|Soweto receiving his award|
|cross section of guests at the event|
On Monday 3rd, September 2012, H.T Soweto the National Cordnator of the Education Rights Campaign (ERC) was given an award by the Students Representative Council of Lagos State Polytechnic (LASPOTECH) Students’ Union. The award was in recognition of his contribution and that of the Education Rights Campaign (ERC) to the struggle against education under funding. Here we publish below the full text of his speech at the event.
STUDENT UNIONISM AS A PANACEA FOR THE BUILDING OF A PROGRESSIVE NIGERIA
I am most delighted to be in your midst today to discuss the topic: “Student unionism as a panacea for the building of a progressive Nigeria”. Putting aside what I consider to be an error in the topic which seems to suggest that Students’ Unionism could be a vehicle to change Nigeria, I think this topic is very apt given the odious state of student unionism and the lack of a serious, sincere and determined leadership for the youth across the country today.
It was just recently, maybe a month or so, that a leader of the National Association of Nigerian Student (NANS) and three Students’ Union presidents lost their lives in a ghastly motor accident around Owo in Ondo State. They were on their way from a shameful mission in Abuja where they had gone to confer an award on the incumbent Governor of Ondo State Dr. Olusegun Mimiko. Everyone knows NANS does not give awards except money has exchanged hands.
Ironically this September is the 13th anniversary of the death of Moses Osaikhede, late president of the National Association of Nigerian students (NANS). He also died in a ghastly motor accident on September 1st 1999 just like the four late student leaders I mentioned earlier but in a much better circumstance. He was on his way to some Universities to demand the reinstatement of expelled and suspended students’ union leaders.
Now our people often say it is not good to speak ill of the dead but I wish to ask: how can we possibly move forward without examining the past including the actions of our leaders whether dead or alive? How can the youth possibly be able to make any positive contribution to the struggle to liberate Nigeria if we are barred from objectively discussing the actions and inactions of our own leaders and the lapses in our own organizations? How can student unionism ever be a panacea to defending the interest of students not to talk of “a panacea for a progressive Nigeria” if it remains in the present condition it is.
If you examine the two manners and circumstances surrounding the deaths of two different generations of NANS leaders, one in 1999, the other in 2012, then maybe you can begin to appreciate the colossal collapse of student leadership and student unionism over the past decade.
Over the past two decades, and much more over the last 10 years, students’ unionism has become synonymous with corruption, corrupt and servile young leaders ready to do anything or jump on any boat in exchange for money. They are ready to do the bidding of any politician and give out any award even when that politician is presiding over underfunding, fee hike and other anti-poor policies in their school. Meanwhile less than 30 years ago, Nigerian students brought the whole country to a halt during the 1984 anti-education commercialization nationwide lecture boycott and mass protest. Then NANS was one of the biggest and most feared organizations by the military and civilian ruling classes in Nigeria following behind the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).
Similarly in 1978 in the famous “Ali-must-go” nationwide boycott and protest, Nigerian students again showed they had the capacity to fight not just for their rights to free and functional education but also for a Nigeria free of all anti-poor IMF and World Bank inspired policies. Ahmadu Alli, just recently the national chairman of the PDP was then the federal commissioner of education. If the current leaders of Students unions and NANS were to be in the same shoes today, they would give Ahmadu Alli an award instead of calling for his sack.
The obvious truth we must tell ourselves as student leaders is that we have lost our way. We have allowed our unions and NANS to become appendages of different anti-poor political parties instead of independent organizations of students. The gain of the historical struggle of several generations of Nigerian students for independent unionism has been wiped out by today’s NANS leaders and their Students union counterparts who all queue behind anti-poor political parties during election period to feather their own nests. And when such political parties and politicians come to power and they increase fees, such union leaders are incapable of leading their colleagues to fight back. We have seen situations where union leaders go over to the side of the school management and government while students are protesting against fee increment or any other anti-poor policy. These are the realities of what we call student unionism today.
We all remember how NANS campaigned for President Jonathan during the 2011 election promising him the votes of Nigerian students. Was it any surprise therefore when NANS supported the Federal government during the general strike and protest against fuel subsidy removal in January while hundreds of thousands of Nigerian students were on the street together with millions of workers and poor people challenging the criminal fuel price hike? Today, NANS is equally supporting the Federal government in its drive to privatize the PHCN. At the same time, NANS has no programme to challenge government’s neo-liberal, anti-poor and pro-rich policies of education under funding and commercialization.
NANS is now the youth wings of the PDP, ACN, ANPP etc. In many places, political parties are in direct control of NANS leadership depending on where such political parties hold sway. In the South west for instance, NANS is majorly the youth wing of the ACN while the national leadership is effectively under the control of the PDP. Now that the national leadership of NANS is coming to the South West zone in next year’s convention, you should expect the choice of the next NANS leadership to be fought out ruthlessly not with the aid of ideas on campuses as it used to be in times past but with guns and machetes provided by political parties in their bid to consummate their political domination of the South West. This coming convention will be more ruthless because both the ruling PDP and the biggest opposition, the ACN, will see the question of who controls NANS as one of the crucial factors that would determine the outcome of 2015 general elections.
