Friday 31 October 2014

The role of Nigerian students in the continuity of democracy

By Lanre Arogundade (NANS President, 1984)

I thank the students' union of Michael Otedola College of Primary Education (MOCPED) Epe Lagos State for inviting me to share my thought on the role of Nigerian students in the continuity of democracy.
Historically, Nigerian students have staged major interventions and played critical roles in some of the important struggles that have one way or the other shaped the destiny of this Nation. In the colonial era for example, Nigerian students as members and co-leaders of the West African Students Union (WASU), lined up behind the nationalists to demand independence for Nigeria and other countries in the sub-region.

In the immediate post-independence period in 1962, Nigerian students now organized under the umbrella of the National Union of Nigeria Students (NUNS), protested against the then proposed Anglo-Nigerian Defence Pact which would have made Nigeria a military satellite of its erstwhile colonial master - Britian.

By 1978 NUNS had to pick the gauntlet against the military regime of General Olusegun Obasanjo which had decided to commercialize education by introducing and increasing tuition fees in Nigerian Universities. That struggle is what is famously referred to as Ali-must-Go, since the then Federal Commissioner for Education was Colonel Ahmadu Alli, one of the recent chairmen of the PDP.

Under the civilian regime of Shehu Shagari, Nigerian students, now under the umbrella of National Association of Nigeria Students (NANS) and armed with a NANS Charter of Demands, consistently protested mis-governance characterized by outright looting of the treasury as well as the imposition of anti-peoples austerity measures like the preceding Obasanjo regime.

The Buhari-Idiagbon coup of December 1983 marked the return of the era of prolonged military rule that spanned up to sixteen years. It was in the early period of the era that I was privileged to serve as NANS President and I could testify to the fact that the cumulative struggles of the period against corruption, anti- people capitalist policies including commercialization of education and health care, introduction of the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP), denial of the political right of the people, attacks on fundamental rights and press freedom, attacks on the right to independent students unionism, attacks on workers and trade union rights, the annulment of the June 12 elections, etc contributed to the eventual collapse of the military and the return of civil rule in 1999, hence the common refrain that Nigeria is now under a democracy.

Democracy however presupposes many things: that life would be much better for ordinary citizens especially as the country is abundantly endowed with vast natural and human resources; that the rights of students, workers etc would be respected; that ordinary working peoples would be able to come together, form political parties and contest for power without the encumbrance of costly registration fees and other obstacles designed to favour only the parties of the millionaires; that education and health care will be easily affordable; that there will be good roads and other public infrastructure etc.

You will agree with me that if we make an honest assessment of the state of the Nation since 1999, these vital ingredients of democracy are largely missing and in some instances Nigerians are actually worse off. Doctors and other health workers have repeatedly gone on strike making the same demand for adequate funding to enable accessible and affordable health care delivery system. Teachers have repeatedly gone on strike making the same demand for adequate funding to make education affordable and accessible to the poor; students, as was recently the case at LASU, OOU, OAU etc have staged protests and demonstrations against increase in fees; publicly owned institutions have been repeatedly privatized or commercialized and sold to private individuals or entities with the attendant increase in prices as it is happening to electricity and job losses; pensioners are repeatedly protesting and dying as a result of non-payment of their pensions, etc

The question then is whether we should be talking of continuity of democracy or the discontinuity of undemocratic rule. But whichever way one addresses the question, there can be no doubt, that students have a role to play in the struggle to end oppression and replace the rule of the minority rich with that of the majority poor.

It is in this context, for example, that questions have been raised about what has become of NANS in the recent period. Indeed as a former NANS President, I have been repeatedly bombarded by the media on this issue giving the absence of centralized coordination of the various struggles being waged on individual campuses in defence of the right to affordable education and independent students' unionism. I believe the answers which I have given will help address that question and speak further to the theme of this lecture.

Basically, it is to reiterate that though the much talked about degeneration of NANS is a reality, it should be properly situated in the prevailing social-political context and not presented as it is peculiarly unique.

I have therefore pointed out that what is happening in NANS is equally a reflection of the decline - ideological and political - in the mass movements particularly as it concerns the central labour organizations, the trade unions etc. Indeed, what you see in the society is a degeneration of values across the social strata particularly with the right wing shift in the orientation of the leaders just like that of the political class. Poverty reigns amidst abundant wealth as corruption becomes the defining feature of this epoch. On the other hand, the campus hardships occasioned by near total submission to IMF and World Bank policies of education commercialization pose objective threat to vibrant unionism.

