Nigeria’s premier girls only secondary federal institution, Queen’s College, Yaba, Lagos (founded in 1927), has in the past few weeks witnessed a myriad of deaths of its students, resulting from the extremely poor sanitary conditions in the school. Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, in this article, discusses the needless epidemic which can best be described as a crime of involuntary manslaughter. He also points out the fact that these unsanitary conditions exist in most State and Federal Institutions, and proffers solutions to prevent the reoccurrence of such a tragedy
Bright Future Cut Short: Vivian, Bithia and Praise
On Friday, 7 April, 2017, at Atan Cemetry, in Yaba, Lagos, a sizeable community of sympathisers attended the burial of Praise Sodipo. Praise was in her first year of Senior Secondary School (SS-1) at Queen’s College (QC), also in Yaba. She was 14 years old when she died at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH), where doctors had battled for weeks to save her from an infection contracted from the school premises. Before Praise, Vivian Osuinyi and Bithia Itulua, also students of Queen’s College, had died respectively on 15 and 22 February, 2017, also from similar causes. Praise’s death brought to three, the number of QC students buried in less than two months. There are rumours that the number of deaths could indeed be higher.
History of QC
Queen’s College is the oldest girls-only public school run by the Federal Government of Nigeria. Established in 1927 as a complement to the older Kings College, also in Lagos, QC is one of the 104 Unity Schools in Nigeria. It was established as an elite school for instruction in values, character and skills. Like much of the rest of the country, however, this underlying mission of the school has become a victim of the Nigerian condition. The avoidable deaths of these children, is the latest evidence of this crisis of geometrical deterioration. It is also an opportunity, if those concerned, could bother to care.
The sanitary crisis in Queens College has its origins in the history of the evolution of the school somewhat. At its establishment 90 years ago, QC sat on premises meant optimally for about 95 children. With a student population now at about 4,000% of this, the school has a congestion ratio that easily outstrips the worst cases of prison congestion anywhere around. As is evident from the death of these children, it is also exhibiting pathologies associated with the worst cases of prison congestion. How children sent to a supposedly elite school, ended up in a place much worse than the worst prisons in the country should be a matter of utmost public and policy concern. Underlying this congestion crisis, is a perversion of standards of merit-based admission into these schools, itself implying that, admission processes have become a private revenue stream for school management and officials of the Federal Ministry of Education that should oversee them. This is the origin of a tale of multi-layered criminal mis-conduct and corruptions without which it is impossible to understand how we have ended up with the death of school children in circumstances that suggest evident criminal negligence at the very least. In reality, what has happened to these children at Queens College is homicide, because it is manslaughter.
A Plague of Biblical Proportions
This is a background to the immediate crisis at Queen’s College. On or about 30 January, 2017, a concerned parent informed the school community that the sewage management system in the school was blocked and unsanitary. This triggered a flood of complaints from other parents, many of whom indicated that their daughters had reported or presented with various forms of infection of different parts of the body. These included skin (dermatological), vaginal (gynaecological), and abdominal (gastro-intestinal) infections, which they linked to the unsanitary conditions in the school. It was as if the school was under the spell of a plague of Biblical proportions.
Cover Up by Principal, QC
The state of sanitary conditions in the school were not new. The QC Old Girls Association (QCOGA), had called attention to it consistently in the past few years. Rather than have it addressed, the school management set upon a strategy of advertising the Old Girls as harbouring a Nigerian form of ill-will towards them. The result was a circular from the Federal Ministry of Education purporting to banish Old Students generally from the premises of their schools. The then QC Management took this as the alibi they needed to seek to exclude the Old Girls from oversight of its activities. Parents who sought to run a WhatsApp platform to mutually inform themselves of what was going on in the school, were required to shut down the platform or have their children excluded from the school or its boarding facilities. Instead of insisting on their entitlement to truth and to free expression, most parents chickened out of doing the right thing in defence of the best interests of their children. There are more than a few culprits in this tragic tale and between them, there is a lot of blame to share.
