Friday, 30 January 2015

Austerity: An Open Call for the Building of a Movement to Resist Imminent Attacks on Public Education



Statement of the Education Rights Campaign (ERC) to Students Unions, NANS, NAPS, Left Organisations, Radical Groups and Activists in the Students' Movement

Nigeria has entered into a period of economic crisis arising out of the plunge in crude oil price. Crude oil sale accounts for about 95% of export earnings and 80% of government revenue.

Whoever wins the February 14, 2015 presidential elections, whether Goodluck Jonathan or Muhammadu Buhari, would be compelled by the global oil price crisis to implement austerity measures that will create immense hardship. This is because in spite of alleged differences between the two, both Buhari and Jonathan are apostles of the unjust capitalist system whose inherent contradictions is responsible for the current global oil price fall and the periodic and alternating cycle of boom and bursts which has destroyed economies and blighted living standards of the working class and youth not just in Africa but across the world.
                                                  
The Finance Minister and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, Okonjo Iweala has described the crisis as a "permanent shock" (The Nation Newspaper 21 Nov. 2014). A euphemism for a disaster we have no hope of getting out from any time soon. Right now oil price hovers below $50 per barrel - down from $115 in June 2014. Likewise, despite efforts by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to defend the currency, the Naira continues to depreciate rapidly. Some days ago, Naira exchanged at N208 to a dollar on the parallel market.

Now strident alarms are being sounded that what remains of foreign reserve can only cover a few months of import. This is a bad news for an import-dependent economy like Nigeria. Growth forecast for the year 2015 has now been reviewed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to 5% down from 7%. The 2015 budget was dead on arrival at the National Assembly last December. While it proposes $65 as oil benchmark (which had to be reviewed twice), it would call for a national celebration if crude oil price increases to $60 in the next few months. But even as unworkable as it already is, the 2015 budget proposal already foreshadows the fundamental attacks on public education and social services to be expected. Already a substantial cut has been effected in the proposed capital expenditure of the 2015 budget from N1.3 trillion to N627 billion. These means that despite current large deficit in public infrastructure, investment to improve facilities in schools, hospitals, roads, housing, electricity and water provision etc will be substantially reduced this year.

Mass consciousness has currently failed to grasp the enormity of the crises. This is because of the on-going election campaigns which while raising the hope of "change" has helped to blind large sections of the working class and poor. This is more so because there is no anti-capitalist party or an alternative mass workers political party contesting in the elections. But this state of consciousness would be temporary especially because the assault on our very existence will begin immediately after the elections no matter who wins. Already fundamental attacks have being announced to take off after elections. One is the hike in electricity tariff billed for July 2015. More is to be expected.

Austerity measures and the accompanying resistance will most certainly create a condition for the class struggle to grow and the possibility of the labour movement calling for general strikes and nationwide rallies and mass protests once again. However what will permanently defeat the attacks and ensure that we are saved from constant economic crises that destroy working peoples livelihoods is the replacement of the irrational capitalist system with a democratic socialist system that can permit the use of Nigeria's enormous oil wealth for real development in society and a higher living standard for the mass majority.

Most certainly, with the economic crisis will come a flurry of harsh austerity measures to save the free market economy from collapse. Public education, healthcare, the minimum wage, the civil service and our already miserable living standards will be subjected to the most brutal cuts. Retrenchment in the public and private sector will come while the army of unemployed will swell. Unemployment currently stands at 24% and poverty at 71%. The quality and standards in public primary and secondary schools will further plummet. Already working class parents who have their children and wards in private schools have to pay thousands and in certain cases hundreds of thousands of naira for tuition and other charges. Starting from the mid-90s, many middle class and working class parent were compelled to accept private schools at least at primary and secondary levels as the only available alternative to the wholesale destruction of public schools by government policy of underfunding. This is in spite of the expensive fees charged. However imagine the horror when private schools now further increase fees in the condition of downward decline in the value of wages that the economic crisis will create! This could mean private schools may become theatres of struggle in the coming period. In addition, teachers and non-academic staff will have their working conditions attacked. Ultimately the gains recently won by staff unions in the education sector will be threatened. This may lead to another round of strikes and disruptions in the academic calendar.

