IN my first year at the University of Ife (now OAU) a ‘National Sailing’ by a secret confraternity was scheduled for the campus. On the eve, the local branch held a procession at midnight. The procession stopped an ambulance conveying a student to the hospital asking it to switch off its lights. Tragically, the student later died. A mourning student populace was enraged when news filtered that the confraternity had stopped the ambulance, even though it was for a few seconds.
The Students Union immediately banned not only the national convention of the fraternity but all such groups on campus. In those days, the Union’s decision was law amongst students. To further placate the student populace, the university authorities instituted a probe and meted out disciplinary actions on identified members of the confraternity.
Such were the powers of the union, that the Alhaji Shehu Shagari administration, though elected, thought it was better to subvert independent student unionism in the country. It bribed student renegades; some with brand new cars. It also tried to stop the 1980 emergence of a unified national student body: the National Association of Nigerian Students, NANS, which covered students in all tertiary institutions. Partly to achieve this, the administration sponsored the establishment of a sectarian body, the Nigerian Universities Students’ Association, NUSA, but it was a stillbirth.
When NANS was eventually established, the government, within three months, expelled its leadership under Tanimu Kurfi from the Bayero University, Kano, and tried to impose an illegal “steering committee”. This failed. That same period, the Shehu Shagari government expelled 13 student leaders at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and student leaders at the Polytechnics in Akure and Bauchi, Kwara College of Technology and the Schools of Basic/Preliminary Studies in Keffi and Makurdi. It also suspended the student unions in Ibadan and Kaduna polytechnics and the College of Education, Ilesa.
But those were not the most dastardly acts of that government in its efforts to destroy independent student unionism. That 1981, at the Ahmadu Bello University, ABU, it expelled 30 student leaders and rusticated 165 others. The government then turned to the University of Ife where it killed seven students during a protest on June 7, 1981. Its follow-up attempt to use the Justice Salihu Moddibo Alfa Belgore Tribunal Report to flush out student leaders was firmly and successfully resisted by the student populace and lecturers led by Dr Biodun Jeyifo, the then National President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU. The Shagari administration also tried to repress freedom of speech by banning and occupying the premises of a number of newspapers.
However, the Shagari administration was a ‘saint’ compared to the succeeding military regimes under Generals Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha. The Buhari regime was a cyclone which smashed through national institutions, including the judiciary and the media. In the case of the press, it enacted Decree 4 of 1984 which made reporting falsehood and the truth, punishable offences. It enacted Decree 2 of 1984 under which Nigerians were detained without trial. It turned to smash the campuses; it introduced school fees, abolished the Cafeteria System which subsidised food for students on campuses, and accused lecturers of inciting students against its dictatorship.
When students staged a national protest against its draconian policies, the Buhari regime not only went out to smash the protests but also kidnapped the then NANS President, Lanre Arogundade, at the post office in Ile-Ife. All these were concerted attempts to destroy independent student unionism and consciously or unconsciously make way for the emergence of cultists who would not be loyal to students, but take directives from the regime.
But it was the Babangida regime that consciously destroyed the Student Movement; expelling as many student leaders as it could lay hands on, and most infamously, promoting cultists to seize student unions across the country. In 1986, it killed “only” four students of ABU during a protest, and when the NANS called a national protest over this, it shut down many tertiary institutions and banned student unionism across the country.
The Babangida regime also in June 1986, occupied the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, premises because labour decided to stage a solidarity protest for the students, and detained a number of Congress leaders. The detention of labour leaders was repeated in December 1987 before the regime banned the NLC in February 1988. In its attempts to finally smash independent student unionism, the regime established two Tribunals of Inquiry, one led by retired Major General Emmanuel Abisoye and the second by Justice Mustapha Akanbi.
Perhaps the most devious move by that regime was the establishment, by its security services, of Student Peace Councils or Peace Committees to impose ‘peace’ on campuses. This included the sponsorship of cultists and sleeper agents to infiltrate the student unions, take them over or sabotage them. The arrowhead of these councils was based in the University of Ibadan, and it was there an epic battle ensued in which the student populace took him on, flushed him from the campus and burnt his room.
However, it was in the University of Benin that the most vicious battles between students and the Babangida regime were fought. They were so bloody that the regime issued a directive to the police and security forces to “shoot students at sight”. Lecturers like then ASUU President, Dr Festus Iyayi and Professor Itse Sagay were not even given quit notices: thugs simply invaded their homes, broke the doors, threw out their families and replaced the doors.
By 1999 when civil administration was restored in the country, cultists, thugs and security agents had taken over some student unions. Things degenerated so much that when a NANS Convention was held in Abuja, matters were settled with guns, and genuine student leaders loyal to the Student Movement were overcome. Cultists, security agents, traders and street toughies have taken over some student unions to the extent that a few years ago when I was invited to speak with a cross-section of student leaders, I discovered that the NANS President was not a student! Many of the student leaders knew and whispered it but none was bold enough to table it.
Now, this later generation of student leaders has graduated into political leadership in the country holding executive and legislative positions. Increasingly, elections are being settled not by votes, but bullets; in election after election, the country is drowned in rivers of blood, especially in Rivers State. Youths are said to be ‘the leaders of tomorrow.’ The youths produced by our leaders yesterday are taking over today. Prophet Hosea might have had Nigerian leaders in mind when he proclaimed in Hosea 8:7 “For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind”.