Update: Oguhebe to serve 2 years for child abuse

Alcorn professor to serve 2 years for child abuse

Children and ex-wife take stand to ask for leniency for accused

By Jimmie E. Gates
jgates@clarionledger.com

An Alcorn State University professor who used pepper juice and ants to punish one of his sons must serve two years in prison for child abuse, despite emotional pleas by two of his children and ex-wife.

Hinds County Circuit Judge L. Breland Hilburn on Monday sentenced Festus Oguhebe to five years in prison with three years suspended on his no-contest plea to one count of child abuse.

"I know he went overboard in his punishment, but he loves us. If he is in jail, that would totally mess me up so much," said 16-year-old Anna Oguhebe, who will graduate from high school in the spring. "I want my dad to be there when I graduate, not in jail."

A native of Nigeria, Oguhebe was accused of abusing his 11-year-old son by "placing him in a bathtub, then putting hot pepper juice in his eyes, on his penis and buttocks; and also by tying his hands behind his back and covering his body with ants," according to court records.

Oguhebe also was accused of abusing his son by "whipping and striking the child in such a manner as to cause serious bodily injury," according to records filed by Hinds Assistant District Attorney Jacqueline Purnell.

Hilburn told Oguhebe if the case would have gone to a jury, "it would have been very difficult for a jury not to find you guilty of child abuse."

Oguhebe, who has six children with his ex-wife, wiped tears when his children spoke of their love and respect for him, urging Hilburn to spare their father jail time.

"Give him counseling, extensive counseling. That would be better than jail," said Anna Oguhebe.

Anna Oguhebe and her brother, Festus Jr., also a high school senior, said their father may have gone overboard in his punishment, but his discipline and guidance as a father have kept them out of the kind of the trouble they see peers getting into.

All six children were in the courtroom, including the child Oguhebe was charged with abusing. The child didn't testify.

Oguhebe said the kind of discipline he inflicted upon his children was a custom in his native land.

Oguhebe's ex-wife, Mary Oguhebe, said what her former husband did was wrong, but he is no danger to society and didn't need to be locked up.

"I don't know how I will control the children if he is in prison," Mary Oguhebe said.

Mary Oguhebe had repeatedly reported abuse of the children by their father to the Hinds County Sheriff's Department, a department spokesman told The Clarion-Ledger in March 2005.

In February, Oguhebe dropped off one of the children at the University of Mississippi Medical Center with an older sibling, the spokesman said.

After the child was examined, the Mississippi Department of Human Services contacted the Sheriff's Department, which began an investigation, according to the Sheriff's Department.

Oguhebe was arrested in March 2005 on five counts of child abuse. The charges were whittled down to the one.

Monday was the first time that Oguhebe had seen his children since his arrest in 2005. His bond had forbidden any contact with them.

While on the witness stand during his sentencing hearing, Oguhebe apologized to his children.

"I'm very, very sorry. I say forgive me. It won't happen again. ... I have learned my lesson," he said.

Calling America a beautiful country, Oguhebe said he loves being a citizen, but he sees problems like teen pregnancy and young offenders plaguing society.

"I was scared of the problems in this country," Oguhebe said. "The devil wants to destroy this nation."

Alcorn officials had said they were awaiting results of the sentencing before considering Oguhebe's job status. He has been a professor for 17 years at Alcorn.

Alcorn spokesman Christopher Cason couldn't be reached Monday.


Oguhebe and the American system
By Reuben Abati

FESTUS Oguhebe is our compatriot; he is resident in Jackson, Mississippi in the United States, where he is a Professor of Business Studies at Alcorn State University. A father of six children, he has become a living referent for the extent, and implications, of a clash of cultures, as he stands trial and faces sentencing after pleading guilty to charges of child abuse. He may go to jail. He also faces the risk of losing his job. The Alcorn State University's spokesperson, Christopher Cason has been quoted as saying: "Alcorn State University employees are expected to be of good moral character".