Fees will be hiked in public tertiary institutions. Universities like the Lagos State University (LASU) where a major fee battle was won last year will be threatened by the possibility of a re-introduction of high fees. If this happens, the argument of the new government in Lagos will be the same: To build a 21st century university, you have to pay more! As things stand now, attempts are already being made to claw back the gains of the struggles. Few people outside of LASU remember today that in the wake of the defeat of the fee hike last year after a 6-month long struggle, the Lagos State government was compelled not only to reverse the fee completely but also to enter into an agreement to release a sum of N69 million to refund all students who had to pay the hiked fees in the 2013/2014 academic session. Till today and with just about four (4) months to the end of incumbent Governor Babatunde Fashola's tenure, this has not materialised! Also many of the students and members of staff who played leading roles in the struggle are now being victimised.

Students of the Olabisi Onabanjo University (OOU) whose fee battle was truncated before it could achieve victory last year must be ready to defend even the current level of fees. This is because as State governments are finding it difficult to pay workers, the question of adequate allocation to schools would be the least on their agenda. And where allocations to schools fall short, the default response of school administration is to pass the responsibility to students by hiking fees.

Same goes for the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) Ile Ife. The blind alley of the policy of "diplomacy", as opposed to mass struggle being the basis upon which any negotiations take place, is being exposed in the current situation in OAU. If it was difficult for the University administration to reduce the fees last year, it would take real, bitter and bold mass struggle to force a reduction, not to talk of a reversal, now in the era of austerity. Even if as is expected, the Federal government orders reduction of the fees, this would be no more than a decision made by President Jonathan because of elections that would be reversed immediately the government feels comfortable.

A Yoruba adage says: "a calamity that befalls one's peer is a warning to oneself". Fees were recently hiked at the Federal University of Petroleum Resources (FUPRE) leading to spontaneous protest on Monday 26 January 2015. This is just the first salvo of what will be an all-out assault against public education once the elections are over. Unlike last year when only a few institutions had their fees hiked, the coming period will see a generalised increase in fees under all kinds of guises. This why the Education Rights Campaign (ERC) is also calling for a generalised resistance. We need a resistance that unites all students across campuses with education workers and the wider working class in a joint struggle against austerity policies.

The ERC is a campaign platform formed by the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) in 2004 against the background of the ideological collapse of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS). This ideological collapse of NANS still exists till today. But it has become worse. There is hardly any Students Union across campuses in Nigeria today whose leadership is not populated by rightwing elements who see struggle as unnecessary even in the face of the most provocative assault on students rights and conditions. When these unions struggle at all, it is because the leadership was forced to do so by mass pressure from students.

However the point that must be made is that the predominantly rightwing character of the leadership of the student movement has seriously complicated the condition of struggle. Now we have in the student movement a situation where the consciousness of the students falls very short of the demands and severity of their situation. It is like the horse of the student movement is behind its cart. When students protest at all, in most cases, it is in reaction to injustice committed years ago. At the Michael Otedola Collage of Primary Education (MOCPED) in Epe Lagos, degree students have only just started protesting against a four-year old scam in which students pay fees, attend classes and write exams only to complete their studies without statement of result or certificate. Results are rarely released at every end of the semester. You would have thought struggle would have developed on that kind of issue long before now. Only on a few campuses where left and radical organisations exist are struggles developing correspondingly to attacks. But even here, rightwing union leaders are still successfully holding back struggle.

However the successful struggle against LASU fees last year boldly shows that this situation in the student movement can be overcome if activists, left organisations, ideological and radical groups unite around a campaign to step up struggle. Before the Student Union leadership of LASU became willing to lead the struggle, it was the work done by the Education Rights Campaign (ERC) and the #SaveLASU Campaign Movement that first popularised the issue of LASU fee hike, pushed it to the front burner of public discourse and compelled the State government to begin to defend itself in the media. With the working class later joining the struggle for reversal of the fees through strikes led by ASUU and SSANU LASU as well as the May Day protest by the Joint Action Front (JAF), it was only a matter of time before the State government acquiesced.

