it was an unprovoked outburst of emotion; a spontaneous show of indignation about the goings-on on the campus of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife.
To be sure, it is not a conflict situation, neither is it a scandal of any sort. It is about the gradual descent of the students’ hall of residence into a hellhole. It is about a catastrophe that is waiting to happen if nothing is urgently done to reverse the trend. And most unspeakable of all: the bedbug rampage.
The alarming revelation, which spurred this reporter into action, was disclosed by Fola in Lagos. The reticent 300-level undergraduate student of English was in her usual perky mood the day she visited her aunty in Lagos on the occasion of her niece’s wedding ceremony. She had breezed in early that Saturday morning from where she spent the night to connect with her brother, Mayowa, for easy movement to the venue of the event at Ikeja. And for that brief moment, she literally turned the house to a big laugh with her rib-cracking jibes.
While everybody had been deeply engrossed in the excitement of the moment, this reporter just curiously asked her: ‘How is campus life at Great Ife?’ Swiftly, and to the chagrin of everyone, Fola threw caution into the wind and poured out her bottled up emotions. Without any modicum of restraint, she recounted her harrowing experience under the appalling condition of the hostels. Like tales in the moonlight, she gave a moving account of how bedbugs almost sucked her dry in her first year on campus.
“Oh, Great Ife is there! There is no compromise on its academic standard. But beyond academics, OAU is nothing to write home about. We are merely living on the past glory. You will be shocked if you see the condition of our hostels. It’s very deplorable for a decent living. Not only that water has become an essential commodity, light is also not regular. Most often, I have to do ‘rob-and-shine’ for me not to miss early morning lectures. Come and see bedbugs everywhere.”
Rolling up her sleeve, she continued, “These scars you see on my arm are bedbug bites. They almost sucked me dry. That is why I decided to go for a room accommodation in town.” Stunned and speechless, this reporter watched the innocuous drama as she unburdened her heart.
There and then, I struck a deal with her to be my guide in my voyage of discovery. She gladly obliged. And as early as 8:15 am the following Monday, I had hit the road from Ojota Motor Part heading for Ile-Ife. In less than three hours after we took off, I arrived in Ile-Ife and alighted right at the campus gate of the university. Shortly afterwards, Fola led me into the campus.
Were you a first time visitor, you would not but marvel at the beautiful landscaping, architectural masterpiece, well-trimmed lawns and assorted flowers that give you the fragrance that lasts your stay. But beneath the facade is the rancid odour of decaying infrastructure in the students’ hall of residence.
The first port of call was Awolowo Hall Cafeteria, which has now been converted to a reading room. Here, exam fever was quite palpable, as students were busy struggling to marshal the necessary points for their second semester examinations. The serenity and pervasive silence that enveloped the hall was a sad reminder of the memory of the Buhari/Idiagbon military regime, which cancelled outright the food subsidy by the Federal Government soon after the takeover of power from President Shehu Shagari in December 1983. Prior to that, students had enjoyed quality food almost at no cost in that same hall. As they say, the rest is history!
In furtherance of my investigation, Fola handed me over to one of her male colleagues who led me into Awolowo Hall for an on-the-spot assessment. Truly and behold, what I saw betrayed a total dearth of decency. I was almost choked by the stuffy atmosphere that pervaded the yellow blocks. ‘This is a metaphor for hellhole’, I chuckled. The state of disrepair is an illustration of a culture of neglect and absolute lack of maintenance. It takes extraordinary reserves of resilience and doggedness for anyone to survive under the debilitating condition of the hostels.
Like cargoes waiting for evacuation at the train station, different shapes and sizes of ‘kitchen nets’ lined the narrow veranda of the two-storey building. As I ultimately sauntered into one of the rooms on the topmost floor of the building, together with my host, I had to hold my breath momentarily to avoid the odour that greeted me. Surprisingly, I met some sparkling fine faces who didn’t look an inch perturbed by the challenges of their living environment. After the exchange of pleasantries, they courteously offered me a seat. And before I had unveiled my mission, a few other colleagues streamed in and swarmed around me. I took a sharp look round the room, how unkempt it looked, the shattered louvres, the falling cabins, the miserable mattresses on the floor, and worn-out mosquito nets on the windows, among others. Then I remarked: ‘but you guys don’t sweep your room!’ They cut in and answered in chorus: “We don’t have the time because we are writing exams. We used to sweep once in a while, but now, we are in the exam period and everybody is busy. On a normal day, our room is not normally like this.”
