In Search of a correct method for left activists in the Student Movement
Since the last time we wrote about the Convention of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) held in December 2012, more facts have emerged confirming our general political characterisation of NANS. More than this, these new revelations have again fueled the on-going debate within the left on the right method and approach to rebuild the student movement.
The Coalition of Left and Progressive Students (CLAPS) - a platform that played a direct role in the convention and presented a "left" candidate for the NANS presidency - has released a statement which as an eyewitness account of the convention provides copious revelations which confirms almost to the last detail our previous description of the rottenness of the NANS and how the left cannot hope to reclaim it simply by contesting alone. Every student activist has to read the statement of CLAPS over and over for in it you realise just how much work is needed to be done to reclaim the student movement.
Stating quite frankly the home truth, CLAPS correctly summed-up the convention as an unmitigated disaster. "The subsequent ‘elections’ were highly monetised. Many money-bag politicians sent their emissaries to support one candidate or the other with millions of naira deployed...In short, there was no difference between the Convention and that of PDP, ACN or other anti-poor party in the elite’s politics of Nigeria. The outcome of the Convention was quite predictable, an un-mitigated charade".
An Outcome Foreseen
This was not an over statement. A brief look at the convention says it all. "The Convention lasted six days (from 13th to 18th, December) and except for the last two days which were for the ‘elections’ (imposition per-se), the other days were wasted on the carrot and stick of lobbying genuine delegates on ground, and using violence to cow those amongst them that remained principled. Many radical and pro-student aspirants at the Convention were intimidated, attacked, and prevented from freely canvassing and contesting. Despite the insistence and protests of delegates that they preferred holding the convention on the campus, the Convention Planning Committee (CPC) in conjunction with the UNIUYO management, the Local Organising Committee (LOC) and the men of the SSS/Police Force frustrated the moves. At the Uyo Stadium, where the convention was held, the place was militarised and many genuine delegates and students were prevented from entering the venue of their own Convention!"
Against this background, CLAPS concluded that the convention "confirms the crass degeneracy in the students’ movement and the depth of control which reactionary pro-government forces wield over the students’ movement". This is something we in the DSM had pointed out severally to demonstrate the naivety of assuming that all that is needed to reclaim NANS is for the left to simply contest and go over to the convention ground to slug it out with the righgwings. Rather what is needed is for the left to organise to build a movement from below that can begin to fight around issues of education attacks and link this with the need to transform the leadership of students in the local unions as well as in NANS at all levels.
Unfortunately some left and radical students activists including those organised within CLAPS failed to understand this initially. They underestimated the level of the rot in NANS and the complete detachment of the leadership from the rank and file. They did not fully understand that NANS leadership has become a bureaucracy standing far above the mass of Nigerian students it claims to represent. It was not for nothing that there were no political discussion, evaluation of the state of the nation, education sector, reports etc which are parts of the constitutionally-provided agenda for every NANS meetings especially a convention. This is because there were no activities to report or discuss. The immediate-past leadership did not lift a single finger against any neo-liberal capitalist attacks on education and neither is the newly-elected leadership expected to do anything.
The complete destruction of the democratic structures of NANS which in the past permitted the mass of students some control and influence over the leadership is one of the biggest challenges to any efforts to reclaim NANS. It means that the leadership is now more than ever detached from the mass of students, uncontrollable by them and can do as it deem fit. This coupled with the fact that the leadership does not depend anymore on capitation dues of local unions but on State fund means that they are completely independent and do not have to worry about censure from the rank and file.
The situation in the labour movement is completely different and far ahead of the student movement. As bureaucratised as the leadership of most, if not all, trade unions in Nigerians are, the fact that they still largely depend on membership check-off dues for their salaries and privileges means they still have to look over their shoulders sometimes so that they do not completely alienate their members. It is therefore in their interest to occasionally feign radicalism and speak against one anti-poor policy or the other. As a result, it is quite possible to pile pressure on the trade union leaders to call strike actions and demonstrations even though they could betray it later. Last year in Oyo and Enugu States, workers stoned and even removed their leaders, albeit temporarily, when they failed to fight for implementation of the N18 000 minimum wage.
But the same cannot be said of NANS. Students do not even know who their NANS leaders are, not to talk of stoning them. Many leaders of NANS relocate to Abuja for the whole period of their tenure. They can only be found in the corridors of the National Assembly lobbying lawmakers and politicians for a share of their loots. Of course removing them is a daydream. They rarely call meetings and when they do so, this takes place in choice hotels completely out of reach of students.
The point has to be stressed that the degeneracy which is present in all unions in Nigeria today is far worse in the student movement. NANS is the only union in Nigeria that is not run on members dues! Indeed instead of funding NANS which is actually a confederation of local unions, rightwing leaders of local students unions now depend on "returns" from the leaders of NANS. This is why the question of who becomes NANS present is a "do or die" affair for the leaders of local unions who stands as delegates at NANS conventions. Therefore an expectation that a "left" candidate can win this kind of condition is nothing but a daydream. Not surprising "At the end of the fraudulent, unconstitutional, illegal and highly militarised/monetized charade called NANS Convention, non-students emerged as its critical leaders, with both the Convention Chairman and President-imposed!"
