Student Movement: Potential for Struggle Impeded by a Crisis of Leadership
Student Movement: Potential for Struggle Impeded by a Crisis of Leadership
Resolution on Students Work
DSM National Committee Meeting October 11-12, 2014
Cross section of comrades and supporters at DSM NC October 2014
The student movement in Nigeria is wracked by a huge crisis of leadership. This crisis is not just of its principal platform – the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) – but also of the local unions on different campuses. This condition is supplemented by the complete flattening out of students’ left groups and organizations on many campuses. It is a crisis that has existed for far too long and has now become a principal obstacle to the development of the struggle against neo-liberal attacks on public education.
This crisis is expressed sharply in terms of absence of a radical or “progressive” student leadership worth the name in any campus. On every campus you turn to, you are most likely to be confronted by two special breeds of 21st century student union leaders. First is the completely rightwing student leaders who see nothing wrong in neo-liberal education policies of fee hike and commercialization. The second is the so-called “progressive” student leaders who profess and have emerged from a certain radical and sometimes even leftist tradition but are incapable of fighting against anti-poor education attacks of government because of lack of a rounded out socialist outlook
This second breed is most pervasive in the Southwest presently and can be found in the students unions, Joint Campus Committees and up to the NANS Zone D executive. Despite the differences which exist between this two, the result of their leadership is fundamentally the same: complete betrayal of students at every turn.
A point that must be stressed here is that the crisis of leadership in the student movement is a reflection of the larger crisis of leadership in society. Politically, the working class and oppressed masses have no leadership, no platform or political alternative to look onto for liberation from capitalist misrule. This has created among workers and the poor a pervading outlook of “there is no way out of our problems”. This condition and the outlook it creates are also mirrored or replicated in the student movement.
However, side by side with the absence of radical leadership is also the growing radicalization of students and emerging appetite for struggle. We have seen the massive movements this year in OAU, LASU and OOU. That these movements took place at all in spite of the condition of leadership shows the immense potential for struggle that exists and the inevitability of students’ anger spilling out.
The Lagos State University (LASU) is where the bitter temper of students was given the sharpest expression so far this year. It is also where students struggle has won the most at least over the last 10 years. No matter how the Lagos state government tries to explain away this, it is clear that the reversal of the fees to N25, 000 is a massive defeat for the All Progressive Congress (APC). The political reverberation of this struggle was heard in the party’s electoral loss in Ekiti and a loss was only narrowly prevented in Osun.
The struggle while it lasted fully exposed the party’s insincerity on issues of education funding. The campaign took Governor Fashola and all the main party leaders to the cleaners. Every opportunity was used to make a case for reversal of the fees. On social media and the print and electronic media, LASU fees became an issue of passionate debate. This was thanks to a rigorous campaign led by #SaveLASU Campaign – a group the ERC and the LASU Students Union initiated jointly with other forces like the National Union of Lagos State Students (NULASS) and radical groups.
Some of the forces within the campaign were either card-carrying members of supporters of PDP and APC. Yet such was the level of political consciousness which the campaign provoked that none of the representatives of these parties could confidently canvass for them. In fact the usual thing was for people to admit their membership of the ruling party but insist that nevertheless they felt a strong moral responsibility to support the struggle for reversal of the fees. It was as if with the hiked fees in LASU, the cup of iniquity of the APC had run over. Particularly the ERC and DSM members in the campaign used the struggle to raise the urgent need for a political alternative to the capitalist parties of PDP and APC which are both united around an agenda to price education out of the reach of the poor.
It was not like there were no elements in the campaign who were raising the need to be “politically neutral” such that we are not blackmailed of being sponsored. There were a lot especially those in the leadership of the union. What this means in practice is that the struggle against the fees would be conducted without exposing or attacking the political party and ideology that is behind the policy. This same refrain “we must be politically neutral” has been heard in other students’ struggle that have broken out since LASU. But we resisted this by insisting that this would only be a cover-up for having behind the scene deals with these same elements. Instead the best way to show we are not being sponsored is to oppose both major parties (PDP and APC) publicly by exposing the anti-poor nature of their policies on education. This tactics succeeded. Not only did the false accusation of political sponsorship as canvassed by Joe Igbokwe (APC Lagos state Spokesman) not able to stick, also the PDP itself was too frightened to approach the campaign for any reason. It is interesting that many of those who preached “neutrality” at first were prepared later in the course of the struggle to do deals with the party in power.
We can say with all confidence that this struggle may not have developed the way it did without the relentless work of the Education Rights Campaign (ERC) since 2011 when the fee was hiked and particularly our immediate intervention in the aftermath of the January 23 protest of 1,292 students who were prevented from writing examinations because of inability to pay fees. This is without prejudice to the role played by the Joint Action Front (JAF) later, staff unions, the students’ union leadership and students themselves
But our keeping the issue alive for three years and the speed of our intervention in January 2014 when the school was shut-down and the simultaneous raising of a campaign for reversal of fees which worked actively from January through February, March and April were pivotal in forcing the State government on a retreat which, after many twists and turns, culminated in the reversal. This was also pivotal in strengthening the resolve of the union to lead the struggle which it later did so marvelously in the daily occupations of the Governor’s office in June.