One major problem the students have to grapple with is overcrowding. This is in a bid to be their brothers’ keepers. Owing to the shortage of accommodation vis-a-vis, students’ population, each legal occupant in a room is compelled to squat a minimum of one person who is not officially entitled to school accommodation. “How many occupants are in a room on the average,” I asked. “Officially, we have three bunks allocated to a room, making a total of six persons in each room. But the reality is that you cannot have anything less than ten in a room. Everybody wants to be on campus because of proximity, safety factor and early morning lectures. As you already know, Ife/Modakeke crisis is there. You also recall that last year, Yoruba and Hausa people had a crisis which led to the death of about 100 people. So, students feel safer and more secure being on campus than living in the town. Squatting has become the order of the day,” the spokesperson of the group responded.
According to him, no fewer than 2, 400 students are currently residing in the eight blocks of buildings in Awo Hall alone. “We have ten rooms on each floor with an average of ten students in a room, making a total of 100. For the three floors, we have about 300 students in the whole of this block. And for the eight blocks, we have an average of about 2,400 students in the whole of Awolowo Hall,” he further submitted.
“Where there are no bunks, we don’t have a choice than to put the mattresses on the floor,” he added.
Meanwhile, plans have been concluded by the school authorities to renovate the hostels and ensure strict compliance with a new order forbidding squatting beginning from the new academic session. This disclosure was made by the Vice Dean, Students’ Affairs, Dr. Oluwatosin, in an interview with Sunday Sun. He said: “We are no longer going to encourage squatters from next session. We will only allow four in a room after the planned renovation of the hostels. Already, they have been informed of the new policy. Verbally, we have communicated the new decision to them. The university has also put it on the portal for them to know. So, they are aware of the policy”.
In a quick response, the students warned the school management to desist from implementing the policy, threatening to resist the move. One of the students who pleaded anonymity declared: “We learnt that the school authorities are planning to eject squatters from the hostels from next session. If they are bent on ejecting squatters, there will certainly be protests. As far as the issue of overcrowding is concerned, I don’t think we have any problem because we have been living here comfortably without anybody disturbing one another.”
However, Oluwatosin, while allaying fears over presumed hardship the new policy might likely bring, further explained: ‘The new policy is not meant to cause hardship for them. We are thinking about how we can cushion the effect of the new policy. We really don’t like it that students cannot be given accommodation on campus. But you cannot give what you don’t have.”
Overcrowding and poor hygiene provide a good breeding ground for bedbugs. And they are already running riot in virtually all the male and female hostels. This has even become a butt of derisive joke among the students on campus. “The issue of bedbugs is no longer news. It is everywhere. And we are used to it. You will even find bedbugs in our common rooms when you go there to watch football. At a point, some of us deserted the rooms. In the night, we would take our bags and go to academics to read. We couldn’t sleep. But you know sleep is a natural thing. Whether you like it or not, it will come. Gradually, we built resistance for it,” a member of hostel executive who did not want his name in print told Sunday Sun.
Asked about the issue of bedbugs, Oluwatosin dismissed the claim. “We have not received any report on bedbugs for now. Immediately this administration came on board, we had that challenge and we decided to fumigate. We even constituted a committee to that effect. And following the suggestion of the committee, we did an effective fumigation, and the students themselves acknowledged the effectiveness of it. Anyone that witnessed the exercise will know that we actually did the fumigation in an unprecedented manner. We even went as far as Ilesa because we have a campus there. Bedbugs were almost completely eradicated. They even published it themselves. If there is any occurrence now, it is probably that the students came back with bedbugs when they resumed. There could be some pockets of it. But there hasn’t been any official report to that effect,” he said.
Even at that, the students insisted that the bedbug menace still remains a major challenge they have to contend with.
Fear of epidemic
Irregular water supply, poor sanitary condition of toilets and incessant power outages are also some of the issues of concern raised by the students. There are four surface tanks positioned in front of each block where students fetch water for sundry uses. But all were completely empty when Sunday Sun visited the yellow blocks in Awolowo Hall.
