Essays / The Pontifical Papers



Last week, the authorities of the University of Lagos agreed to reopen the school. The school had been closed for a while following a student protest over lack of water and electricity on the campus. The university authorities stipulated some conditions for resumption: students have to undertake and notarise a “Re-absorption Oath”; parents or guardians have to guarantee the conduct of their wards and agree to indemnify the school; the student union body was dissolved; and the student union constitution suspended. The only thing missing from the list was the usual preface to such things: “Fellow Nigerians, by order of the Supreme Military Council….”

I am sure that, like any political soldier worth his salt, the university’s Senate had good reasons for its military coup tactics. Still, as we say, hell is full of good reasons.  The rationale—favoured by soldiers and university authorities—is, of course, the preservation of public order. But, order is not a one-directional obligation. Consider the nature of a traffic signal in the middle of a busy intersection: it affects everyone equally. This equality is the true nature of public order. On the other hand, the “orderly” clearing the way for a governor is creating an unequal “order”. This is a false idea of public order: the type favoured by soldiers and devious university authorities.

And so, it seems to me that the school authorities have attempted to conceal their incompetence by gagging those affected by it. They want a “public order” that imposes restrictions on students without any corresponding obligations on the authorities. This is merely self-preservation. It is a self-serving, arrogant hogwash disguised as academic discipline.

But this style of public administration is nothing new in itself. The history of modern Africa is a compilation of unfortunate repressions. Colonial, military, and autocratic civilian governments have hacked down ideas of equality and freedom. These governments have always been intent on stifling debate and argument regarding their abilities. But, thankfully, history always favours the side of freedom.

Today, this autocracy is built into our legislation and our approach to social problems. Governments lack either the political will or the intellectual capacity to creatively address the socio-economic circumstances that trigger public disorder. Their only solutions are to “ban it, fine it or jail it”. It is painful—and treacherous—that the intellectual community has adopted a similarly unimaginative approach. It is ironic that these academics, most of whom were trained in more liberal environments in Nigeria and abroad, would resort to the type of fascism they criticise in governments.

We should not treat University students like criminal gangs or unruly toddlers. Most of them are above eighteen years and entitled to the full rights of citizens. In fairness to them, students quietly go about their affairs for a large percentage of their time. Yes, there are some individual troublemakers and cultists. But, compared to the belligerence in the national and state legislatures, students are rather well behaved. Collectively, university communities are ordinarily peaceful. It takes a lot of frustration for a population of over 20,000 students to solidify into a generally united and organised protest.

Still, it is natural to the process when students erupt into demonstrations. Intellectuals are necessarily discontent. There is a covert protest against existing ideas at the core of every intellectual pursuit. Intellectual ability is grounded in an innate dissatisfaction with current knowledge and systems. It is propelled by a desire for continuous improvement. Criticism fuels technological progress; protest promotes social change. It is disingenuous that we should punish university students for acting according to the nature of their minds at that stage. Young children are hardly worried about social issues; working adults are often too obligated to act on their concerns. This is why university halls and squares have always been the bedrock of social dissatisfaction.

As I have written elsewhere, the freedom of thought is fundamental to academic study. The ultimate expression of thought is action, and action inspires more thought. It is strange that we hope to free the minds of students while curtailing their expression. Protest is a valid form of expression in an unresponsive and unsympathetic system. We have to discourage intellectual bullying in our universities unless, maybe, we want to breed citizens who mindlessly tolerate political irresponsibility.

The Nigerian society today is one where political despotism, social censorship, partisan propaganda, religious extremism, and military brutalism are rampant. It is worrisome that we should also venture into the systematic degradation of our intellectual communities. It is disheartening that professors should subscribe to despotic methods. We are slowly clamping universities into advanced secondary schools. It is difficult to see how succeeding generations of graduates who have been zombified into a routine of uncritical thought can galvanise national development. There ought to be much more to university education than classes and certificates.

The students of the University of Lagos protested against the absence of electricity and water. That was their crime. Most of us, workers, have been so accustomed to these deficiencies that we no longer count them as problems. This is why we ought to be grateful to the university students for keeping a spark of idealism alive. We cannot afford to have this light stamped out.

Unfortunately, a lot of our university teachers are too jaded, too obliged or otherwise too immersed in the political system to be of much value to social change. These dodgy professors have become slaves to Aso Rock and its numerous political appointments. They have become tools of social control on behalf of Abuja masters. Now, they want to drag the students down into the service of the cesspool. These “professors” are the ones who ought to sign an undertaking to be of good behaviour in their methods of administration. Otherwise, the behaviour of the students has been quite normal.

Originally published in slightly different form here in my weekly column for Sunday Punch.

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