In this e-mail exchange,Lanre Arogundade, president of National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), 1984, tells GBENGA SALAU what NANS represented when he was a student and what he thinks the body stands for now.
Can you x-ray NANS as a former president of the association?
IT should be stressed from the outset that the much talked about degeneration of NANS is not as unique as often presented even though it is a stark reality. What I mean here is that what is happening in NANS is equally a reflection of the decline - ideological and political - in the mass movements particularly as it concerns the central labour organisations, the trade unions etc. Indeed, what you see in the society is a degeneration of values across the social strata particularly with the right wing shift in the orientation of the leaders just like that of the political class. Poverty reigns amidst abundant wealth, as corruption becomes the defining feature of this epoch. On the other hand, the campus hardships occasioned by near total submission to IMF and World Bank policies of education commercialization pose objective threat to vibrant unionism.
If we, therefore, look back, we would see that the NANS of our time in the mid-1980s was a NANS that was as radical as the mass and Labour movements not just in Nigeria but internationally that were witnessing left wing radical upswing in the defence of publicly funded social services. Put in another way it was an era of popular mass struggles, in South Africa, in Latin America etc. It was within this radical context that NANS under our leadership formed alliance with the NLC under Hassan Summonu and jointly fought for right to independent unionism with ASUU, to cite few examples; the underlining principle being similarity of ideological socialist orientation - and political vision for change in the larger society.
Struggles boomed as the economy boomed during the economic upswing of the period that was occasioned by high petroleum prices in Nigeria. Even at that time however, the threats were emerging. Thus while our 11-day nationwide boycott of classes in May 1984 stopped the re-introduction or increase in tuition fees by the Buhari-Idiagbon regime, it and other actions could not prevent the eradication of the subsidized cafeteria feeding system under which a meal was a mere 50kobo (mark you not 50 Naira) across the campuses. Students were able to easily pay the dues with which their unions were run and for which the union leaders had to account through committees composed by the democratically elected students' representative councils.
So, it was also a period of transition to right wing economic and political ideology internationally and nationally with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which by the way had deviated from genuine socialism and was being bureaucratically run and the ascendancy of the international apostles of privatization and commercialisation symbolised by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. In that dying era of public ownership and publicly subsidized education, mass organizations like the students unions that stood in opposition to neo-liberal policies came under vicious attacks from the state including the use of cultists against radical students' leaders. Only unionists that subscribe to the new right wing orientation would be tolerated. That was the sole purpose of post-students' crises panels like those of Abisoye and Akanbi that were set up by the Babangida regime and therefore essentially recommended the dismantling of the right to independent unionism. One of the long term effects is the NANS of nowadays that is not actually funded by the mass of the students or the unions but could be so rich as to be able to regularly hold conventions and meetings at Eagles square in Abuja and sometimes expensive hotels.