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Students unionism: Whither selfless, aluta spirit of yore!

>Described as a barking, toothless bulldog, the aluta spirit seems missing in the current crop of National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) compared with the selfless

Described as a barking, toothless bulldog, the aluta spirit seems missing in the current crop of National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) compared with the selfless and ideas-driven militancy of its yesteryear counterparts. In this piece, Iyabo Lawal (Lagos), Isa Abdulsalami Ahovi (Jos) Oluwaseun Akingboye (Akure), Rotimi Agboluaje (Ibadan), write that there is more to present-day NANS than meets the eye.

Members of the new University of Ibadan Students Union Government during their inauguration.

Independent students unionism is the way out, says Olaleye
• Students leaders have tasted booty from politicians, says Ojo
• Many school administrators don’t want independent unions, says Jimoh

Even the then-dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, could not decimate them. They were like an indestructible army of young men and women. They were idealistic Nigerian youths – with little fear and abundant fervour. They were the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS). But today, the relevance of that group is under scrutiny. There seems to be no more faith in the student’s body. The once fiery nuance of NANS, critics said, has today become cold, impotent ash.

A peep into the past will put that criticism in some context.
When President Muhammadu Buhari bullied his way into power by overthrowing the democratically elected government of Alhaji Shehu Shagari and became a military head of state in 1983, he was presented with a daunting, but a pragmatic proposal.

He was asked to introduce a nationwide free education policy. In response to that patriotic request, the Buhari military junta claimed there was no money to implement the policy. Buhari and his goons then added that it would cost the government N4 billion.
However, NANS of that era did not buy the dummy. The students’ union dug deep with its think tank, excavating facts, which revealed that the legitimate Shagari government, which Buhari illegally kicked out of power, had saved some money enough to use to execute the free education policy. NANS figured out that the amount of money that would have gone into the payment of salaries and allowances of political appointees and lawmakers at both the federal and state levels could be used to fund the policy – that money, when calculated by the student body, totaling N1.2 billion.
Yet, Buhari and his team said N4 billion would be needed to fully implement the free education policy. NANS was unrelenting in dogging the tail of the Buhari junta. They also figured out that the Shagari government-issued import licences worth N11 billion though the goods that were actually imported were about N2 billion.

NANS did its best to change the government’s policies and actions back then. It was not a lame duck as it is claimed to be now. That conclusion is quite understandable.
Take for instance, in the wake of the prolonged strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) last year, NANS issued an ultimatum to the Federal Government to end the strike or be ready for confrontation.
To show its intent, NANS also felt aggrieved that it was not included in the negotiation between the parties.
In ending the rhetoric, NANS threatened something like Armageddon, by saying that a mass protest would be organised across the country. Nothing happened – huff and puff but not a whimper.
Did that make NANS impotent, irrelevant?
Somewhere else in Ogun State, Oladele Itiola, then-Rector of Moshood Abiola Polytechnic, Abeokuta, was given the boot, following a protest by NANS in the state.
Hundreds of students had embarked on a protest tagged, “Rescue Ogun State Education Campaign.” During that protest, the students told the then Governor Ibikunle Amosun, in unmistakable terms that they were not happy with the state of education and expressed their opposition to the cancellation of West Africa Examination Council (WAEC) fees for secondary school students by the state government, among other issues. The action forced the state government to have a rethink the payment of WAEC fees for its senior secondary school 3 students.

THE present-day NANS is not militant; it is not destructive, and it is a little bit less intellectual, education experts have said. They put the blame for that on the quality of education students are getting nowadays.

Nevertheless, those sympathetic to the students’ bodies claimed that the mental awareness of today’s NANS cannot be ignored or ridiculed.
A case in point was when NANS rejected the proposed 15 per cent mandatory budgetary allocation to education for both Federal and State Governments. The proposal was reached at the National Economic Council (NEC) meeting chaired by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (SAN) in Abuja. But NANS stood by the 26 per cent recommended by United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) budgetary allocation on education, government rejected the student’s proposal and went ahead with its initial 15 percent of budgetary allocation.

