By Femi Adebajo and Joshua Olamide (ERC UNILAG.)
After several years of agitation for the restoration of the students' Union at the University of Lagos (UNILAG), the management of the institution has now decided to inaugurate a constitution drafting committee to draft “a suitable constitution" as a step for reinstating a central students platform for the university.
Meanwhile the composition of the committee is undemocratic as all its members were selected by the management without any opportunity for the mass of students to have a say. Also observers are not allowed into the meetings of the committee.
It could be recalled that the Students’ Union of UNILAG was proscribed about a decade ago. Since then the students have been without a platform to fight for their rights on campus. However, with several outbreaks of protests in the university in the past few years, it soon became clear that a platform of students is urgently needed to defend students' rights on campus.
The decision by the school authorities to begin the process of returning the union at this period cannot but be related to the series of students' protests in the recent time. Starting with the protest against the arbitrary change of the name of the university to Moshood Abiola University by President Goodluck Jonathan on "democracy day" in May 2012, to the protest against inflated prices of commodities in the university community in 2013, which was also followed by a protest by Theater Art students against harassment, and lastly the recent protest against extortion of students over late course registration. These protests have something in common which is that they were effective but lack leadership, and students had however used each protest as an opportunity to agitate for the return of the students' union.
However while conceding to the growing mood for the return of the Union, the management has other agenda. From all indications, it seems clear that the management is scheming to install a union that will be pliant, pro-management and unable to defend students interests. For instance, the management has been pushing for a model known as the Students' Representative Council (SRC) to be adopted as an alternative to the students union.
To us in the UNILAG chapter of the Education Rights Campaign (ERC), we have openly condemned this model in our statement released on campus. Our argument is that this model is meant to detach the mass of students from having full and direct control of the union and the leadership. The proposed structure of the SRC being pushed forward by the management is nothing different from the current Council of Faculty Presidents, the only difference will be to increase the number of the members. Under this model, only a select few elected into the SRC will run the Union while the mass of students will be no more than spectators. Also this model will allow the management to easily interfere and control the union.
However before the UNILAG students’ union was proscribed, it had an SRC but the SRC as well as the Executive and all other arms of the union were answerable to the Congress. The congress allows all matriculated students of the University to control their union, discipline any erring officers and formulate the activities, programs and direction of the union. This alternative model which the ERC is pushing forward is the best way to ensure that the new UNILAG Students Union will be independent of the management and capable of defending students interests.
The university authorities also informed the general public that they sent some delegations to countries like Ghana, South Africa, Russia among others to study the mode of students’ unionism and according to their reports, the SRC seemed to be the best that UNILAG should adopt.
No doubt, the authorities ventured into a wasteful voyage looking for a model for UNILAG students when the solution to the problem is here at home. Indeed there is no need to go to the moon. The starting point of the work of the constitution review committee should be the old constitution of the proscribed UNILAG Students Union. This constitution still exists. It is our conviction that if the same constitution successfully guided the UNILAG Students Union for decades before its proscription, then there is no reason why the same constitution cannot be adopted for the new union waiting to be restored.
To raise the consciousness of students on the plan of the management to impose the SRC model, the ERC produced thousands of leaflets and circulated them in various hostels and faculties calling on students to agitate for reinstatement of the students union. Our leaflets have drawn students support towards us and we believe it is also part of the reason some members of the committee called congresses days ago ostensibly to take students views on the model they want.
The congresses took place at the Faculty of Art, King Jaja hostel, Eni-Njoku hostel and Shodeinde hostel. Members of the ERC participated fully at all the centres except Shodeinde hostel because our members there were yet to resume. We participated alongside our leaflets and Socialist Democracy (paper of the Democratic Socialist Movement). At all the centres, where we intervened, our position was made clear and we urged students not to have illusions that the union would be restored on a platter of gold but it would involve relentless mass struggle. This point is very important because this is not the first time the Management has embarked on constitution review and nothing came out of the previous exercises. In 2008, a constitution drafting committee was set up which at the end of its work submitted a draft constitution but till this moment the management has failed to inaugurate the union.
The ERC calls for a mass-based, independent and democratic students union whose leadership is answerable to students and positioned to defend students and workers interest. We also call for a union whose leadership must derive its legitimacy from the mass of the students through a free and fair election devoid of management's interference. Our position for a constitution that defines the role of the central executive alongside the parliament, judiciary and Congress as organs of the union was widely supported by students. At the end of the meeting, students moved to our stall to get copies of our papers. 4 copies of the Socialist Democracy were sold and 3 students put down their names to join the ERC.