Every Nigerian who lived in the days of General Obasanjo’s military regime knows that cry – ALI MUST GO! It was the cry that defined the strike action that swept across the whole country during the education crises in the late seventies, 1978 to be exact. The country was at the end of military rule under General Obasanjo.
The National Union of Nigeria Students (NUNS) the precursor of NANS, in the 70’s was the umbrella body for Nigerian students both home and abroad. It was always on a collision course with the government of the day with regards to the latter’s policy on student rights, educational conditions and policies. They complained ceaselessly about the small number of universities in the country, advocated for more students intake, and revolted against fee increase.
The whole issue got to a head with the ‘ALI MUST GO’ crisis of 1978 named after the then Federal Commissioner of Education, Colonel Ahmadu Ali,who was accused of orchestrating neo-liberal policies for education.
It all began when early in the month, Dr Jibril Aminu, the Sectretary of the Nigerian University Commission announced that as a result of the high cost of living in the country, students would begin to pay extra fees retrospective on the current 1977/78 session.
Previously, the cost of eating at the institutions’ cafeterias was as follows: Breakfast, 10 kobo; Lunch, 20 kobo and Dinner, 20 kobo, making 50 kobo in total to get a full three-square meal a day at our institutions of higher learning in those days.
According to the Nigerian University Commission, tuition fee would still remain free for all undergraduates, sub-degree Diploma as well as students of teacher education. Hostel accommodation, however, would be N90 per student per session of 36 weeks or N30 per student in a session of three terms.
Feeding was N1.50k per student per day, which amounted to the total sum of N378 in a session of 36 weeks. Also in the announcement, any student asked to stay behind on vacation would pay pro-rata while those who decided to stay behind during vacation on their own would pay N6 per day on their own. These, among others were the conditions arrived by the commission though, according to him, it was subject to review but the students would still pay the fee for that current session.
As soon as the announcement on the increase in hostel and feeding fees was made, the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS), under the leadership of Segun Okeowo decided to have a show-down with the Federal Government. They therefore, decided on a boycott of lectures starting from Monday April 17 1978.
On the said day, all students of higher institutions in the country followed the directive of the National President of Nigerian Union of University Students (NUNS), Mr. Segun Okeowo, who said that all tertiary institutions must boycott lectures until the federal government was ready to review the fees and bring them back. Okeowo was able to mobilise students across the nation, because then, telephone was meant only for the upper most class amongst the government officials. And of course, there was no internet, BBM, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Yet, he was able to bring the attention of the nation to their plight.
Apart from the fees, other agitation of the students were that education was suffering because there were very few university owned by the federal government. No private or state universities as we have them today. This made university education to be a privilege instead of a right. So, lectures were boycotted. At that time, there were only 13 conventional universities, and the federal government could not cope with the number of people seeking admission. At the time, higher education could only be legislated by the Federal Government. There was not a single state or private university and there were so many students who were qualified to go to higher institutions. That agitation and the increase in fees led to a protest. The protest was done in the usual students’ way of protesting- no gun, no bullet. However, the military goernment mishandled the whole scenario. Colonel Ahmadu Ali was then Minister of Education. His approach to the whole issue earned him the appellation; “Ali must go” because he handled it in a shoddy manner.
In Ibadan, there was a peaceful demonstration under the watchful eyes of mobile policemen, as students marched around the town chanting ‘aluta’ songs, distributing flyiers along the road and explaining to the public that they must not allow federal government to increase their fees. The spectators too were hailing the students but at the same time, advising them not to delve into any violence. This should not be a surprise, as the death of Adekunle Adepeju is still very much fresh in their hearts.
However, in Lagos, despite the fact that the Police had issued out instructions that students should not take their demonstration outside the campuses, the students did not adhere to this warning. Boycotting lectures only worked on the first day.
It was the same in Ile-Ife, Benin and Zaria. Unfortunately, by the following day, the irate students of University of Lagos now in their thousands decided that they had to go to Dodan Barracks to air their views. The police refused them and by afternoon, there ensued throwing of broken bottles, pebbles and empty cans from the side of the students while the police too were throwing tear-gas at them.