By the end of January 2017, the Sick Bay in the school, a facility that exists to provide mostly basic and preventive care to children, was reportedly full of ill and unwell children. All of them complained of similar ailments, presenting with symptoms of stooling, vomiting, fever, vaginal and various skin infections. The health care personnel in the school were overwhelmed. Their clinical and pastoral capabilities were stretched beyond anything they could deal with. The school Management knew very well about this. They also knew that the Sick Bay was not established for this kind of emergency.
At this time, the school Management and the leadership of its Parents-Teachers Association (PTA), well knew or had reason to know or suspect that the cause of the problem was the water situation in the school. On or about 1 February, the school, as a temporary measure according to them, indicated that they were shutting down the water source in the school as it was contaminated and, instead, decided to issue the students 20 bags of sachet water each from the water factory (Queens Delight) sited within the school premises. It was suggested that samples of the water in the school had been taken for laboratory testing.
On 5 February, the then Principal, Dr. Lami Amodu, addressed a PTA meeting at QC and claimed that the outbreak of stooling and vomiting among “a few students was reported and it was quickly handled; only a handful of students stayed beyond a day in the sick bay and that it was a result of the beans they ate the previous day.” Virtually everything she said was factually inaccurate. The number of students that took ill was more than a few; the outbreak was not recent; the school had done very little about it, students were chronically ill and losing weight and the health situation in the school was becoming alarming to all but Dr. Amodu and her bosses at the Education Ministry. The parents who knew better muted their protests for fear of having their children excluded from an elite school or being de-boarded.
Dr. Amodu equally claimed that she had asked the catering personnel not to give beans to the children again and told the parents that, in any case, they should expect such things in a place with many children. Then, at a time when she should have been seeking all the help in the world, Dr. Amodu, as Principal, announced measures instituted by her to curb contacts between parents and their children, many of whom were ill. In particular, she said that management had warned “students and staff never to call parents when children are sick. If they do, they shall be de- boarded. The staff of QC were seriously warned not to permit any child to use their phones to contact parents.” The school run by Dr. Lami Amodu was not just unable to look after the children in its care; it was also unwilling to do so.
A Crime of Involuntary Manslaughter
Less than two weeks later, Vivian Osuinyi was dead, the first confirmed fatality from the crisis. On the day the school broke for mid-term, on 22 February, the second child, Bithia Itulua, died. The day after, on 23 February, the Minister of Health, Professor Isaac Adewole, detoured through QC while he was in Lagos. In a release he issued later in the day, the Minister reported that “according to the school’s Nurse, no student was admitted at the sick bay for any diarrhoea disease prior to the commencement of the mid-term break yesterday (22nd February, 2017).” As with much of the information put out by the School Management on this crisis, this particular piece of information to the Minister was also untrue. Contemporaneously with the Minister’s release, the Principal issued a message to the PTA community blaming undisclosed “enemies of the school”, for information about the health and sanitary situation in the school, saying “there is no epidemic, epidemic is when three-quarters of the population has died!” Around the same day, a Vice-Principal reportedly complained: “we are looking after 2,800 students and we are being crucified because two die”. The Chair of the PTA, under instruction from the school Management, was quoted in several media outlets in support of the position of the Management. The Federal Ministry of Education, amidst all this carnage, kept schtum!
Meanwhile, students were falling ill faster than any medical facility could cope with. As it turns out, in two months since January 2017, over three 1,300 students would be hospitalised with symptoms of diarrhoea, vomiting, skin ailments, high fever, serious vaginal infections or a mix of several of these.
Independent laboratory analyses would later show that the water sources in the school were contaminated by different forms of E-Coli and Salmonella, infecting the children with several serious ailments, including, in particular, encephaliticTyphoid Fever. 23 of 40 kitchen workers and food handlers in the school tested positive for Amoebiasis; another three reported positive for Salmonella and another was positive for Tape-Worm. It became clear from the analyses that the boreholes that provide principal sources of water for the school, were too close in proximity to the sewage system which had contaminated them. Not to put too fine a point on it, the children had been fed a steady diet of human faeces for a long time by a Management employed to look after them. A water factory built in the school to provide water to the children, was reportedly converted by Management or under its watch to selling the water to them.
