“We Are Victims Of Dictatorship But Remain Undaunted” – Soweto And Barry Blacky
“We Are Victims Of Dictatorship But Remain Undaunted” â€“ Soweto And Barry Blacky
On 21st February, 2008, two of the three students’ leaders (who are members of Democratic Socialist Movement) who have been detained for over four months in Ilesha Prison were released on bail by Magistrate Jide Falola of an Osogbo Magistrate Court. The Socialist Democracy had chat with them on varying issues concerning their arrest and their activities as student activists and socialists. The excerpt of the interview is presented below:
SD: You were arrested on October 11, 2007 and you spent more than four months in detention at Ilesha Prison. Your arrest and detention have been condemned as politically-motivated and vindictive by the public while the university management has tried to defend its actions. Can you give a succinct prelude to what led to your incarceration?
Barry Blacky: Looking at the Nigerian situation, particularly the education sector, everything is in a state of shamble and given the background of OAU students’ union as a fighting and radical union which has resisted government’s onslaught and university management’s attacks on education, coupled with the understanding of the students’ leaders that there is need to salvage the education sector through collective actions, it becomes clear where we are coming from. The total breakdown of social services and the dilapidated state of education as a result of government neo-liberal, pro-rich policies, has meant that students’ rights to qualitative education will be attacked by the management and the government. This has meant neglect of students’ welfare by the management vis-Å•-vis bad state of the hostels and falling state of teaching facilities with an attempt to commercialize education. It is from this scenario that OAU students resolved to give their mandate to radical leaders in order to guarantee their interests. It was this democratic mandate that OAU management, representing the anti-poor government was prepared to prevent in order to kill resistance to its anti-students’ policies by interfering in independent students’ union affairs, especially with the elections that produced genuine fighting student leaders, but when this failed, it resorted to open attacks on the students leaders. Throughout our leadership tenure, we only lived up to the challenge of defending students’ rights to better welfare â€“ living and studying, for proper funding of education by government and democratic management of our schools and for massive spending of public resources on public services. This is what earned us arrest and detention. All the charges against us are trumped up and frivolous. We are known activists with no criminal records. It is unfortunate that Nigerian society, after the so-called transition to civilian rule will still go this extent of using official lies to suppress dissent voice.
SD: It is a general belief that, despite the hellish conditions that millions of toiling Nigerians are made to go through, the prison conditions are worse. Can you give us a brief insight into your experience about the prison conditions?
Barry Blacky: A society that cannot educate its citizens and provide them with jobs will definitely use its resources to build prison. The same money that should be used to constructively build the nation will be used to build and maintain prisons. While it is admitted that the general societal conditions are bad, the prison conditions are particularly worse. When we first got to the prison, we were put in a dungeon-like room called single cell which is less than a third of a normal room but accommodating around 12 inmates. The same room is to serve as toilet, bathroom, bedroom and dinning room with no access to light. In other prison cells, more than thirty five inmates are put in a room meant for less than six people; there are no sanitary facilities, no choice of food and lack of medical attention. In fact, many inmates were brought with serious, untreated wounds inflicted on them by men of official terror gang called State Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). This is aside the long delay in the dispensation of justice which had led to several inmates spending years in prison without knowing the status of their cases. There is no attempt to reform the prisoners as many of them do not even know how to survive out the prison as they will become rejected. Yet, you see and hear all the media bliss about Legal Aid Council. With the terrible conditions prison inmates are made to go through, most of them will come back to constitute more nuisance to the society. This further shows the failure of the judicial system and consequently, the Nigerian state. But does one expect a neo-colonial capitalist system to do better?
SD: How were you able to cope in the prison?
Barry Blacky: Well, we thank our comrades and well-meaning people especially, students on campus and our family and relations who provided us with basic supports morally, financially and materially. People are idle in the prison and it affects their psyche but we were able to utilise our time by engaging in sporting activities, chatting with prison inmates on the need to seek a collective way through mass struggle to the government anti-poor policies rather than engaging in individualistic and short-cut approach, which some appreciate. We also discuss with prison workers, that they also need to form their own association in order to defend their rights â€“ economic and political â€“ as was seen recently in Britain and to join the collective movement for social change. Also, we spent our time on reading materials, most especially Marxist literatures which further built our courage in continuing the struggle to change the society in the interest of the working and toiling people and for a socialist Nigeria. The prison was a special gain for us in disguise.
SD: As OAU resumes, what in your views are the basic ingredient to ensure lasting peace on the campus?
Barry Blacky: There is no short-cut route than by acceding to students’ demands. The university management must rescind its attacks on independent students’ union on the campus. Akinola Saburi must be immediately released and the charges against us dropped. Management must also recall all the victimized student activists. Furthermore, the OAU management must respect the rights of students to improved welfare. Management must engage students’ leaders constructively on how to move the university forward and not militarize the campus. Finally, government has to massively fund free, qualitative education at all levels and allow democratic input of workers’ and students’ unions into the running of educational institutions. The present anti-poor education commercialization and under funding policies which have destroyed peace in the educational institutions have to be dropped if peace is to reign on a long run. As we are speaking, the academic staffs are warming up for a national strike over continued victimization of their colleagues in UNILORIN, which further depict the level of victimization and witch-hunting and lack of respect for democratic rights on campuses. All this has to stop if peace is to reign not only in OAU, but in all Nigerian campuses.
