Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights

HIV/AIDS-NIGERIA: School Urged to Re-admit Student Living with Virus

Toye Olori

LAGOS, Jul 23 2004 (IPS) - The debate around a journalism school in Lagos, which has withdrawn the admission letter of a new student, after learning that he is living with HIV, doesn’t seem to go away.

Adegboye Ibikunle’s dismissal by the Nigerian Institute of Journalism (NIJ) has sparked protests by civil societies who have demanded that the college takes him back immediately.

‘’The protest becomes necessary as the NIJ Provost has refused to listen to reason to re-admit Ibikunle,’’ says Oba Oladapo, programme co-ordinator of the Positive Live Association of Nigeria, an association of which Ibikunle is member.

Ebenezer Durojaiye, of the Centre for Rights to Health, a Lagos-based non-governmental organisation, said: ‘’The expulsion of Adegboye Ibikunle by the authorities of NIJ simply because of his HIV status constitutes acts of unfair discrimination, inhuman and degrading treatment forbidden under the constitution of Nigeria. We demand with immediate effect, a reversal of this decision and a re-instatement of Adegboye into the institution’’.

The centre has threatened to take legal action if the decision to expel Ibikunle is not reversed.

‘’We are worried because we thought Nigeria has already passed that stage where anyone would be discriminated against for disclosing his HIV status. Such discrimination will make others who live with the virus not to disclose their status, and that would compound the crisis,’’ Shina Loremikan, Director of Programmes, Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR), told IPS.

The singling out of Ibikunle does not help the fight against HIV/AIDS, Loremikan said. ‘’It is even worse that a school of journalism which one expects to know better and should have access to information on HIV/AIDS matter, is the one discriminating against a student for disclosing his status,’’ he added.

Kingsley Obon-Egbulem of Journalists Against AIDS, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), described the withdrawal of Ibikunle’s admission as an expression of ignorance.

‘’The matter was badly handled by the NIJ, which has also refused to cooperate with us. The NGOs, especially the Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS, who are just back from Bangkok (Thailand) where they attended AIDS conference, will want to ensure that this does not become a bad precedent. In fact, this is the third time that stigmatisation has taken place in Nigeria. The first two cases were not properly addressed but this one is going to be different,’’ he said.

According to him, Ibikunle ”would have been an asset to the NIJ especially in programmes organised by the school to fight the scourge.’’

Some 3.8 million people are living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria where about one million children are orphaned by the disease, according to the latest Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) report. However, health officials believe the figures could be higher as many people do not go for voluntary HIV tests.

Ibikunle’s problem began after he applied to the Nigerian Institute of Journalism for admission. He received a letter of offer of admission as a student and immediately paid the required fees of about 500 dollars.

As is the tradition, the new students, including Ibikunle, were welcomed by the Provost of the school, Elizabeth Ikem, who, in her address stressed the need for punctuality and strict adherence to the institution’s time table. She warned that students found guilty of frequent absence, would be sent home.

But Ibikunle, who collects his life-prolonging anti-retroviral treatment from Ibadan, some 120 km northwest of Lagos, knows he had to be absent once every month. He informed the school authorities about it.

It was a big mistake. When he tried to attend lectures after completing all the necessary registrations, he was handed a letter withdrawing his earlier admission and a cheque for the amount he had paid on admission.

The letter, according to him, said the Academic Board of the institution had sat on his case and had decided to withdraw the earlier offer of admission.

‘’I told the provost that I will be absent from school once every month, so that I can go to University College Ibadan to collect my anti-retroviral drugs because I am HIV-positive. She told me I should put it in writing. I went to Ibadan and collected a letter to that effect,’’ says Ibikunle, who is seeking justice.

‘’When I came back to start lectures, she gave me the sour and bitter news. I pleaded with her but she gave me the option of withdrawing by myself. I said I cannot. Then she gave me the second option that I should defer my admission until the National Board for Technical Education is off her back,’’ he says.

‘’I broke down in tears when (the provost) asked me to sign a copy of the letter. This is unfair. Just because I came out to say the truth that I am HIV positive, they are victimising me,’’ says Ibikunle.

‘’I am sad because in this internet age when everybody has access to information, an institution that is supposed to be training people that will disseminate information to the public is behaving this way. This is a school that should cure the society of misinformation about HIV and AIDS, rather, it is promoting stigmatisation against people living with HIV. If people are honest enough to declare their health status, we should encourage them,’’ he argues.

The provost said the matter was being handled by the board of directors of the institution.

However, a member of the board of directors, who does not want his name published, said Ibikunle was not asked to withdraw because he was HIV-positive. He claimed Ibikunle would not be able to attend classes for the required number of days set by the authority for students to qualify, since he has to travel every month.

Obon-Egbulem disagreed. He believes Ibikunle is not different from other students who have disability but are usually given special concessions.

‘’Some students have sickle-cell anemia, some are blind but they are usually given concessions by their schools. The NIJ board cannot tell me that because they have set a standard they cannot allow Ibikunle to go once a month to Ibadan for his medication. If they say they are not stigmatising him, then he should be given some concessions,’’ he argued.

Discrimination against people living with HIV has for long been a contentious issue in Nigeria. Lobby groups like the Network of People Living With HIV/AIDS (NEPLWA), Nigeria AIDS Alliance and Youth Against AIDS claim stigmatisation exists in the work place, hospitals, health insurance companies and educational institutions.

Campaigners have called for a bill to check against discrimination or stigmatisation of People Living with HIV.

‘’Under such a bill, no person shall be quarantined, refused lawful entry or deported from the country on the grounds of his or her HIV status. Educational institutions will not be allowed to deny admission, expel, discipline, segregate or bar participation in any event or activity and neither cancel benefits or services to a person on the grounds of he or she being HIV positive,’’ says Pat Matemilola of the NEPLWA.

Several bills on HIV/AIDS are currently in the National Assembly awaiting passage, according to Babatunde Osotimehin, chair of the state-run National Action Committee on AIDS.

In attempts to demystify the epidemic, Family Health International, Nigeria chapter, says: ‘’AIDS is not a moral issue. It is a public health as well as developmental problem. People living with HIV and AIDS have the same fundamental human rights as any person.’’

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