Reshaping Student Unionism: Non-violent Activism and Developmental Leadership, the Practicalities and Challenges
Activism came to be as a result of the government’s (be it military or civilian) acts of not living up to their promises and responsibilities to society. Student Unionism came naturally in Nigeria as an extension of the fight against the military. Student unionism, not only in Nigeria, but Africa has always been at the crux of national liberation movements against the military or in a nation’s push and agitation for independence from colonial masters. Examples are in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Nigeria, etc.
Student struggles and agitations then were mostly violent. It wasn’t violent because the student activists set out to be violent; it was because when they went out for their protests, their peaceful moves were met with violent repression from the military or colonial masters as the case may be. Over time, it became a generally-accepted notion that student activism must be violent. Student activism became known for leaving in its wake burnt vehicles, bloody faces, shattered windows and doors and destruction of the infrastructure existing in the campuses.
Today, almost all African countries are free from colonial masters and military rulers; hence, the natural desire to revolt violently has reduced drastically. It is not that oppression and repression has stopped, neither is it that governments now live up to their promises; it is because with democracy and civilian governments came a shift in orientation and a disdain for violent acts. Instead of breathing fire and brimstone like the military did, we have civilian leaders that speak calmly, but who are just as bad as the military- maybe even worse.
Now, despite the fact that governments are still not living up to their promises, a need for non-violent activism is important. It is important because historically, governments seldom suffer from the violence; the victims are always the students themselves. It’s the students who are clamped down on, it’s the students whose schools are locked up, it’s the students who have to cough up money for damages and yes, it’s the students who have to sit and learn in the un-conducive environment and lecture halls without windows and doors.
Now, in the push for non-violent student activism, there is the need for a leadership that is ideologically grounded and that understands the basics of student unionism. Such a leader must understand where student unionism is coming from, where student unionism is currently and must have clear-cut plans on what he hopes to achieve and how he hopes to achieve it. Such a leader must understand the technicalities of student unionism. Such a leader, while making sure that he is not a puppet of the school management must know the limits of his distancing himself from the management; he must understand the limit of the school management and the reasonable limits of the state government and must recognise the limits when he sees them. It should however not stop the students from taking their ‘fight’ to whoever is responsible for creating the limits and ensuring a victory.
Now, non-violent student activism does not mean just dialogue. Non-violent student activism cannot neglect the role of protests. History has taught us that governments seldom listen to the voice of reason until they see resistance; it is when they see resistance, boycotting of lectures, crippling of activities, that they begin to listen. The role of an ideologically-grounded student leadership is to understand the three accepted steps involved in student unionism/activism: Consultation, Consolidation & Confrontation. He must understand the individual importance of each of these steps as well as their limits; he must know when to progress from one step to the other. On the whole, he must not just lead students in protest, he must understand that he is responsible for their safety and must never give them any reason to doubt him.
A real student leadership must be conscious of the different political interests poke-nosing into the student movement and must diplomatically evade or manage those interests. He must never allow himself to be put in a position where his struggles are now seen as sponsored actions. Most especially, he must understand the meaning of ‘union’ and the need to join forces together with other unions on campus, (be it the staff unions or non-teaching staff) with the understanding that it is only by presenting a unified front that victories can be won and development can come to the schools.
Olabisi Onabanjo University
Ogun State, Nigeria.