Friday 13 June 2014

LASU: Struggle Forces Government to Reduce Hiked fees by 34% To 60%

Government’s Offer is Less Than Satisfactory
But Consistent and Uncompromising Struggle Can Win More

On Wednesday June 11, 2014, the Babatunde Raji Fashola-led Lagos State government announced an offer to reduce hiked fees at the Lagos State University (LASU) by a range of 34% to 60%. This was an unwilling concession to a prolonged and spirited struggle waged by students of the University starting since January 22, 2014.

This struggle has seen the brutalization of the students by police shooting tear gas and live bullets as well as the arrest and detention of some of them on criminal charges. After another daily occupation of the Governor’s office on Tuesday June 10 2014, three students were hospitalized due to repression by the police.

The Students Union had demanded a far more substantial reduction which would bring the regime of fees from the high range of N197, 750 to N348, 750 down to N46, 500 for returning students and 65,500 for fresh students.  But even this was a compromise on the original demand of the mass students and the #SaveLASU Campaign Movement for total reversal of the hiked fees.

However, this concession by the State Government no doubt shows that struggle pays. Without the stubborn struggle waged by students since January of this year, not a kobo reduction would have been contemplated by the government. Indeed as far as the state government was concerned, the fee hike which was introduced as far back as 2011 was a foregone conclusion until the events of January 22nd and 23rd 2014 changed the situation. 

However if students should decide to continue to wage a consistent and uncompromising struggle until the demands for the substantial reduction to N46, 500 and N65, 500 is won, we in the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) and the Education Rights Campaign (ERC) are convinced that victory is still possible.

This is because first and foremost, the issue of LASU fee hike is one of the Achilles heels of the All Progressive Congress (APC)-led government of Lagos State which many of the party members and contestants would like to see resolved one way or the other before the 2015 general elections.  Indeed such is the popularity that the issue of LASU fee hike has attained that contestants on the party platform are being confronted with this reality even in other States of the Federation. Secondly, the issue of LASU fee hike has become so touchy that it receives a wide support of mass majority of the population in Lagos State such that if students decide to stick even to their original demands for total reversal of the hiked fees, the government at some point may have no choice but to cave in.

The fee hike had been introduced since September 2011. But a combination of clampdown by the State and erroneous methods employed by the then union leadership ensured that the immediate angry mood that greeted the increment failed to translate into a substantial movement that could defeat it. However, such was the unsustainability of the fee hike that three years after, it bred a roaring movement of students supported by wide sections of University workers and the Populace. This did not however happen without the crucial intervention of student and youth members of the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) organized under the platform Education Rights Campaign (ERC).

It was our crucial intervention immediately in the aftermath of the January 23, 2014 spontaneous protest of the about 1,292 students who were denied registration and access to write examinations because they could not pay their fees on time that transformed the situation. During the spontaneous protest of January 23, angry students frustrated by the prospect of losing an academic session because of inability to pay and angered by the bestiality of the Police and University security who intervened rioted and destroyed some school properties. The university was immediately closed and the State House of Assembly immediately swore to identify the students who participated in the riot and victimize them. Also the Assembly instructed the University to take stock of damaged properties and set in motion a process to make students pay for the damages.

When the ERC intervened, the current Students Union leadership had just been elected but not inaugurated. As a result of the fear of the Union leadership of leading a struggle while still not yet inaugurated, a broad movement called #SaveLASU Campaign Movement was born bringing together all active forces prepared to fight. By general acceptance, the ERC rose to the leadership of this broad movement giving it direction. It was the strident campaign led by the ERC and the #SaveLASU Campaign Movement that transformed the situation from one in which the State government was preparing to go on the offensive against the students to one in which the State government and the University management were confronted with the ghost of the fee hike which they believed had been embalmed and buried since 2011.

At the end of the day, not only was the state government unable to continue the offensive. In fact the government had to dump its plans to charge reparation fees and instead released a sum of N51milllion for the repair of University properties damaged during the January 23 protest. While this was calculated to deflate the movement, the #SaveLASU movement used this concession to demonstrate the effectiveness of struggle and to drive home the demand for reversal of the hiked fees. 

It was the totality of the efforts of the #SaveLASU Movement including protest marches, public meetings, press conferences and social media campaigns as well as support of the Joint Action Front (JAF) and NANS Zone D that led to the April 3 2014 meeting with the State Government which in turn led to the offer from the Governor for students to submit a proposal for reduction of the fees. In response to this offer by the government, the Students Union leadership turned away from the #SaveLASU movement in exchange for an inauguration ceremony conducted by the LASU school management and thereafter started pursuing a unilateral strategy which sought to keep all forces including the ERC and striking staff unions in the University out of the struggle against the fee hike. However, the joining of the struggle by the staff unions especially ASUU and SSANU which have gone strike over the outrageous fees among other demands helped pile more pressure on the government.

Indeed if the Students Union leadership had made a public call for students of other Universities, Polytechnics and Colleges of Education across the state as well as parents and workers to join them at the daily occupation of the Governor’s office, the result could have been phenomenal given the widespread support the struggle has and this could have isolated the government even more.

Now that the State Government has offered a less-than satisfactory concession, the Students Union leadership needs to convene an immediate congress for the mass of students to decide whether or not to accept what the State Government has to offer. This is because the offer of 34% to 60% reduction immediately means that some set of students may be satisfied by what this translates to in their payable fees while some other set of students possibly those in Medical Sciences and Engineering may feel less than satisfied. To avoid division among students, the Students Union need to immediately convene a congress to determine what the united response of the students should be. Also staff unions and organizations like the Education Rights Campaign (ERC) and the Joint Action Front (JAF) must be allowed to intervene and help build the struggle further.

However whatever is the resolution of this congress, students must understand that this limited concession by the Lagos State Government is unprecedented in the student movement in Lagos State. It shows that when we struggle, we can bring down the mountains. This should therefore serve to encourage students to be prepared to struggle for far more. Struggle is not just about expressing naked anger; there is a method without which victory is impossible.

At this stage, it is the level of the consciousness of students that will determine whether or not the proposed reduction by the State government should be accepted or an offensive declared for the implementation of the N46, 500 and N65, 500 reduction proposals from the Students Union. We in the DSM and the ERC will however continue to campaign for a LASU that is affordable and accessible to all. We believe this kind of LASU is impossible without a complete reversal of the fees. The 34% to 60% reduction being proposed by the State government will only lessen the burden on a few students and parents. Only by totally reversing the fee hike and increasing the funding of the University under democratic control and management that LASU can be made open to all students irrespective of social status.

After all is said and done, the fee battle in LASU has given the APC a bloody nose. Even if students do not fully win, the political damage is done and the implication of the struggle is far reaching. People in the Southwest hold public education dear because of the history of the legacy of “free” education and any political party that stands against this can quickly be routed. This struggle has exposed the largest opposition political party in Nigeria as not better and maybe in some cases even worse than the ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP). In OAU, UNILAG, TASUED and UNIPORT where protests against fees and charges have erupted, students have drawn inspiration from the LASU struggle. Many are looking with questioning eyes at the APC than they would have done a year ago. In the current situation, there is an urgent need for an alternative political party that can stand for all the things the APC and the PDP stand against. If such a party were to exist in Lagos today, the APC would be facing a political Waterloo next year.

H.T Soweto
National Coordinator, ERC

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