Covenant University: The Shame, a Trilogy.

Kingdom of Pharisees and Sadducees: Covenant University, the Shame of Nigeria I

“I was going to die, sooner or later, whether or not I had even spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you…. What are the words you do not yet have? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for language.”- Audre Lorde

After being in Covenant for three years now, there’s this familiar shock I have whenever I see our school being praised in the media. I pause and think to myself, Is this the same Covenant I’m in? Is there a disc 2 I don’t know about? I believe that there are issues in our community, there are problems that need conversations if solutions are too far ahead, and by writing this, I am not bringing shame to my school or my country; I am bringing the shameful things to light and here, unlike the dark, they can at least be understood. I am not your god, everything I say in this essay is what I believe to be right and true, you are free to be angry, offended and even disagree, it is your right.

I think that a university, at its greatest, is a receptacle for ideas. This is a place where fresh minds come together to learn and grow and as a result, find new ways to better their community. For the student and society: a university is a place of change. A seminary is a place for theological investigation, where students are coming to learn more about the scripture and prepare themselves for a life in Christian ministry. I believe that Covenant tries to be a university and a seminary and utterly fails at both. I don’t think that any silly ranking holds weight in this conversation when students are being abused and have their basic rights denied; who has ranking helped abeg? Was Nigeria not ranked amongst the countries with the greatest potential in the world?

See, the nature of salvation is such that no matter how much you try, you can’t force it on another. I believe that a person decides whether or not they want to be saved and that decision can be made by only them. Not by their parents, not by their guardians, not by their school for gods’ sake; them and only them. That said, to think that forcing students and lecturers to go to chapel will boost spirituality is an idea that is silly at best and dangerous at worst. The chapel stops becoming a place of holy reverence and instead becomes a kind of prison where all the doors are locked and attendance is taken with biometrics while beady eyed men and women watch out to see the students who are sleeping and not standing up, while the lecturers quickly place their thumbs on the machines then turn to beat a retreat.

I believe that you insult your god when you force his own children to worship him. I believe that you insult your god by using worship of him to hurt and disenfranchise his children. I believe that you insult your god by disrespecting his place of worship.

To then use this chapel attendance as a basis to disrupt the academic activities of the students — what they’re actually paying school fees for — is an act beyond evil.

I believe that young people around my age who have issues with drugs have legitimate problems and suspending or expelling them to go back to their parents is a half assed solution to a problem that can last a lifetime, and then end it. Nobody does drugs for the fun of it, I don’t believe that any human in history has ever said, “Yo, my life is bloody amazing, everything is going right for me and by the way, can you pass the cocaine?” To be addicted at so young is an issue that should be confronted with attention and care, not with a suspension letter and shame, these students can be rehabilitated. They are not hopeless cases.

The rules of Covenant are much more than they are, they hurt everyone involved, especially the students. They empower exploiters all through the school system and allow students to be abused, physically, emotionally and sexually. With these rules, extortion and bribe become second language from security guards to lecturers. I’ve been assaulted twice now, and I can say boldly that the system does not care, they’d rather focus on whether or not we’re wearing ties and our hair is kept at an acceptable arbitrary length. But there are others who have lost much more than I have in Covenant, people who may never regain what was taken from them in this place. This is not a place of reform or spirituality, it is a kingdom of Pharisees and Sadducees where the world is upside down.

Covenant routinely disrespects its students in any way it can, placing limits where there should be none, rules where they are not needed. When students were suspending for not adhering to the dress code, their faces were shown to all of us during the chapel service so we could gawk and awe, an example was made of them but when our previous registrar was stepped down due to sexual abuse accusations, I don’t remember his picture being put up, I don’t remember there even being an announcement. When students die, they cover it up, barring the room and shifting the roommates, there are no moments of silence given, no respect to the dead.

Bad things happen in Covenant, and they don’t want you to know.

But faced against this blatant abuse of fundamental human rights, people respond with, “Well, just go to another school. I mean, is Covenant the only school that is there? If you go there you have to follow the rules.” My response coincides with Owei Lakemfa’s: I believe that it is the responsibility of any man or woman blessed enough to have resources to build a university to make a conducive and safe environment for students to learn not a prison camp that conditions students for mediocrity and abuse.

Then the people retort with, “But CU students are making waves all round, what they are doing is working.” I have two responses to this. I believe strongly that any person that was able to make it through Covenant did so despite Covenant and not because of it. This is a place that retards growth and knowledge and can never be the birthplace of anything great. The second is this: even if Covenant was producing Nobel Laureates every year, how would that make what it did to students right? What exactly would that change?