But what has Festus Oguhebe done? His story, available, in extenso, on the internet, and reported in the Nigerian Tribune of Thursday, October 26, 2006, at page 4 is as follows: "Festus Oguhebe, a Professor of Business Studies and father of six children, who had initially faced a five-count charge after his arrest in March 2005, was accused of abusing his 11-year old son by placing him in a bathtub, putting hot pepper in his eyes, on his penis and buttocks. He was also said to have tied the boy's hands behind his back and covered his body with ants.

"According to records filed by the Hinds District Attorney, Jacquelin Purnell, Oguhebe's offences included whipping and striking the child in such a manner as to cause grievous bodily injury. He punished his children for offences such as incomplete school work and attempting to steal food in their own home during forced fasts, court records revealed. Oguhebe's arrest in March 2005 was said to have marked the second time he had been charged with child abuse. The first was in February when he was charged with a one-count offence which he bonded out of..."

The thing to note is that Oguhebe is unrepentant, even if he has pleaded guilty. Here is an African cultural activist living in America in the wrong century. He reportedly told journalists that he believes that children must be spanked at all times. "If you whip your child and he gets a bruise, does that become a crime? Go to the Iboland of Africa and you don't see kids behave this way", he said. What Oguhebe is up against is a clash of cultures. He lives in America, but he remains attached to his roots as an African. He affirms that he is an Ibo man, the product of a culture and world-view where it is believed that the rod is an important tool for bringing up a child, a vehicle of socialisation, to ensure that a child develops into a useful member of the community. In the African world-view, to whip a child is not considered a crime; what is considered punishment or brutality or child abuse by Western societies is regarded in African communities as a social process. This is borne out of the conviction that it is only when a child is brought up to experience pain, that he would appreciate the value of pleasure and that young persons must be made early enough to appreciate the need to be responsible.

It is this cultural notion, this background that defines his essence and Being, his very identity, that Oguhebe has taken with him to the United States. His insistence on corporal punishment for children is a throw-back to his cultural background and a revolt against the Western world-view. Nor is he alone in the presence of this dilemma. We live in the age of globalisation; of collapsing boundaries. Cultures are moving as human beings relocate to other parts of the world, civilisations are coming into testy conflicts with each other; in the process cultural historical patterns are contrasted.

The case against Oguhebe is not about his moral character. It is about cultural difference. It belongs to the same order as the recent debate in the United Kingdom about British Muslim women who insist on wearing the veil in public. The women argue that they are defending culture and the Islamic religion; their critics protest that the veil is a sign of separateness. Between the Western society and the African world-view, the use of the whip in bringing up a child is yet another sign of this separateness, which liberal societies may have to learn to accommodate as cultures continue to clash, and individuals re-connect with their origins.

No attempt is being made to understand Oguhebe's position. He is being cast in the mould of a villain, or at best a bush man from Nigeria who needs to be reformed. He is up against the American justice system, and the island mentality of the American society, made worse by its extreme temporocentrism. And yet Oguhebe is not an ignoramus on the streets of Mississipi. He teaches Strategic Management, International Business, Organizational Behaviour and Survey of Management at Alcorn State University. It is ironic that it is the ability of this Professor to manage his own home that is on trial. His six children are now in the custody of the Department of Human Services!

But the charges against him sound somewhat exaggerated: "tying up one of his children, placing him in a bathtub, covering him with ants, putting pepper in his eyes and leaving him there overnight... In another instance, he is accused of beating one of his children with a red extension cord. The beating caused open wounds that became infected because they were not treated..." Alan Williams, 22 a student of his who had scored an F grade in an Organisational Behaviour exam, has also taken him to court for assault. Williams claims that he had gone to Oguhebe to ask him questions about the grade he got in his final exam. But what happened? "I asked him a couple of questions, he got mad and tried to snatch the paper from me. He succeeded in snatching the paper, and then proceeded to push me". There is so much that is strange in the West. You can imagine that if Oguhebe tries to raise his voice in any minor conversation henceforth, he could be branded a terrorist.

