ERC LEADS STUDENTS IN PROTEST TO SUPPORT ASUU STRIKE
ERC LEADS STUDENTS IN PROTEST TO SUPPORT ASUU STRIKE
Call on labour leaders to declare a one-day solidarity general strike
By Keye Ewebiyi
Students marching at ERC rally, photo DSM
The seven-week old nationwide strike action of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) â€“ the lecturers in Nigerian Universities – as well as the national strike embarked upon by the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) and Non Academic Staff Union (NASU) has paralyzed academic activities in the public universities. This has led Nigerian students under the banner of the Education Rights Campaign (ERC) to stage a peaceful protest rally in Lagos to compel the federal government to immediately sign and implement the agreement reached with the striking unions on. Earlier on July 14, 2009, the Labour and Civil Society Coalition (LASCO) organized a protest rally in support of the ASUU, SSANU and NASU strike in Lagos with about 500 students, education workers and working class activists participating.
The ASUU, SSANU and NASU are on strike in protest at government refusal to sign agreements reached with them through Gamaliel Onosode re-negotiation committee. The renegotiation committee had agreed with the unions over certain issues. For ASUU, the agreement covers improved university funding, academic freedom, genuine autonomy and decent condition of service. For SSANU and NASU, the agreements include 65 years retirement age, special salary scale and decent condition of service. Despite entering freely into these negotiations, the Federal government has refused to sign the agreements claiming first that there was no agreement but later reverting back to claim the global economic recession has made the government incapable of implementing the agreements. The workers were infuriated and one by one, the three unions embarked on nationwide indefinite strike actions. Ever since then, students have been held up at home without any hope the strike would soon end.
The protest rally held on Monday, August 10, 2009 took off at the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) Secretariat, Yaba, Lagos at exactly 10:30am with solidarity songs, speeches, and mass circulation of leaflets and ended at Channels Television office, Maryland area, by 1:30pm after the march had covered over 4 kilometers. Before this, ERC members and DSM members had spent the previous two weeks posting posters and distributing fliers of the rally in streets and campuses all over the south west of Nigeria. This method of mobilization ensured that the message of the rally was passed to an immense mass of parents, students, workers and youths.
About 200 students drawn from Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), University of Lagos (UNILAG), University of Ibadan (UI), University of Ado-Ekiti (UNAD), Lagos State University (LASU), University of Agriculture Abeokuta (UNAAB), Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Yaba College of Technology (YABATECH), Adekunle Ajasin University Akungba (AAUA), Adeniran Ogunsanya College of Education (AOCOED), Federal University of Technology Akure (FUTA), Federal University of Technology Minna (FUTM), Tai Solarin University of Education (TASUED), Osun State College of Education Ilesha and Osun State Polytechnic Iree (OSPOLY) participated in the protest rally to express their anger over the continuous refusal of government to put an end to the strike by meeting the demands of the education workers. The Labour and Civil Society Coalition (LASCO), Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM), United Action for Democracy (UAD), Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR) and other pro-student organizations were on ground to show solidarity with students.
In his opening speech which flagged off the rally, Hassan Taiwo Soweto, ERC National Coordinator and DSM member, called on the federal government to immediately meet the demands of the students which he listed as: the immediate implementation of the agreement reached with the striking unions so that Nigerian students can resume academic activities; the withdrawal of the proposed N180,000 tuition fee increment and cancellation of all fees including exorbitant law school fees; adequate funding of education up to the UNESCO recommended 26% budgetary allocation as a remedy to the decay in the education sector; payment of N40,000 Cost of Studying Allowance (COSA) to all Nigerian students in the tertiary institutions as a comprehensive package to bail out the students from economic crisis and the restoration of all banned unions in UI, UNILAG, OSPOLY and other institutions.
He also called for the immediate recall of all victimized students and staff activists such as Akinola Saburi, Andrew Ogumah Segun and Muyiwa in OAU, Osanyintade Tolulope, Tairu Jeleel, Aremo Gbenga, Adewetan Vincent and Omotayo Charles in Adeyemi College of Education (ACE), Ondo and the remaining 44 sacked lecturers of the University of Ilorin (UNILORIN). He submitted that only the public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy under the democratic control and management of workers could lay to rest the recurrent problems facing the Nigerian nation.