When we were younger, our mother told us that nothing in this world was free, I’ll advance this: everything has a price. Speaking as I have will have a price, the same way that being silent would have. There will never be a safe time to speak, there will always be something to lose and as the time goes on, what you can lose only gets larger. Education, I feel is one of the only guaranteed ways to get us out of where we are now. But I don’t see how any place can even dare to boast that it breeds a new generation of leaders when all it does is revitalise the spirit of old ones in young students.

A friend once told me that Covenant was an ideal that was allowed to live and I agree. The idea of Covenant should have been left well alone in a dark room and never have been brought into inception. Regardless, schools — if they can be called that — like Covenant, Babcock, Landmark, Madonna and their ilk serve a very important purpose: they are clear lessons telling us exactly what happens when religious organisations are free to run amok and do whatever they want. Maybe in the future, when the conversation somehow arrives at the topic of making a new university with a religious backbone, our descendants will frown and shake their heads, pointing in disgust at the past that narrowly escaped them, and maybe they’ll remember what we are now learning: silence comes first, and then, hell.

The Power of One: Covenant University, A Shame of Nigeria (II)

“If we do not now dare everything, the fulfilment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign.

No more water, fire next time.”

— James Baldwin

It began like those spy movies, where the authorities finally have the criminal cornered, and he has nowhere else to go.

The door burst open and the man was there, standing in the doorway with his arms crossed. “Get up,” he said. “Get changed. You’re coming with me.”

I put down my stylus — I was painting a self portrait for my birthday in two days — and I began to wear my clothes, patting down my hair. My roommates weren’t around, it was just me.

I didn’t ask him any questions, to do that would have been an insult to both of our intelligences — we both knew why he was here. We both knew what I had done.

As I was led away, there were stares and confused looks as I passed. I smiled and nodded, but that was to hide my shaking fingers and sweating back.

We got out of Joseph Hall, into the white bus, and we began the drive to CDS, where, for better or worse, Fate waited for me.

I was taken to the MSS office where I was sat down and my essay was read back to me.

I winced.

The woman looked at me, sighed, and took off her glasses. “Do you recognise these words?” She asked.

I nodded. “Yes,” I said. “I do.”

“Are you the one that wrote this…essay?”

I nodded again. “Yes.”

She smiled then, but it was the smile a shark would smile after cornering its prey. Then, she chuckled. “You don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into,” she said. “Don’t you know the curse of Papa is on any who opposes him? And you, you’re just one person, what do you think you can do?”

I was quiet as beads of sweat rolled down my face. She was right.

In the office, there was a girl crying, filling an offence form. Her twitter account had retweeted porn and the school authorities got wind of it. She knew what was coming.

She continued. “Well, you’ll soon see, don’t you understand that this is libel, what you’ve said against your school? Are you not ashamed?” She stared into my eyes with the disgust saved for the devil himself, and she reached into her cupboard and brought out an offence form. She didn’t need to tell me much; I knew the drill.

“Hold on,” she said, looking at me, her eyes narrow. “In that form, you’ll say everything that Covenant has done to you. You better.”

So, I held the form in my hand, and the pen in my other, and I knew I had a decision to make. See, I’ve been in enough situations to know a trap when I see one. And this…this form, it was definitely one.

I wrote on it.

On the next day, May 16th, a day before my birthday, I was called to the Student Disciplinary Council on the count of “Impersonation: bearing a false witness of Covenant University to the media”.

I was scared.

I was lost.

I didn’t know what to do.

Waiting with me the next day were people with different offences. A group of final year women were there because their buttons didn’t cover up enough. Some guys were there for some dress code violation or the other. A family friend, beside me, was there because of an issue with a device technician. Different, yes, but, in all of us, was the idea that we were, supremely, fucked.

When my turn came, after two hours, I walked to the gallows with shaky feet and weary bones. I hadn’t slept much the night before.

I stood before the council, men and women who I had seen once or twice, none who knew me personally, and then, the Head of Student Affairs, my essay in hand, read it out loud to the room.

Nobody said a word, everybody looked at me.

I had many thoughts of what they would say to me, many ideas and conspiracies about what they would do, but none, absolutely none, had a kind looking woman in them, staring into my eyes and asking, “What did we do to you?”

I paused.

When Nigerian elders ask what you did, it’s mostly because they’re about to take your words and hit you with them. But the way she looked, the way the others looked, something about it made me talk, and so, I did.

