Two years after controversially suspending student-athletes, Michael Okpara varsity hounds their coach

NEARLY two years ago, Michael Okpara University of Agriculture Umudike (MOUAU), Abia State, suspended two student-athletes indefinitely for boycotting an international taekwondo contest.

While the students are still on suspension, the management has now invited their coach, Okechi Onwuka, “to answer questions on the alleged act of insubordination and incitement of two students’ athletics [sic] to boycott World University Games in Taipei”.

The taekwondo athletes had decided against participating in the competition, held in August 2017, after their coach was told at the eleventh hour that he could not accompany them. Instead, the university sponsored the chairman of the sports committee, Chukwuemeka Chukwurah, and sports director, Cliff Nnadozie.

The students, Ekwe Nelson Chibunna, a final-year student of Engineering, and Jideofor Ikejehovah, a 400-level student of Environmental Management, had explained in a letter to the Vice-Chancellor prior to the competition that they were not comfortable with the new arrangement and could not go ahead and partake because of the heightened risks of going to a major competition without their coach.

The University Senate, however, suspended them indefinitely in April 2018 despite not inviting them to a hearing. It described their action as “an embarrassment to the university and the nation” and referred the case to the Students’ Disciplinary Committee (SDC).

Two years on, the students have neither been reinstated nor has the SDC disclosed its findings.

Coach invited for questioning

The student’s coach, Onwuka, was invited by the Staff Disciplinary Committee to a sitting scheduled for Monday, January 27, according to a letter obtained by The ICIR. The invitation was over allegations that he instigated the student-athletes to boycott the World University Games event.

Onwuka told The ICIR he was too ill at the time to attend the sitting, but Ikejehovah did and insisted they did not receive pressure to boycott the competition.

“He told them nobody incited him, that they told them even in writing that they could not go without their coach,” Onwuka said.

“Chukwurah took the money from the university and travelled without the students, came back and lied against them that they absconded, and then the university suspended these two boys without hearing from them.”

Vindicated but still suspended indefinitely

Though they have been attending lectures and Chibunna in fact wrote his final papers in December, the school has insisted both students are “still on suspension”. The Staff Disciplinary Committee told Ikejehovah this in January and said he should not have participated in the industrial training programme.

It is feared that they will not be allowed to graduate with their peers unless the suspension letter from 2018 is retracted. Unlike Ikejehovah, Chibunna never received the original suspension letter. He had been notified about it by his class representative and hurried to campus, only for his course adviser to say the suspension letter was issued in error.

He told The ICIR he is uncertain about what to expect. “They withdrew the suspension letter but they have not written officially to me to explain why or my status on campus,” he said. “Nothing has happened so far. I don’t know what will happen for now until the results are released a few weeks from now.”

Meanwhile, the university had in March set up an investigation panel headed by Kayode Joshua Simonyan, which Onwuka says found the students innocent of the allegations.

Echendu Chinyere Akudo, one of the committee members, he said, told him this. He had wondered why no report was released and asked her sometime in June.

“They attended, shared their evidence, and till now we have not got the outcome of that particular investigation. But during my chat with Professor Echendu, she told me categorically that they have recommended to the management to withdraw those suspension letters because the boys were innocent. I can quote her comfortably,” Onwuka said, likening the process to a secret trial.

“Ikejehovah told this last committee [the Staff Disciplinary Committee] that he has evidence to present, [but] they said they are not interested in his evidence and that they would demand it when they want it.

“How will you suspend somebody’s child for two years now, indefinitely, and you are now asking him not to do any academic work while you run your investigation that is unending? Now, when you find him guilty finally, are you going to give him another suspension? Why should the university suspend these young boys without first hearing from them? A lot of victimisation is happening.”

University silent on the issue

When The ICIR contacted Simonyan, Nnadozie, and Maduebibisi Iwe, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academics, they all declined to speak on the committee report said to have absolved the students. Instead, they directed this reporter to make enquiries from the university registrar or spokesperson.

However, neither the Vice-Chancellor, Francis Ogbonnaya Otunta, nor the registrar, Jacinta Ogwo-Agu, answered phone calls made to them on different days. Texts sent to their phones have also not been replied.

The University Public Relations Officer, Adanma Odefa, told our reporter on Tuesday to call again the following day so as to give room to find out about the case. But she has also not answered calls or replied a text message sent to her since that conversation.

'Kunle works with The ICIR as an investigative reporter and fact-checker. You can shoot him an email via [email protected] or, if you're feeling particularly generous, follow him on Twitter @KunleBajo.

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