“You see people running helter-skelter on the streets looking for water. You will think there is water in those tanks you see outside there. Go there and see things for yourself; there is no drop of water in them. And even when there is, you have to face a long queue for you to fetch water,” said an indignant student.
The poor sanitary condition of the toilets warned of present and clear danger. The stench oozing therein was both offensive and overwhelming. This is in addition to the blocked drainage channels now serving as good breeding grounds for mosquitoes. “Most of the time, you have to go down to the ground floor to fetch water, if you are pressed, because there are no running taps. Even at that, you have to face a long queue before it gets to your turn. And if you are unlucky, the water may have run out before it gets to you. So, you can imagine how the toilets will look like with the number of students on each floor,” he further lamented.
Already, there are genuine concerns that the situation could lead to an outbreak of epidemic if nothing is done to address the trend. “It appears the school authorities do not appreciate the implication of what is going on in the hostels. As you can see, it predisposes all of us to epidemic. And I doubt if they will be able to contain it if there is an outbreak of epidemic, God forbid,” he added.
Responding, Oluwatosin blamed the scenario on the over-bloated student population occasioned by the teeming squatters. His words: “We pump water everyday, but the number of people consuming the water is more than necessary. Last week, I had to speak with the VC to please assist us in evacuating the septic tanks, which ordinarily should be done once in a year. But we have been doing it twice in a year.”
“Congestion has been a thing of concern to the Vice Chancellor. As a medical doctor, he said he cannot allow more people than necessary to stay in the rooms because if there is an outbreak of epidemic, people will turn round to blame him. Even the students themselves have complained that they are living like animals.”
The blame game
Both the students and the authorities have been engaged in a blame game. While the students accused the school management of failure of planning to expand accommodation to cope with increasing population of new intakes every year, the school management maintained that the students were the architects of their own problem.
“There is a misplacement of priority on the part of the school authorities. For example, when the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) recently came and asked them want they wanted, they said they wanted a senate building. If they had used the money they got for the senate building to provide accommodation, it would have reduced the problem to some extent. What we are now clamouring for is for the school management to do a renovation of the existing hostels and build new ones to cope with increasing population of students,” said a member of the hostel executive.
In his counter reaction, Oluwatosin argued that the students were the cause of their plights. “Most of the problems we have in the hostel are their making. Some of them will not even sweep their rooms. You can’t imagine a room of four having about 20 occupants. And how much are they paying? They are paying N90 per session, the amount they have been paying since the school started. When we calculated the amount they all pay, we found out that all of them together pay about N25 million. That N25 million is not even enough to pay for two months of electricity consumption in the hostels.”
Continuing, he added: “We ask them to use either stove or camp gas. If you go round the hostels, you will see hot plates. How will that not affect electricity consumption? Awo Hall is the most notorious. If you repair their light today, by tomorrow it will blow up again because of hot plates they are using.”
“We are not overlooking the fact that the university has to increase the number of hostels. We have been speaking to some people to come and assist. We have attracted somebody who is helping us to complete some of the abandoned hostels, which will hopefully be completed before the end of the new session. We also have hostels in town which we hope will help us to decongest the hostels.”
There are whispers that there may be a slight increase in accommodation fee for the new session. However, the Vice Dean, Students’ Affairs, was quick to dismiss the rumour. “The VC has said that he is not going to increase the rent until he is able to provide new hostels. We are working in partnership with some private individuals to build more hostels. The new hostels will carry higher fees than normal hostels. Even now, some of these students will bid for hostel and sell to their colleagues at N80, 000 and then go to town to rent a room for about N60, 000,” he said.
In a bid to improve their living condition, one of the hostel executives told Sunday Sun that they took a proposal to the management to allow them raise money to renovate the hostels, but the school turned down the request. When asked for comment, the Vice Dean denied the claim. “I am not aware of that. I won’t say they are wrong and I won’t say they are right. Probably they presented the proposal to their hall wardens. The issue of renovation will come after we have been able to normalize the number of occupants in the rooms. If we decide to do it now; we won’t be able to hold anybody responsible if there is any damage. If you renovate it and you have several of them still living in the room, it will also collapse. We are no longer going to encourage squatters. We will only allow four in a room and then do the renovation,” Oluwatosin maintained.