Otherwise if it was left to the Students Union leadership which had just been elected and not yet inaugurated, it was very likely nothing would have been done in January, February and March. Indeed at the starting point of the campaign, the Union leadership declined to lead and instead asked the ERC to do. Definitely if nothing was done in January and February, the momentum would have been lost. Heavy reparation would have been imposed on students for the properties allegedly damaged in January. In the condition of general despair, the issue of fee reversal would have sounded so remote. It is in this sense that the work of the ERC was pivotal.
Also extremely pivotal was our role (and JAF as well) in keeping the demand for fee reversal alive when in June the Students Union abandoned this demand and started demanding substantial reduction. This was not just a mistake of tactics for the Union leadership. In April and May, a grand conspiracy had been forged involving the NANS Zone D, the JCC and other forces to prepare a safe-landing for the state government. This safe-landing was to be a negotiated reduction of the fees which could save the government from outright defeat while ensuring students win a bit too. In buying into this agenda, the Students Union leadership pulled out of the #SaveLASU Campaign group and floated the idea that winning outright reversal was impossible. The ERC retorted: “No mountain is immovable when the people are united”.
The SaveLASU Campaign did not buy into this agenda but at the same time it could not also develop any further because of the exit of the Students Union. Gradually, attendance at its meetings ebbed as the Union now vigorously took centre-stage campaigning under the slogan of “substantial reduction”. In practical terms, this meant demands for reduction of fees to N46, 500 for returning students and N65, 500 for fresh students. From the summit of a fee range of between N197, 750 to N348, 750, this demand if achieved would definitely have been phenomenal. But it would still have been a betrayal of a struggle that could have won far more.
It is to the eternal credit of clear Marxist perspectives that when eventually on June 11 the State government announced a marginal reduction in fees by a range of 34% to 60% which fell short of the union’s demand for substantial reduction; we issued a statement where we among other things wrote the following prophetic lines:
“This concession by the State Government no doubt shows that struggle pays. Without the stubborn struggle waged by students since January of this year, not a kobo reduction would have been contemplated by the government. Indeed as far as the state government was concerned, the fee hike which was introduced as far back as 2011 was a foregone conclusion until the events of January 22nd and 23rd 2014 changed the situation. However if students should decide to continue to wage a consistent and uncompromising struggle until the demands for the substantial reduction to N46, 500 and N65, 500 is won, we in the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) and the Education Rights Campaign (ERC) are convinced that victory is still possible.
This is because first and foremost, the issue of LASU fee hike is one of the Achilles heels of the All Progressive Congress (APC)-led government of Lagos State which many of the party members and contestants would like to see resolved one way or the other before the 2015 general elections. Indeed such is the popularity that the issue of LASU fee hike has attained that contestants on the party platform are being confronted with this reality even in other States of the Federation. Secondly, the issue of LASU fee hike has become so touchy that it receives a wide support of mass majority of the population in Lagos State such that if students decide to stick even to their original demands for total reversal of the hiked fees, the government at some point may have no choice but to cave in”.
This was eventually borne out when at the 19th Convocation Ceremony of the University; Governor Fashola announced total reversal of the fees to the surprise of the Students Union leaders. Later when asked by the media, the Union president Nurudeen Yusuf (Optimist) simply said “It was unexpected because we proposed N46, 000 but the governor surprised us by reversing the fee back to N25, 000. It implies that no pain, no gain, we have suffered, now we will enjoy,” (Vanguard Newspaper August 7, 2014). It may have surprised the union; it did not surprise us at all in the DSM and ERC as the statement quoted above shows.
Recently there has been a flurry of media articles praising Fashola for being “a listening Governor” and the recent award of Senior Advocate of Nigerian Students (SANS) by the NANS Zone D and Lagos JCC racketeers. These are just some of the attempts by the Lagos State Government and the APC to refurbish their badly damaged image. But nothing they do can hide the fact that the fee reversal was a damning defeat hitherto not experienced by the APC government in Lagos State. This was an unwilling concession to a prolonged and spirited struggle waged by students of the University starting since January 22, 2014. This struggle had seen the brutalization of the students by police shooting tear gas and live bullets as well as the arrest and detention of some of them on criminal charges. After another daily occupation of the Governor’s office on Tuesday June 10 2014, three students were hospitalized due to repression by the police.
However this victory was not just a product of the students’ determination to struggle alone, the strikes of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) LASU Chapters were additional vital pressure which compelled the government. Only this kind of unity of students and workers in LASU can defeat any attempt to re-introduce the fees after elections and any other anti-poor education policies in the offing. The struggle in LASU even long before it became victorious had inspired movements in OAU and OOU. Now that it is victorious, many students will take a cue from that. For the student movement, the LASU struggle has blazed a trail.
The Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) Students Union which had up till now set a standard for radical activism is now setting a new standard: that of shameful betrayal of students. A magnificent struggle of students which had developed over hike in fees and held promise of developing further into a mighty storm that could have raised the banner of a nationwide movement against fee hike was shamelessly circumscribed by the Union leadership under the excuse of ‘engaging in dialogue’ with the management. Of course they did not commit this crime alone; they had help as usual from the NANS Zone D. At the end of the day, the union leadership cocky in their shameless wheeling and dealing won nothing concrete. This was of course except a slight reduction which made nonsense of the entire sweat students shed at barricades for days and the weeks lost during the closure. Justifiably, many students have asked: exactly why did we have to go through that entire struggle if this is all we would end up bargaining for?