Now please do not get me wrong. There is nothing wrong in student unions or even trade unions working closely with a political party or even affiliating with it. We have such cases around the world. During the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the trade union centre COSATU became affiliated with the African National Congress (ANC) and South African students played many historical roles in the struggle against apartheid under the banners of the ANC or organizations working close with it.
We Socialists for instance call on the NLC and TUC in Nigeria to form and build a political party that the working masses, youth and poor and use to fight for political power. We would openly canvass that students and their unions work closely with a political party that clearly stands for the interests of the working masses, youths, students and poor. So naturally there is nothing wrong in students’ leaders and unions associating with political parties. But the question is that do these political parties that students leaders associate with further in any way the interests of Nigerian students? I believe this should be the ultimate question that should determine whether or not student leaders associate with a political party or a politician.
Today the alliance between COSATU and ANC in South Africa still exist but this alliance is no more progressive, it has become a noose around the neck of South African workers. For the benefit of those who have not heard, the South African police recently fired and shot to death over 34 miners who were striking for better pay. This was the most brutal massacre of black workers since apartheid. Against this background, do workers have any reason to continue to be affiliated to the ANC – a political party which led the anti-apartheid struggle but has now started to erect and establish a new and more deadly apartheid regime not of white against black as before but now of the class of rich blacks against the class of poor blacks? Definitely such alliance must be broken!
That is exactly how the question is posed for us here too in Nigeria. For instance how can any student leader justify friendship or association with the PDP when the PDP-controlled Federal government is under funding education? Do you know that there are new plans through the Oronsaye committee recommendation to introduce tuition fees in federal universities, polytechnics and colleges of education of up to between N450, 000 to N525, 000 and above?
If we come back home, how also can any student leader justify association or friendship with the ACN when the Lagos State government recently increased fees at the Lagos State University (LASU) by over 725%? When LASU students protested, their union was unceremoniously banned by a state government that prides itself as democratic. From N25, 000 the supposedly action-governor of Lagos increased LASU fees to between N193, 750 and N348, 750!
To make matters worse, the same government reviewed the Scholarship programme by restricting eligibility for scholarship to the best 5 students in each year per level with Minimum CGPA to qualify pegged at 4.50. Prior to this new policy, there was no limit to the number of scholarship awardees with qualification pegged at a minimum CGPA of 4.0. A total of 424 and 525 students benefitted from the scholarship awards in 2007/2008 and 2009/2010 academic session respectively but given the 2010/2011 results, fewer than 20 students will be eligible for the scholarship under the new policy. By this review, government is effectively reducing the inadequate scholarship funding instead of increasing it.
As a result of this criminal increment of fees in LASU, only about 39.8% or 1, 951 of the 4,903 students offered admissions showed up for admission as the remaining 2, 952 eligible candidates – children of working class and poor Lagosians! – had to forfeit their admission because they could not afford the new fees. This was inspite of the extension of payment deadline four times in a row including the approval of installmental payment of the hiked fees on a 70-30 ratio!
If this is the hallmark of progressiveness, then late Chief Obafemi Awolowo whom the ACN often allude to as their progenitor must be turning in his grave right now. At least there is none of the current old generations including Governor Fashola and those ruling us today who did not benefit from Awolowo’s free education policy. Despite its limitation, the free education policy of the Action Group opened access to education to vast majority of Nigerians in the old Western region. Without the benefit of this policy, many who steal our resources and tell us free education is not possible would be hunters and farmers in some remote villages today. Now they come around to tell us that what they benefitted from when Nigeria had none of the kind of vast resources it has now is no more possible.
As the new generation of youth, we should say a capital NO to these lies. We should say we are fed up with your lies! We should say if free education was possible in your own times, then it is more than possible today when Nigeria is earning over 282.5 million dollars from crude oil sales on a daily basis! We should insist that with workers’ democratic control and management of our resources, Nigeria would not only be able to provide free education at all levels, it would also be possible to improve the living standards of the vast majority and provide gainful jobs for the over 28 million unemployed youths including university graduates currently roaming the streets.
There is no room for ifs and buts. We must cut any friendly relationship with these corrupt politicians whether of the PDP or ACN and instead begin to organize independently to fight for provision of free and quality education at all levels. Any student union or NANS leader who is worth his or her onions must stop any other friendship or association with the corrupt ruling class and begin to do what students unions were created to do which is to defend the interests of students. To be honest with ourselves, there is no real difference between the PDP and the ACN in terms of policies. The increment of fees in LASU which is steadily destroying that University as at today is comparable in scope to PDP’s removal of fuel subsidy and increment of fuel price. So also are other actions and policies of the Lagos State government.