His children receive bad reports from school? They steal food in the house? To an African parent, these are serious issues. It should be noted that the six children in question are aged between 7 and 15. Oguhebe is also a single parent, the mother of his children having left him, although she is also in the United States. In Africa, Oguhebe will receive praise for his strictness. It will in fact be said in his favour, that because he is divorced, he would not want to be seen as a failed parent turning out failed children.

In Nigeria, it would not just be Oguhebe teaching his children to be disciplined; in our towns and villages where communalism is still in force, neighbours and relations consider it part of their duty as elders in the community to help train errant children. The African world-view is structured in favour of age: older people are repositories of communal wisdom; young ones are expected to defer to them. When parents, teachers and elders in Africa subject children to corporal punishment of any sort, they do not do so out of malice or criminal instinct. When I was a child I recall that our teachers never "spared the rod", and if you came home with your back lacerated with cane-marks, your father looked for a cane and continued from where the teacher stopped without even bothering to ask what you did to merit the punishment in the first place. The following day, he would visit the teacher and thank him! This practice may be dying but only among Westernised city-parents.

Virtually every Nigerian parent living in the Western world is faced with a similar dilemma as Festus Oguhebe's. These other parents are not in the dock only because they are afraid of being caught on the wrong side of European or American law. But they are unhappy. They are anxious about the future of their children who are neither African, nor fully Western. They are worried that their children are caught at the crossroads, and may never fit into the African communities from whence their parents originated. The Western society transforms these children into cultural hybrids and their parents who are at best, economic immigrants, are confused.

The Western society is too permissive; it operates on the logic that once a child is born, he is already a complete person, with all the rights to run his own affairs as a totally independent being. Parents exist in his life only as ornaments to remind him or her of biological origins. They cannot determine his choices nor seek to question his morals. His age notwithstanding, he is regarded as a free agent. And so, these children are brought up as captives of social circumstances. From the moment they can talk, they are taught by teachers at pre-nursery schools to memorise the number '911' and advised to dial it whenever they feel harassed or intimidated by anyone at all, including their parents. When they are in school, they are perpetually interrogated: "Did your Mummy scold you? Are your parents having any quarrel?" Any wrong word from the child, the parents may be threatened with the loss of custody. This intrusion of the state into child upbringing, into the personal space of families, is destroying family life among Western families.

The rise in youth delinquency and adolescent sexuality, the pervasive amorality of Western societies is to be traced to this over-rationalised expression of human rights. Some of our compatriots in diaspora are trying to manage this crisis in different ways. There are those who insist on bringing their children home every year, to experience the African reality. There are those who are sending their children home for secondary school education. There are others who teach their children the mother-tongue, in the hope that when they speak that mother-tongue, it will bring them closer to their natal source. What every African immigrant in Europe and the United States has to deal with is this eventual conflict between identity and economic survival in a foreign land.

Every possible means of escape from the cultural trap has its costs. Oguhebe is paying his own price. But there are other dimensions. The story is told for example, of a couple who brought their three children to Nigeria for the Christmas/New Year holiday. The children's paternal Grandpa in whose home they stayed had bought a ram for the celebrations, to be slaughtered on Christmas day. In the meantime, the three young visitors had fallen in love with the ram. They played with it. They ran around the compound with it. They called it Billie.

When on Christmas Day, Grandpa asked that Billie should be slaughtered, the children broke down in tears. They didn't want Billie killed. Later, they refused to partake of the food that was prepared. They were sullen for the rest of the holiday. When a year later, their father proposed another holiday in Nigeria, they refused. They didn't want to go to the home of that man who killed Billie. They didn't want to mix with the cannibals who devoured Billie.

If the standards of those hounding Festus Oguhebe were to be applied, every Nigerian parent should be on the way to jail...But we are just a different people...