NANS is not afraid to challenge any governmental authorities. Two years ago, the student body issued a notice of mass action over the protracted crisis between the Council of Legal Education and National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) as the crisis had hindered law graduates of the university from being admitted into Nigerian Law School for over five years. Though the demand was not met immediately, the students’ action forced the council to revisit the issue.

Once upon a time, a fiery student body, established in 1980, NANS was a strong force to be reckoned with in Nigeria as its stance against the Buhari free education policy illustrates. NANS was the successor of the proscribed National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS).
NUNS, the forerunner of NANS, was banned in 1978 after 22 years of existence by the military government of Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo because it rose vehemently against the hike in tuition.

Though NANS may have appeared toothless and not ruthless since the advent of democracy, some observers believe that the association is only responding to socio-economic and political stimuli of the society. Its current docility should not be taken for its dumbness, they said, sounding a note of warning.
Some stakeholders argued that despite the noble objective of establishing students unionism, the rot that has eaten deep into the Nigerian system has also penetrated the students’ bodies.

IN Ondo State, investigations revealed that successive managements across the tertiary institutions have struck robust relationships with students leaders.

It was learned that some students leaders who graduated years back also have a huge influence on current leaders, forming critical stakeholders and influencing decisions to be taken on students affairs.
Stakeholders argued that the student’s body has lost its steam in the fight against oppression, repression, and victimisation of any kind, unlike what it used to be during the early days of the post-independence era.
President, Movement for the Survival of the Underprivileged (MOSUP), Mr. Dappa Maharajah, lamented that students unionism has lost its soul in many tertiary institutions across the country.
Maharajah, who is an alumnus of Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba Akoko (AAUA), lamented that students leaders have become appendages of government and in some cases, school management, neglecting their original mandate as an independent body established to protect students.
He said: “We have experienced situations where successful businessmen and women, politicians and other interest groups sponsor elections on campus. Some school authorities also impose candidates that will do their biddings.”
A former Speaker of Students Representative Council (SRC), National Association of Ilaje Students (NAIS), Chief Taiwo Odidiomo, said gone are the days when integrity, honesty, hard work, uprightness, and fear of God were the watchwords of people, regardless of age and class.
Odidiomo lamented that the get-rich syndrome has bastardised the system, so much that most university management and politicians are cashing in on this weakness to destroy virile unionism in tertiary institutions. He noted that some state governments also use students leaders for elections.
However, a former Vice President of NANS, Mr. Timileyin Ayenuro, said there could still be an independent SUG if students insist on electing their representatives, and resist imposition from management.
He said the decision of an independent SUG must be based on students’ interests, benefits, and advantages. This is because students are the major stakeholders in tertiary institutions. However, this is subject to the personality of student leaders.
Ayenuro said: “A students leader with good leadership qualities knows he has to be independent for those he is representing. The second factor is the structure of the students union system.  A system that is financially independent will influence an independent leadership for the student populace.”
Contrary to claims that virile students unionism is dead in the country, Ayenuro said that the SUG still exists, adding that the level of operation, scope, and structure of leadership vary from one institution to another.
Students leaders are influenced by politicians and often drawn into crisis especially when money is involved.
Shedding more light on constant issues with students unionism on campus, Ayenuro said:  “Students union issues in universities are in two folds: students-related and management-related issues.
“Students-related issues are majorly three. The first issue is the crisis of confidence among students leaders, with allegations and counter-allegations of fraud, mismanagement, embezzlement of funds, and diversion of donations. This generates a lot of crisis among them and sometimes disrupts the activities of the union. The second issue is the power tussle among various arms of SUG, which boils down to gaining relevance among the student populace.
“Most of them are not leaders but power mongers. The third issue is the disagreement relating to project identification, financing, and execution, mostly relating to the choice of project contractor. These are major student-related issues among students union leadership in universities.”
He identified management-related issues as victimisation of students union leaders by university management, during the decision-making process. “This victimisation is mostly in the form of labeling leaders as suspected cultists to sanction them using the school’s handbook rules.
“This is not good. You cannot correct or coerce arrogantly and expect positive results. The second is the failure of university managers not to compromise their stance on issues relating to welfare. What universities bring to the negotiation table is mostly rigid and deceptive in nature, which inevitably leads to crisis.