If we therefore look back again, we would see that the NANS of our time in the mid-1980s was a NANS that was as radical as the mass and Labour movements not just in Nigeria but internationally that were witnessing left wing radical upswing in the defence of publicly funded social services. Put in another way it was an era of popular mass struggles, in South Africa, in Latin America etc. It was within this radical context that NANS under our leadership formed alliance with the NLC under Hassan Sumonu and jointly fought for right to independent unionism with ASUU, to cite few examples; the underlining principle being similarity of ideological socialist orientation - and political vision for change in the larger society. 

Struggles boomed as the economy boomed during the economic upswing of the period that was occasioned by high petroleum prices in Nigeria. Even at that time however, the threats were emerging. Thus while our 11-day nationwide boycott of classes in May 1984 stopped the re-introduction or increase in tuition fees by the Buhari-Idiagbon regime, it and other actions could not prevent the eradication of the subsidized cafeteria feeding system under which a meal was a mere 50kobo (mark you not 50 Naira) across the campuses. Students were able to easily pay the dues with which their unions were run and for which the union leaders had to account through committees composed by the democratically elected students' representative councils.

So, it was also a period of transition to right wing economic and political ideology internationally and nationally with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which by the way had deviated from genuine socialism and was being bureaucratically run and the ascendancy of the international apostles of privatization and commercialization symbolised by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. In that dying era of public ownership and publicly subsidized education, mass organizations like the students unions that stood in opposition to neo-liberal policies came under vicious attacks from the state including the use of cultists against radical students' leaders. Only unionists that subscribe to the new right wing orientation would be tolerated. That was the sole purpose of post-students' crises panels like those of Abisoye and Akanbi that were set up by the Babangida regime and therefore essentially recommended the dismantling of the right to independent unionism. One of the long term effects is the NANS of nowadays that is not actually funded by the mass of the students or the unions but could be so rich as to be able to regularly hold conventions and meetings at Eagles square in Abuja and sometimes expensive hotels.    

Against this background, you will agree with me that there is urgent need for the student movement to be rebuilt. One way to do this is for students to begin to organize from below to reclaim their unions and NANS from rightwing leaders. You as students, must from now on, begin to demand that your union leaders and NANS leaders defend your interests otherwise you kick them out. However if the mass movement, the trade unions, the NLC etc return to pro-people ideology and philosophy it would greatly help the process of re-building NANS and enhance the ability of Nigerian students to ensure the continuity of democracy or the discontinuity of undemocratic practises.

In the larger society, that would mean counter-posing to privatization and commercialization pro-people policies of public ownership of commanding heights of the economy to make available the resources needed for all round societal development. On campuses, that would mean supporting the fight for independent unionism and associated rights. It is laughable that students unions now call themselves governments but lack the basic ingredients of governance. In our time, we were simply unions but we run self governing but democratically accounting structures like the executive, the students representative council and the judicial council. So, for example, when the result of the presidential election was hotly disputed in the 1981/82 session in our university - the University of Ife (now OAU), it was the students union judicial council that heard the case through the candidates' ‘lawyers' drawn from the Law Faculty and eventually pronounced the winner. There was no interference whatsoever by the University authorities despite the palpable tension. Rarely can you find that these days.

In concluding therefore, the point should also be stressed that nothing about NANS should be held as sacrosanct. After all, it took the effort of radical students' organizations to form NANS as replacement for National Union of Students (NUNS) which the Obasanjo regime banned following the Ali-Must-Go protests led by the late Segun Okeowo. A united central union is always desirable but it must be one that genuinely represents the interest of its members. In other words, Nigerian students do not have to operate under a NANS that neither stands for nor defends their aspirations. While seeking change, two, three, four, five etc unions can always come together and offer alternative perspectives such as platforms like the Education Rights Campaign (ERC) is correctly doing.

I hope your union will be one of such that arms itself politically and ideologically and links the struggles on the campuses with that of the working masses and poor.

Thank you

  • This paper was presented today October 31 on behalf of Lanre Arogundade by Keye Ewebiyi, former Secretary General, Students Union Lagos State University and a leading member of ERC.

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