Thursday 29 October 2015

Recent Victory by South African Students Shows Struggle Can Win: Lessons for Nigerian Students and Workers

Public Statement

The Education Rights Campaign (ERC) applauds the victory of South African students over attempts to impose a steep rise in registration, tuition and accommodation fees ranging from 8% to 12%. Playing active role in this important struggle is the Socialist Youth Movement (SYM) – the ERC’s sister organization in South Africa that also campaigns for free and democratically-managed public education as the ERC does in Nigeria.

The #FeesMustFall protests started as a spontaneous movement from below of angry students who could not tolerate the pro-rich policy of university managements and the government any longer. After ten days of struggle in which students from over 20 universities protested on the streets and marched on the Union Buildings (the seat of government), the African National Congress (ANC) government of Jacob Zuma was forced to agree to 0 % fee increase in the year 2016. Although the demand for free education remains unachieved yet, this concession is no doubt a humiliating defeat of a government whose pro-rich policies have contributed to making South Africa one of the most unequal countries in the world. The spectacular victory notwithstanding, the protests still continue. Students are insisting that not only should fees fall for the year 2016 alone but also that free education be declared across the country and similar neo-liberal policies like outsourcing of staff, high rents and students’ debt fall also.

This victory in South Africa should serve as an inspiration to students all across Africa and especially in Nigeria where education is gradually being turned to the preserve of the few rich through anti-poor capitalist policies of underfunding and commercialization. Just like South African students, Nigerian students have a lot of reasons to declare a national boycott and mass protests on the scale of the sort of nationwide mobilizations of students were known for in the 80s under the then vibrant National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS). Now despite over more than 10 years of economic boom when Nigeria made millions of dollars from daily crude oil sales (with the exception of the decline during the 2007/2008 global economic crisis), funding to public education declined while fees increased. The result is a big financial burden on working class parents who have to suffer untold hardship to scrape together money to pay high fees at the beginning of every academic session. Apart from those who face automatic exclusion and do not even bother to make the effort to apply, thousands more drop out of school after their first or second year when their poor parents’ savings suddenly run dry, there is a sudden increase in fees or family members lose jobs or fall sick.

For instance after the Babatunde Raji Fashola-led Lagos State government in 2011 jerked up fees at the Lagos State University (LASU) from N25, 000 to an alarming N350, 000, the full-time students’ population of the university dropped from about 20, 000 to around 12, 000 over the course of the next three years. By the third year, some departments could not boast of 10 students in their 100 Levels. An example was the French department which in 2014 had just one student in 100 level, Islamic studies had 6 students in 100 level while Law had 15 students at 100 level and 25 students at 200 level. At the Department of Fishery, 60 students had obtained admission into 100 level the previous session. A session after, only 14 out of these were left and out of which only four registered as at the time the data was compiled. The situation got to a point that the jobs of academic and non-academic staffs came under threat as a result of the drop in the students’ population. It took a massive struggle involving students, education workers and groups like the Education Rights Campaign (ERC) and the Joint Action Front (JAF) for the fee hike to be reversed in August, 2014.

As a result of government pro-capitalist policy of turning public education into a profit-making venture, funding of essential facilities in tertiary institutions are being cut. While grants given to faculties and departments are never enough to cover their most basic overhead costs, essential facilities like hostels, water, electricity supply and medical clinics are rarely allocated enough funds. Government’s mantra is that Universities and tertiary institutions should find creative ways of improving their Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) through increasing fees, application for grants from donor agencies and private bodies and setting up profit ventures like “pure water” and bottled water business, distance learning programmes etc. While the idea that tertiary institutions should engage in business and other ventures aside their core objectives often lead to wastage of time, energy and resources on activities that have no correlation to improving quality of education in the respective institutions, this practice also exposes students and members of staff to horrible welfare and working conditions.

In fact, so terrible are the conditions of study in Nigeria that students are dying in droves across the country due to the negligence and inadequacy of functional facilities and relevant personnel. But while attention has rightly been focused on the terrible conditions of hostels where students live like pigs without any good sanitary provisions and the lecture theaters, libraries and laboratories which are often denuded of the relevant materials for learning, it is only recently that the reality has begun to dawn that so underfunded, under-provisioned and understaffed are the health centers that they have now turned to death centres into which many students have gone, never to return. Many of the health centres are so understaffed that while a doctor or nurse is attending to a patient, over 30 others are waiting on the queue. The drug dispensary units are often without the most essential drugs such that many asthmatic students and students having similar ailments are known to have died at the health centres. Under the pressure of cut in allocations and the need to ensure that only properly registered students benefit from medical attention, the institutions have now adopted a ridiculous policy that authorizes medical personnel to withhold treatment unless an identification is produced by students in need of medical attention regardless of their state of consciousness. This has led to at least five deaths this year alone. Examples are Mayowa Alaran at the University of Ibadan, Kel at the University of PortHarcourt, Oluchi Anekwe at the University of Lagos, Akintaro Raphael at the Polytechnic Ibadan and Maria Atere at the Federal University of Agriculture Abeokuta. They were all neglected at their institution’s health centres and died in the process.