I told them about my religious life, and how I didn’t go to church, I told them about how hard it was to conform. I told them about my issues with their policies. I told them I didn’t mean to offend anyone, and that I’d take it down if need be, but that I just wanted to speak out.

And these men and women sat there, and they listened.

But those were half-truths, which, as you know, are only half-lies.

So, when I was asked, “Where you forced into this school?”

I paused. “No,” I lied. “I wasn’t.”

But, thinking about it now, months later, I shouldn’t have lied. I should’ve been honest. I was scared, and worried about what they’d do, and all that was on my mind was the many, many ways my father would kill me.

But still, I shouldn’t have lied.

I should have said yes, that I was. And most of us were. I should’ve gone on and told them the full truth of my experience. Of the thoughts I had, when my roommates were asleep, and all I would do was cry, and cry, because I was so unhappy, I wanted to kill myself. I should’ve told them that in these three years, I hadn’t known peace, that every semester felt like I was drowning deeper and deeper with the way I was treated. That, after the two assaults, I just didn’t feel like a whole human being anymore.

I should’ve told them about a friend of mine, who was taken advantage of by a lecturer, or my roommates, some of the strongest people I ever knew, who were driven to a dark depth when the suppressed attendance sheets were released. I should’ve told them that what they were doing, just wasn’t right. That they were hurting us.

But, I didn’t.

After I wrote my essay, students, hall officers, and even lecturers began to recognise me, and all of them bore that look on their face, the one that said, “That was just what I was thinking. Thank you.” And for me, that was more than enough. I want to write, and speak, and I want people to listen.

My pain in Covenant began with me, three years ago, crying on a foreign pillow, far from home, and scared of what would come next, but the pain ends with this: with me typing this essay and letting go of this weight on my back. I refuse to drown anymore.

There are so many people who have had their lives diverted because of this place, and I don’t think it’s right to ignore their stories. Stories are more important than you think, stories are what made Covenant what it is.

I write what I write, not out of spite, or anger, or attention, but for a need to see this place, and the people in it, myself included, become better.

To the MSS woman who read my essay to me, Mother Fate may bring you to read my work again, so, I think I have an answer for you:

If you let me, I will tell you a story.

It is a story that goes back thousands of years, to a small child, impossibly born to obscure parents, in an obscure land. The story is of the boy who grew to become a man, whose words the people sensed truth in. There were prophets then, men who spoke with the thunder of God, who held lightning in their feet, who boomed of judgment and reckoning.

But, the man — he spoke of kindness, and of love, and of the importance of faith. He spoke out for what he believed in, until his last breath.

It is a story that begins in a small barn in Bethlehem, surrounded by animals, and it is one that ends, on a cross, silhouetted against a dark sky with a storm that will never tire.

But stories don’t end, not really, they continue with you who read them, until your last breath. And that man’s story, it continued years after he died, his teachings surviving with the twelve and spreading across millions, then billions.

So, you tell me that I am just one person, and I tell you that one person is, and has always been, more than enough.

“Come to Me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

- Matthew 11:28

(New King James Version)

The Lazarus Pit: Covenant University, A Shame of Nigeria (III)

Bad water wey dey flow gan, e no fit carry us — Falz

In the beginning, there was nothing —

No, that’s not where our story starts.

On May 17, 2000, in LUTH, I was born and —

No, that’s not where our story starts either.

When David Oyedepo built Covenant University, he —

No, no, that’s not it.

On an early Monday morning in August, when the sun was still sleeping, I stood at the edge of a railing on the highest floor in the school. I looked up at a sky with no stars, and I looked down at the ground beneath me.

Is that where our story starts, perhaps? Where mine was about to end?

My first tremor was in January, in my right hand. I was in a rough situation with my parents and it felt like a day that wouldn’t end. And then, like a butterfly flapping in the wind, there it was. A slight shake, a little spasm. I looked at my hand, observed it, and then shrugged.

These things happen, I said to myself.

When I collapsed for the first time in April, my friends carrying me to the hospital, with me crying that I couldn’t move, that I couldn’t stand, that I couldn’t see, I was in the hospital for a night. And the next day, I looked in the mirror and shrugged it off.

These things happen, I said to myself.

When my blood pressure was hypertensive at 152mm Hg, when days passed without me eating, and sleeping. When standing was a task. When being was a task. When the breakdowns, the tears, the suicidal thoughts came. When my whole mind and body and soul was completely broken and there was nothing I could recognize in myself, I still put on my corporate shoes, and knotted my tie, and continued about the day, shrugging it off.

