July 10, 2011 marked twelve years since the death of George Akinyemi Iwilade, the young man many people who studied at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife in the early days of return to democracy will always remember as Afrika. As secretary general of the students’ union government of the institution, Afrika led an onslaught against cults and cultists in the institution. The 21 year-old third year law student, however, met his untimely death that early Saturday morning in 1999 as members of the proscribed Black Axe confraternity crudely murdered him in his sleep.
Iwilade’s legacies live on. He was a fearless activist who spoke out against the rule of force by a few who had access to guns under the cover of darkness. Twelve years after his death and that of four other innocent Ife students, no justice has been done. No one has gone to jail for the incidents of that night. The suspects have all been granted bail and have disappeared into thin air and may be living lives of luxury or penury today while their victims’ families wonder what their own sons would have become had they lived long enough to fulfill their potentials on this terra firma.
The July 10 killings bring me to a deeper thought, that of the death of the Nigerian students movement. The National Association of Nigerian Students, NANS, has been the umbrella body of all Nigerian tertiary schools students for more than 30 years. In the past, NANS was in the forefront of the struggle for the emancipation of Nigeria. My first participation in a NANS effort that I remember was as a nine year-old in 1989 when the students’ body massed out in demonstration against the Structural Adjustment Programme, SAP, of the General Ibrahim Babangida regime. It was the first time I would throw stones at the police even though I lived with my parents in the Adesuwa Police Barracks in Benin City. I later participated in many other demonstrations at the university even though I was not an active member of the NANS or the students union. I was moved by the message of revolution and went on to the streets. These were in my early days in the university.
As time passed and one grew older and wiser, one began to see student unions and their leaders for what they really are. Many are nothing but opportunists and aggrandizers who use the university soapbox to seek for vainglory. In doing that, they have severally distorted academic calendars without a care for the future of their fellow students. Many students’ leaders become so powerful that they forget about their education and never realize they are only in school for a limited number of years. They get carried away with the prestige of office and begin to use it for gain. Many a time, union leaders are found in five star hotels cavorting with politicians and drinking expensive champagne. I remember the case of a certain OAU president who spent a Christmas a three-star hotel in Lagos with his aides dolling money from Ghana Must Go bags obtained from politicians. He was eventually impeached.
The crux of my article is the disconnect that has occurred between the students union of today and the society. Early last year Nigeria was involved in a precarious constitutional problem when President Umaru Yar’Adua left the country on medical leave without delegating power to his deputy. The vacuum in Abuja almost created chaos in our country before the Save Nigeria Group and other organisations stood up to confront the National Assembly to pass a motion that allowed Goodluck Jonathan, then as vice president to exercise executive powers under a doctrine of necessity. In the movement, a youth group stood out. The ‘Enough Is Enough’ coalition of youth associations made a self-funded trip to Abuja to protest in front of the National Assembly for the future of the Nigerian youth. An insider told me that they invited the NANS leadership to join their protest but were asked to pay some bribe before they could mobilise university students to join their blockade of the NASS. The youth group was astounded, to pay for a demonstration that involved our collective aspirations? The group proceeded to Abuja and succeeded in pushing back the police as they made their way into the main grounds of the parliament where they delivered a letter to the authorities. Weeks later parliament made a decision to pass power to the Vice President.
Needless to say, it showed the whole world the depths to which the NANS has sunk after all its glorious past. Even during the recent Arab Spring when the power of youth became apparent as young people toppled tyrannical regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, the NANS was quiet. Groups of young Nigerians including the Enough Is Enough and Cool2Vote reached out to encourage others to register, vote, select and protect their votes during April’s elections but the NANS did not join in. NANS did not add its voice to the call for INEC to draw a calendar that will ensure elections are held where many of the country’s students will be able to register and vote in the same place. This ensured that many students were disenfranchised as schools were closed during the elections.
Instead, what NANS did was to hold its elections in Abuja in the same week of the PDP presidential primaries. NANS has sold its soul to politicians. It sold the core of its soul in 2005 when it gave President Olusegun Obasanjo the award of the ‘defender of democracy’ while it allegedly offered its support for the third term bid for N10 million! No longer is the group a conscience for the society, it has become a heartless organ that’s only out in search of money.
The fall of NANS is symptomatic of the failings in many higher institutions of learning. I was told recently of how the law students’ body of OAU went to present an award to a former president in his hometown only to be given a paltry sum of ten thousand naira! Students now see their associations as a means of making wealth and connections while in school. Where are the students leaders of yesterday, they’ve all become consultants to politicians and thugs to be used at election time. How many of them still question society’s excesses like they used to do during their firebrand days? Today I shudder when I see the brigandage that students’ leaders create in the name of activism. I see a failure of society in these young people. I see a system that has exchanged honour and uprightness for quick profit. I see unions that encourage thuggrey and braggadocio instead of dialoguing and seeking consensus. I ask if George Akinyemi Iwilade would be happy had he lived long enough to see that the students’ movement he died for had gone to the dogs. I doubt.