Students and youth activism should form the bedrock of true and unwavering struggle for positive change, equity and development of any society. This is because, the youths who are also students are the biggest beneficiaries of any lasting change in the polity and also the worst victims of any negative government policy. It is my conviction, that even if other activists fail or compromise, youths and students should never fail or waiver in their struggle to hold the government accountable and ensure that the best policies are pursued and implemented. This is because they should look beyond the present, and fight for the future, which they and their children are more likely to be part of than trade union activists who are mostly past their youthful age, and more likely to have more years behind them than they have ahead of them.
From as long as 1925, Nigerian youths have always made their mark in youth and students activism, as they were some of the best brains behind the formation and leadership of the West African Students’ Union (WASU), which gave birth to the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS), which was later to be renamed National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS). Such has been the vibrancy of Nigerian students in activism that all other African students looked up to Nigerian students for guidance in students activism.
The front liners in the formation of the first truly African students movement were Nigerians; Ladipo Solanke and Herbert Bankole Bright. Ladipo Solanke was to emerge the pioneer Secretary-General of the West African Students Union (WASU), while J.B Danquah was its pioneer President. He also founded and led the Nigerian Progress Union (NPU), for London based students with Nigerian background. In all these struggles, the students activists were more keen on fighting for and achieving an improved welfare for the students and also aligning with other nationalist and political activists to fight for better deals for Britain’s African colonies. The contributions of the students’ union movements to the actualization of independence to Nigeria and other African countries are not menial.
Almost immediately after Nigeria’s independence another struggle ensued for the soul of Nigeria, and the Nigerian Students movement, then, under the aegis of the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS) was not found lacking, as they teamed up with radical trade unionists and the academia to push the military back to the barracks where they belong and ensure a return to democratic rule. It is important to note, that many of these students’ and youth activists lost their lives, while many others had trumped up criminal charges slammed on them, others were clamped into detention, while many others were rusticated or slammed with outright expulsion, but this did not reduce the vibrancy of the students in fighting for improved welfare for Nigerian students, humane and sustainable economic policies, fairness and equity in handling government business and a corruption free society. Then, students union leaders were held in high esteem by school authorities, and government officials, such that everything is done by both authorities to ensure that the ire of the students is not provoked. To the ordinary people, such students came by as heroes.
It is a different story altogether today. Students’ unionism has become mostly a tout’s venture, as a good number of students who happen on union leadership see such positions as avenues to enrich themselves, curry favour from government and highly placed politicians instead of seeing themselves as servants of their fellow students and youths to whom the interest of the majority must be paramount.
Earlier, no one really envies the lives of students’ and youth activists, as they are seen as endangered species, who are either in one detention room at a particular time or are being targeted by the school authorities or government for one punishment or the other, including assassination. Those were the days when most students’ union leaders always wrote UME or JAMB, expecting to be rusticated or expelled, so that they could seek admission into the next available institution. But today, acclaimed students’ union leaders live big, dine and wine with school management and go cap in hand to some of the lowliest government officials or friends of government officials and hangers-on in government begging for one favour or the other. This is the worst ridicule that the students’ unionism has faced.
During the recent faceoff between the Imo State government and the labour unions, one students’ union leader, the President of the Students’ Union Government of my alma mater, Imo State University won my admiration when he chose to stand out nobly from the shifty crowd of hungry fellows posturing as students’ union leaders. This young undergraduate of Medical Laboratory Science, Comrade Maxwell Nwanna was the first and only SUG President out of six of them that make up the Council of SUG Presidents in Imo State, who refused to accept the 50, 000 Naira allegedly provided by the State Government in order for them to append their signature to an already prepared press release supporting the State Government’s unpopular concession program which has led to the mass sack of civil servants in the State.
Comrade Nwanna did not just stop at rejecting this dirty and cheap money, he also went ahead to blow the whistle over this. When I read his press release over the incident, I contacted the young man who put it out on Facbook and requested for the SUG President’s number.
