NEWS
19/11/2019 7:03 AM AEDT

Oxford Union Row On Blind Ghanaian Student's Removal From Debate 'Far From Over'

University's Africa Society calls for security to be punished, and asks: Why didn't other students speak up sooner?

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Christ Church Meadow is a popular walking and picnic spot in Oxford, England. Roughly triangular in shape it is bounded by the River Thames, the River Cherwell, Christ Church and Merton College.

Oxford University students supporting the blind postgraduate who was pulled “by his feet” from a prestigious debating society event say the matter is “far from over” after an apology was issued.

Ebenezer Azamati, 25, originally from Ghana and a member of the Oxford Union – a debating society that regularly attracts appearances from some of the world’s most influential leaders and counts current prime minister Boris Johnson among its former members – was forcibly removed from an event held by the society on October 17 after trying to return to an accessible seat he had reserved.

In the wake of the incident, which was only made public after being reported in the student paper earlier this month, the union president lodged a complaint against Azamati for violent behaviour – of which he was found guilty during a hearing held by the society. This was then overturned on Saturday during an appeal. 

“It can’t end this way,” said Nwamaka Ogbonna, the president of the Oxford University Africa Society. “The union can’t expect everything to go on, business as usual.

It is unacceptable for any black African disabled man – or any student whatsoever – to be treated in that manner.Nwamaka Ogbonna

“You can’t put this man through all of this trauma and expect everyone else to move on. 

“This is far from over and we are going to continue until all of our demands are met because we need to send a strong message that it is unacceptable for any Black African disabled man – or any student whatsoever – to be treated in that manner.”

Those demands include a public apology by the union president, reinstatement of Azamati’s membership, and compensation for his trauma.

On Saturday night the Oxford Union issued a statement “apologising unreservedly for distress and reputational damage [...] caused” and withdrawing the charge of violent misconduct against Azamati. 

It was alleged that Azamati had behaved in a violent manner by thrusting an arm out and gesturing in an aggressive manner as he was being removed. 

The Oxford Union told HuffPost UK that the “important matter” was set to be discussed later on Tuesday, and it would be in a position to provide a comment in due course.  

Ogbonna said students had “struggled to make sense” of exactly why Azamati was hauled from the room, especially considering he had been a “very active” member of the society. 

“He [Azamati] loves attending the debates,” he said, “and in fact last year he won some prizes after winning a debate himself, so it’s not a case of the security person being unfamiliar with him.

“Mr Azamati had every right to be in that room – he paid almost £300 to be a member.”

Ogbonna said Azamati had allegedly been told by a member of security staff that the room was full so he was not permitted to enter, and also that it was not possible to reserve seats. 

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The Oxford Union, describes itself as the “world’s most prestigious speaker and debating society”.

“I don’t know why they would have said that,” she said. “It’s common for students to reserve seats – even as Mr Azamati was talking to the security staff there were people walking past him to their reserved seats. 

“Also, the union allows members to stand if the seats are taken, so it’s unclear why he was not allowed to go in.” 

Two other people allegedly offered Azamati a seat after witnessing the start of the disagreement, an offer he attempted to accept before being pulled from the room. 

Despite taking place in mid-October, news of the incident only broke weeks later – raising questions about why none of the hundreds of students in attendance had made it known earlier. 

“As soon as the news got out we started to receive messages from students saying: ‘I was there and he was treated unfairly,’” Ogbonna explained. “The question I ask is: ‘If you were there why didn’t you speak up? Why didn’t you come to us earlier?’

“I’m not a member of the union so I’m not sure exactly how it works and can’t state it as a fact, but we believe there is a certain level of discretion expected of members when it comes to a matter that could bring the union into disrepute. Perhaps that explains the restraint shown by members of the union.” 

Ogbonna said that the Africa Society had written to the union on November 5 to try to avoid escalating the matter further – demanding a public apology by the union and its president.

“We needed him to rescind the ban and reinstate his membership,” said Ogbonna. “We needed them to punish the security person involved adequately, and then we needed them to compensate Mr Azamati for all the pain and trauma he has had to experience.”

So far, she said, these demands have not been met.

Just weeks ago it was reported by the Telegraph that the university’s St John’s College had launched an investigation after a Black alumnus said he’d tried to visit, only to be asked by a porter: “What did you do, clean the windows? Rob it?”

Ogbonna said many of the university’s black students had been put in positions where they had faced discrimination. 

Nobody in this university should be treated in that manner. It was quite distressing for a lot of us – what happened was unconscionable.”Nwamaka Ogbonna

“A lot of Black students here have to deal with certain levels of micro-aggressions because of the way they look,” she said.

“Oxford does have a huge diversity problem, which I think the university has admitted to and as a result has implemented a lot of mechanisms to address those issues. 

“However, I think the broad sentiment is still that a lot more could be done to make it a safe and welcoming place. 

“It’s kind of hard to feel terribly welcome if you’re the only Black person in your college, in your year, in your class.”

During the hearing held on Saturday, Azamati said his public removal from the room had left him feeling “unwelcome in the Union, Oxford and even the country”.

“I felt that I was treated as not being human enough to deserve justice and fair treatment,” he added. 

For now, Ogbonna said, the Africa Society was prioritising making sure its demands were met and ensuring justice for Azamati. 

“I think it’s the sheer audacity of the union to behave in this way and not appear apologetic that is particularly upsetting,” she said. 

“Even as I speak now they [the Oxford Union] still haven’t responded. Obviously we are all really happy that he was eventually found not guilty, but the sentiment within the community is really: ‘How are are we going to make these guys pay?’ 

“I think it’s been triggering for a lot of people, especially people who have had these sorts of experiences in the past. Nobody in this university should be treated in that manner. It was quite distressing for a lot of us – what happened was unconscionable.” 

HuffPost UK has approached Ebenezer Azamati via the Oxford University Africa Society.