When the new policy takes effect, there is apprehension that there will be a deluge of students streaming out of campus in search of private accommodation in town. How this will impact on academic stability in the new session without undue friction between the school authorities and the students is now a subject of debate on the campus. But according to Oluwatosin, there is no going back on the new directive, as that is the only way to restore the dignity of the human person. “You cannot give what you don’t have,” he posited.
The way forward
One thing stands out of the series of brickbats thrown at each other by the two parties: the dire need for more accommodation. The only point of disagreement, however, is by what means and at what cost.
A former governor of Ekiti State, now Deputy National Chairman (South) of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Segun Oni, and a renowned legal icon, Yusuf Ali (SAN), who are both members of the institution’s alumni association, shared their views with Sunday Sun on the matter.
While Oni aligned his thoughts with that of the students, accusing the school authorities of lack of vision for future development, Ali disagreed and heaped the blame on the Federal Government, citing paucity of funds. “Hostel development has not been given sufficient priority. The governing councils of these institutions have not been sufficiently futuristic about how hostel accommodation should be handled. Over the years, hostel facilities have not been expanded along with increase in population of students. For instance, the population of students in our days was just a little over 2000. By comparison, this is about 1/10 of what they have now. So, there is a crisis in hostel accommodation,” Oni submitted.
But Ali, disagreeing said: “Hostels were far better than what we have now because we didn’t have this explosion in population as they have now. Unfortunately, nobody paid attention to expansion of hostel facilities in most of these old generation universities. As universities are growing, there has to be commensurate growth in facilities, including classrooms, laboratories as well as hostels. But unfortunately, government has taken off its hand from hostel matters. And no matter how proactive the school authorities are, there is little they can do because they cannot on their own increase school fees.”
They both, however, agreed on the need for private sector participation. “By now, there should have been private sector participation. But for private sector participation to happen and be attractive, all sides of the equation must be realistic. The students should get over this idea of paying N90, which was what was paid in our days when the naira was stronger than the dollar. The school authorities must come into agreement as to what makes for a very decent hostel accommodation at very reasonable prices, which will also be attractive for investors to be able to come in. They should sit down and work out what is realistic. If the whole parameters are right, investors will come in, Oni suggested.
Ali, on the other hand, cited instability in public institutions as a major factor hindering the effectiveness of the PPP initiative. His words: “Crisis in hostel accommodation has compelled most schools to opt for Private Partnership Participation (PPP). Even then, people are reluctant to invest their money because of the uncertainty of the situation in our institutions, no thanks to the incessant strikes by the various unions. If you invest your money and you want to recoup that money in 20 years, and the university is shut for 15 years, how do you go from there? All these things are interconnected and interrelated. Why should I put my money down to invest in a hostel when strikes by ASUU, NASU and the rest will not allow students to patronize it? If you took money from the bank, how do you pay back?”
As a palliative measure, Ali advised the school management to approach the alumni association for possible intervention. “I am sure they will be willing to help. Luckily, the university has produced very many important people in the country and who are well placed. They should reach out to them and let them know the area of intervention they need. I am sure both the alumni and individuals will be willing to help,” he said.
Some old students who spoke with Sunday Sun recalled the good old days of the institution. But in reality, the so-called good old days were myths, as no one ever thought they were good at the time. Comparing the situation in his time with the present, Ali recalled: “Officially, we were four in a room. But at that time, there were squatters too. In most cases, you end up having eight people in a room of four because each legitimate occupant will bring in one person. That has always been the problem with the university system.
“Before Ali-Must-Go riot, breakfast was 10 kobo; while lunch and dinner were 15 kobo each. When Ali-Must-Go happened, lunch, breakfast and dinner became 50 kobo each, making N1.50 kobo per day and a sum total of N45 per month. Even at that, many students could not afford to buy meal tickets. It had always been tough for those of us who came from humble backgrounds.
“While it is impossible to re-enact the past, the government should strive to ensure provision of facilities that will guarantee students a minimum level of decent living on campus,” Fola told Sunday Sun.