The sixth woman sat in front of the camera, masked before the lights, and told her story, refusing to cry. A lecturer had sexually harassed her. The watching crew—producers, camera men, assistants—had tears in their eyes, but she, who had endured it all, continued. “It was a painful story, but she said it so casually, it was just wild and dark,” Kiki Mordi, the investigative journalist who led the crew, tells me on the phone. “I think we’ve had nightmares, those of us who worked on that project.”
It was late 2018 and Mordi’s crew was in the midst of over a year’s investigation for BBC Africa Eye, compiling a 55,000-word evidence of sexual harassment in Nigerian and Ghanaian universities, “horrific” stories of young female students who’d been offered grades by older male lecturers in exchange for sex.
In the resultant documentary, Mordi, using the patterns established and posing as a 17-year-old seeking admission into the University of Lagos, is preyed on by a lecturer, who is unaware that she has a body camera. Her findings mirrored her team members’ at the University of Ghana. Released on 6 October 2019, Sex for Grades sent shock waves across Nigeria and Ghana, and #SexForGrades trended at No 1 on global Twitter, with many women sharing their stories, and the universities suspending the lecturers. It is 10 months since, and last week, Sex for Grades snagged a nomination at the International Emmy Awards, in the Current Affairs category.
On both fronts of culture impact and critical acclaim, Sex for Grades, an issue that is the subject of studies in academia itself, has precedents. In 2003, the rapper Eedris Abdulkareem released a hit, “Mr. Lecturer” (“Oh my Lord, can you save my soul? I’m in school, wanna keep my head above/ My lecturer wants to have sex with me/ I don’t give a damn if you fail me”). Last year, the journalists Ruona Meyer and Adejuwon Soyinka’s Sweet Sweet Codeine, BBC Africa Eye’s debut documentary, became the first by Nigerians to earn an International Emmy nomination.
But there is a third front on which Sex for Grades was symbolic: Nigerian investigative journalism was entering popular conversation, with bold feats of story-finding. Earlier in the year, The Cable and Sahara Reporters former editor Fisayo Soyombo disguised himself and got arrested and imprisoned, and, eight days after Sex for Grades dropped, published a three-part story of corruption in Nigeria’s criminal justice system. Soyombo, for that story, and Mordi, for Sex for Grades, were co-awarded the 2019 People Journalism Prize for Africa. In a country where the journalist Dele Giwa was killed in 1986 via a parcel bomb, and journalists and critics are being attacked, arrested, and going missing, and Soyombo had to go into hiding alleging plans to arrest him, hardcore investigative journalism, the kind that kicks power in the guts, is risky.
In that lighted room, watching the women, Mordi was reminded of her own story. She grew up in Port Harcourt, an early writer who “wanted to be a doctor or scientist or pharmacist, that was my dream my entire childhood.” But when she got admission into the University of Benin, “one of these courses that would be a very good stepping stone for me to get into Medicine,” lecturers began to harass her.
“I kept running away and they kept calling me to come to their office,” she recalls. “One used Uni Ben security to call me one time to ask me to come if I wanted to graduate. That particular case was the one with power over my grades. I was like, Fuck it. I cursed him out, and that was the last time I ever heard that threat, ‘Don’t you want to graduate?’”
And so, tired of her future being in the hands of predators, she left school.
It is a story Mordi has never told in full, because “that would mean naming things that I wasn’t ready to name, but I will this year,” and now she tells me something she has never made public before: after not being bothered initially, not being a graduate weighed on her emotionally. “I got to attend a graduation ceremony in Ghana and I saw these siblings hugging and I cried so much that someone hindered me from doing this.”
It was also in Benin, during the harassment, that Mordi found her voice as a storyteller and feminist on radio. “Cleopatra Tao [of Rhythm FM] of blessed memory, she felt like there was something about my voice that people would want to listen to even though I didn’t feel so at the time.” Mordi became a presenter at the station, and then at Silverbird, and then at KU FM, where she ran “She Tribe,” a women-focused programme.
