Sometimes when I hear people posit that Nigerians are docile at interrogating leadership and resisting an attempt at rolling back their civil and political rights, I’m tempted to throw invectives at those who, in my opinion, hold this hypocritical notion.
This is borne out of my relentless but elusive efforts at fathoming why people, the intelligentsia particularly, should always gloss over the obvious when issues bothering on the fundamental rights of the citizenry are in the front burner of public discourse.
I make bold to say that a robust inclination towards human rights solidarity is a function of literacy and enlightenment, but it beats me how ironically, institutions that ought to be the veritable takeoff points in that regard are where the enthusiasm is killed, instead of being emboldened.
Since you cannot build something on anything, I think it’s utterly beyond the pale for anyone to think that Nigerians could be motivated to call the actions and inactions of their leaders to question, when the supposed springboard that should have guaranteed same is shaky.
To anyone who has been keeping his/her finger on the pulse of the country, most especially the trend of student unionism; it should be no news that despotism is fast becoming the order of the day in tertiary institutions in general, but in universities in particular.
A couple of years ago, the University of Lagos was closed down for a month and students forced out with the intervention of the police over protests hinging on students welfare. Rather than addressing salient questions put forward by the student leaders, the management resorted to raising extraneous points, thereby skirting round issues and alleging vandalism by the students.
Student leaders were also said to have had their hands soiled by engaging in some shady deals at the school’s expense.
The stance I took as a response to the alleged involvement of the union leaders in sharp practices was that the school could afford to punish those who may have been found with their hands in the cookie jar independently, because there was no way they all could have been culpable, but even in the event that they were, they were not fighting a personal cause; they were speaking the minds of the entire student populace.
Alas, the management appreciably succeeded at deflecting the attention of the public from the demands of the students; no thanks to the coincidence of the examination period with the happenstance, as many jumped to the conclusion that the students were only trying to shirk exams.
Consequently, students were made to sign undertakings and indemnity forms under duress, with attendant circumscription of their rights to complain when things seem to go amiss.
Again, obnoxious policies were evolved, to the end that the student union was suspended. No fewer than ten students were rusticated thereat.
Moreover, those who had been students of one university or the other before were edged out of the school politics, as only the inexperienced ones, in terms of student activism were allowed to contest faculty and departmental portfolios.
Another intriguing thing for me about the whole situation is the fact that, being a student at law, I need not be told that the contents of the undertaking and indemnity forms could have been drafted by law lecturers only, as could be deduced from the language.
That’s the real cause of my puzzle because I cannot rationalise why those who teach us Law of Human Rights as a course of study should be culprits in its suppression.
At about the same time, academic activities in other universities like the University of Ibadan and the University of Port-Harcourt were brought to a standstill for similar reasons.
A student of the University of Ibadan who merely expressed his displeasure at the deplorable state of infrastructures in the school by publishing an article that encapsulated the status quo as it were was rusticated for a couple of semesters, as the school set down his action as insubordinate and rude.
In the University of Lagos narrative, even though students were at first recalcitrant at succumbing to the school, it only amounted to what is known in local parlance as initial gragra, because as soon as it occurred to them that they were fighting a lost battle, they caved in.
Why not, when they are not oblivious of the fact that a four or five-year course could be systematically elongated? Even the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) and other civil societies who initially showed an apparent willingness to intervene all chickened out when it mattered most.
Since we live in a society that prides itself in BA, B.Sc, LLB, Etc, the mentality is usually to finish those programs as soon as possible and move on.
Even when students try to remain resolute in the face of intimidation, parental pressure is always another albatross that hangs around their neck, especially those ones whose expenses are defrayed by their parents.
The irony for me is the fact that this is a democracy, albeit a purported one, but when the memories of student unionism like that of Ali must go of the mid-seventies come to mind, one is forced to pander to the paradox that military regimes are probably more receptive of the civil and political right and freedom of association and peaceful assembly than what we claim to be a constitutional democracy; well, maybe the Nigerian version any way.
When the university management wears itself the toga of unquestionableness in a 21st-century democracy, such that policies and decisions are rammed down the throats of students and punished when they cry out, it is like beating a child and at the same time asking the child not to cry. This is no less than a sharp departure from the sanctity of human rights and an affront to personal liberty.
Admittedly, one cannot gainsay the fact that outlaws would always infiltrate peaceful and genuine protestants, but to clamp down on people for simply airing their grievances at what they consider unfavourable is, to say the least draconian.
After all said and done, the chattering class, some of whom are in the academia, would come on air and bemoan the docility of Nigerians. So, I’m asking, how did we get here? Where is the way out?
By Ridwan Dada, who is a Law student, writer and an advocate of the rights of persons with disabilities.