By Lanre Arogundade
The death of Segun Okeowo, former President of the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS), cannot but come as sad news. As NUNS President, Segun Okeowo provided courageous leadership for the decisive students' nationwide protest against commercialization of education by the then Olusegun Obasanjo military regime.
The 1978 students' uprising was invariably christened 'Ali-Mon-Go', based on the demand that the then Federal Commissioner of Education, Col, Ahmadu Alli, (later PDP Chairman under Obasanjo's presidency) who announced the increase in tuition and feeding fees, be removed from office.
The protest was met with unprecedented ferocious brutality by the Nigerian state leading to the death of many students including Akintunde Ojo at the University of Lagos, Okeowo's campus; the banning of NUNS and of course the physical assault, arrest, detention and expulsion of Segun Okeowo. In all those prosecutorial moments Okeowo did not betray the course of Nigerian students. His legal defence was led by the late Gani Fawehinmi, whose chambers provided temporary refuge for him as a 'worker' before being re-admitted to the University of Ife.
At Ife, and despite his earlier persecution, he did not remain silent in the face of oppression. Thus he was one of those who condemned the police killing of four students during a funeral procession at the University in 1981. Indeed he was one of those who testified to that effect before the administrative panel of enquiry set up by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), over the incident. Even at old age when we met at a students' union symposium at the Adeniran Ogunsanya College of Education, Ijanikin, Lagos over ten years ago, he spoke militantly, sang solidarity songs and urged the students' leaders to always defend the right to independent unionism.
The political backbone of the 'Ali-Mon-Go' protest was however either students' unions led by radical and left-wing students leaders or campuses where left wing organizations as well as radical and left-wing lecturers were also active. The Obasanjo dictatorship knew this well and therefore extended its offensive to these elements many of whom were either expelled as students or dismissed as lecturers across the campuses.
But it was these elements and organizations that in the early 1980s invariably shook off the burning ashes of 'Ali-Mon-Go', to form the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) as successor to NUNS. Yet, soon after by 1984, NANS, now armed with a Students' Charter of Demands, would again pick the gauntlet to embark on a nationwide protests and boycott of classes, when the Buhari-Idiagbon dictatorship, similarly acting on the dictates of the World Bank and IMF like the Obasanjo regime before it, attempted to further commercialize education, via the re-introduction of tuitions fees in the Universities.
The premise of the 1978 and 1984 struggles were that instead of commercialization, what was desired and desirable for the working masses of Nigeria, was, and still is, a functional and free educational system that ensures that the potential which lies in every Nigerian child is allowed to be realized and not extinguished by a discriminatory class educational system, which commercialization perpetuates.
The established fact that not less than $500 billion dollars, have been looted from Nigeria's public treasury and oil revenue sources, since independence, affirms the argument of we Socialists especially, that the resources exist for the funding of free education at primary, secondary and tertiary levels; and indeed one that meets all the parameters of modern educational system.
The obvious obstacles are the numerous ideological weaponries of successive ruling capitalist classes in Nigeria. Whether they come in the form of commercialization, privatization or private-public-partnership, they all, ultimately, translate to putting the collectively owned wealth of the society in private few pockets while the majority are left to wonder in the wilderness of poverty. Thus, the paradox of the listing of one or two Nigerians in Forbes list of 500 richest people in the world, while over 70 percent of the population, even by official acknowledgment, live below the poverty line of less than a dollar a day.
Unfortunately, despite the heroism of Okeowo and like radically inclined students leaders, the general failure to understand the necessity of overcoming these obstacles through a focussed and consistent struggle against capitalist neo-liberal policies and conditionalities, have over-time become the bane of the students and the larger labour movement. The NANS of nowadays, has in the circumstance become a platform for self-aggrandisement, whose leaders do not mind to collaborate with any government in power no matter the level of its anti-people educational policies.
The proposition of Socialists is for a working-class formed and led government that uses its own pro-people ideological weaponry of democratic public or peoples' ownership and management of societal resources, primarily through the nationalization of the commanding sectors of the economy. This will not only just make free and functional education possible, but also the realization of other major aspirations of the working masses including living wages that match the rate of inflation, affordable and functional health system, affordable and functional mass transport system, affordable mass housing system etc.
On the part of students and working class activists therefore, only a re-dedication to the struggle against continued commercialization of education, which has led to the explosion of expensive private schools and Universities while the public ones are left to rot; and commitment to the larger task of building a society where the commonly produced wealth is used to meet the needs of the majority and not a few elite will stand as the real vindication of the battles that the likes of Okeowo commendably fought in the Nigerian students' movement.
Lanre Arogundade is a former NANS President and a founding member of the Democratic Socialist Movement