WITHOUT granting them a fair hearing, a Nigerian tertiary institution, Michael Okpara University of Agriculture Umudike, Abia State, suspended two of her student-athletes, Ekwe Nelson Chibunna and Jideofor Ikejehovah, for boycotting the 29th World University Games held in Taiwan.
The students, who were members of the school’s Taekwondo club, decided not to participate in the international competition because their head coach, Okechi Onwuka, was abruptly told he could not accompany them and was replaced with another university staff. To no avail, they have written several letters appealing to the management to reinstate them so that they may graduate.
According to the letter dated May 24, 2018, and signed by the registrar, Jacinta N. Ogwo-Agu, the decision to suspend was ratified by the University Senate at its sitting on April 18, 2018. The document describes the boycott as “an act of insubordination” and “an embarrassment to the university and the nation”.
“The University Senate, therefore, directed that you should be suspended from the University with immediate effect and your matter to be referred to the Students’ Disciplinary Committee,” the letter adds.
“You are to hand over all property of the University in your possession, including your student identity card to the Department and vacate the university campus within 24 hours of receipt of this suspension letter.”
Onwuka, who has volunteered as the university’s taekwondo coach since 2008 and was employed as a lecturer in 2013, was also queried and accused of inciting the students to boycott the competition.
He told The ICIR that the athletes have sacrificed a lot to represent the institution with little support from the management. In winning numerous medals for the school, Onwuka said he has spent time and personal money.
“The university rarely sponsors us to participate in competitions outside the Nigerian University Games (NUGA),” he explains. “We train at the rough lawn tennis courts for lack of an indoor sports hall. I buy most of the equipment, handle training logistics and sponsor most of the competitions even when I am not under any emolument as a school coach.”
Narrating the team’s experience at the 2017 pre-NUGA qualifiers, he said it was “excruciating and inhuman” what they had to go through. The team slept in an old canteen at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, as no provision was made for accommodation. They also had to compete “with empty stomachs” as no allowance was given for refreshment.
Despite the challenges, the team still qualified for the main NUGA event that year, which was held at the University of Agriculture Markurdi, Benue State, between April 22 and 30. Though they prepared using substandard instruments, out of seven medals eventually won by the school, six were won by the taekwondo team, including 2 gold, 1 silver and 3 bronze medals.
Months after the fruitful outing, the university asked Onwuka to prepare the two gold medalists, Chibunna and Ikejehovah, for the World University Games in Taipei, Taiwan, which was scheduled to be held between August 19 and 30, 2017. Again, the coach received no financial support from the university. No help was offered also in the procurement of needed equipment, national and international black belt certificates, global athletic licence, travel passports, among other materials.
Worse still, according to Onwuka, the university did not pay the competition’s required counterpart fee of N750,000 until after the deadline of August 10 and after they received a reminder from the team.
Onwuka narrates: “When the deadline for the payment lapsed, we decided to seek an audience directly with the University Vice-Chancellor. The visitation was to enable us know if the university was still willing to pay for the counterpart fee so that we could decide whether to go home or not since the school was on vacation.
“The visitation was also necessitated by our previous experience where one of our taekwondo students, Okechi Chima, who qualified for the World University Games, spent over a month at the national camp, missed most of his tests and still couldn’t attend because the university eventually didn’t pay the counterpart fee.”
The day following the payment, the coach was informed he would not be joining the delegates to Taiwan and had been substituted for the chairman of the Sports Committee, Chukwuemeka C. Chukwurah. Also scheduled to accompany the athletes was the institution’s Sports Director, Cliff A. Nnadozie.
“The next day, Engr. C.C. Chukwurah called me stating that for 13 years he has not travelled abroad, that’s why he insisted that he must go,” Onwuka says. “He also tried to bribe me stating that fools allow money to divide them but wise men sit down and divide the money.
“My efforts to convince him and the University that the students are so immature to be exposed to such risk, as this is a combat sport, without their personal coach couldn’t yield any result. Their lives and health worth more than money and personal gains.”
Nnadozie and Chukwurah, it was gathered, eventually travelled to Taiwan, despite the students’ insistence on not participating without their coach. Onwuka alleged that over N10 million was provided by the university for this trip. “It shocks me how a university that can hardly provide a kicking pad of five thousand naira suddenly got over ten million to spend on two officials with no business with taekwondo,” he tells The ICIR.
We were initially told our coach would be going with us — athletes
The suspended students have told The ICIR that the university reneged on an earlier pledge to allow the coach accompany them for the competition, which had influenced them to agree to participate at all. Chibunna, an Engineering student in his final year, said they were only told the coach would no longer be travelling a few days to departure, and this was why they decided to opt out.
Shedding more light on their decision, he said the team believes the coach understands their fighting style and would prove more helpful to them than the other university staff members as he could help with management and the technicalities of the sport.
“We also believe that the competition will avail him the opportunity to learn and gain better experience which will improve the performance of the school taekwondo team,” he adds.
“We do not understand the rationale behind sending two non-taekwondo officials with two taekwondo athletes while dropping the school taekwondo coach. This might bring public ridicule to our great university.”