But this was not all the Union lost. In clear fulfillment of our repeated warnings that “a union should not negotiate from a position of weakness” and that “when you offer the State your wrist, it would not stop until it gets your elbow”, the management took the opportunity of the Unions’ weakness to strike at the most radical forces among the students. 8 prominent activists (4 of them our members) known for their uncompromising defense of students interests and their leading role in the campaign to restore the union were suspended from the University.
Unknown to the union leadership, the personal travails of the OAU 8 is the least of the implication of management’s action. The broad implication of this is the rolling back of the mood and culture of resistance which had only just begun to rise among the rank and file of students. If this slide continues, it is only a matter of time before the union is threatened with proscription under the slightest pretext especially if it challenges the management in any way.
On the whole, the development in OAU has implication for the entire student movement. Without the marker or standard which OAU has often provided, the depth student activism will further plunge can only be imagined. It also confirms our warnings years ago that though the radical union tradition of OAU which is passed on from generation to generation may appear as something rock-solid and undefeatable; yet it can be ultimately defeated especially if the prevailing cheerless situation in NANS and the student movement continues. After every proscription, the OAU Students Union has often emerged strong, but behind this appearance is the unseen diminishing of its strength and virility. An oasis in a desert would eventually dry up. This appears to be happening now. Swamped in the murky waters of degeneracy that pervade the entire movement, it was only a matter of time before the wind got taken out of the union’s sail.
The only way to save the OAU Students Union from plunging further is by the building of ideological and campaigning organizations that can provide a bulwark no matter how feeble it may seem initially. This is why the work of the Education Rights Campaign (ERC) and Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) on campuses including OAU becomes very important now. Faced with Union leaders that cannot raise a voice in the interest of students, campaigning platforms can play a role in building a movement from below that can compel union leaders to act or assist students to take their destinies into their hands.
A major springboard for the anger of OAU students against the fee hike was the realization that the government was not sincere if after it had conceded to the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) which went on a six-month strike last year to release N200billion into the University system, it went on to increase fees. Students also saw that OAU was being made an “experimental lab” to test the policy of fee hike. Students therefore saw that their role was crucial to defeat the hike in OAU in order to defeat it everywhere.
Despite all its magnificence however, the struggle against fee hike in OAU was a “minority” movement. The university had just reopened for fresh students to pay fees and complete their registration when the protest erupted. The mass of returning students were just preparing to resume the following week when the University was closed down. However from social media interactions, you could already glimpse the massive support the struggle had among returning students at home. It is easy to speculate that had the University not been closed and stale students had resumed, they could have joined the struggle and the outcome could have been entirely different.
At its height, the massive protests of OAU students against fees saw the barricading (perhaps a more appropriate word is lockdown) of the University for days and the practical sacking of the principal officers of the University from their duty posts. There are features in the struggle in OAU which can be seen in some other students’ struggles that have taken place recently. First is the speed these movements develop once they start reflecting the deep-seated, explosive and pent-up anger among young people. From rallies, street protest, to boycott, in a few weeks the struggle in OAU driven by mass anger developed inexorably to the stage of occupation. And all this happened under a union leadership whose major officers were sponsored by the University management during the last election in a futile effort to ensure the restoration of a toothless union! There could have been some errors in tactics committed; no doubt impatience was a key problem. But it all shows the explosive character of students struggle in this period as a result of enormous anger at the anti-poor education policies and the betrayal of official union leadership.
Second is the centrality of the role of the mass of students in forcing the leadership to fight. Every single radical step (even though they were mostly baby steps) the Union took in the struggle were forced on it by students. The union leadership did not do a single thing willingly to further the struggle. At every turn it moved in a radical way, it was because of its fear of the mass behind it. However once the University was closed, students went home and the pressure of the rank and file on it was lifted, the Union leadership started to implement its agenda to betray the struggle. And it was greatly helped in this disgraceful venture by the mood of despair that all closures ultimately evoke.
One major mistake students made was their inability to maintain a relationship of solidarity with the staff unions. This lesson must be learnt by those who do not want to repeat the same mistakes again. For instance when the students occupied the entire university for days, they discovered their power. Oh yes! But to their dismay, they also discovered they could not run the campus. With no electricity and tap water running, it was a matter of time before the occupation crumbled. This is where the power of the working class could have been demonstrated. Ensuring electricity was on and water running would not have been too difficult for the workers who were the ones ensuring utilities worked on campus in the first place. That the Vice Chancellor and other principal officers could not enter a campus should not ground a University to a halt. They are not the ones making the campus function in the first place. They are just the ones who manage and mismanage the funds of the University. So they could be out of the way and no one would miss them. The prospect of success in any struggle of students is enhanced by the solidarity between the students Union and workers unions and if a mutual understanding of the importance of staying united to win exists. The ERC has never failed to stress that only the unity of workers, students and parents can win the struggle to save public education. When this unity was ruptured in OAU, it was only a matter of time before the struggle was lost.
The fee struggle at the Olabisi Onabanjo University (OOU) Ago Iwoye like all others confirms the crisis of leadership in the student movement. The students of the institution have shown again and again their readiness to fight. Unfortunately the union leadership despite its composition by some “left” characters lacks the courage to boldly lead the struggle to victory.