“We talked about issues like expecting submission from women and we had men call in to insult me on live radio,” she says. “It was so fun. I felt we needed more of this. More women need an outlet to talk.” That impulse led her to found Document Women, which recorded, in photos and videos, stories of women in Benin markets. It would also lead her to the Lagos scene, to W FM, the first exclusively female-oriented radio in Sub-Saharan Africa. “I felt it was a place where I’d feel at home,” she says.
In December 2018, already researching Sex for Grades, Mordi visited Tarkwa Bay, Lagos. Her curiosity took her to the village behind the beach: a community of women who fished in the mornings, and men who fished in the evenings, and children who surfed and swam so young. “I had never heard of the village before,” she remembers. “Even though I had a scary boat incident, the story was stronger than the fear. So I came back with [cinematographer] Nora [Awolowo], who corroborated the story.” Life at the Bay, released in March 2019, made its way to international festivals.
The fascination that created Life at the Bay couldn’t be more different from the mood of making Sex for Grades. “We did not step out to hunt stories, the testimonies led us all the way,” Mordi says. Her crew went online and followed leads, listening to chatter and cross-referencing. The day after the first, 14-minute cut of Sex for Grades dropped with instant impact, BBC Africa Eye decided to release the full 53-minute documentary, which included more lecturers. “They all fell to the script,” Mordi says, “it was so scary.”
Did she think of tracking those lecturers at the University of Benin who forced her to not graduate? “You were supposed to be a professional and not think about your own story so it wouldn’t seem like you were driven by rage and anger,” Mordi replies, “but I cannot pretend like I did not. We investigated. They were still doing it. But the decision not to go after my own molester was off my hands because we were a team. It hurt me so much that I couldn’t do anything about it.”
While she knew the magnitude of what she was leading, Mordi did not think that so many people would publicly connect to Sex for Grades, that the Nigerian Senate would revisit a sexual harassment bill introduced in 2016, that reports of sexual assault would increase; and when that happened, she found herself going from a known Twitter presence to a major voice in culture. “I didn’t want my name to be bigger than the story,” she says, “I needed it the other way round.”
The International Emmy nomination is, she says, another chance to put attention on the real problem. “The impact I expected to happen, the sexual harassment law, it has still not been passed,” she says. “It got to a point where I even felt a little bit ashamed. The people that trusted me with their stories, I worry about how they feel knowing that these lecturers are yet to be arrested.”
In January 2020, the Nigerian military descended on Tarkwa Bay, evicting residents. It prompted Mordi to make public both the Life at the Bay documentary and a trailer for another seeking answers, What Happened at Tarkwa Bay? At 29, she understands the power of her voice. That will and freedom are what she wants for more Nigerian journalists. “I think that there is hope, that people would be inspired to put themselves out there to uncover the truth, that they would be less afraid of exploring different ways.”
Accountability, Mordi stresses, should be automatic. “When we keep holding accountable these things, we are building protection for ourselves. The only safe way is to keep telling that story till it is something that is not unheard of.”
Otosirieze Obi-Young is a writer, editor, journalist, and curator. He is Editor of Folio Nigeria, where he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: business, art, photography, music, activism, health, food. He has vast experience working in literature. He has sat on the judging panels of The Gerald Kraak Prize and of The Morland Writing Scholarship. He is an editor at 14, Nigeria's first queer art collective, and Curator at The Art Naija Series, a sequence of e-anthologies exploring different aspects of Nigerianness. For three years, Nov. 2016 to Apr. 2020, he led the transformation of the literary blog Brittle Paper into a continental powerhouse, ideating and administering The Brittle Paper Awards, the first by an African publication. His work in queer advocacy has been profiled in Literary Hub. In 2019, he won The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians." He completed a collection of short stories in 2016 and his novel in 2020. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.