The strike embarked on by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) on July 1, 2013 has indeed tested the boundaries of student unionism. From the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) to other realms of student activism, conflicting perceptions reflect students’ reaction to the ASUU strike. This report brings the different voices to the fore.
It would be recalled that last executive members of the National Association of Nigerian Students, NANS, led by the National Assistant Secretary, Mr. Ali Mohammed disowned the national president, Mr. Yinka Gbadebo, on what they referred to as “his support for the Federal Government in the ongoing strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU.” Some members of the executive told newsmen that students were largely unbiased in the crisis and the inclination of Mr. Gbadebo to support the government was a deviation from the students’ collective goal of resolving the crisis.
“The national president did not have our mandate to support the Federal Government over the strike as we are a neutral body. We do not support either the Federal Government or ASUU because it is the students that bear the brunt of the strike. We call on ASUU and the Federal Government to resolve the issue within seven days so that the students can return to their campuses.” However, in a phone call with Vanguard Learning, Mohammed confirmed that he was not at all conversant with the issues behind the strike.
Ayo Toe, the chairman of the Student Union Transition Committee, Obafemi Awolowo University is also the leader of the southwest senators at NANS. Toe, while commenting on the weak response of student leaders to the strike said: “NANS as a body is no longer on the campus, it is in Abuja. A lot of these executives are not even students themselves, and as a result, cannot feel the pains of students.
“I, however, disagree with those who said that the NANS President was in support of the Federal Government. Yinka Gbadebo did not take any position. ASUU went on strike without informing us, and now they are seeking students’ support. I heard rumours that ASUU is paying some students as much as N16, 000 to stage protests for them. We neither support the Federal Government nor ASUU.”
Not all student leaders buy into this non-aligned movement. Mr. Adeyemo Tunde is the coordinator of the south- west zone of NANS. While speaking to Vanguard Learning, Adeyemo said; “We would like the government to implement the 2009 agreement signed with ASUU.
“We are fully in support of the ASUU strike, but our struggle is beyond the strike. I have high regard for Yinka Gbadebo, but this is not personal. In our opinion, NANS cannot be neutral on this matter. When the strike began, our zone passed a vote of no confidence on Mr. President, and declared a state of emergency in education.” The south-west zone has also begun to mobilise youths for a mass protest in Lagos next Tuesday.
The mass protest is being organised by the Joint Action Front (JAF) to pressure the government to implement agreement with ASUU and other unions in the sector. In a statement signed by the JAF chairperson, Dr. Dipo Fashina, tagged; Education is our right, system change is our goal, the JAF boss said; “JAF is resolved with other stakeholders in the Education sector to kick-start with mass rallies/procession on Tuesday, August 13th in Lagos at the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) headquarters, Tejuoso-Yaba at 8am. This will be followed by zonal rallies in Kano, Ibadan, Owerri, Calabar/Port Harcourt, and Abuja.”
Continuing, Fashina said; “The rallies/procession are a buildup towards a nationwide mass protest that will become inevitable should the government remain insensitive. We in JAF are of the strong opinion that government at all levels in Nigeria operate anti-poor policies and this is clearly expressed in their lack of disposition to public education. Government should be blamed for all the crises in the education sector, including the incessant strikes. The unions in education sector are not making fresh demands. Each time any of the unions goes on strike, it is because the federal and state governments failed to implement agreements they freely entered into and signed with any of the unions.”
Whether or not the mass protests will attract strong student support remains to be seen. The last protest organised by the Education Rights Campaign (ERC) at the University of Lagos involved only a handful of students. Mr. Hassan Soweto, the ERC boss attributed this to the hijack of student unions by government agents.
“No doubt, NANS and so many other associations have been taken over by government agents. These associations have no interest in fighting for education. If the government pays them enough money, they will keep quiet. As for the faction of NANS which is against Gbadebo, it is difficult to have a clear picture about that. Very soon, the elections to replace the late senate president of NANS will be held, I believe that some people are using this situation as excuse to gain cheap popularity.”
Emmanuel Ahanonu, Chairman, Nigeria Union of Campus Journalists said; “It is very unfortunate that NANS is divided. I commend ASUU’s actions, but I feel that it is to the detriment of students. ASUU should first of all have taken the Federal Government to court, the strike should have been a last resort.
“ASUU’s grievances are legitimate, but it is the students who are suffering. It doesn’t seem fair that instead of spending four to five years in school, a student will spend about eight years because of the strike. It is only helping to increase crime in the country. Student unionism especially on the part of NANS has been reduced to money and politics. There are a lot of students who are grieved about the situation, but are simply gnashing their teeth in silence because those who are supposed to speak on their behalf are quiet.”