#FeesMustFall in Nigeria

Student organizing is resurging in Nigeria. But to have any impact, students must connect with struggles beyond campus.

Image courtesy Timmy Okanlawon © 2024.

Since the inauguration of President Bola Tinubu, a wave of fee hikes has swept through public universities and secondary schools in Nigeria. Across numerous campuses, students have risen in response to these policies, registering their dissent through campaigns, demonstrations, and protests. One such campaign, emanating from the University of Lagos (UNILAG), has rallied around the banner of #FeesMustFall—though not directly linked to the South African campaign of the same name—to echo the voice of students calling for a reversal of the fee hikes. Other slogans such as #LetJossitesBreathe, #SaveOAUStudents #SaveUites, #SaveOOUITES have also inspired students at the University of Jos, Obafemi Awolowo University, the University of Ibadan, and Olabisi Onabanjo University, respectively. 

However, the #FeesMustFall campaign in UNILAG, of which I have been a part, provides a unique window into the possible trajectory of student activism under the Tinubu administration, partially because UNILAG was the only institution whose fee hike was specifically approved by the federal government. Even more important, however, is the stark reality that the #FeesMustFall campaign in UNILAG has proceeded largely independently of the historically radical but now largely illegitimate National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS). The interaction between the campaign in UNILAG and NANS might allow us to reflect on the past and possible future of campus unionism in Nigeria.

With roots in the 1920s anticolonial organizations of West African students in Europe, Nigerian campus unionism has a long history of radical activism concerned not only with the local struggle of students on individual campuses but also with the issues of national sovereignty and economic emancipation. In the 1980s, NANS became the umbrella body of all student organizations in Nigeria and in the diaspora, adopting its current name and signing a charter in 1982 that enshrined anti-imperialism as the union’s essence. During this period, NANS was a radical platform that gave students an active role in the progressive transformation of society. It played a crucial role in the “anti-SAP” protests of 1989, organized against the structural adjustment program implemented by the regime of then-president Ibrahim Babangida at the behest of the IMF and World Bank. 

However, since the 1990s, NANS has degenerated at the hands of the main political parties, which have crippled the union and robbed it of its revolutionary potential. The student body has become a platform for careerist activists, political jobbers, and cultists sponsored by politicians to occupy leadership positions. The tragic state of student unionism in the contemporary period can be attributed to this crisis in leadership, from NANS at a national level to campus-level student union governments (SUGs). In light of its contemporary character, it came as no surprise that NANS and the faculty leaders in UNILAG capitulated to the school administration, agreeing on the spot to a cosmetic reduction without consulting the students they purportedly represent.

On July 21, 2023, in its official announcement of the fee increment, the UNILAG administration, under the euphemism of an “upward review of fees,” proclaimed a five-fold increase for returning undergraduate students, citing prevailing economic realities as the reason. The #FeesMustFall campaign would officially commence the next day. 

Crucial for understanding the rise of the campaign is a brief introduction to the independent movement that has championed the cause: the Students’ Solidarity Group (SSG). The SSG was officially formed on July 22 2023 by students, former students, and seasoned activists. The SSG sprung to action, convening a virtual public meeting to discuss the fee hike and other related matters affecting students and workers at UNILAG and other campuses across Nigeria. Participants at the meeting agreed that the fee hike was an attempt to further commercialize public education and price it out of the reach of the poor. They then resolved to hold a public symposium. The SSG intensified online demonstrations to publicize the campaign in the buildup to the symposium and managed to have #SaveUnilagStudents appear on the Twitter trend table during the early hours of Tuesday July 25.

The public meeting, held on July 28 was a success in at least one crucial respect: it forced NANS to submit a letter clarifying knotty issues and pointing to the undemocratic posture of the UNILAG administration. On August 2, a meeting was called by the UNILAG administration, and a communique detailing the outcome of the meeting was published

However, over the following month, the administration chose to shun negotiations. The SSG and other student groups decided to intensify demonstrations, opting to intensify protest events until the administration was forced to bow to public pressure, announcing a reduction in the fee hike and a promise to restore the student union.

The current crisis in education demands a bold response: student resistance must evolve beyond local campus struggles. It is time to embrace the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist spirit that marked the heydays of a vibrant NANS, understanding that the fate of public education is inextricably linked to the broader struggle for social justice.

This necessitates a shift toward building a cross-campus front. The #FeesMustFall campaign can serve as a powerful example, but its impact can be amplified by connecting with workers and other social forces impacted by neoliberalism. By forging alliances and aligning student demands with broader social struggles, the movement can garner wider support and wield greater power against the forces of capital. The campaign must evolve beyond local struggles that foster disunity and undermine mutual solidarity. The campaign must evolve nationwide to unify the struggles across all campuses.

In addition to solidarity, students must actively advocate for democratic participation in university governance. The proposal of the SSG in negotiations with the UNILAG management for a joint committee is a step in the right direction. This demand for inclusion extends beyond individual universities, challenging the very neoliberal power structures that perpetuate inequalities in education.

The road ahead for the campaign is paved with challenges, but the potential for transformative change is undeniable. By embracing radical consciousness, fostering solidarity, and demanding democratic participation, students can become a driving force for a more just and equitable future, both within their campuses and across the broader social landscape.

Further Reading

Everything must fall

Fees Must Fall (#FMF) brought student activism at South Africa’s elite universities into the global media spotlight. A new documentary zooms in on the case of Wits in Johannesburg.

Fallism For What

After the reawakening of South African student activism, what next? It is at the point of the rub between race, class and gender politics that the difficult questions present themselves.