Hassan Taiwo Soweto while flagging off protest at NLC – photo DSM
Abiodun Aremu, LASCO Joint Secretary, in his solidarity message commended the students for deeming it fit to support their striking lecturers. He reiterated that the demands of the workers, if met, will reposition the education sector thereby relieving the burden on poor working class parents and securing a better future for students and youth. He further highlighted the problems facing the education sector as underfunding, infrastructural decay, brain-drain, inadequate workforce and poor studying and working conditions. He enjoined the students to come out en masse to make the dishonest and corrupt leaders uncomfortable through the staging of further mass protests and demonstrations. He also implored media outfits to stop sponsoring government’s lies, misinformation and propaganda while also decrying the failure of government to honour the pact reached with striking lecturers despite the fact that the President Umar Musa Yar’ardua, Vice President Goodluck Jonathan and the Minister of Education Sam Egwu were former lecturers.
K.T Fashola, Secretary SSANU-OAU, bemoaned the failure of government to provide free, functional and compulsory education for the youths despite the fact the present public officers enjoyed such education in their youth. He also rejected the lies told by the government that Nigeria cannot fund free education and that education in Nigeria is the cheapest in the world. He called on government to compare the cost of education in Nigeria with the minimum wage earned by an average parent. Presently, students are paying as high as N80, 000 as tuition fee when the minimum wage is still currently N7, 500. Chinedu Bosah, ERC National Secretary and DSM member, while addressing the protesters at Maryland Roundabout Lagos, posited that education is the engine oil of the economy and that any attempt at destroying the education sector will lead to huge economic downturn in the country. He also used the medium to call on the federal government to release unconditionally the 27 jailed soldiers who were arbitrarily incarcerated for protesting against the stealing of their salary by their senior officers.
Biodun Aremu addressing ERC rally – photo DSM
The protest rally enjoyed the support of traders, artisans, okada riders, bus drivers and other workers openly expressed their support for the students. Some workers joined the rally while others engaged in discussion centered on the crisis in the education sector among other issues. Passengers on moving buses particularly those on the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) waved in support of the students and they also welcomed students on board to distribute leaflets and fly placards. Concerned parents and workers expressed displeasure over the anti-poor and pro-rich policies of the Yar’Adua government. However, they pleaded with students to shun violence in the pursuit of their demands.
Traffic was held up along Ikorodu road for over 3 hours as a result of the march. Most drivers and commuters endured the protest as they closely followed the protest till it ended. Various placards were on display to press home the demands of students.
Some of the placards read, “No Education, No Economy”, “No to N180,000 School Fees”, “Fight for Regime and System Change”, “United Actions of all Unions to save Education”, “Workers deserve better pay, Students deserve Free Education”, “Join to Build the Labour Party”, “Jail the Looters, Free 27 Soldiers” etc. At Maryland Roundabout, scores of policemen appeared and they attempted to break the protest but this was met with vehement resistance by students. They were led by the Lagos State Assistant Commissioner of Police (Operations) who stated that they would not condone students blocking the road and causing traffic jams. After making several futile attempts to stop the rally, the police stayed closely to watch the students as they moved the peaceful protest to Channels Television Office to seek media coverage. The protest was covered adequately by both the print and electronic media. DSM comrades from Agege, Ajegunle, OAU, LASU, UNAAB, UNAD, AAUA participated and sold 66 copies of Socialist Democracy, the DSM paper.
The success of this protest rally cannot be overemphasized as it has again aroused the consciousness of Nigerian students to defend their rights to free and functional public funded education and fight against government’s neo-liberal economic policies. However, Nigerian students and education workers must jointly reject any attempt by the government to break the strike. The DSM and the ERC have been calling for joint action of students, youths and education workers to defend the strike and fight government to meet the demands through the formation of a Joint Action Committee (JAC) comprising workers, youth and students activists at campus and community levels to organize joint rallies and protests, to distribute leaflets as well as to draw up a charter of demand that covers the demands of all unions in the education sector. It was such joint action that averted the attempt by the government to break the strike in Lagos State University (LASU) on August 3, 2009. Except for reluctance on the part of the leadership of the staff Unions ASUU, SSANU and NASU, the conditions for such united actions of workers, students and youths very much exist. For instance, more students have come out in support of the demands of the current strike and against the government contrary to the past when government have always succeeded in breaking education worker’s strike by feasting on the hostility and anger which students may have towards ASUU and other striking unions for the simple reason that students perceive that they are always at the receiving ends of strike actions.
But this time around, media interviews of students and parents are mostly in favor of the demands of the unions with a minor percentage condemning the strike. The plan of government to hike fees to N180, 000 which was exposed by SSANU (one of the union’s on strike) has so much horrified many working class parents and poor students that despite strident denial by government spoke persons, many have come to realize that danger lurks in the shadows if the demands of the striking unions are not met. This is why government efforts to use a group of lickspittles who called themselves “Forum of Ex-NANS Leaders” led by one Segun Olaleye (former rightwing and pro-government president of National Association of Nigerian Students) to undermine the strike has been largely ineffective.