The OOU struggle owes its ignition in every respect to inspiration received from the Lagos State University (LASU). The fees in OOU were hiked by the predecessor of the present All Progressive Congress (APC) government, Governor Gbenga Daniel of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The present APC Governor Ibikunle Amosun while campaigning in 2011 promised to effect a 50% reduction once in power. However when the party came to power eventually, it simply reduced the fee by 10% and moved on as if things were okay. The government ignored all the rumblings and moans from OOU until the LASU struggle and the electoral loss of the party in Ekiti sent shockwaves down the spine of the party.
In panic at the thought of losing the State in 2015, the Governor organized a meeting with the JCC and the Students Unions in the State and announced some marginal percentage reduction in the fees of all the state-owned institutions. It is uncertain whether the OOU Students’ Union leadership attended this meeting and what its position was if it did. What is clear is that without the uprising by rank and file of students, not a single protest may have been heard from either the SUG or the JCC in the State. But when the OOU students rose in their hundreds, the Students Union had to provide leadership.
Despite its speed, the uprising in OOU was to be expected. For instance, agitation for reduction of the fees had been on before the Governor’s announcement. Indeed a lecture boycott had taken place weeks before and a new protest was being planned in the week of the announcement. It was partly in the hope to undercut this development that the Government announced the reduction. Unfortunately when broken down into naira and kobo, the reduction was so marginal that they brought no relief to students of OOU who were already paying the highest fees in the state. Also the state government promised to implement this unsatisfactory reduction in the 2014/2015 academic session. This in effect probably means after the 2015 general elections when the party would be under no electoral pressure to fulfill its promise.
Of course students were no fools. The interesting characteristic of this period is that even though the idea of a socialist alternative to capitalism may not attained mass popularity for the obvious reason that there is as yet no registered political party campaigning for it, distrust of the politicians of all the major ruling political parties is overwhelming. Few days after the announcement of reduction, students from OOU stormed Abeokuta the state capital and occupied the Governor’s office for two days! There demand was for further reduction in their fees to an amount not more than N50, 000 across board and for its immediate implementation!
The protest took the government by surprise. The Governor and his kitchen cabinet panicked. The publicity stunt had turned awry. Interestingly, the government had planned to also use the occasion of the announcement of fee reduction to distribute buses to students Unions. But all these were turned upside down by the OOU students’ outburst of protests. Despite police attacks on the demonstrators, they would not disperse until the Governor addressed them and promised to look into their demands within seven (7) days. It was at this parley which took place at the MKO Abiola Stadium in Abeokuta that the original plan to distribute buses to the Union leaders was now hatched. But so successful was the protest of OOU students that the report of this publicity stunt in the newspapers was overshadowed by reports of the 2-day protest. Of course the purpose of the promise by the Governor was to buy time to decide on what to do, not to meet their demands. At the end of the seven (7) days, the institution was closed down and police moved into the campuses. A move to proscribe the Union was hurriedly reversed when it became clear that this would ignite widespread condemnation.
From here events in OOU begins to share striking resemblance with the dismantling of the struggle in Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) as already explained above. It may be too early to draw conclusive opinion on the struggle in OOU but already efforts to shipwreck the struggle is getting prominent. From demands for reduction to an amount not higher than N50, 000, the Union leadership has backpedalled to demanding 50% reduction. If met, this would mean that average OOUites would still pay fees of above N50, 000 to above N100, 000. The easy excuse being deployed is that students’ wants the school reopened as soon as possible. Yes, the ERC recognizes this. But reopening of the University and reduction of the fees are two separate things. If the Union is sincere and bold enough, it should demand immediate reopening of the school while negotiation on the fee continues. Indeed the union should insist that it can only take a democratic decision on whether or not to review its demands when its members returns to school and are able to attend a properly convoked congress to debate the issue. Anything short of this is betrayal.
If the union decides to go along with the agenda to give the Ogun State government a soft landing by conceding to an offer of fee reduction higher than what students originally demanded, the consequence may be grim. Ordinarily, the original demand for N50, 000 reduction itself even if met would have been incapable, especially in a country where the national minimum wage is N18, 000, of ensuring that OOU is affordable and accessible to all. But to now concede to an amount which would make OOU students pay above N100, 000 would be interpreted by most students and rightly so as a betrayal. What is clear however is that a betrayal may only delay for a short or long time depending, but it cannot stop the resurgence of struggle among OOU students at a later time again on the same issue of fee hike.
However just as in LASU, no matter what happens, the OOU struggle has exposed the Ibikunle Amosun’s government and the APC as a deceitful party that rides on people’s expectation to power only to disappoint them. Damage has been inflicted that the party will not recover from soonest. Politically, the APC will face a steep task in 2015 elections. They may retain their rule only just because none of the political parties existing is different from the APC in terms of policies and programs.
What role did the Yinka Gbadebo-led national leadership of NANS play in all the struggles that have developed so far this year? None! What roles did the Southwest (Zone D) leadership play? -that of undertakers of the movement! Both leaderships have been so despicable.
Even when a roaring protest developed in OAU – his acclaimed University – Yinka Gbadebo a.k.a Ayefele was not moved to call a single demonstration. Instead he issued a scurrilous statement wherein he alleged that the fee hike was part of the concessions negotiated by ASUU with the Federal Government during the strike. According to him, this was why the association refused to support ASUU during the strike.