He also said it is really risky and may constitute a threat to lives if they went ahead to fight without their coach to whom they were accustomed, taking into account the combatant nature of the sport.
Months after the competition, while he was in Lagos for his industrial training, Chibunna received calls from his class representative and staff adviser, Onwuka, who said he had letters from the university management. He had hurried to Abia State to get the letters and honour the disciplinary committee’s invitation, only for the suspension letter to be informally withdrawn.
Ikejehovah, a 400-level student of Environmental Management who was also suspended, however, received his own letter. Speaking to The ICIR, he said the team wrote to the university to say there’s no way they can participate in a “such a high-profile competition” without their coach. The registrar, he said, told them the management had resolved they should travel without their coach and asked them to inform the Sports Director of their decision.
“The chairman of sports committee called us to the office of the Director of Sports, trying to bribe us to go with him and the Director of Sports, instead of our coach, and we rejected,” Ikejehovah says. “Later we were informed that the University Director of Sports and the chairman of the Sports Committee had travelled for the same competition only to come back and have us suspended.”
‘Wise men sit down and divide money,’ says Sports Cttee. Chairman
In one of the phone conversations between the taekwondo coach and the university’s Sports Committee chairman, a recording of which was obtained by The ICIR, the latter said the coach would be wise to “sit down and divide money” rather than being aggrieved. This is based on the principle of “you are okay, I am okay”, he explained.
“Come with the mindset that fools allow money to divide them; wise men sit down and divide the money,” he said. “Are you hearing me? Fools allow money to divide them; wise men sit down and divide the money,” he repeated for emphasis.
“And don’t forget that esprit de corps… That spirit should never fall, no matter what. We are going to raise that spirit, and we are going to raise you from the position you are now. We don’t want anything to hurt you, including you hurting yourself.”
Responding, Onwuka insisted that the right thing should be done since the truth is clear to everyone.
“See, you cannot determine the right thing at your level,” Chukwurah however replied. “When we meet one on one, we will resolve all those ones. When you say the right thing, it means that some people are not okay and you are okay. What I want you to say is ‘I am okay, you are okay.’
“Come with your boys. Make sure you come with them with a clear mind and, er, we will resolve this thing so that, er, all stakeholders will be happy, and no person will feel that he is deprived of anything.”
In an earlier conversation between the duo, Chukwurah had said he insisted on travelling since he had not “gone abroad” for the 13 to 14 years he has spent as committee chairman.
“You have been a good boy, don’t spoil it with the insistence that the privilege must be given,” he advised. “Why I am saying it is a privilege is because the national body didn’t recommend any person. But we on our own felt that it should be done. So do not scatter this thing, do not scatter it. And encourage your boys.
“Do not be aggrieved by the denial which is a management prerogative… Take it in good faith. We in the management we call it respect for constituted authority. They are the constituted authority. It is their prerogative to approve or debar or whatever.”
Sports chairman defends his words and trip to Taiwan
When The ICIR contacted Chukwurah for his comments, he informed our reporter that he retired from service in 2018. He said the Sports Committee was not disposed to buying the students over, adding that they were given fair hearing as they were invited several times by the management but did not show up. When eventually they met with the committee, they walked out, he said,
He also said the athletes went to the Vice Chancellor for demonstration without his knowledge, which prompted him to invite them so that they may reason together. On the allegation of offering to bribe, Chukwurah said his proverb was widely misinterpreted to mean he was prepared to give out money.
“I don’t quarrel with people about money, women and land because I know they come from God. That is my principle. So I was telling the coach this thing: Come let us discuss because this thing should not divide us. Any opportunity or privilege should not divide us. Come let us discuss with the committee and find a way to reach common ground,” he explains.
He described the alleged N10 million spent on the trip by the two officials as bogus, outrageous and false. “If you know what is given to any public servant to travel; that is exactly what was given to us. There is nothing strange about it,” he says.
He went on to explain that the officials did not go for a ‘jamboree’ in Taiwan as the event did not just feature sporting activities but also included a “World University Sports conference” organised by the World University Games.
The ICIR confirmed that, indeed, there was a four-day conference programme towards the end of the games organised by the International University Sports Federation (FISU).
Ikejehovah, one of the suspended students, however, denied the claim that they were granted a fair hearing. He said neither of them could face the disciplinary committee even though they were invited. The invitation letter, he explained, was delivered about ten days after the committee already sat, and a few days after they were already suspended. “There was no way I could have faced the panel,” he says.
He also described as false the claim that the students demonstrated and explained that they only sought to have an audience with the Vice Chancellor, a move he said is common practice among students. He confirmed that the meeting with the sports committee was not fruitful, but added that this was because the sports committee chairman shouted at them and had a heated argument with the coach.
On his part, the university’s Director of Sports told The ICIR he does not “have the mandate to speak” on the case and suggested that the registrar, who is authorised to give comments, should be called. Calls placed to the telephone of Ogwo-Agu were, however, not answered. Likewise, texts sent to her have not been responded to.
In policy, Michael Okpara University appears to give precedence to sporting activities. It states, for instance, in its Academic Brief that its health and physical education is aimed at “projecting the university far beyond the borders of the campus, the country and the continent by striving to produce sportsmen and women who will excel internationally.”