However if effort is not geared towards building a concerted struggle involving education workers, youth and students, there will be a possibility of the strike suffering a defeat especially with the withdrawal of the federal government from negotiations with ASUU early this week would mean to most students that there can be no quick end to the indefinite strike. This can create disenchantment towards the strike as the strike gets longer and its impact bites harder. Students may in that case seek any solution whatsoever to end the strike and ensure academic activities resumes. But with the formation of joint action committees at campus and community basis and with a charter of demand that covers the demands of all unions in the education sector, mass of students can be drawn into the struggle thus making them immune to government propaganda and guaranteeing a mass base of support for the demands of the strike. Only a united struggle of education workers, youth and students linked with the general struggles of the working class for decent living wage and an alternative socialist socio-economic system can successfully defeat government neo-liberal attacks on public education.
Tunde Dairo attacked by a suspected PDP thug while posting ERC posters in Ikeja Lagos – photo DSM
However in the immediate, matters have reached a deadlock since the protest rally on Monday 10th of August. The federal government in a dramatic turn announced it was calling off talks with ASUU because the latter has made further negotiations impossible by continuing the strike. Meanwhile, ASUU had bent backwards over the weeks to ensure that the crisis was resolved as quick as possible to the extent of accepting that certain areas of the agreement should be removed. Unfortunately government has not appreciated these efforts as it is proposing that the negotiated agreement should be turned over to the governing councils of each University for further negotiation. As a precondition for this, it has insisted that the strike be suspended but ASUU has rejected both the proposal that it suspends its strike as well as the proposed negotiation at governing councils as it goes against the principle of collective bargaining. The call by government on ASUU to suspend strike is a booby trap while the proposed negotiation at the governing councils after a two year negotiations at the Gamaliel Onosode re-negotiation committee is an attack on the principle of collective bargaining and amounts to shifting the goal post in the middle of a game.
Against the background of this stalemate, there is the necessity to raise the tempo of mass actions and protests against government insincerity in dealing with the striking unions and its insensitivity to the plight of students who are held up at home wasting away. Currently, opinion in the student movement support a protest march on the National Assembly in Abuja (the Federal Capital Territory) as the next stage of the struggle in order to force the federal government to reckon with students’ demands. The ERC intends to commence immediate mass mobilization for this, while we also call on labour leaders to immediately declare a one-day solidarity general strike and mass actions as a follow up to the solidarity protest march organized by Labour and Civil Society Coalition (LASCO) on July 14, 2009. There is however, the need to broaden the base of the mass actions by reaching out to more student unions across the federation as well as progressive groups, student ideological organizations as well as those leaders of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) who are in support of the strike.
While of course the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) has lost the capability of a serious defense of the rights of Nigerian students to free and functional public education due to the rightwing, pro-government and corrupt leaders who have led the Association over time, the current strike of the education workers has pitted several sections of the Association against each other as Ahe association does not have a united position of the strike. While some of the leaders have come out openly in the media to condemn the strike, some others have also supported the strike in the media and in fact threatened protest marches without doing any practical mobilization for mass actions. This differentiation in the attitude of different leaders of NANS to the strike does not yet mean that a section of the leadership is getting radicalized. In fact it is not impossible that some of those who proclaim to support the strike do it for corrupt and pecuniary reasons. Nevertheless, this situation opens up a window of opportunity for the Education Rights Campaign (ERC) and progressive student activists who have been campaigning overtime for the revival of NANS to intervene by encouraging the section of NANS leaders who have threatened mass actions to fulfill these threat as well as drawing up joint programs of mass actions and protests against government neo-liberal education policies that include all student unions, NANS and other groups that support the strike and struggle.
But even with this, the necessity of rebuilding a vibrant student movement, the rebuilding of NANS as a mass-based democratic and radical platform of struggle and the replacement of the current set of rightwing opportunistic NANS leaders by a militant Marxist leadership that cannot only defend students against government neo-liberal attacks on education but that is also accountable to the mass of students and subject to recall becomes stronger than before. If such a NANS exist today, Nigerian students would have been better placed to fight for free, functional and public funded education and against attacks on democratic rights and victimization. Only the rebuilding of NANS along the above mentioned path can make it play the role it used to play in students and youths struggles in the 1980s.