While the same task of rebuilding and putting in place a fighting and class-conscious leadership is the same for both the labour movement as well as the student movement today, the reality is that the difference in the level of degeneracy means that the methods will not quite be the same. At the same time too, a method that simply relies on contesting against the rightwing for the leadership of the labour movement without building alongside this a strong movement of rank and file workers from below will most definitely fail just as it failed at the NANS convention.
Marxists have always recognised that the ultimate test of theory is practise. We in the ERC are therefore glad that having gone to the convention, it appears the activists in CLAPS are beginning to find their way back to the correct approach. We will be prepared to continue to debate with the left and activists in CLAPS over questions of methods and tactics to reclaim the student movement. These debates are necessary to clarify the right way forward and we believe both our tendencies will gain enormously from it.
Danger of Ultra-Leftism
In drawing conclusions about how to move forward, the left has to be careful of not swinging from one incorrect position to another completely dangerous one. For instance in summing up its statement, CLAPS declared: "We...reject the outcome of the NANS 2012 CONVENTION in its entirety! And we call on all change-seeking students to also reject the Convention. It is high time that we join hands in building a clear, vibrant alternative to the monstrous, anti-students bureaucracy, euphemistically referred to as the “Stakeholders” that have hijacked the organisation".
The call to "reject the outcome" of the convention sounds radical enough. But it is an unproductive approach. If students were actually in a position to reject the outcome of the convention then it is not likely the NANS rightwings would have been able to successfully organise a convention with all those absurdities in the first place. More so these elements do not need students' endorsement (or funding!) to function anyway so how would rejection affect or stop them? Besides, if it is sufficient to just call for the rejection of the newly-elected NANS leadership, then what happens to their acomplices - the leadership of the local unions who voted them at the convention in exchange for wads of Naira notes? Are they not as guilty?
Activists in CLAPS have to understand the rot in NANS goes beyond just the leadership at the top; it percolates directly down the entire edifice of the movement. Only a complete transformation of the leadership of the student movement at all levels (in the local unions as wells as in NANS) can open the way for the building of a genuine, democratic and fighting platform of students. Just as simply contesting is no way out so also simply rejecting them resolves nothing. The most fundamental and decisive reason the NANS rightwing bureaucracy and/or stakeholders have become so entrenched in the student movement and have been able to get away with all kinds of betrayals now as much as in the past is because of the throwback in the consciousness of students.
This throwback in consciousness is sharply reflected in the low strength of the left and radical groups on campuses today. Expecting no mass challenge from anywhere, the NANS bureaucracy is able to strike any bargain and deals with the ruling elite as it likes. If they were challenged anywhere at all, it is from disgruntled local union leaders or stakeholders complaining about not having gotten a fair share of the loot. For the mass of students, it is as if NANS does not exist.
Therefore instead of simply calling for rejection of the newly-elected NANS leadership, the best productive approach is for the left to begin to organise more agressively among students on campuses around issues of education attacks and of course linking this with the need to reclaim the student movement from the rightwing elements in control of NANS as well as the local student unions.
This is why we fully agree with the task of "building a clear, vibrant alternative to the monstrous, anti-students bureaucracy euphemistically referred to as the "Stakeholders" that have hijacked the organisation". We will be prepared to "join hands" with any group that subscribes to this agenda. This to us mean building a movement from below around issues of education attacks like fee hike, underfunding, poor welfare conditions, attacks on independent unionism and victimisation and linking this with the need to reclaim NANS or form a new platform.
These issues are prevalent on campuses today. All around the country, fees have been hiked beyond what students from working class background can afford. The conditions of hostel and teaching facilities are appalling. According to the CNANU report, more than half of the Universities in Nigeria suffer from shortage of academic staff and quality teaching facilities. Meanwhile the meagre allocation to education in the 2013 appropriation bill means things will get worse while attacks on education will increase in the next period.
Therefore a serious campaign that begins to challenge these attacks will not only be warmly received by the mass of students, it will also begin to pile pressure on the leadership of the local unions and the NANS leadership to fight. Fighting would mean clashing with the capitalist ruling elite that feeds them, on the other hand not fighting would most certainly mean risking a revolt of the mass of students against their leadership and completely losing their authority. Despite their complete detachment from students, the NANS leadership likes to think it commands over "40 million Nigerian students" when in reality its commands none. A mass revolt will bring this illusion quickly to an end.
Of course there is no guarantee that faced with this options they would fight at all. But as we have pointed out elsewhere, even if they fight under pressure, it would be to betray the struggle at some point once they feel safe enough to do so. But at that point, it would be clear, not just to the left and activists as it is now, but most importantly to the mass of students that it is high time the pro-state, rightwing elements were flushed out and a new democratic and fighting platform erected on the genuine ideas of solidarity and struggle.
National Coordinator, ERC.