Gross Negligence, Reckless Disregard for Human Life
It gets worse: the same QC Management, fully cognisant of the facts, denied them consistently, mis-led education and public health authorities, and used its powers to preclude the children from summoning help when they needed it. These facts add up to the standard of “gross negligence or reckless disregard for human life.” Under Section 222(2) of the Criminal Law of Lagos State (2011), where Queen’s College is located, this meets the standard for the homicide of involuntary manslaughter. The punishment for it under Section 227 of the same law is life imprisonment. There is no option of fine.
Snatching Opportunity from the Jaws of Tragedy
There is good reason for the seriousness with which Lagos State views such crimes: the right to life is the basis of all rights, and the life of children is the guarantee of future generations. In a country in which a Governor – no less – believes that Meningitis is God’s punishment for fornication, we are likely to respond to the avoidable death of these innocent children with more prayer and fasting. The likelihood that anyone will be held to account for what has transpired at Queen’s College, is low.
Unsanitary Conditions Exist in Most State and Federal Schools
Yet, this is precisely the opportunity needed to address the adverse sanitary and health conditions in Nigeria’s schools, which stunt the intellectual and physical growth of children and result in avoidable health hazards of death as in this situation. Far from being unique, the situation at QC reflects the sad state of public schools around the country, and the terrible fate of children caught up in them. QC may have caught public imagination because of its history and location. But, around the same time, in Government Secondary School, Fannah in Suru Local Government Area of Kebbi State, four students also died from an outbreak of infectious diarrhoea linked to sanitary conditions in the school. Similar situation of mass infection from underlying poor sanitation exist in most public schools across the country operated by both Federal and State Governments.
The Way Forward
This is where a partnership is needed between government at all levels, both State and Federal, and involving the Ministries of Health, Water Resources and Education. So far, the Federal Ministry of Health, which appeared interested in this situation, seems to have derailed or got busy elsewhere. The Federal Ministry of Education has been missing in action and the Federal Ministry of Water Resources would, justifiably, only take the lead from these other two lead Ministries. The only entity to have emerged from this tragic episode so far with any credit is the Lagos State Government, which stepped in to advice against the re-opening of the school in the face of this crisis. Under pressure, the school acquiesced reluctantly to defer re-opening after its mid-term.
In addition to these departments of Government, there are three others whose voices and skills are now needed. First, there is reason to invite the police to investigate the circumstances of the death of these children, with a view to determining whether or not charges of involuntary manslaughter or negligent homicide are not made out under the Criminal Law of Lagos State. Those found culpable should get their day in court to defend themselves. Children sent to school to learn don’t just die like this without someone being held to account. Second, while this is going on, the Chief Judge of Lagos State could usefully consider convening a Coroner’s Inquest into the death of the Queens College Children.
Third, as these steps proceed, the Office of the Senior Special Assistant to the President on the Sustainable Development Goals (OSSAP-SDGs), could become a rallying point for mobilising system-wide intervention on sanitation and health in public schools. The SDGs create aspirations towards zero-hunger, good health and well-being, quality education and access to clean water and sanitation in SDGs 2, 3, 4 and 6 respectively. These can easily form a programming charter for the OSSAP-SDGs on a scalable model involving partnerships with other government departments, private sector, philanthropies and old students. This is the only way to guarantee that the underlying cause of the death of these innocent children – a society that does not care for much besides the subsistence and vanities of those that run it for the time being – is addressed and their souls can find peaceful rest.
Prof Chidi Odinkalu, Immediate Past Chairman of National Human Rights Commission, President -General of the Unity Schools Old Students Association (USOSA)