When this did not prove effective, some of those at the University of Lagos decided to sneak out in the early morning of Tuesday 18 April, 1978, against the directive of the University authorities and the law enforcement agents that under no circumstance should students be allowed to demonstrate outside campus. When the police in Lagos saw this, the anti-riot squad was called in to restrain the students and confine them to campus. Unfortunately, things got out of hand as some students were said to have found their way behind the policemen through another route to go out into the street. This led to a riot between the students and the police who started shooting at the students. In the fracas, a part III student of the Department of Environmental Design, Akintunde Ojo and two secondary school students of Premier College and St Finbarrs College, Akoka were shot. According to reports, Akintunde died but the other two students who were rushed to Igbobi Orthopaedic Hospital were revived.
The death of Akintunde was the peak of the fracas as it led to a bitter confrontation between students and law enforcement agents in Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, which resulted in the death of four people. This infuriated not only the students but the general public as well. It was the shout of “Ali must go,” everywhere. Women trooped to the street to start shouting “Ali Mungo”. Pupils of primary and secondary schools were not left behind. The whole country was filled with chants of “Ali must go”. The nation was angry and everybody was chanting ‘Ali Mungo’ meaning ‘Ali must go,’ calling for Ali’s head. The police had gone into the campuses with live bullets and were shooting above knee level, a globally prohibitive manoueuver.
After about a week of this standoff, the universities were closed by the Federal Government and every student advised to leave the campuses. Meanwhile, there had been arrests, interrogation and victimisation of the leaders of the demonstrations. Several student leaders were arrested, kept in cells and some were eventually charged with all kinds of offences.
Obasanjo then swung into action to hit the rubbles into finer dusts and expelled student’ leaders from various universities, removed Professors and lecturers that were sympathetic to the students’ cause. Segun Okeowo, National President (NUNS), Ekpin Appah, President (UNIBEN), Offiong Agua, President (UNICAL), Bukar Mbaha – President (ABU), all were expelled. Ebenezer Babatope, the Welfare Officer at University of Lagos was also sacked. Lecturers were not spared as well even as Comrades Edwin Madunagu of UNICAL and Ola Oni among others were sacked. Vice-Chancellors were also axed and these included Professor J. Ade Ajayi, Vice Chancellor, UNILAG, and Professor Iya Abubakar – Vice Chancellor, ABU.
It was always said that when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. Whenever there is problem in the education sector, who suffers? The students. Always. In 1978, students were agitating for better educational system. I remember in my school days when the lecturers would tell us, ‘don’t just pass through the school, let the school pass through you’. How will this happen? It is not just by sitting down to attend lectures and at the end of the semester, write an exam. What about all those things needed to make students formally educated and not ‘educated illiterates’?
I used to hear that in those days, things were not like these. Cafeterias no longer exist on campuses. Then, we used to hear that breakfast of 20 kobo consists of one’s choice of bread, toasted or not, all kinds of eggs, pancakes, all kinds of cereals, oats, choice of coffee or tea, and fruits. Lunch and dinner had a choice of every Nigerian food (eba, amala, pounded yam, rice and beans, rice and plantain), with a choice of stew, peppered or pepper-less vegetable, okro, ogbono rich with crayfish, ewedu, gbegiri, etc and then one had a choice of desserts in ice cream, jelly and cakes). On Sunday lunch time, there is additional choice of jollof or fried rice with half a chicken. All halls of residence had their own cafeterias. It felt like a fairy tale, yet I learnt it was the way things were in the Nigerian university system. What about the exchange programmes with students from other countries? Yes, it does exist but only in privately owned universities, no longer in government owned institutions.
When I think of students’ union these days and how the whole system has been affected by the present political dispensation, I feel like throwing up. Leaders of students no longer care about the welfare of the students. Look at the way Segun Okeowo mobilised the whole country during a military regime, though he paid a price. His name as a student union leader was forever written with a golden pen. Well, it is the system students found themselves now.