Even if this ridiculous lie was true, then one would expect the same association not to support the Federal Government. Instead Yinka Gbadebo and his gang tried to undermine the strike of ASUU while expressing support for the Federal Government. Anti-ASUU rallies were held by NANS many of which were sponsored by the Federal Government under the guise that ASUU strike disrupted the academic calendar at the expense of students.
Granted that last year, there was disruption in academic calendar due to ASUU strike, this year, the major and on-going disruptions to the academic calendar are students protest against fee hike and other anti-poor policies. About five institutions have so far been closed down at one point or another. The ERC position during the ASUU strike last year was that even though strike action is not desirable because of the disruptions yet it remains inevitable in the face of government underfunding of education and attacks on the right to education. It is the same way that students’ protests are not deemed desirable by food vendors and commercial bus drivers and okada riders who depend on the economy of the campuses for their daily bread. When a campus is closed down for any length of time as a result of student protests, it means hunger for thousands of families. In this case, should students agree not to protest against fee hike because of this?
Instead of agonizing over the effects of strike, the ERC has often canvassed the joining of ASUU strike by students and parents as the only way to ensure quick and most importantly victorious end to strikes. We often stress the need for victory because if the strike is called off without government satisfactorily meeting its demands, it would mean a resurgence of strike over the same issues very soon. Therefore we often canvass students and parents to show as much interests in the victory of the strike as ASUU members. This is what has paid off in the winning of N200 billion and not NANS unprincipled opposition to the strike.
NANS Award to President Jonathan
As a final act of his leadership’s ignominy, recently Yinka Gbadebo and a host of other past former leaders of NANS gathered at Aso Rock recently to bestow an award of Grand Commander of Nigerian Students on President Jonathan. This award is an embarrassment to the community of students and youth in Nigeria. The best response to this national shame is for students and activists on all campuses to rise up to reclaim the NANS from racketeers and careerists like Yinka Gbadebo and his gang. A return of NANS to the democratic and mass platform it used to be and with a leadership that is sufficiently bold enough to defend student interests is vital if the ongoing onslaught on public education in forms of fee hike and commercialization is to be resisted.
Fearful of the widespread unpopularity of his pro-capitalist and viciously anti-poor government which has failed Nigerians in all ramifications, Jonathan and his handlers hope to use this award to rehabilitate his battered image in the run-up to the 2015 general elections. Like a drowning person, Jonathan is prepared to hang onto any straw. This is why despite the lack of credibility of NANS which most Nigerians derisively see as an association of non-students and unemployed youths, Jonathan is not in the least embarrassed to be associated with it.
This award may have been conferred in the name of Nigerian Students. Certainly, it enjoys no endorsement and support of Nigerian students and youths. In 1988 when the students of Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife were to confer on late Chief Gani Fawehinmi the award of Senior Advocate of the Masses (SAM), not only was the award ratified by the union parliament, Chief Gani Fawehinmi was invited to the campus where he received the award in the presence of thousands of students and the media. If the organizers of this national charade were confident of themselves, instead of taking the award to Aso Rock they should have invited President Jonathan to any campus of their choosing to receive the award.
Definitely, this award will anger millions of Nigerian Students and youths. This is not surprising. President Jonathan’s government has been a failure in all ramifications. Its failure in the area of public education is embarrassing. From 7.3 million few years ago, the number of out-of-school children has increased to 10.5 million under President Jonathan’s watch. If the situation in the North East is factored in, certainly the number of out-of-school children could be well above 12 million. Public Universities, Polytechnics and Colleges of Education were if taken together, closed for more than two years as a result of strikes caused by the government refusal to meet genuine demands of education workers. Despite the success of the ASUU strike in particular in forcing a marginal commitment to release N200 billion to fund public tertiary institutions, the government has responded with steep increases in fees. Students of public higher institutions whose fees have been jerked up would definitely not support an award purportedly presenting Goodluck Jonathan as a student-friendly President.
NANS Zone D: Undertakers of Students’ Struggle
However this award is coming on the heels of a similar fraudulent award of Senior Advocate of Nigerian Students conferred on Governor Fashola of Lagos State by the Sunday Asefon-led Southwest (Zone D) leadership of NANS and the Yaqub Eleto-led Joint Campus Committee (JCC). Just like President Jonathan, Fashola and the APC badly needed an image laundering after the bitter defeat students and workers of the Lagos State University (LASU) gave them in the victorious struggle for reversal of hiked fees.
Both awards is a gross misrepresentation of Nigerian students who are burdened by skyrocketing tuition fees, a broken public education system and an uncertain future all which are direct results of the pro-market capitalist policies favored by the governments of both President Jonathan and Governor Fashola.
As general elections approach, the two main capitalist parties in Nigeria – PDP and APC – are falling over themselves in a competition to use education as a ruse to hoodwink the people again. But in reality, neither the PDP nor APC deserves the votes of students, youth and workers. Nigeria under the rule of either of these political parties will continue to retrogress, public education will continue to be underfunded and commercialized while majority of the people will continue to wallow in abject poverty in the midst of inexhaustible wealth.
