Universities move to contain spreading student protests

Public universities in Nigeria that remain open have been advised to urgently begin semester examinations in an attempt to contain the spread of student protest action that has swept across public sector institutions over the past few weeks.

Students have been protesting over a lack of electricity and water as well as tuition fee increases. At least one student has died as a result of a violent clash with police and several campuses have been shut.

According to reliable sources, visitors of both federal and regional public universities have advised vice-chancellors of universities that are still open to organise exams quickly, with a view to requesting students to then go home for a short mid-term break.

The measures aim to prevent students in other tertiary education institutions from mimicking their peers and embarking on similar action. Visitors of closed campuses have also compelled university authorities to suspend student unionism in an attempt to counter attempts by students to pursue agitation outside campuses.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari – visitor to 31 universities – last month mandated Nasir Sa'idu Adhama, his special assistant on student affairs, to meet with the Committee of Vice Chancellors of Nigerian Universities, the National Association of Nigerian Students and officials of the federal ministry with a view to preventing protests from snowballing into a broader movement with potential participation from civil society.

Since the 2016 national budget is yet to be approved by Buhari, campuses may remain closed owing to lack of budgeted funds with which to resolve the issues students have raised, which include a deterioration of living and working conditions on campuses, lack of constant electricity and water supply, and increases in tuition fees under the guise of ‘municipal fees’.

Adhama announced the establishment of a “high-powered fact-finding team” to work with agencies and affected institutions to “ascertain the immediate causes of the crises and proffer solutions”.

The protests

The first campus to commence protests in early April this year was Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, after a series of unfulfilled promises that basic amenities would improve. To avert a breakdown of law and order, university authorities closed the campus and forced students to go home.

With assistance from social media networks, the Obafemi Awolowo protest became a subject of open debate on other campuses.

Students perceived similarities in the call for improved basic amenities. Unhappiness was compounded by a drastic fall in electricity supply throughout the country and a growing scarcity of petroleum products.

Within the space of two weeks, the University of Lagos and the University of Ibadan were closed. Benue State University, the University of Port Harcourt and Adekunle Ajasin University followed.

Protests have generally been peaceful and have not spread to the streets with the exception of the University of Port Harcourt, where protests over increased tuition fees spilled onto a major highway passing through the campus.

One student lost his life during a violent clash there between police and students.

Academics wade in

In reaction to the closure of campuses, the Academic Staff Union of Universities, or ASUU, said a lack of funds and political will to resolve basic infrastructural problems were fundamental reasons for the crisis.

ASUU President Dr Nasir Fagge said that despite an agreement to increase education funding, only 8% of the total 2016 budget was allocated to the entire education sector.

“This percentage is contrary to the agreement of ASUU with government, which states clearly that the government would progressively increase the budgetary allocation to 26% as recommended by UNESCO.

“Moreover, ASUU notes that this paltry allocation runs contrary to the intent of government to give free higher education to students of science and technology at the tertiary education level,” he said.

According to Fagge, the allocation to education is skewed in favour of federal government secondary schools and the federal ministry of education headquarters. “The cumulative capital appropriation to federal secondary schools is 230% higher than that of tertiary institutions.”

Fagge said the patience of ASUU members was running out. Government insincerity, in the light of its 2013 agreement with ASUU, was beginning to dampen the morale of academics countrywide and “may threaten the fragile industrial peace on our university campuses if government fails to act expeditiously”.

Commenting on the student unrest and a threat of industrial action by ASUU, industrial relations expert Josephine Omololu said the Nigerian political class was the main architect of the troubles affecting campuses.

She cited Professor Oyewale Tomori, president of the Nigerian Academy of Science, that 500 politicians appropriate 25% of the resources meant for more than 200 million Nigerians.