Without fighting for improved funding of education and democratic running of schools, not only would hundreds of thousands continue to be excluded from higher education, even the few who are fortunate to afford the high fees would find themselves falling victim of the terrible conditions in the system. In this wise, we have to build a mass movement to demand that education should not be both a debt and death sentence. Infact unless something is hurriedly done, the condition of public education look set to get worse in the next period. The situation in Osun, Oyo and Ekiti states where public education has come under new threats are indications of what to expect. Using the economic crisis and revenue decline as an excuse, the Buhari government could implement austerity policies dressed up as cost-saving measures. During his first coming as a military ruler in 1984, Buhari stopped the public-funded cafeteria system which ensured subsidized meal for university students. Kaduna State Governor, Nasir El-Rufai’s brazen call for the sale of Unity schools betrays the mindset of the so-called “progressives” now in power. Given half a chance, they could completely convert public education into something the children of the poor cannot have a chance at having. Their excuse would be the on-going economic crisis and the need for reforms.

But one central lesson that all students in Nigeria must take from the struggle in South Africa is that even during an economic crisis, we can force government to retreat on its neo-liberal attacks on education and win big concessions on fees, funding, living and learning conditions. Both Nigeria and South Africa (respectively the largest and second largest economies on the continent) are in the throes of economic crisis caused by the decline in commodity prices and slowing global growth especially in China. Both have had their currencies’ value fall relative to the dollar and have had to review growth forecasts. Also both have gone through a period of high economic growth which did not benefit the workers and poor whereas the wealth of the 1 percent grew. And both are currently experiencing very low growth. South Africa’s GDP contracted by 1.3 per cent in the second quarter of 2015, the same period Nigeria’s economic growth slowed down to 2.35 percent – both  raising the grim prospect of a recession.

Another lesson from the South African students’ victory is that it was won against the background of the Zuma government facing repeated challenges from key sections of the South African labour movement. Alongside workers’ strikes and community protests the Numsa metalworkers’ union, the biggest union in South Africa, is in opposition to Zuma. Fearing increasing opposition, Zuma rapidly scrapped the fees hike for this year. In Nigeria students must strive to win support from Labour, communities and parents for their demands and, in turn, be prepared to support popular struggles on issues like regular pay, a higher minimum wage and against the threatened electricity price hike.

When mobilizing to fight for their demands, students in Nigeria must not give in to the blackmail that we cannot get improvement in funding to education now because of the economic crisis. To their blackmails, we have to demand that rather than cut education funding, it is the salaries, allowances and privileges of public office holders that should be cut. Austerity is not the answer to economic crisis. Rather than resolve the crisis, austerity merely places the burden on workers, youth and the poor who did not benefit from the boom. Whereas if the key sectors of the economy were placed under public ownership and workers’ democratic control and management, there would be no need for cuts, instead it would be possible to ensure that much of Nigeria’s wealth that often goes to enrich the 1 per cent is recovered and invested, through a socialist plan, to meet the needs of the mass majority. We should not accept to wait until the economy improves until we demand that fees in Nigeria must fall as well. We have waited too long already such that at the basic education level, over 10.5 million children of school-going age are out of school. We have waited long enough that 6 million out of the 36 million girls out of school globally are Nigerians. How much longer would we have to wait?

To be clear, the confidence and bravery to fight is not what is missing. Nigerian students have led big mass struggles in the past. A key obstacle is the rightwing and pro-government leadership of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) which prefers to run after one capitalist politician or the other for money rather than provide leadership to the mass of their members. Obviously something has to be done about this. These self-appointed students’ leaders have to be flushed out and the students’ movement reclaimed and rebuilt from the bottom to the top. However while the ERC supports the campaign for NANS to be reclaimed, the struggle against fees and poor conditions in the education sector cannot wait until this happens. That struggle must begin now. Activists must now devote themselves to intervening among the rank and file students with the aim of building a movement from below that can begin to mobilize for struggle against fees and for overall improvement in the funding and conditions of education.

Hassan Taiwo Soweto                                            Michael Ogundele                          
National Coordinator (07033697259)                 National Secretary                                  

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