So much has been said and written about the untimely death of 12-year-old Sylvester Oromoni, a Junior Secondary School 2 (JSS) student of Dowen College, in eyebrow Lekki axis of Lagos State, and we are still going to hear more because the story is still unfolding. Truth is; no matter how much has been put in the public domain on the matter, it can never be enough. Sylvester’s death, under controversial circumstances, has equally generated so much concern nationwide, and understandably so. While Dowen College said the boy died from injuries he sustained while playing football, the family claimed he died after being tortured in an attempt to force him join a cult group. He was initially taken to the school clinic, from where he was later referred home. Tragically, he died on November 28.
As someone who had stayed in hostels right from my secondary school days, I know there are certain things that happen between senior students and their junior counterparts. Seniors can send their juniors on some errands like fetching water for them, cleaning of some of their rooms and personal effects. Sometimes the seniors go beyond their limit. I remember one such instance when those of us in form three planned to resist their excesses at Ijebu-Ode Grammar School, Ijebu-Ode. I think we were just promoted to form three. That was a time we started offering Physics, Chemistry and Biology (PhyChemBo). It was (I guess it is still the situation now) the equivalent of the ‘age of puberty’ in the secondary school. So, on the appointed date, those of us in form three who had planned to defy the new prefects took our combs to the assembly hall. ‘Yari’ literally means to comb one’s hair. But, as we all know, most eras have their peculiar slangs. The vogue then was to ‘yari’ (be adamant) on something that one disagreed with. As soon as we brought out the combs in the hall at the appointed time, our seniors got the message. In a twinkle of an eye, the entire hall was in pandemonium. The rest is history.
But that was probably some of the worst senior/junior incidents I can recollect. That it has now got to the extent of seniors forcing juniors to join cult is something else. And that that is being linked to a highbrow school makes the matter worse. Many people who send their children to private schools, especially the faith-based institutions, do so, among others, because they see those places as safe havens for their children. In the first place, most of the institutions, though faith-based, do not come cheap. It is immaterial whether they are kindergarten, primary, secondary or tertiary. The assumption is that the parents cough up so much, not only to get their children a sound education, but also to ensure their safety and security.
Unfortunately, stories that have been emanating from Dowen College would seem to suggest some laxity, especially in this all-important aspect of security. It is baffling that some students in an institution like that would be engaging in the kind of wicked maltreatment of their juniors in the manner we have been reading about in the media without the knowledge of the school authorities. It is even the more befuddling that the kind of treatment Sylvester allegedly got that led to his death is being described as mere cult activities or reduced to bullying. To me, it would seem like premeditated murder. And I think we should call a spade a spade, irrespective of the ages of the suspects. At their respective ages, they should know the effect of such wickedness on the victim.
As a kid, I remember an exercise our parents asked us to perform, to demonstrate the finality of death. They would tell us to close our eyes and then ask whether we could see anybody. Of course our answer was a capital NO. They would then tell us that that is what people experience in death. It means bye bye to daddy, bye bye to mummy. You won’t see aunties again. Mummy and daddy too would never see their lovely child who has died. Death means no more visits to Kingsway Stores (there was no Sweet Sensation then, no Mr Biggs, etc). No lollipop, no more cake, no more chocolate, excursions and what have you. All of these was designed to scare us and keep us from harm’s way. Children, especially those from the elite and the middle class which still existed then would not want to die and miss all these privileges.
Of course then, too, moral standards were high. Even rich parents still inculcated certain religious and cultural tenets in their children that would send some fear of God into the children when they were about to do evil. Two of those common religious tenets were ‘do unto others as you would like them do unto you’ and ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. The idea was to let children have a sense of good and bad early in life.
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Like most other things that kept life going then, most of these tenets have been relegated to the background. As a matter of fact, a child who tries to follow some of these precepts is likely to be seen as ‘old school’ these days. The country is paying for some of those teachings of old that have been jettisoned.
I have come this far with these analogies because of some of the stories that have been making the rounds since Sylvester’s death, especially those quoting at least one of the suspects as saying he has nothing to fear on the matter because his dad is well connected. Not because he is not involved! We may be tempted to dismiss this as child talk. But then, we also know that except God is interested in a case, many such cases had ended nowhere with the big men involved still walking our streets freely, even after committing blue murder. It is not unlikely that some of these parents negotiate their way out of trouble with the relevant judicial and other authorities right in the presence of the children. That is the only thing that can give a child the audacity to say he never expects any consequence even in the face of such a grievous allegation.
