expose themselves to monetary influence, to the detriment of the 12-year-old who died over something so avoidable and whose parents were drowning from shouldering the burden of seeking justice.

It’s not undue empathy. This same pattern kept resurfacing. Discretion is what I’d call it, having also done reports that either party might have considered unfavorable. I found that journalism ethics are based more on contextual discretion honed over course of practice than they are on strict rules, all variables considered. But even at that, I’d rather quit practice than yield to subversion.

Oromoni’s case is what’s trendy now. Before that, it was Keren Akpagher, prior to which were Chimdalu Onyekwuluje, Izuchukwu Ọnwụalụ, Yahaya Aliyu, and Boluwatife Omelaja. There are many more such cases whose subjects are too grief-stricken to recall their ordeal. They are actual citizens being lost, with vivid experiences, and families whose trajectory will change forever due to tragedy and systemic dysfunction.

A student is killed, social media initiates a countdown for the desensitised public, education ministries deploy stout investigators in starched jackets, public officials issue reassuring statements, time elapses, the public loses interest, public scrutiny dies down, the shutdown school reopens, and the cycle continues.

Policy implementation, tracking, and funding for the education sector lie at the heart of addressing the dilemma of student deaths, beyond the broader issues of strengthening the criminal justice system.

It’s midnight. My mind would neither stop racing nor allow me a shut-eye moment until I’m done writing a five-hour streak. I asked why it had to be me telling this story. I still don’t know. I probably never will.

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Stephen Kenechi

Stephen Kenechi

A journalist, creative storyteller, and linguist writing about Nigeria’s creative industry, education policy, and social justice.