OAU STUDENTS PROTEST FOR WATER SUPPLY WINS CONCESSION
OAU STUDENTS PROTEST FOR WATER SUPPLY WINS CONCESSION
Demand for reinstatement remains on the front burner
From January 9, 2009 to Thursday 22nd January 2009, students of the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife, embarked on protests for improved water supply and reinstatement of remaining victimised student activists. Although three of the victimised activists, H.T Soweto, Dairo Olatunde and Owoeye David (all of the DSM-CWI Nigeria), were recalled recently by the authorities for having complied with requirements for reinstatement, the remaining activists were asked to fulfil the requirements.
The protest was peaceful and generally organised. Protesting students displayed maturity; participation of students was impressive with a huge number of female students joining the protest. At its height on Wednesday 21st January 2009, over 5, 000 students had joined the protest. The 3,000 capacity Amphitheatre where a congress was held same day was filled to the brim. The Vice Chancellor who had been invited to explain the situation of water supply was booed in a huge display of students defiance since the immediate past Union leadership was crushed by the University management. Members of the DSM, OAU branch, and the ERC actively intervened in the protest with statements and speeches at congresses and other student Union meetings proposing steps to take at every turn of the struggle.
The immediate backdrop to this movement was a sharp and sudden decline in the condition of water supply and the Student Union persistent mobilisations on the demand for reinstatement. While the inevitability of this movement against the Management had been expected, the scale, rapidity and depth of the movement caught everyone by surprise. The movement had started with 50 students led by the Union leadership protesting to the administrative block of the university to complain about the scarcity of water supply in the halls of residence. This was on Friday 9th Jan. 2009. However as the water shortage developed into a real scarcity with many students lacking water to bathe and cook; the mood of students rose in quick succession. But even at this, no one had a forewarning of what was in store until Sunday 18th Jan. 2009.
A congress had been held on Tuesday 13th January and agreed that all the remaining victimised activists should comply with University management directive by writing letters of undertaking in order to sound out management promise that once this is done, they would be reinstated. The issue of water supply was discussed and the congress resolved that a procession of students, members of the Student Representative Council (SRC) and the Union leadership should take place on Monday 19th January to submit student demands for improved water supply and to also submit the letters of undertaking of the victimised activists backed by a two-week ultimatum. At best, not more than 200 students were expected to participate in this procession.
But this was not to be so. On Sunday 18 January 2009, students woke up to meet a heightened version of the water scarcity. Not a drop of water came out of any pipe. Church goers were stranded. Tempers boiled. In a minute, a huge and spontaneous mass of students led by the Union leadership protested to the University water dam where the real nature of the water crisis was unearthed.
According to the University officials met at the dam, a crucial pipe had ben damaged at the dam and its renovation, as well as overhauling of the dam, would take 2 months at least. That was when many students realised what horrors await them. On Monday 19th January the already planned procession was transformed into a mass protest of more than 2,000 strong with students demanding that lectures should be boycotted. This caused some division and rancour among students. Some lectures were forcefully boycotted. In the euphoria, the issue of reinstatement was pushed to the background as the Union leadership almost got intoxicated with the mass. However, DSM comrades made effort to submit the letters of undertaking which was the agreed objective of the movement.
A mini-congress held hastily at the Awo cafe and resolved to give the University management 24 hours to provide palliatives in form of water tankers to supply water while renovation was ongoing. This ultimatum lapsed on Wednesday 21st January without any noticeable improvement water supply. Only one or two water tankers were supplying water without any noticeable difference. Students walked miles to fetch water while those who could not withstand the trek scooped water from flea infested streams and rivulets on campus. Many students went about without bathing. The toilets in the halls of residence remained unwashed as the University staff in charge of them could not get water to clean them. In fact, some food canteens were contemplating closing as there was no water to cook; those who remained opened were using water whose hygiene was doubtful. Service providers at the popular New Buka (a student relaxation centre) were mulling closing down for a while if the scarcity persist. A student went to a dentist clinic on campus to remove his tooth and was turned down because of water scarcity. It was real crisis with the potential of a cholera outbreak clearly apparent.
Faced with this, students in their thousands joined the protest on Wednesday 21st January. This was the height of the protest with over 5,000 joining the demonstration and huge sympathy among an additional majority. Lectures were boycotted across the campus. A congress held same day with the Vice Chancellor in attendance. Instead of appealing to students, he poked students’ frayed nerves by threatening to close the campus for 12 months. He was appropriately booed as he stormed out of the congress. Students felt they were justified by demanding water tankers to supply water while renovation continues at the dam. But the Vice Chancellor only called on them to “persevere” and “sacrifice” which in the existing circumstance meant that students should go without water for 2 months which the renovation would last. The Education Rights Campaign (ERC) responded immediately by issuing a statement calling for the resignation of the University Management if they could not provide the water tankers as demanded by students.
The next day the protest continued with a total boycott of academic and administrative activities as well as vehicular movement. But at this time, the University management had conceded by increasing the number of water tankers. Also over night, water supply to the halls of residence was restored although there is still water shortage. Yet all this did not prevent students from affecting the lecture boycotts on the Thursday. However, the Students’ Union leadership seeing the improvement in water supply rightly called off the protest.
The Education Rights Campaign (ERC) has issued a statement calling on the Union leadership to consider the concession won only as a ceasefire and not an end to the battle for water supply. This is because water supply is still unstable and erratic, meaning that a relapse is possible. Also, we are calling for the Union leadership to embark on immediate programs to prepare students for any eventuality should the university management fail to reinstate the victimised students after the 2-week ultimatum lapses on Monday 2nd February 2009. This programs include a symposium in the next one week, an all activists meeting, press campaign and production of leaflets to sensitize students.
The implication of this protest is serious for the University management which had thought the current Union leadership would not lift a finger against its policies since they were elected on the basis of its electoral guidelines after the proscribed union was de-proscribed last year. However, in a fulfilment of our argument then that students should nonetheless embrace this election despite management’s undue influence, the balance of force has so much changed since the election that the management only has a tenuous hold on the Union. Despite the fuzzy and indecisively radical character of the Union leadership, the mass of students have often propelled them on all issue to clash with the management. This protest is the first mass-oriented defiance which the union leadership would be made to have with the management. And some of the Union leaders responded bravely and impressively to the challenge of leading the struggle. This however does not foreclose the presence of management agents in the Union leadership or the dominance of the reactionary section of the Union leadership on the crest of a mass retreat in student militancy.
National Coordinator, ERC.
Friday 23rd January 2009.