Does The New Leadership Represent a New Dawn For The Student Movement?
Statement of the Education Rights Campaign (ERC)
(This statement was written in December 2012 just a few weeks after the NANS convention which held from 13th-18th December 2012. Since then, about two other presidential candidates have reportedly declared factions, confirming once again that the chief interest of the candidates were not to defend the interests of students but to acquire a position to negotiate pecuniary gains with the government. Also, the Coalition of Left and Progressive Students (CLAPS) whose role at the convention we have reviewed below has issued a statement analysing the convention, its role and the next steps. This and other developments could not be captured in the statement below. They will be addressed in future articles about the condition of the student movement and what the tactics and methods of the left and genuine activists should be.)
The convention of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) has just been held in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State. After an over one week-long convention, a new leadership has finally emerged. Interestingly the elected NANS President, Yinka Gbadegbo (Ayefele), hails from Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) - a University where the culture of fighting student unionism and left organisations still exist.
The first time a OAU student held a national position in NANS was 1984 when Lanre Arogundade (a member of the Democratic Socialist Movement) and former secretary general of the OAU students union became president. That period saw a spirited campaign by NANS against government anti-poor education policy of education commercialisation which climaxed in a nationwide lecture boycott and mass protest.
Unfortunately, such fighting leadership however cannot be expected of the newly elected NANS leadership despite that the newly-elected president comes from the same University. Indeed the point has to be stressed that this new leadership does not in any way represent a new dawn for the student movement. From the point of view of how they emerged at the convention as well as the antecedents of the elements newly elected into the NANS leadership now, there is no basis for any hope that NANS would be any different from the past and begin to fight vigorously against education attacks.
THE CONVENTION IN RESTROPECT
Heavily-armed police, the State Security Service (SSS) and at some point soldiers had to be deployed to prevent violence that has become the permanent feature of the convention in the recent years. Nevertheless, the convention paraded all the same negative characteristics that have been the bane of NANS for years now. It was a complete charade. None of the candidates got the official ratification of the local student unions to contest. Even if in certain cases they did, it was more as a secret arrangement among the leadership of the union and not subjected to public debate at the union's parliament or congress which would have allowed more layers of students to participate in deciding whether or not a candidate should be presented as a ticket of their university's union.
An instructive example of the sham that was passed off as a convention is the candidature of Yinka Gbadebo (who eventually emerged winner) and Adelu Monehin James (Bobby) who both claimed to be the approved ticket of the OAU Students' Union. However, not only has the OAU Students' Union been proscribed for about 22 months now which means there was no parliament to discuss and ratify candidates for the convention, but neither of the candidates actively campaigned on the campus they claimed to represent. Thus it was with surprise that many OAU students received the news that someone from the University had won as NANS president.
According to the real constitution of NANS, the membership of NANS is based on the students' unions in the universities and not individual student activists. This means that it is the students' unions which contest elections and not individual activists. In other words, it is the students' union through its valid delegate that is required to present a candidate who has the mandate of the union to contest at the NANS convention. With this, there is no way two candidates would have gone to a convention claiming to be the tickets of a union. Indeed, it is the obligation of the students' union to fund the campaign and election. This is unlike what has obtained in over a decade now where candidates run around anti-poor politicians' houses and government offices to seek fund to finance their campaign and election. The essence of having the students' unions as the only statutory members of NANS and that candidates derive mandate to contest from the students' unions is to ensure that the NANS leadership is democratic, accountable to rank and file students and willing to lead a fight in defence of rights and interests of students.
But all this did not matter at this convention. Indeed at the convention, it was not only about multiple candidates from a single school, there were many cases of multiple delegates claiming to be the authentic representatives of a union. The convention planning committee simply resolved this little problem by picking their preferred delegate from the whole lot. Through this completely undemocratic method, many unions ended being represented by elements who were not even elected officials.
THE ROLE OF THE STATE
In addition, millions of naira were spent by the candidates to buy votes. Not only did large sums of money play a role in determining who the delegates voted for, State power was a major factor too. Many of the candidates had amassed a war chest of money from politicians and government and were able to spend hundreds of thousands bribing delegates to get their votes. According to reports, bribes-for-vote ranged from N22, 000 to N30, 000 per head. The availability of large sums of money to a majority of the leading candidates perhaps explains the closeness of the result. The winner Yinka Gbadegbo had 32 votes, the first runner up got 31 while the third got 28 votes.
The defining factor was State power. On the basis of the zoning formula of NANS presidency, it is now the turn of the South West to hold the office. However given the fact that the ruling party in the South West is the opposition Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) ruling at the federal level gave the convention everything it required to get a PDP-compliant NANS leadership. This is because the NANS has for years proved to be a useful marionette in the hands of any political party that has control over it. The national leadership of NANS for instance supported and actively campaigned for President Jonathan in the 2011 elections while its zonal and state leaderships also supported any political party or candidate in their own domain willing to pay the price.
In a way the convention was a straight fight between two anti-poor and pro-capitalist political parties - the PDP and ACN. At the end it was not the desire of students for a fighting NANS leadership that defined who won or lost at the convention. It was the desire of different section of the capitalist ruling elite to continue to have a pliant NANS incapable of fighting the least of government neo-liberal capitalist attacks on education rights.