In the present circumstance in the student movement, we need to begin to organise and prepare for the eventuality of austerity attacks on the education. It is inevitable that there is currently within the student movement and generally in society a feeling of "the attacks aren’t here yet". This may even become more pronounced in a situation where the opposition wins the February 14, 2015 general elections. However no one must be fooled. Whatever feeling of restraint will be temporary. For as soon as the new capitalist government stabilizes itself, it would launch into the job of saving the system by applying cuts to education and other social services. In 1984 under the impact of a similar crises caused by oil price decline, Buhari government cancelled the University cafeteria system which was a system of subsidized feeding. Its cancellation meant the removal of an important crucial support system that permitted vast sections of poor students to apply for and complete University education in the 70s.

The benefit of preparation allows us not to be caught unawares. For instance what the victorious LASU struggle teaches is that when a campaign already exists, it can immediately take advantage of a changed situation and become a mass pole of attraction for those who want to fight back. A sort of an Anti-Austerity campaign/coalition uniting left groups, student unions, rank and file activists across campuses can begin now the most important work of preparing the student movement by first and foremost organising activities to raise the political level of the movement to comprehend the enormity of the situation we are in. Secondly, this alliance or coalition can also begin the work of campaigning for the NANS and other official platforms of students to develop a fighting program to resist the inevitable attacks.

When the attack eventually comes, the rightwing leadership of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) will come under severe test. This is because the severity of the imminent attacks on education will demand methods of resistance that goes far beyond the capacity of individual campuses. The question of a nationwide one-day lecture boycott and mass protests may come back to the front burner of the student movement once again. To resist austerity attacks on education in 1984, Nigerian students led by NANS embarked on nationwide boycott and demonstration. Building a campaign or coalition that links activists, left groups and unions across campuses is a good starting point to begin to demonstrate the scale of resistance required and build the forces that can play leading roles in organising a fightback.

The ERC is calling for the building of a united campaign against cuts and for an alternative to the capitalist policy of austerity.

We put forward the following points to be the basis of a campaign. We are prepared to work with all forces that genuinely want to stop the cuts but, at the same time, the ERC believes it is necessary to outline an alternative to this crisis ridden system.

While we do not insist that all participants in the campaign agree with all our ideas, apart from the fundamental point of opposition to all cuts, we believe that the movement needs to have an alternative which, in the ERC’s view would be based around the following:

(1) An alternative to austerity that demands reversal of all hiked fees and improvement in the budgetary allocation to education

(2) Massive public works program to rebuild and improve teaching and living conditions in the education sector  from primary to tertiary levels.

(3) A genuine free education policy to ensure that the over 10.5 million out-of-school children are absorbed into schools and receive quality education.

(4) Democratisation of the management of the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) to include elected representatives of teachers, students and parents in order for the public to be able to monitor and stop the entrenched corruption in this agency which has affected its effectiveness.

(5) Payment of a Cost of Studying Allowance (COSA) to all students of tertiary institutions to cover costs of textbooks, feeding, clothing and transport.

(6) Jobs for all graduates. For an adequate unemployment allowance to be paid to all graduates without a job.

(7) Implementation of all collective agreements with staff unions, improvement in the wages and conditions of all education workers.

(8) For respect of democratic rights on campuses. Restore all banned unions and reinstate all politically victimised students and staff union leaders/activists.

(9) A capital no to austerity. Of course the capitalist government will respond with the mantra "it is good economic sense to reduce spending in a period of cash flow challenges" which is another name for austerity. To this, the student movement must respond by demanding cuts to the outrageous salaries and allowances of political office holders, reducing the bloated number of the political office holders, blocking of wastage and corruption, repudiation of all fictitious debts, heavy taxation of the profit of the rich and the multinational companies. These are the areas where cuts are needed, not education and other social services.

(10) Nationalisation of the oil industry, banks and finance under public democratic control and management that would allow the beginning of planned environmentally friendly development of production, diversification of the economy through investment in large scale farming and massive investment in rural areas, state control of foreign trade etc.



H.T Soweto                                                  Michael Ogundele
National Coordinator                                     National Secretary


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