For years now, successive leaderships of NANS have been completely rightwing, anti-struggle and pro-state. In January during the widely-supported general strike and mass protest against fuel subsidy removal, NANS stood out shamefully on the side of Jonathan's anti-poor government. With the unrelenting capitalist neo-liberal attack on the right to education and years of betrayals by the NANS leadership, some activists and the left are beginning to once again ask: Can NANS be revived? This article was written in December 2012 before the NANS Convention held in Uyo
H.T Soweto (National Coordinator, Education Rights Campaign)
The condition of the student movement is evidently not alright. For close to 20 years the student movement has lacked a vibrant and fighting national leadership with the ideological and political decay of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS).
At the moment, the most crucial task for activists and the left in the student movement is how to build a fighting and vibrant national student movement that can begin to challenge government's neo-liberal capitalist policies of education underfunding and commercialization and anti-poor program in general. This perhaps explains the renewed interest of some on the left in the December 13 convention of NANS.
There can be no doubt that the desire to build a fighting national student leadership is completely in order. With a fighting national student platform, it can be possible to unite Nigerian students in a common struggle against anti-poor education policies and mobilize them for joint action and solidarity with workers and other sections of the youths in the overall struggle against the capitalist neo-liberal agenda. However it is not just enough to desire something, it very crucial also knows the best methods to fight for it.
The rot in NANS is huge and phenomenal. NANS has completely lost its legitimacy and mass base as most students do not even know it exists anymore. Some left groups have argued that there is still some potential in NANS and part of the reason the rightwing elements remain entrenched in NANS leadership is because the left have abandoned intervention in it.
Compared with reality, this may not be completely correct. In terms of the struggles that have broken out over the past 10 years or more in the student movement over issues of fee hikes, victimisation, welfare conditions and other education attacks, NANS has had little or no role to play. In many cases, these struggles have occurred because students on campuses organised or mobilised on their own to compel their local unions to fight or through the efforts of campaigning groups like the Education Rights Campaign (ERC) and some few students' ideological organisations that still exist on some campuses mainly in the South West.
The danger is that some on the left exaggerate the real weight and importance of NANS. Such would have been true when NANS still had its mass base and connection to the campuses. Added to this is the complete destruction of the culture of democratic debate in NANS which for years, an even in the period of the most rightwing leadership, allowed the left to intervene with fighting programmes and socialist ideas. Through this the left could reach out to genuine student activists with ideas of struggle. It was possible then to build through NANS.
Things are quite different today. NANS senate meetings are hardly held and hence there is no avenue for such debates. The conventions, which are now held in choice hotels instead of on campus, are theatres of war with different contestants heavily funded by parties and politicians arming cultists to gain victory. How can a left organisation hope to gain from intervention among gun-wielding cultists all in the name of not abandoning NANS? More so no genuine students or activists attend because of the violent nature of NANS meetings and conventions, therefore who do we reach out to with radical ideas or recruit if the left intervene? Definitely no one.
The only politically gainful way to work is for the left to intervene more deeply and systematically among rank and file of students as well as education workers on campuses. This kind of work will entail patient campaigning for the rebuilding of the local unions, building a movement against education attacks on individual campuses and linking this together into a national movement.
Ordinarily given its complete disconnection from the rank and file, NANS should have ceased to exist altogether. However it has some unique features which have sustained it till now. This is the mutual interests of the NANS leadership and the rightwing leadership of local unions in using the platform to negotiate for payment from governments and politicians. NANS is like a huge meal ticket. This is why despite its complete disconnection, NANS can still attract attendance of local unions at its convention most of whom are always mobilised with money and with each candidate providing hotel accommodation for their supporters.
But this does not mean NANS has any real potential or weight. On October 1st 2012, a protest called by the NANS Zone D in Lagos attracted less than 100 while on the same day a demo in Ibadan called by the Joint Action Front (JAF) and the Education Rights Campaign (ERC) had more than 2,000. A demo called by the ERC on the same day at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) had about 50. According to the NANS Zone D leaders, many of the union leaders requested for payment to attend the protest!