My meeting with him at the Renny’s Fast Food within the Imo State University, Owerri campus was brief, but quite revealing and also encouraging. The young man told me that he had already gone for his clinical posting at the Federal Medical Center, Owerri when he got a call froom his colleague, the SUG President of the Federal Uniiversity of Technology, Owerri(FUTO), who is also the Chairman of the Council of SUG Presidents in the State. On phone he was told that the Governor wishes to speak to all the SUG Presidents in the State over some issues. Comrade Nwanna made it clear to his colleague that he has no problems with such meeting and will join them as soon as he got through with his work at the FMC.
True to his word, he was at the Government House,Owerri some hours later, where he met hundreds of youths, claiming to be leading one youth group or the other, whom he was later to understand, had come for briefing on the protest march that was scheduled to counter the rally by Nigerian workers the next week.
Later, one Mr. GTC Samuel, an erstwhile assistant to Imo Governor on students matters and now the Speaker of a little known and credibility lacking Youth Assembly of Nigeria (YAN)took them to a nearby pub, where he unveiled the Governor’s deal for the SUG Presidents; “Sign this press release repudiating the demonstrations of the labour unions, and supporting the Governor’s concession program, and you will have fifty thousand Naira for your signature.” Apart from the newly elected SUG President of the Alvan Ikoku College of Education, other SUG President’s felt no qualms about appending their signatures to that document. None of them thought about the sabotage that would mean and how it means that they have signed off their freedom, just for pittance.
For Maxwell Nwanna, many things were involved. He told me that Governor Okorocha does not care a hoot about the welfare of Nigerian students, neither does he render any form of support to the Students unions. The Governor only remembers that there is a students’ union in times like this. Also, he reasoned that even though none of his direct relatives was directly affected by the mass sack in the civil service, those who have been sacked are some other peoples’ relatives, and should he support this move, the next batch of people to be sacked may be his own direct relatives. Also, his sobriquet is Legacy, and he has been able to set a up a team of young undergraduates who are keen on ensuring that they leave the right legacies within the period they are going to call the shot on campus, by distancing themselves from anything that is not in the best interest of majority of the students. He understands that some of the students he leads are directly affected by this inhumane policy of the State government, and feels it will amount to betrayal of his fellow students whom he leads, if he accepts to append his signature to that poisonous document.
He also argued that it was a height of insult and total disrespect to students unionism that the State Governor would send an individual without any government portfolio and one of the most junior members of the Rescue team to speak to a council of Students’ Union Government Presidents. He is aware that SUG Presidents were better treated in the past and even till date, his colleague SUG Presidents in other States of the Federation are treated respectfully by their State governments. I was surprised to learn from him, that the revered Star House or Comrade David Ufomba Secretariat, as we use to call the Students’ Union Secretariat in those days had been demolished by the State Government.
His insistence won him a supporter as the SUG President of the Imo State Polytechnic also declined the offer and withheld his signature, not really because he understands why, but because he feels that if the President of the only other State owned tertiary institution represented in that council does not append his signature, then it is right that his own school stands in solidarity with their sister university. Comrade Maxwell stood his ground even though he understood the risk in it.
In contrast, we had a supposed Speaker of the Youth Assembly of Nigeria (YAN), abdicating from his responsibility of ensuring that the youths of Nigeria are well and respectfully treated and that government pursues policies and programs that are ultimately beneficial to the people and most especially to the future of the country, and converts himself to a courier of dirty money. Ideally, GTC Samuel as an acclaimed youth activist should have been at the forefront of the protest against this policy of the State and maybe seize the opportunity to remind the NLC of the need to include demands for the recall of the sacked 10,000 youths who were employed by the Ohakim administration but arbitrarily disengaged by the Okorocha government. For whatever it is worth, this young man is more interested in remaining in the good books of the government than working for posterity.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with a youth serving in any government, but there is everything wrong when a youth fails to separate his office as a youth activist or union leader from his partisan sentiments. Be friends with whom you are friends with, but do not betray the struggle, do not betray the masses whom you are supposed to protect.