UI Unionism (Politics) and the Need for the Right Point of View


Olanshile Ogunrinu

A student union is the umbrella association of students in a higher institution of learning.  According to Isah Mohammed Abbas, 1991, “A Students’ Union is an association of students in a particular institution of education, usually guided by certain stipulated rules and regulations to regulate their operations and activities; and primarily intended to protect and defend their common interest in line with the society.” This suggests that student unionism is a practical and theoretical system derived from labour unionism and adapted to an educational setting to pursue students’ interests. It provides students with a platform to come together to discover their personal competencies, attributes, worth and resilience, and, with one voice, to assert their opinions on issues, take independent positions, ask questions about issues and express their passion in a well-organized environment. It also creates a forum for effective interaction among students.

Students’ unionism in the past was characterized by robust debates and active or passive resistance to the oppressive tendencies of the authorities. Indeed, those who were the forerunners of unionism then were highly articulate, intellectually inclined, and very dogged in their ways of thinking and actions. Student unionism in the early days of Nigeria was feared and respected by governments, students and various institutions’ managements. It is not a happenstance that Nigeria enjoyed the best education system when unionism was vibrant. Historically, student unionism in Nigeria began in 1925 with the emergence of the West African Students’ Union (WASU), pioneered by some Nigerian students in London. The first president was a Nigerian, Ladipo Solanke, and with the establishment of the University College, Ibadan, in 1948, there were efforts to commence student unionism and extend its tentacles to other higher institutions. Efforts were made to form a joint platform for the Nigerian students. The idea later translated into action through the formation of the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS) in 1956, with the late Emmanuel Obe as its first National President. Essentially, student unionism during this period was characterised by robust debates, diplomatic manoeuvres, and active or passive resistance to the oppressive tendencies of the College or University Authorities. Indeed, those who were the vanguards of unionism then were highly articulate, intellectually inclined and very dogged. 

This nascent student movement went on to lead a series of advocacy against the government of the day including the infamous ‘Ali must go protests’ of 1976, which ultimately led to the ban of the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS). The ban was however lifted by the regime of President Shehu Shagari in 1980 and this served as the precursor to the formation of the present National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) in Yaba College of Technology in 1983. NANS, which inherited the same NUNS ideology, propagated and spread the ideology of Marxism on Nigerian campuses. In the course of the struggle, the student activists enjoyed the support of radical intellectuals in the labour movement and academia. The student leaders of the period were idealists and firebrand activists. This history would be incomplete without acknowledging that it was after the ban on NUNS was lifted that students re-strategised and mobilised themselves. 

However, over the years, due to overt and covert attacks from University managements and the state, the students’ movement in Nigeria has lost the true meaning of student unionism. A plethora of points of view, of which none actually describes it, has been used to explain student unionism. In a discussion recently with a student association officeholder, he vehemently posited that politics is the main goal of student unionism which negates the objectives which student unionism is meant to achieve. 

In view of the proactive and ideological history of the students’ movement in Nigeria, it is crucial to dispel the pervasive misconception— particularly popular among Uites— that the Students’ Union is primarily a political entity. While it is undeniable that politics is an inherent part of human life, ranging from religion to marriage, it is imperative to recognize that students’ unionism is a distinct and noble pursuit. It is a platform designed to represent the interests of students, not merely a vessel for mainstream political practices in Nigeria as seen by some so-called campus politicians. Despicable activities that permeate Nigeria’s mainstream politics, like voting along primordial sentiments like halls of residence or faculty affiliation, godfatherism, bullying and violence, vote buying and unethical tactics, are being employed by these politicians. The incorrect notion that the students’ union is solely about politics signifies a departure from its founding objectives. Originally conceived as a collective force to champion the rights and welfare of students, the union aimed to build a community of students that actively engages with societal issues. To reduce this profound movement to mere politics is to overlook its historical significance and dilute its purpose.

The democratic process employed in electing union leaders, while involving votes and resembling political structures, does not inherently make students’ unionism political. Democracy is a universal concept applicable in various spheres of life, and its presence in the students’ union should not be misconstrued as synonymous with the political landscape of the broader society. The focus should be on the union’s role as a platform for students to assert their collective voice and safeguard their interests.

It is crucial to understand that politics, in its broadest sense, permeates every aspect of human interaction. From familial relationships to community dynamics, elements of politics are inherently present. However, equating the students’ union with the politics practised in the mainstream Nigerian context undermines the true essence of this student-driven movement. It diminishes the union’s noble purpose of advocating for students’ rights, creating an environment that fosters learning, and ensuring their holistic development.

Viewing the students’ union solely through the lens of mainstream politics is not only inaccurate but also degrading. It detracts from the rich history of student activism in Nigeria, a history deeply rooted in ideals of justice, equity, and progress. The union serves as a counterbalance to external forces that may compromise the well-being of students, allowing them to collectively confront challenges and advocate for positive change.

While acknowledging that politics is an intrinsic part of human existence, it is essential to recognize that students’ unionism transcends the narrow confines of mainstream political practices in Nigeria. The students’ movement has a storied history founded on proactive and ideological principles, aimed at safeguarding the interests and rights of students. To misinterpret the nature of the students’ union as purely political is to undermine its noble purpose and disregard its vital role in shaping a brighter future for the academic community.

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