This again shows that the rot in NANS cannot just be simplified to the question of taking leadership alone. In any case, the rot in NANS is not just the product of the successive right wing elements who have continuously occupied its leadership for years now. The enduring rot in NANS also has something to do with the ideological retreat in the student movement over the past 17 years which is a product of many factors including, but not restricted to, consistent attacks by the school management and government against student activists and students' left organisations. All this has caused low level of consciousness among students, a condition which best suits and sustains the right wings in the local unions and NANS.
The level of consciousness has to always guide and define what the left can do and cannot, this means not tailing as well as not going beyond what present level of consciousness can achieve or sustain. Without building a movement around those issues that immediately affect students (like issues of inadequate hostel accommodation, fee hike, bad welfare conditions etc.) and linking this with the need to reclaim NANS, any efforts no matter how sincere to win leadership of NANS will end up in futility as most students will see it as the least important of their problems. Only an effort to reclaim NANS that is backed by mass arousal and mobilisation of students can win and this is impossible without building a movement first around issues of education attacks from which students consciousness can be raised to comprehend the task of reclaiming NANS or forming a new platform.
Simply fighting electorally to hijack leadership of NANS from the right wings or declaring an alternative faction is not enough to begin to revive the student movement. What is needed is patient work of building an independent mass movement from below that has roots in the rank and file and that can begin to challenge attacks on education while linking this with the task of changing the leadership of NANS or building an alternative platform. This was why the DSM formed the Education Rights Campaign (ERC) in 2004 as a campaigning body to rally students around a programme of mass struggle against education attacks and for defence of democratic rights of workers and students. Added to this too is the task of building left organisations on campuses as a basis to begin to revive radical ideology of change among students.
Without doing this, the only other alternative way to reclaim the student movement would be to seek to engage the rightwing jobbers in NANS using their methods of employing state support, getting support of anti-poor political parties and politicians and arming cultists. The reality is that for as long as leaders of local unions are preponderantly rightwing and pro-State, it will most certainly be difficult if not impossible for the left to win electorally on the basis of genuine programme of struggle.
Some on the left may be prepared to cut a bit of their programmes in order to seek some support from opposition political parties like the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and the Labour Party (LP), both of which may have interest to win NANS out of the control of the ruling Peoples' Democratic Party (PDP) at the upcoming convention especially as the presidency of NANS is coming to the South West zone. This kind of approach, if it ever succeeds, would most certainly not lead to the emergence of an independent, democratic, radical and fighting NANS.
The point has to be made that seeking to challenge the NANS rightwing elements through election is not a bad idea. What is wrong is the illusion built around it as if this is the only way out. The question is what happens if the left fails in the convention? Would it mean that the task of reviving the student movement would have to wait till the next convention?
But if properly prosecuted with the right programme and method, a contest in an election can help to popularise the programme of the left on the kind of leadership students need. In 2008, the DSM contested for NANS Zone D coordinatorship. Even though we lost such was the strength and attraction of the campaign that it immediately popularised the ERC which students turned to a year later during the strike of University workers. The ERC was able to build for itself a position among students rank and file from which it was able to call series of mass protests in major cities across the South west in solidarity with striking workers in 2009.
This was possible because we did not see the election as the end but as a means to build a movement from below to challenge education attacks. Only the building of this kind of mass and independent movement from below challenging anti-poor education attacks and linking this with the need to rebuild the local campus students unions can open the way for the revival of NANS or the building of an alternative fighting platform of students.
Despite the rot in NANS, retreat in radical ideas and other factors that we have described above, a lot can be achieved if the left wins a position in the leadership of NANS provided this victory is not procured through dirty compromises with one so-called "progressive" anti-poor political party or the other and there is a clear independent programme to build. A serious left leadership can quickly begin the work of returning NANS to the campus, making NANS more democratic and dependent on funding from affiliate local unions and most importantly drawing out a fighting programme to begin to challenge governments' neo-liberal capitalist education policies on all campuses and nationally.
Sadly the scenario of the left wining NANS leadership through an independent electoral campaign and without dirty compromises is completely unlikely in the present condition in the student movement. This is only possible in a condition of conscious mass arousal of students to take back their organisation, something which is not happening now. This is part of the reason the DSM continue to emphasize the work of patiently building our ranks on campuses and raising campaigns to build a strong movement from below that recognises the link between neo-liberal capitalist attacks on education and the need to rebuild the unions and take back NANS. As a step in this direction, we call for the unity of the left in the student movement around campaigns and actions against education attacks on campuses round the country.