PLATEAU State has about 10 tertiary institutions, both federal and state-owned and students unionism had shaped the academic programmes of these institutions at different times in the past.

Some of these activities include anti-students policies by management of these institutions, increase intuition, and other charges.
In the past, institutions met the demands of students through dialogue and lobby. But the last resort was usually protests and demonstrations. In a few cases, casualties were recorded with destruction to school and public property.
There were renowned Nigerians who played campus politics and later served the government in different capacities like Labaran Maku, the former Minister of Information, who was a students union president at the University of Jos during his time.
Students union activities also influenced the selection and performance of most vice-chancellors, rectors, and provosts.
Unfortunately, with the advent of democratic rule in 1999, politicians and political interests have hijacked the activities of NANS on campuses.
Professors Ochapa Onazi, Para-Mallum, and Nenford Gomwalk witnessed active students protest and demonstrations at UNIJOS, which were devoid of bloodshed, but with consequences of the destruction of property and closure of affected institutions. Following destruction to school property, management of tertiary institutions would mandate students to swear an oath of good behaviour in a recognised court registry before re-admission.

There are constant issues on campuses, as institutions do not always provide basic social and learning facilities. Increases in intuition and levies often lead to disagreement with university management.        

It is common among tertiary institutions in Plateau for management to always play key roles in the selection and election of union leaders. This empowers them to regulate unionism on campuses.  

IN Oyo State, the vibrancy, which was the defining feature of students unionism, is almost non-existent. From Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (LAUTECH) to The Polytechnic, Ibadan, Emmanuel Alayande College of Education, Oyo Town, Adeseun Ogundoyin Polytechnic, Eruwa, Ibarapa Polytechnic, Saki and College of Education, Lanlate, the story is almost the same.
Even in 2017, the University of Ibadan (UI) suspended its student leader, Aderemi Ojo, for four semesters, for allegedly disrupting academic activities.

A former union leader and two-term member of Oyo State House of Assembly, Segun Olaleye, said independent students unionism is the way out.
Olaleye said the students union must be financially independent of the management to reclaim its vibrancy.

“Union dues should be compulsory and paid directly into the union account. Responsible students unionism is important as well. We must do away with union leaders who believe all issues with management must be solved with protest. It is important for SUG to use the three “Cs,” which are consultation, consolidation, and confrontation. Unfortunately, many student leaders are not skilled in this. It is important as a students leader to get it right without compromising your leadership,” Olaleye added.

But an administrator, Mr. Emma Jimoh, said in the strict sense of independence, no one and nothing is totally independent.
Jimoh said: “In a narrower sense, it is possible for students to run a union on their own without being ridiculously subservient or tied to the whims and caprices of university administrators, to the detriment of students.
“In the history of campus unionism, the breaking point of relationships had always been when students assert their independence in terms of decision making about the scholarship, welfare, school administration as well as town-gown interactions, among others.
On why there are recurrent issues, Jimoh said the supremacy complex was responsible.
On his part, Dr. Gbade Ojo of the Department of Political Science, University of Ilorin, Kwara State, said students unionism is part of life on campus.
He however lamented that many vice-chancellors and university administrators prefer docile leaders that will compromise to cover their administrative laxity.
Also, Christiana Ojo, a lecturer at the Faculty of Education, University of Lagos, said a students union must be one that serves as a link between university authorities and students.
The educationist however lamented that politicians have identified campuses as fertile land for votes, hence wooing leaders with money.
She said: “Students leaders have tasted the booty from politicians; they have equally seen the corrupt practices of university managers, hence the struggle to bite the cake. Gone are the days when students had total faith in union leaders.  I remember the time of anti-Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) protests in my alma Mata, Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile Ife when our student’s leadership was in the hands of those that we trusted. So many of us were ready to lay down our lives when our leaders were arrested.”