Recently, the Zone C (North Central) leadership of NANS bestowed the Nelson Mandela Iconic Award on a PDP chieftain recently convicted on corruption charges, Chief Bode George. Reacting to this the NANS Zone D claimed not to have been consulted. The Coordinator Sunday Asefon in statement had this to say “We dissociate ourselves from the award conferred on Chief Bode George. Nelson Mandela Iconic Award is a priceless award that is meant for Nigerians who have distinguished themselves in their chosen careers and not for politicians. We are still at loss as to why some NANS leaders would do this, except for pecuniary reasons. “As an ideologically rooted organization, the step taken by some of these greedy NANS’ leaders has confirmed the level of rots in our society.” (Punch 19/9/2014).
This is a classic evidence of the radical speechifying of the Zone D leadership while committing exactly the same crimes they accuse others of. The award the Zone D bestowed on Governor Fashola was also done for pecuniary reasons. A Governor whose fee policy sent over 3, 000 students out of school while shutting the door of university education in the face of tens of thousands more is certainly not worthy of celebration by a reasonable student leadership.
For all its shallow radical posturing, the NANS Zone leadership is not so much different from the national leadership of NANS. Indeed the NANS Zone D has become adept at assisting State governments and authorities of tertiary institutions in the Southwest to wriggle out or get a soft landing during struggles over fee hike and other anti-student policies. They helped the OAU Students Union to negotiate the terrible reduction in fees it got; their efforts on LASU were defeated primarily because the struggle had gone far before they were able to intervene. Presently they are busy at procuring the same compromise for OOU students.
Both are simply two sides of a bad coin. While the NANS President Yinka Gbadebo and his team of racketeers represent the pro-People’s Democratic Party (PDP) wing of NANS, the Asefon-led Zone D leadership is the pro-All Progressive Congress (APC) wing. What unites the two wings however is readiness to sell out students to the highest bidder.
New NANS President, New Dawn?
Recently, the NANS organized a national convention from which emerged a new President. According to reports, he is Tijani Usman from the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria. Students have reacted on social media sites describing him as a 39-year old man! Just like his immediate predecessor, Tijani Usman is a NANS careerist for whom the association is a means to get rich ticket, and not a platform to fight for real improvement in public education.
Report says he has been in the student movement since 1995 and was once NANS Deputy Senate President way back in 1999! He is also rumored to have been the preferred candidate of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Evidently many students are riled by this absurdity and it has renewed the questions about the relevance of NANS to the lives of average students.
But what is significant about this convention is the complete capitulation of all the Student Union senators and activists to the NANS bureaucracy. This is in spite of the growing radicalization evidently taking place among students. For instance and according to reports, the first activity of the convention was the launching of the immediate past president, Yinka Gbadebo’s pet project called Nigeria Students Transformation Vanguard which preceded the 2014 annual convention of NANS in Asaba, Delta State. The Nigeria Students Transformation Vanguard is meant to campaign for President Jonathan’s second term bid. The shambolic event was as Leadership newspaper of September 14, 2014 reported “attended by over ten thousand students also had the National leadership of NANS, zonal leaders of NANS, joint campus committee chairmen, over 150 students’ union presidents and 16 former presidents and senate presidents of the association”. Yet there was not a single voice of protest by any Students Union representatives, including the unions on campuses where struggles over fee hike are raging, at the failures of NANS and its myriad of compromises with Government.
This confirms that the crisis of NANS is organic. It is not just about the failure of leadership at the top, it is also about the crisis of leadership of unions at campus levels which are often dominated by rightwing elements who see no reason not to approve and support any of the compromises of the national leadership of NANS. If there is any conflict as exists between the southwest leadership and the national leadership, it is not ideological but about the inequality in the sharing of bribes from government.
This situation is further supplemented by the dearth of students’ ideological or “left” organizations in the student movement. Except in a few campuses where the DSM, ERC, Pacesetters, CDHR, AMFJ etc are organized (sometimes left groups even where they exist are weak), many campuses have unions but no “left” organizations to regularly organize programs and activities that can deepen students consciousness and constantly put the union leaders on their toes. So therefore even when struggles break out on these campuses, they either fizzle out like candles in the wind or they acquire an explosive and violent character because of the failure of the union leadership to provide leadership and absence or weakness of “left” organizations to provide the struggles with ideological direction.
Faced with this kind of situation, socialists and activists in the students’ movement must realize that there is no shortcut to turning around the situation in the student movement. Adventures embarked upon by some “left” groups two years ago under the slogan of organizing to reclaim NANS has mostly ended in ruins. As ERC warned (see NANS: Can It Be Reclaimed and How? http://www.socialistnigeria.org/?p=2083), staking everything on an electoral approach to retaking NANS in the prevailing situation was not going to succeed. At the end it was only those, especially members of the DSM and ERC, who stuck to building our organizations through expanding the frontiers of our work and raising campaigns on attacks on education on campuses that were able to play any influential and meaningful role in struggles that broke out in the period succeeding the NANS convention of 2012.
The only way forward is the building and re-building of “left” movements such as the DSM and campaigning groups like the ERC on campus. The roles the ERC has been able to play in putting struggle on the agenda on many campuses is far more profitable politically at the moment than engaging in NANS politics. Together with campaign on issues of education attacks, ERC constantly raises slogans for the reclaim of Students unions and NANS by rank and file students and their transformation into democratic mass platforms of struggle. This slogan may not acquire much attention now but it can suddenly become a mass slogan at some point. What is certain is that many events will further force students to question the rationale behind the existence of a platform that constantly fails to defend their interests.
