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Protest Power, the Uniben Five, and the Tyranny of a Vice Chancellor by David Ademule

The Uniben five led protest
The Uniben Five. ©Facebook/David Ademule

"Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed."
Martin Luther King, Jr.

The world we live in today is, frankly, shaped by protests, by the voices of people who refused to melt away under the blazing fire of oppression. In fact, no human civilization has progressed beyond its protests. The vehicle of progress in any society is fueled by the oil of protests. There are thousands of instances in history where protests  shaped the destiny of a people, giving hope to generations yet unborn.

America is largely free today from racial discrimination and segregation because a woman named Rosa Parks protested. She stood for her rights by sitting down and refusing to vacate her seat for a white woman. Martin Luther King and other people of good conscience would later lead protests and marches against racial segregation until the American supreme court declared it unconstitutional. It is now history that a black man once sat in the white house.

Similarly, South Africa broke loose from the shackles of apartheid because some persons refused to keep quiet in the face of oppression. They protested. They kicked. They demanded for their freedom and the oppressor was compelled to set them free. Although a protester, Nelson Mandela, would later become South Africa's president after spending twenty seven years in jail, never again will a South African live under the tent of apartheid.

Permit me to say that protest is not an exclusive tool to nations seeking to rechart their destinies; students, too, have had reasons to protest. In Nigeria, during the golden days of NANS, protests were used by university students as a powerful weapon against the draconian military government of the day. Thousands of students, for instance, protested the annulment of the June 12 presidential elections and other policies introduced by the Babaginda's administration.

Mr David Ademule

Specifically, the students of the University of Benin, which is now the subject of this article, were reputable protesters. They were always in the forefront of the protests organized by NANS. And the students of the University of Benin were never known to be docile when handling internal issues affecting them. They deliberated. They negotiated. They protested.

I still recall, vividly I should say, one of the most popular protests in the history of the University of Benin. The year was 2009 and the place was the University of Benin's Maingate. Then, myself a fresher, the SUG president was the oratory and amiable Prince Harrison Ehimiyen who, at the time, was a final year Political Science student. The then Vice Chancellor had increased the school fees and other levies to a suffocating height. After some fruitless negotiations with the university's management, the SUG was forced to grab the weapon of protest.

To make the protest effective, the SUG chose a day when Chief James Ibori, a former governor of Delta State, was to deliver a lecture at the University of Benin's main auditorium. By noon, over three thousand protesting students had crowded the university's main gate determined to prevent Chief James Ibori and his entourage from gaining access into the premises of the university.

The songs of solidarity filled the thick, dusty air. Green leaves were waved from left to right and then from right to left. The protesters did not mind the heat from the scorching sun. Prince Harrison would address from time to time the mighty crowd. He would tell us why the protest was necessary, why we needed to hold on and why we must remain peaceful.

After a few hours, however, our protest received a big blow when, regrettably, we gathered that the witty Chief James Ibori and his entourage had sneaked into the premises of the University of Benin through the gate linking Osasogie. Immediately, we took the protest to the main auditorium where Chief James Ibori was to deliver his lectures.

At the entrance of the coffee-coloured main auditorium, standing on the stairs was one of the most charismatic lecturers Uniben had seen. Dark and tall, possessing a tongue of fire and the charisma of an angel, the man was Professor Eddy Eragbe who had just completed his tenure as the Dean of Student's Affairs. He addressed us and gave his assurances that our concerns would be considered. He appealed to us to call off the protests. Quite satisfied, we ended the protests and joined Chief James Ibori's lecture.

A few weeks afterwards, the hike in the tuition fees was reviewed downwards and students who had paid the protested fees were reimbursed. No student was handed rustication for being involved in a peaceful protest. The SUG was not proscribed, perhaps the dividends of having a sane university management.

Eight years afterwards, history would repeat itself but with a staggering twist. In November 2017, some Uniben students led by the SUG peacefully protested a hike in the tuition and hostel fees. The protest was necessary because the new fees, if allowed, may prevent the children of the poor from accessing quality education. It would interest the world to know that instead of negotiating with the student leadership, the Vice Chancellor, Prof. Faraday Orumwense, announced the rustication of five Uniben students, including the president of the SUG, Mr. Ogbidi Osemudiamen Elvis, for participating in a peaceful protest. The Vice Chancellor also suspended the SUG indefinitely.

Nevertheless, having cleverly realized that his actions contradicted section 40 of the 1999 constitution which gave Nigerians a right to peaceful assembly, the Vice Chancellor  swiftly reversed the decision to rusticate the five students. The students, which include the SUG president, Mr. Ogbidi Elvis, and others would now resume normal academic session but without executive powers, powers that were given to them by the students who elected them.

The Vice Chancellor, Prof Faraday Orumwense, ought to know that there is no such thing as partial justice or half justice. When it comes to justice, half a loaf is never better than none. Infact, only a full loaf of justice can be regarded as justice indeed. Therefore, at the risk of being regarded a tyrant and a person who has fragrant disregard for democratic processes, the Vice Chancellor needs to immediately restore the powers of the SUG executives, which he does not even have the legitimate right to withhold if Sanity was highly regarded in the first place.

I will close this subject by admonishing the students of the University of Benin to remain peaceful and law abiding, believing very strongly that they would overcome. And to overcome, they must stand for their rights and resist any attempt that would make education inaccessible to the poor; any attempt that would make the children of drivers grow up to become drivers to the children of their father's bosses.

"The man dies in all who keeps quiet in the face of tyranny."
Prof Wole Soyinka.

David Ademule is a student of human society and crime; he lives and writes from Lagos where he goes about carrying his magical pen in his pockets.

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are solely those of the writer.

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