OLD WINE IN SAME OLD BOTTLE
Yinka Gbadebo a.k.a Ayefele who emerged as President has been in the student movement perhaps as far back as the year 2000. Until recently when he registered as an OAU student, he has always been known as part of the NANS "stakeholders" from the University of Ado-Ekiti (UNAD) now Ekiti State University (EKSU).
By "stakeholders" is meant a motley crowd of rightwing old guards, some of whom are non-students or have long graduated, who constitute themselves as "elders" or "kingmakers" within NANS. Indeed for them NANS is a "meal ticket" and with NANS they are often able to negotiate out regular payments from government and politicians. Because of their closeness to politicians, they often become the handlers of new union or NANS leaders, helping them to learn the ropes and navigate the corridors of power.
In 2007, Ayefele was a Secretary General of a faction of NANS led by Yinka Dada (aka Saddam). During this period, the different factional NANS leaderships made fortunes from supporting anti-poor political parties and politicians during the 2007 general elections. There is no known evidence of any struggle or campaign led by this faction against the many attacks on education rights during this period. Even in EKSU, known then as UNAD, Ayefele and other "stakeholders" were known by many genuine activists as pro-government and completely hostile to struggle.
Given Ayefele''s antecedents and records in the student movement as well as the state support he enjoys which helped him win at the convention, there can be no reason to entertain hope, even for a moment, that his leadership of NANS could make any difference. His leadership would most probably mean the continuation of the same old rotten compromises of NANS with government and the absence of any program of action to resist attacks on public education and democratic rights of students. However, under pressure from a monumental mass movement of students, he could lead one or two struggles or make some radical speeches. But, as experiences have shown, in reality this would be to deceive students or use the struggle as a bargaining chip with the government or the authorities of higher institutions
THE "LEFT" CHALLENGE
A political review of the convention will not be complete without examining the role of the left in the election. Prior to now, the Socialist Workers League (SWL) whose student and youth wing is known as the Socialist Youth League (SYL), had promoted the wrong perspective that all that it requires to reclaim NANS is for the left to mobilise behind a left candidate for presidency of the platform and go to the convention to slug it out with the entrenched right wings. This simplistic perspective equally envisaged the prospect that the left could also declare a faction in the event that it is impossible to win at the convention. This is in spite of the weakness of the left in the student movement today! Elsewhere we have debated this perspective of the SYL and others on the "left" (see NANS: Can it be reclaimed and how?)
Based on this perspective, the SYL presented a candidate, Dayo Shoyoye (Dee One) for NANS president from the Lagos State University (LASU) and organised a broad platform, Coalition of Left and Progressive Students (CLAPS), to mobilise support for the candidate.
Despite claiming to be left, their campaign largely aped the same method of the right wing elements which involved not campaigning among the mass of students but just lobbying the union leaders and "stakeholders". While there is nothing ordinarily wrong with lobbying union leaders, the reality today is that majority of leaders of the local unions are right wing and anti-struggle, most of them are obstacles to the development of mass struggles against education attacks on their campuses. They are therefore as guilty as the NANS leaders of the same crime of selling-out students' struggles. Only a mass campaign rooted among students on campuses and linking the NANS election with a programme to fight education attacks can begin to build an effective pressure on the union leaders to vote a left candidate at the NANS convention. Such a campaign must also have a programme to rebuild the local unions as democratic mass unions of students with fighting leadership, without which the desire to reclaim NANS will be unrealisable.
But the SYL did not run this kind of mass campaign. There was no massive circulation of campaign materials on campuses. No public meetings or symposia to build support! Nothing to build an active base among students to back the campaign! While the production of the CLAPS Newsletter was positive step, it could not have had desirable impact having been merely circulated at the convention ground to delegates and "stakeholders" who have no appetite for political discussion and can only recognise the scent of naira notes. This is more so as the convention was not held on a campus and thereby disconnected from mass of students.
Without any doubt, a spirited mass campaign of the left for NANS leadership conducted on campuses and among students clearly outlining programmes to revive NANS and build a movement against education attacks would still not have won in the present circumstance in the student movement. But it could have made some real difference in terms of politically educating students, recruitment and rebuilding of radical consciousness on many campuses.
But the SYL could not do all this not just because of an error in theory; there was also a complete compromise in practice. These compromises involved underhand dealings with anti-poor opposition or "progressive" political parties and politicians in a bid to garner support strong enough to confront the entrenched right wing elements who in most cases count on the support of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). On the campaign team of the SYL were some known cohorts of Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) governments in the South West.
Relying more on state support instead of building mass support from below, the SYL gave in to opportunism. Given the dirty compromises, a victory for the "left" candidate may not even have meant a difference in the character of NANS especially considering the fact that some of the biggest attacks on education are at present from the ACN- controlled states in the South West.
THE WAY FORWARD
Any illusion in the newly elected NANS leadership will only lead to disappointment. The only way forward is to build a movement from below around issues of education attacks to pile pressure on the NANS leadership to fight. Only this approach and method can strengthen the left. There are a lot of attacks around which this movement can be built. These include fee hike, worsening teaching and living conditions on campuses, proscription of unions and victimisation of students and staff activists as well as education under funding.
How the leadership responds to this pressure and the strength of the movement will determine whether or not NANS can be reclaimed or whether a new alternative platform needs to be built. Opportunism and short-cuts will only cause demoralisation and drag back the movement. The DSM and ERC are committed to building such a movement and we urge the left and genuine activists to unite to build a fighting student movement that can open the way for the revival of NANS or the building of an alternative platform.