Great Ife Unionism And The Catastrophe Of 'Modernizing...' By Wole Olubanji (Engels)
The OAU Students' Union is about to be restored for the second time in six years. I have a deeply partisan interest in the Union, and what becomes of it. A contrary interest would be inconsistent with my personal values and youthful sacrifices. I am alarmed by familiar pattern of campaign rhetorics, holding sway now, that gives the weak-minded a disguise of moderacy and the mediocrity a sense of balanced opinion. If another generation of students are deceived again, then prosperity will not forgive all of us for not doing what we can to learn from the past. What I can do is to offer my advice.
I am suspicious of any candidate campaigning with slogan of 'modernised unionism' (MU) or related rhetoric. It is either the candidate is consciously fraudulent like Donald Trump or too 'simple-witted' like Buhari. One, what do they intend to modernise in unionism? The ideas, values or principles? Or more material things like structure of leadership, union building or what? You can see the slogan is first and foremost plagued with ambiguities. On the other hand, innocently sincere proponents of MU argue they want to change rules of engagement; union should be less combative and be more diplomatic, they say. It sounded so simple, but beware of simple thoughts because they usually carry the most complicated of flaws.
Unionists must understand that a Union is partisan in character, and must view reality from the perspective of her members, their interests and happiness. In that case, the union leadership must see it as an obligation to steer the union along the path of defending the interests of members, who are in this case students. Quite unfortunately, we can cite the example of ASUU and few other unions that are doing just that. (Perhaps, the miseducation about unionism fetters because of lack of contemporary traditions)
But it borders on complete absence of tactical and strategic thinking to blackmail your union and its leadership into a condition of crass impotency/weakness. SSCE 'Government' teaches that a union is a pressure group, and relies on threat of action, pressure, to push home its demands. Only mediocrity would compare a Students' Union with a 'government'; if you are a government, you just need to dip your hands into the treasury of the state to build more hostels and deploy soldiers to seal off the office of an erring DSA. But you are a body of people relying on your numbers and social importance as students to bully your way into better conditions. Immediately you say you are not combative, you have lost an essential element of threat, which is crucial to your bargaining power.
Also, what is the rationality behind diplomacy when the problems confronting you are undiplomatic? Imagine a Vice Chancellor increases fees, without the courtesy of carrying your leadership along; and this same leadership comes back to tell students that calling Congress to discuss such matter would be 'confrontational' because no meeting has been held with the VC over the matter. Modernity as I experienced under two union leaderships, who were fervent exponents nonetheless, was a theoretical excuse for cowardice, irresponsibility, treachery and generational failures. A union must approach different issues in a different and tactical manner. That is why democracy is the oxygen of a union. A union handed over to its leaders for sole and absolute rulership would soon wreak, because with the conspiracy of just a few, that union can easily derail from collective interest to satisfying the whims of the leaders. At every point of collective struggle, the Congress of students must always guide the leadership on tactics to be seized in prosecuting struggle. And the leadership must carry such congressional directive out to the best of their ability or face impeachment. Its election time, and enough of this appeal to modernity: appeal to democracy, appeal to students' interest instead, appeal to ideas. What will you do on mass failure? How do you intend to reawake the student movement to break this 'divide and rule' approach of authorities?
It is also not impossible that "modern unionists" draw a simple comparison of Nigerian schools with, say, US schools and want a change across that line. Please don't fail to draw the contrasts too: it requires millions of naira or thousands of dollars to get college education over there. Quite a large number of Americans do not proceed beyond high school because of exorbitant fees. That's not the kind of legacy you want us to have here. Is it? To be a bit academic about the matter, why not draw inspiration from Spanish student movement, which has impacted Spain's political landscape? I sincerely feel that those advising us to copy the US unions are dragging us backward. Americans would be proud of our traditional radicalism; you can see the hell of a protest Trump's facing these days. That's in the 21st century USA. Logicians may have a category of fallacy for those who appeal to modernity (I intend to find out)
I am not a neutral person as far as Ife unionism is concerned. To be neutral is to indecisive and fake. I was a member of the Left as a student and still in the national leadership of the Education Rights Campaign (ERC). I wish to state with the benefit of hindsight that the continuous existence of left organisations on OAU campus is the reason behind the sustenance of whatever radical value the union exudes. This is why students should crave their intervention, and defend their rights as students like you to contest for union offices. I make this remark because of traditional management's antics to disenfranchise left members, while students look on indifferently.
The game of management against the union has always been too blatant, flagrant, you may want to add. Take a personal experience for example. In 2014, Tale Omole restored Ife union from a three year proscription, and the only condition for conduct of elections was disqualification of myself (who was contesting as Secretary General) and some other activists. Why? Because authorities have targeted us as the very activists (Leftists they said) who spearheaded movement for restoration of the union. However, the real intent was to increase fees after the elections and we were seen as troublemakers. (Eight activists, including myself were to go on indefinite suspension shortly after; all to ensure the fees was forced down the throats of students) As a fresh student, I paid N48,000+, but the increment that followed the 2014 election put Ife fees around N97k for fresh students. (I surely wouldn't have gone beyond secondary school if people like Lanre Legacy, Sobur Akin, Hassan Taiwo Soweto, Peluola Adewale had not led a vibrant Ife Unionism, where principle comes before self-interest. Its a generational failure and it saddens my heart all the time that I and my colleagues didn't leave a better Great Ife, because we fall victim of management antics. Our disqualification as left members then was overlooked by most of our colleagues; but quite strategic for the authorities. We would not have worked miracles though, but we would not have betrayed students. It is hence my advice for all conscious Ife students to be careful of any concession that would wreck the union even before it is restored.
Finally, student unionism is not meant for careerists. If you want to enlarge your CV details, go to the faculty associations/parapo or AISEC/JCI etc. After all ambition is not a crime. But just as UJCM needs a spirit-filled President, our union needs grounded activists. Matters involved in unionism go beyond today; sometimes it may be to determine whether the poor are entitled to the same quality of education as the rich. If you are not ideologically prepared for these tasks, you are bound to fail. In this period of austerity, you have to struggle to defend victories of the past, because attempts shall definitely be made to withdraw previously won concessions; not to talk of winning new battles. Sorry for the lengthy words; some of us are in the habit of putting things on record for posterity to judge us fairly later.
(Wole, a.k.a Engels was a student until April 2016, and still imbibes the values this union has inculcated in him: value of intellectual engagement)