When that happens, the mass of students will decide whether they could repair the broken NANS or they would do away with it and forge a new platform. There is nothing sacrosanct about NANS anyway. NANS itself emerged in 1980 as a replacement to the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS) which was proscribed after the nationwide “Ali Must Go” boycott and protest of 1978. While ERC supports the demand for NANS to be reclaimed, yet it will be foolhardy to raise this demand in a mechanistic fashion or see reclaiming NANS as the only possibility.
In fact any possibility should be expected including the temporary merger in a network or federation of two or more Students Unions engaged in struggle over fee hike for instance and wanting to pull strength and resources together for a joint fight. This can happen among state-owned institutions for instance. Through that kind of process, the outline of a new pan-Nigeria national movement of students can begin to emerge.
Another development worth anticipating is a movement developing from below. For instance, at periods of mass struggles, Socialists often argue for democratically run mass assemblies/action committees to be created in order to drive struggle forward and also act as safe guard against dirty compromises by rightwing union leaderships. So far the usefulness of such democratic bodies is yet to be fully tested in the student movement in Nigeria. But already a glimpse of what is possible was clearly apparent in the last struggle against fee hike at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) Ile-Ife where an action committee formed by congress proved for a brief period to be a counterweight to the rightwing Union leadership. In the coming period, this experience can become generalized for the whole student movement as students realizes that their official leaderships are obstacles to struggle. When that happens, the idea of a bottom-up organizational alternative to the compromising official leadership both of the local unions and NANS can also begin to take shape.
Socialists and activists must be alert to any development and be prepared to help the students in their effort to rid themselves of the disappointing leadership they have had to endure for decades to the detriment of struggles against neo-liberal onslaught on public education.
Is there an Alternative to Anti-Poor Education Policies?
Without hesitation, socialists and activists in the Education Rights Campaign (ERC) will answer the question above with an affirmative yes! Both the PDP and APC have been in power at federal and state levels respectively since 1999, yet public education remains in a mess. For instance, the president Jonathan Federal Government claims to be carrying out a “transformation agenda” in the Nigeria’s economy and public education sector since 2011, yet Nigeria’s out-of-school children grew to 10.5 million over the same period. Out of this 10.5 million population of out-of-school children, 9.5 million are almajiris located in the North. Infact, 1.8 million of this is in Borno State alone making it the State with the highest concentration of out-of-school and homeless children. Little wonder then that Borno State is also the epicenter of the Boko Haram insurgency. The twin crises of lack of access to education and jobs will continue to be the triggers for insecurity and social explosion, not just in the North East, but everywhere.
In this year’s May/June West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE), over 60% failure was recorded with just 31.28% obtaining credits in five subjects. This came on the heels of similar performances in the past two years. 36.57% and 38.81% had credits in five subjects respectfully in 2013 and 2012 editions of the same examination. Attempts are being made to dump the blame for this terrible failure on parents and teachers but the reality is that the fundamental cause of the failure is government underfunding of education. Other indicators in the education sector have continued to decline at the same rate.
In Lagos, Osun, Ekiti, Ogun and Oyo States whose APC-led governments often lay claim to implement free education at the primary and secondary levels, no serious improvement in teaching and learning facilities are taking place. In comparison with other states whose public education systems have become completely dysfunctional, some pundits are quick to point out Lagos as a success story. The most genuine of these pundits forgets that Lagos is different from other states because of the relative development in infrastructures including school infrastructures inherited from the past. Secondly is that Lagos has a powerful and organized working class and an active civil society such that the government cannot afford the same scale of complete non-performance like other state governments without immediate consequence. Third is that if the alleged performance of the APC government in Lagos State is placed side by side with the fact of their being in power for over 14 years now and the enormous multiple billions of naira they have had the chance to use within that same period for development, a serious commentator will realize that their performance actually falls short of expectations.
If after 14 years of a political party’s unchallenged rule, public primary and secondary schools, especially away from the highbrow areas, in the working class dominated communities are in such conditions of overcrowding whereby two separate attendance registers are kept to fool the public aside the cases of unsafe school environment, lack of quality laboratories and libraries, then we may need another definition for the word “performance”.
In most cases, this opinion about Lagos is informed not by any real or concrete performance of the APC government but the need to settle for the “best available” or the “lesser evil”. An October 2, 2014 report by the Punch newspaper had this to say about the alleged Lagos’ performance “Things may be relatively rosy at the Igbobi College (Governor Fashola’s alma mater), but it is a different experience for many of the 2,000 schools belonging to the state. Despite claims of giving millions of naira directly to 620 junior and secondary schools for developmental projects, the neglect is still visible in leaking roofs and dilapidated classrooms across many schools. Three schools inside Abesan Estate, Ipaja, the biggest estate in the state, are groaning under the yoke of neglect. Abesan Primary School, Estate Primary School and Housing Primary School are what many would refer to as a study in the failure of governance. During a recent visit by our correspondent, teachers who spoke on the condition of anonymity complained of theft and indecent environment. The schools, which do not have signposts, however, have a small gate and an uncompleted fence in many sections of the large compound. One of the structures, which used to be a classroom, has caved in; while another block of classrooms looks ready to collapse. Beside the building, a pupil stepped out and stooped to urinate. Though a toilet facility is under construction, it was gathered that the three schools currently share a single latrine. In all the classrooms, large portions of the ceilings are missing, a factor that exposes the pupils to scorching heat. Whenever it rains, teaching stops automatically, even as the gust blows the heavy rain into the classrooms” (Emphasis ours).