The entire aim of the so-called developmental strides of the Lagos state government is not to build a decent and beautiful Lagos where everyone can live but an upper-class mega-city where only the rich and their politician friends can inhabit. Consider for instance the demolition policy of the Lagos state government in Makoko and bar beach for instance. While the government has no provision to provide decent mass housing for the huge population of homeless people in Lagos, even the shacks that people erect just to put a semblance of a roof over their heads are being demolished under the guise of building a mega-city. The same is being done by the PDP in Abuja. Now one of the arguments of both the Federal and Lagos State government is that criminals reside in Makoko and these other slums. The question I wish to ask is this: if it is indeed true that criminals reside in Makoko and other slums, then why not demolish Alausa and Aso rock where the biggest crooks reside?
To round up my speech, the most crucial point I wish to make is that there is no logical basis for the current friendly associations of Students’ Union leaders with government whether at Lagos state level or at the Federal level. This is because the policy of both the Federal government and the Lagos state government on education are basically the same. Why the Lagos state government claims to be implementing free basic education, a visit to primary and secondary schools around the state will show you this is all a lie. The decrepit facilities in many of the primary and secondary schools around Lagos are testament to the hollowness of Lagos state government’s free education propaganda.
Student leaders have to wake up to their responsibilities. Our unions need to be repositioned as independent platforms of struggle for the defense of the interests of students. However to achieve this, the generality of students have a great task. First and foremost, the Students’ Union is not a government, as unfortunately is the practice today; rather it is the democratic platform of all students and the congress is the most important decision-making body of the union. The generality of students have to exert their power over the union leadership by ensuring they put all leadership of their unions under the control, monitoring and censure of the congress as the case maybe. This is the only way to ensure our unions are democratic, for without a democratic union you cannot have a union that can fight uncompromisingly for students’ interests.
The interests of students include a safe learning environment, accessible and affordable education with standard teaching and living infrastructures. Students’ interests also include adequate investment by respective governments in the expansion and renovation of teaching facilities like lecture theatres, libraries and laboratories etc. These and many more are what we know as students’ interests which all unions are constitutionally bound to defend. Students through the Students Representative Council (SRC) and the congress must develop the confidence and ability to question their leaders, debate with them, criticize them where they go wrong and even suspend or impeach them where they commit grievous crimes or betray the interests of students. Only this kind of close watch and monitoring of the union by the generality of students can begin to restore the militancy, independence and fighting spirit of student unionism in Nigeria. And only this too can make students unions to play any role at all in the struggle to liberate Nigeria.
Very crucial too is the necessity for an ideological rebirth in the Student movement. To be able to build a democratic and fighting students’ union especially in the current period of unrelenting neo-liberal attacks on education, students and activists need to acquire an anti-capitalist and democratic socialist ideology only which can provide them the most consistent weapon to fight successfully against fee hike, education commercialization and underfunding. The socialist ideology provides the possibility of an alternative way of organizing society in the interest of the mass majority contrary to capitalist ideology which says things cannot be better than we have it now.
While students are incapable of leading a revolution to change society, they can play very crucial role in alliance with the working class to kick start a revolutionary tide that can lay the basis for the revolutionary over throw of Nigeria’s corrupt capitalist ruling elite. Such a revolution will only be successful if it establishes a workers and poor people’s government that takes into public ownership the commanding heights of the economy under democratic workers’ control and management as a basis for a democratic socialist plan of the economy.
For this kind of social transformation to happen, there is the immediate need to build a political party that represents the interest of workers, youth and the poor. Such a party does not exist today because majority of the labour leaders do not believe a social revolution is urgently needed. This is why the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) – an organization to which I belong - has taken the initiative to form the Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN) in order to provide an electoral alternative for the mass of working class people, youth and the poor who are fed up with all these anti-poor political parties.
Great Nigerian students, a socialist change is urgently needed in Nigeria just like everywhere in the world. Let no one deceive you, it is possible! But the students’ movement as it is currently will not be able to play any credible role in the struggle for change unless we flush it clean of corrupt leaders whether in our local unions or NANS. Just as workers must rebuild their trade unions so also must students and the youths begin to rebuild their unions so that together we can struggle to rescue this country from the clueless and rotten capitalist ruling elite who are hell bent on continuing this current unjust arrangement where a few are stupendously rich while the vast majority are poor.
There is no room for procrastination. The decision to rebuild our unions and flush the student movement clean must be taken today and now. It will be my utmost joy if this short speech of mine motivates a few of you to dedicate yourselves to rebuilding your union into a genuine platform of students’ solidarity and struggle.
Thank you very much for listening
Aluta continua, Victoria ascerta!