By Owei Lakemfa
The guns boomed on Saturday, December 1, 2023. Not in the forests where terrorists, bandits or ‘Unknown Gunmen’ operate. They boomed right in the heart of Abuja, and, of all places, at the Annual Convention of the National Association of Nigeria Students, NANS.
What was at stake was the presidency of NANS. Not surprisingly, three factional presidents have announced their emergence. One of them, Lucky Emonefe, stands out like a sore thumb. First, he is aged between 42 and 48 years old in an association with an average age of 22. So, he is old enough to be the father of the students. Secondly, his July 16, 2013 marriage makes it curious how he is taking care of his family as a professional student activist. Thirdly, he claims to have studied at the University of Benin, UNIBEN. So, what is he doing today as a ‘student’ of the College of Education, Warri? Pursuing a P.HD?
Fourthly, he sells himself as an ally of the Tinubu administration. Where Tinubu’s programme is ‘Renewed Hope Agenda’, his own is ‘Rebirth Agenda’. When Mr Sunday Dayo Asefon was appointed Senior Special Assistant to President Tinubu on Students Engagement, Emonefe screamed on his Facebook page in capital letters: “IT IS OFFICIAL. CONGRATULATION ASFON SUNDAY! SSA TO THE PRESIDENT”. Emonefe’s NANS ‘Lucky Media Directorate’ followed with a statement: “We have no doubt that he (Asefon) will derive (sic) and deliver the Renewed Hope Agenda of Mr President to a Conclusive end”. His lack of ideas are evident in some of the key programmes he proposes for NANS, including “Tree planting campaign” and contracting a media consultant.
The state of NANS is tragic for the country because right from its establishment as the Nigeria Union of Students, NUS, in 1939, the student movement had been independent, vibrant, reliable and pro-people. This was so through the colonial period, through neo-colonialism, including the cumulative 29-year military dictatorship.
It was not until the return to civil rule that the NANS, compromised by the political class, infiltrated by the corrupt and state agents, began to degenerate. First, the guiding principles of students which included pursuit of knowledge, fierce patriotism, right to education, defence of campus autonomy, Pan-Africanism, independence from the state and marriage to social justice, began to collapse. In its place, arose all sorts of weird traditions such as a student leader appointing his fellow students as aides of all sorts of nonsense. The unions emphasizing that they are now ‘Government’ rather than being a student union, flaunting government car number plates and replacing the traditional slogan of ‘Aluta Continua!’(The Struggle Continues!) with shouts of: ‘Gbosa! Gbosa!! Gbosa!!!’, mimicking the sound of gunfire. Obviously, military misrule has crept into their subconsciousness.
Painfully, the NANS is the creation of conscientious students who after the 1978 military clamp down on the National Union of Nigerian Students, NUNS, and the killing of 20 students in Zaria, Lagos and Ife, refused to back down. They built the organisation with their sweat, blood and future. Some actually lost their lives in the process.
The founding NANS President, Tanimu Yakubu Kurfi, was elected at 19 and expelled from the Bayero University at 20 for championing the students cause. He had won that 1980 NANS elections with a single vote over one of the best student leaders in our history, Abdulrahaman Black, who was similarly expelled in 1981, this time by the Ahmadu Bello University, ABU, for leading the students movement.
The next NANS President, Chris Mammah, from the University of Calabar, was elected in 1981 at 20, while Chris Abashi of the University of Jos was elected in 1982 also aged 20. Lanre Arogundade was elected in 1983 at 21 and nearly lost his life when he was abducted by the secret services under the Buhari military dictatorship. The attempt was to crush the NANS which had rejected the introduction of school fees, abolition of the cafeteria system and rejection of military rule.
ABU holds the record for the most brutalised tertiary institution in the vain attempt to quash the student movement. In 1981, it expelled 30 students and rusticated 165 others over student protests. The Student Union President, Secretary General and Speaker were expelled, and the Public Relations Officer, Assistant Secretary General, the Treasurer and Financial Secretary were suspended in 1985 for carrying out the NANS directive that students should show solidarity with striking medical doctors in the country.
The following year, 1986, “only four” were officially killed in ABU, while NANS put the number of dead at 25 and the Voice of America put those killed at 32. In 1981, six students were killed following protests by the students of the University of Ife(Now OAU).
Next to ABU in terms of the mass suppression of students and attempts to smash NANS were the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and UNIBEN.
It is sad to witness that same NANS today, reduced to a mere toy in the hands of political actors who are too myopic to see that just as NANS was instrumental in the resistance against military dictatorship in the 1980s and 1990s, so might it also be useful in defending the future of democracy in the country.
It is in our collective interests and those of our children that we should rebuild the NANS. First, the students, while being politically conscious and active, should wean themselves from partisan politics and politicians. Rather than forage in the increasing political desert, they need to be engaged in the reforestation of tomorrow.
Students need to imbibe the past principles of NANS by embracing knowledge, political education, defending student and democratic rights, including the right to education and unionisation which is today denied to students in private universities and some public tertiary institutions.
NANS needs to return to its old culture of collective leadership, financial self-sufficiency and a programmatic path. This will require the updating and implementation of the 1982 Nigeria Students Charter of Demands. They would need to be involved in clear-headed struggles such as working for the release of all abducted students and youth corps members and the protection of schools against bandits and kidnappers.
The NANS needs to be fiercely patriotic and align with the interests of mass organisations like those of workers, farmers and market people who are mainly their parents. Internationally, it has to be Pan-Africanist and an unrepentant campaigner for social justice no matter who is involved.
On their part, we appeal to politicians, the Police, State Security and governments at all levels to allow the students run their unions freely without interference.
NANS for about two decades has been fired from the barrel of guns, it is time for it to be fired from the barrel of ideas.