These things happen, I said to myself.

I saw a friend of mine last month with a bandage holding up a half of his face. He’d had a stroke, he said. The stress of school and life, he added. But there was a look there, a way we both acknowledged the situation. These things happen, we said to ourselves, and we continued about our day.

He is 21 years old.

As I sit now, typing with two hands that now shake, with a mind that won’t stop running and a heart that has long since tired of this game, I think to myself, “Where did I learn this habit of shrugging?”

When a pastor in school slaps a student in front of a crowd of his peers, when a school shaves lines on the heads of the male students, when young women are preyed on by pious lecturers who swear by the bibles, when hundreds of students are suspended at once, we, as a people, did what we do best.

We shrugged. And we said to ourselves, “These things happen.” We continued about our days, and the oppressors, the rapists, the corrupt, continued about theirs.

When I wrote the first essay, I was 18, young, angry and full of the foolish teenage pride that is certain it has seen all the world has to offer.

When I wrote the second, I was 19. Angry, still, but now restrained. Now thoughtful. I had seen actions, I had seen consequences, and I had learned from both alike.

As I write this, I am now 21. Three years have passed like leaves in the wind. And I find myself here, still angry, still foolish, and more pensive than I have ever been.

What was I trying to tell you, all those years ago?

When I was assaulted in Covenant, when false grades were shown on my portal, when the school put up policy after policy, that broke and broke us more, I didn’t know what to do.

I was in Covenant for five years and I saw things that made my heart cry. Things I’ve spoken about before, that I can’t bear to speak about now. Things that are still going on now, under our noses, while we shrug, and say to ourselves, “These things happen.”

I think of the essays now and I see them for what they are, for what they always were: A cry for help.

So, with all my heart, to all who read, who understood, who cared, I say this now, thank you.

You saved my life.

I call Covenant a shame because it could be so much more for the people in our country. It could be a haven for the young, a place where you can find peace in your education and learn in way that is useful to the future you need.

I call it a shame of Nigeria because it is a shame we all carry — this is our country, these people are ours. I am you and you are me. But shame isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, shame can point us to the areas that we’re lacking in, that we can improve.

But, I don’t know.

Can structures really change? They can improve, and they can progress, but can they really end? Are we doomed to the choices of the past, forever playing out the cycle that keeps us digging, looking for more?

Or is there hope? That somewhere, through somehow, that we can build a house called Tomorrow, where all is right again.

I don’t know.

We die multiple times in our lifetimes.

When my father sent me to Covenant five years ago, I died.

When I was suspended, once and then twice, for not going to church and my ‘facial hair’, I died.

When I was assaulted once, and then twice, I died.

When I stood at that railing, looking up at a sky with no stars, feeling like I was nothing, even though I didn’t jump, I died.

But that is half the story.

I came back to life again.

Because that is the glory of the story of Lazarus. It is not a testament to the power of death; it is a testament to the power of life.

A shout in the void that says:

Life endures. Always.

No matter how bad things have been, no matter how dire, the sun will rise again tomorrow. And we can begin again.

So, where do our stories start?

Not when we’re born — that’s just when we become aware of the story. Our stories start long before us. They stretch far and wide and back to our parents, and their parents, and their parents, twisting and winding through time and space.

So maybe our stories don’t start, because they never end.

They just change.

Maybe there’s a story that’s been at play now for millennia, that we’re all a part of, coming in and out of, like characters in a play.

Maybe the British secure a colony on the ‘dark continent’ decades ago and name it after a river, and then maybe years pass and the colony gains independence. And then all is right again, until, of course, it isn’t, and a civil war begins that tears them apart. What if two parents have children during those times, and amongst those children is a boy, and that boy grows to a man, and that man becomes a pastor, who builds a school, in a land he bought, and realizes all his dreams.

What if another boy came to that same school, almost two decades later, and fought and struggled through the system? What if he didn’t know how to describe this pain and lifelessness he felt? What if he didn’t know how else to express himself? What if he began to write?

What if he told you a story? Of a lost boy, in a lost system, who grew up into a young man, with eyes that now saw a better future for himself?

Would you see it, then, what I’d been trying to tell you all these years?

Or would you shrug, go about your day, and say to yourself,

“These things happen.”

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Anthony Azekwoh

Anthony Azekwoh

Anthony Azekwoh is a Nigerian-based author and artist. He has written five books so far, and is now working on the sequel to his fourth book Ṣàngó, Oya.