I can only hope this is not true in the circumstance because if the reports are true, then Nigeria is in trouble. It is definitely ominous if we are already rearing children with the mindset that no matter the crime one commits, he may still evade sanctions if he is well connected.
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Let us even assume the children who were alleged to have caused Sylvester’s death only intended to bully him, not knowing that their action would lead to his death, what we should be hearing are stories of remorse rather than the ones of bragaddacio and ‘man know man’. I remember some of the misdemeanors we committed in school in those days that were nothing near what we have on our hands now. I remember how we had our hearts in our mouths when our names were called out in the assembly hall to receive our due comeuppance. I remember how we would have become jelly if such little sins warranted being asked to bring our parents to see the school authorities. For many of us, inviting our parents was like what Fela called “double wahala for dead body”. After serving the school punishment, you still had your parents to contend with when you got back home. They would tell you how sad they were to be invited to your school not to come and receive an award of excellence that you won but because of your bad conduct.
If the stories we are reading about the suspects are true, then, what has happened to all these teachings of old? Is it that these children do not realise that Sylvester was gone and gone forever, never to be seen. That means he can no longer see his daddy and mummy; he can no longer see his lovely sisters and brothers. He can no longer go to any eatery or be spoilt a little with ice cream or chocolate. That means his ambition has crashed in life and whatever his parents had invested in him has all become wasted. Here, we are not talking about the financial sacrifice alone but more importantly, the emotional investment. It is not easy to nurse a child from pregnancy to age 12 that Sylvester died.
Indeed, whenever I see the boy’s picture before the effects of what hit him in Dowen College began to manifest, I see a very peaceful child who was loved by his parents and who was also happy to be born to where he was born. He was full of life. Even though I never knew the family, I got the impression theirs was a well bonded family where love reigned. But then, the mum’s seeming delay in attending to the boy’s request for her attention over a matter was probably one of the reasons why he died. According to some report, the boy had told the mum he had something to discuss with her but the mum did not pay enough attention. By the time she was ready, the boy himself was no longer in the mood. But they soon discovered changes in his behaviour, including being withdrawn. One thing followed the other until the boy died. No one can blame the mum even if she tarried in listening to her son’s request for attention over an issue. No one could have imagined any serious thing like being initiated into cultism in an otherwise elite school like Dowen College.
Given some of the other stories about similar experiences in the school over the years, the least one can assume is that there is laxity in the school in terms of monitoring the students and how they relate to one another, especially at the level of senior-junior.
One of the lessons we must have learnt from this unsavoury episode is the need to revamp the inspectorate divisions in our ministries of education nationwide. This is not about Lagos State alone. That division is as good as dead in many places. As a matter of fact, it is regarded as mere adjuncts to the ministries of education in many parts of the country. In the good old days, it was such an important aspect of the ministries and school authorities so dreaded the inspectors that they (the authorities) would not want to fall foul of their prescribed standards. The division was then well-staffed with some of the strictest disciplinarians one could ever find. I have a feeling that if a survey is conducted in several parts of the country today, it would be discovered that many schools have not been visited by inspectors since their establishment, perhaps in decades. And this is not about education alone. It is part of the general systemic collapse that has become our lot over the years. This must change if we are not to continue to pay the kind of price we are paying with Sylvester’s death. It grieves my heart whenever such a thing happens. It is saddening that a promising young boy like that would just get wasted due to circumstances well beyond his control. There is no doubt that Sylvester’s parents, like most good parents, wanted their children to be greater than them in life, definitely not the way Sylvester has advertised their names to the world. It is gratifying that President Muhammadu Buhari has shown interest in the matter. In normal climes, this does not have to be to get result. His interest is not misplaced because it is one of those riddles that would be used to assess security and sanity in his time. Beyond the presidential interest, however, it is the result that matters.
We cannot bring back Sylvester Oromoni. The best we can do is to ensure that those responsible for his death pay for their crime. Even if they are minors, the case must be thoroughly investigated and diligently prosecuted and the killers served their due comeuppance within the limits of their ages. Let all those who must unravel what really transpired at Dowen College in this matter do so with a high sense of responsibility and the fear of God. This is the least anyone wishing to be buried by his children owes Sylvester and his grieving parents.