However for the ERC, we will only begin to belief that a government has performed in the area of education provision when public schools are well funded and facilities improved so much that the children of the political office holders can attend the same schools as the rest of the people. In the distant past, all the children of the capitalist ruling class elite attended public schools for the simple reason that the best schools available were public. The existence and increasing numbers of private schools at primary, secondary and tertiary levels is a continuous sign and evidence of the unresolved decay of public education.
Underfunding, commercialization and fee hike will only ruin the already collapsing state of the education sector. Faced with the consensus of the APC and PDP to price education out of the reach of the poor, it is time we, in a more vigorous manner, continue to pose the alternative socialist policies that can seriously reposition public education, restore quality, standard, accessibility and affordability.
For instance an important part of the socialist strategy to ensure that public education receives the funding required to make it accessible to all would be to cut down drastically the pay and allowances of all political office holders such that no one receives anything more than the highest paid civil servant. Imagine how much would be saved if the presidents, Governors, national and state assembly members, Chairman and counselors receive wages not higher than that of civil servants. This amount would be enough to begin to refurbish our schools from primary to tertiary levels. To free more resources for massive developmental projects and infrastructures in the education sector, the commanding heights of the economy would have to be nationalized and placed under democratic management of the working masses.
Also crucial is the need to ensure accountability in the disbursement and utilization of the funding to education. Today, some of the most outrageous corruption and looting are going in the corridors of school administration. This is why despite the billions sunk into the Universal Basic Education (UBE), the quality of primary and secondary schools has kept plunging. There is need for all schools and the entire education sector to be placed under the democratic control of workers, students, parents and communities. These are the people who stand to benefit from progress in education and who also will lose if money meant for projects are looted. They should have a role to play and a say in how money in each school are spent! This is elementary democracy but capitalism, a system run for the benefit of a few cannot allow this because it will stand in the way of the enrichment of a few.
Clearly fighting corruption is important and ending looting could deliver some improvements, but corruption is not the major issue holding Nigeria back. A key issue in Nigeria is that its economy is dominated by the imperialist powers and the local ruling class has no confidence to invest in an attempt to build competitors to the existing world monopolies. Yes, Dangote can invest in cement, others invest in food stuffs, but generally these local capitalists are aiming at the local (or African) market for basic day to day products, they do not see the point in investing to compete with the companies dominating world markets for advanced goods. This is quite unlike China or South Korea where, for different national and international reasons, the state backed economic development which was allowed to gain international markets. In a situation where the world economy has slowed down it will be even more complicated for new challengers to develop. While some Nigerian capitalists will co-operate with world companies to make or assemble products (usually mainly for the local markets), a large section of the Nigerian ruling class aim to make quick profits with limited investment, have a looting or a “take the money and run” approach.
Without breaking the yoke of imperialism by ending capitalism and placing under public democratic control and management the commanding heights of the economy, there is no way the economy can be made to work for the people and enough resources freed to fund public education, and of course other social services, on a long lasting basis. By “commanding heights of the economy”, we mean the big local and multinational corporations in the oil sector, banks and industry. All these must be nationalized under public democratic control and management with compensation paid to their former owners on the basis of proven needs. It is only through this that Nigeria’s economy can be rescued from the stranglehold of imperialism and the local capitalist ruling class so that the proceeds from economic activity can go into providing education and other needs of society instead of swelling the bank accounts of individuals and corporations.
However by nationalization and public ownership, we do not mean a return to the era of the highly bureaucratized and mismanaged state-owned corporations like NITEL and NEPA. These corporations were owned by the capitalist State but were run in an undemocratic and bureaucratic manner such that they became ineffective after a few years. However as the power sector now demonstrates, privatization is not a credible alternative as well. To avoid this kind of debacle is why Socialists call for public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy while stressing the need for their democratic control and management by the working people. This is necessary to prevent their bureaucratization as happened under NEPA and NITEL and also ensure that these nationalized corporations work for the need of society.
The reality is that every of the steps outlined above as ways to ensure public education is free run into conflict with capitalism. The ruling class will not accept a pay cut willingly neither will they accept that the commanding heights of the economy be placed under public ownership and democratic control. To implement any of these steps will require the uprising of the working class, students and poor masses and a relentless struggle to end the capitalist system and establish in its place a democratic socialist system. The struggle for free education is therefore bound inexorably with the struggle to end capitalism in Nigeria.
No doubt, with Nigeria’s enormous resources, free education is very possible and at all levels. The only way to make it possible is to end capitalism and put in its place a socialist system of running society that can ensure that our resources are deployed to meet the needs of the people and not a few. Under this kind of socialist arrangement, not only public education would be free, it would be possible as well to make healthcare free, ensure spacious and affordable housing, functioning and comfortable transport system and improve the living standards of vast majority of the people to levels hitherto unimagined.
But we can only pose this alternative effectively through the building of an alternative political party that offers and campaigns for these alternative programs and policies to reposition the public education. This is why the ERC is playing active roles in the building of the Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN) formed by the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM). Without this approach, our lives will continue to go back and forth like a barber’s chair. All motion, no movement.