SD: You were arrested and detained for months for defending students’ rights to education. But prison condition is meant to reform people from activities considered to be “anti-state”. Has the incarceration really changed your mind about activism?
Soweto: From the manner and the intent behind our incarceration coupled with the general crisis of capitalism in Nigeria and the world at large, our four months sojourn in prison has improve our understanding that unless the capitalist system is thrown overboard and the socialist system enthroned, the problem facing humanity can never cease. We have seen from our incarceration that the Nigerian capitalist ruling class cannot move the country forward. It cannot develop the education sector and give jobs to millions of youth, many of whom take to crime and land themselves in prison as a result of idleness. It cannot provide basic necessities and thus, push the poor working people to look for solutions where they do not exist. Therefore, far from scaring us away, our prison stay has only served as a training ground for us to commit our lives to the struggle for socialism enthronement. We enjoin all change seeking youth and working masses to join us in this struggle to salvage humanity. In the struggle for the working class government, we remain undaunted.
SD: As the National Coordinator of ERC, What are the basic things you are fighting for on campuses? Do you think these demands can be truly achieved within the confine of the present government neo-liberal policies?
Soweto: Our demands are both immediate and transitional. We are fighting for basic educational rights of students and education workers, for good welfare conditions for students on campus vis-Å•-vis adequate and standard hostel accommodation, improvement in the studying facilities (well stocked library, standard laboratories, adequate classrooms, etc), right to independent, vibrant students’ unionism and adequate remuneration of education workers. These are basic immediate things a sensible government, which is expected to give to the populace. But, we also believe these demands cannot be met genuinely unless the education sector is massively funded and the whole sector is democratically run through the democratic input of education workers’ and students’ unions. These are transitional demands. But, we also know that the present government is rooted in the neo-liberal capitalist ideologies of privatization of public utilities, commercialization of social service including education, cut in social spending, retrenchment, etc cannot implement these demands because the government is committed to the rich few unless the system is seriously challenged by students and workers. Based on this understanding, we fight for the working class government that will commit public resources to public goods, which can only be realized when the working masses have their own party with socialism boldly written on its front burner and wrestle power from the present corrupt capitalist politicians. This is why we are calling on genuine student activists who are fighting for basic educational rights to also join us to change society.
SD: What is your view on the state of Nigerian Students’ Movement? Do you think NANS has finally collapsed? And if so, what can be done to rebuild students’ movement?
Soweto: NANS has a rich history but it is unfortunate that for the past few years, the various NANS leadership has turned the organization to tragedy. NANS leadership at all levels no longer stand for students’ interests but that of politicians and government. The democratic fibre in NANS has been lost as various NANS leaderships take actions without democratic debates and discussions. Throughout our stay in prison, we heard of attacks on students through hiked fees and dissolution of unions cum rustication of activists â€“ Osun Poly, ABU, etc â€“ but there was virtually no NANS leadership genuinely intervening. NANS leadership is a monumental tragedy. This problem can be traced to government and management’s deliberate intervention in students’ movement affairs in order to castrate students’ radical organization and thus, allow their anti-poor policies to get implemented without any opposition from the students. Many students’ leaders are bought over while progressive unions and activists are attacked. So, we have no reason to believe that the current NANS leadership has not collapsed. That is why we are building a radical national opposition platform within the students’ movement to fight for basic demand of students â€“ free, qualitative education at all level, independent unionism in all campuses, massive funding of education by at least 26 percent of the budget and democratic involvement of workers’ and students’ unions in all decision-making organs. This is why we are calling on genuine students’ activists and serious NANS activists to join us to rebuild a new pan-Nigerian students’ movement which can only be done through programmes of intervention in students’ struggles and demands.
SD: Many persons were involved in the campaign to get you out of prison. What is your message to them?
Soweto: First of all, we want to appreciate everybody who contributed to our release from prison. We thank all students of Obafemi Awolowo University who saw our incarceration as a collective injustice. We also thank all DSM, ERC and CWI comrades internationally, who played major role in the campaign. We also thank our lawyers â€“ Barristers, Niyi Adewumi, Olumide Fusika, Segun Sango, Jiti Ogunye, Alabi, Fatoki and Fred Adegoke â€“ who sacrificed their time and resources, one way or the other for our release. We will not forget our family members and relations who also played one role or the other in securing our freedom. We want to thank the Nigerian press which popularized our predicament for the general public. We thank also all progressive student activists across the country, who showed concerns for our plight. We enjoin all these student activists not to limit their support to our freedom but also for our ideas that led to our unjust incarceration. We maintain our innocence to all the charges against us; and again, we shall remain unrepentant in the struggle for radical change despite all attempts to stop our zeal.