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Festus Ogun: The Illegality Of Covenant University Students’ Suspension

The management of the Covenant University, Ota, Ogun State has suspended about 200 undergraduates of the faith-based institution for missing an Easter ‘Youth Alive’ program.

The school had earlier organized the four days Easter retreat for the students and had also made attendance mandatory.

However, while some of the students were fed up – for various reasons – of going for church services in the morning and evening for the four uninterrupted days, they couldn’t just but miss some days out of the retreat. Surprisingly and unfortunately to them, they have been punished through suspension by the school management for simply missing the compulsory Easter program. Some were suspended for a year.

Suspension is a very serious punishment. As serious as it is, however, there are instances where it will and must necessarily be applicable on erring students. Yet, the means by which students are suspended from school must be reasonable and must be carried out within the confines of our laws.

This case of the Covenant University suspending about 200 of its students for not attending an Easter program is a prima facie case of unconstitutional suspension of university students.

Before continuing with this piece, there is need to state clearly that if there is any enacted law in the university that have made attending religious functions compulsory, such law is void and of no effect whatsoever. I am quite sure that the school would have relied on a particular written law of the institution before the suspension since “nulla poena sine lege” – there can be no punishment or penalty without law. And if such law exists in the school, the law is clearly against the provisions of the Constitution; the sacred book where all other laws derive their validity. And if not, that will amount to the height of total unconstitutionality because there ought to be no punishment without law. See Section 36(12) of the 1999 Constitution.

Interestingly, the school itself is a creation of law and the law is above the school authority or laws – the Constitution is supreme and all other laws derive their validity from it. The implication of this is that its (the school’s) actions must be within the provisions of our laws, particularly the Constitution. By virtue of Section 1(1) of the 1999 Constitution, the Constitution is supreme and its provisions shall have binding force on all authorities (including Covenant University authority) and persons throughout Nigeria. See MADU v. ONUAGULUCHI (1985) 6 NCLR 365.

Therefore, any law made by the institution that is inconsistent with the provisions of the constitution shall be declared void and unconstitutional. Section 1(3) of the Constitution goes further to provides very clearly that “if any other law is inconsistent with the provisions of this constitution, this constitution shall prevail, and that other law shall to the extent of the inconsistency be void.” See ABACHA v. FAWEHINMI (2000) 6 NWLR (Pt. 660) 228; F.R. N. v. IFEGWU (2003) 15 NWLR (Pt. 842) 113; A.G ABIA STATE v. A.G. FEDERATION (2002) 6 NWLR (Pt. 763) 264.

First, the students’ right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion guaranteed under section 38(1) of the 1999 Constitution has been breached. The section provides thus “every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom (either alone or in community with others, in public or private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

The implication of this section is that even though the school is established by a church, it will be quite unapt to deny students the right to freedom of religion. Even when, for example, all the students are Christians, the constitution has granted them the right to change their religion or belief without notifying anyone.

The constitution has also granted the students the freedom to manifest their beliefs either alone or in public and this can infact justify their sitting in their hostels instead of joining the congregation.

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