Some of them who had earlier sworn to end the brouhaha over what they see as unwarranted increment in their school fees, had urged fellow students to march to the express road to show the world their degree of grievance.
I was shocked to discover, on my way to Onitsha that day, a crowd of young men and women, blocking the highway and demanding that gawking spectators send obscene messages to the Anambra State governor and his cabinet to rescind their decision on the school fees increment.
I conferred with a colleague from another medium, and we agreed to come down and find out the reason for the protest that was looking as if it might get out of hand soon. Upon interviewing some of the students, I discovered that they were bitter about what they termed “astronomical increase” in their school fees.
I was made to understand that they were paying about N36, 000 before it was skyrocketed to N86, 000, for non-medical students. Medical students are expected to pay much higher. The students complained bitterly that they were being arm-twisted to pay up in lump-sum rather by instalments.
The students said that they were being denied ‘white quizzes’, so they could pay up faster. The so-called ‘white quizzes’, as the students preferred to call their periodical class tests or take-home assignments, was a deliberate ploy by the lecturers to put pressure on them to pay up, they claimed, as they (lecturers) now set tests for them frequently, sometimes five days a week, by way of intimidation.
In a bid to catch my attention, Emeka (he refused to supply his surname), a 300-level student of Political Science and yelled at me, “Aunty, put yourself in our situation. If you were in our shoes, with four other siblings here, what would you do? Where will my parents get that kind of money? If we are denied quizzes and we fail, how do we graduate, and how will our parents pay the money if we end up spending extra years?”
I could not provide answers to his questions. As we were taking photo shots of the scene, we sighted some anti-riot policemen and decided to get a closer look at what they were doing. At that moment, some students stepped over and began to yell at passing vehicles. The anti-riot policemen swung into action and started lashing out at them with sticks.
But the students stood their ground. It was as if they were offering themselves up to be flogged as a form of sacrifice. None of them cried. I stood transfixed, my camera temporarily forgotten in my hands, only to be jolted back when some warning shots were fired into the air, and some canisters of tear-gas thrown into the milling crowd of students. I almost paid for my mistake with my life, as my eyes stung, my skin burnt and my throat felt singed. I was gasping for breath. Thank God, I was not asthmatic; otherwise, I wouldn’t have lived to report this story.
But a female asthmatic patient was not as lucky as she was allegedly rushed to a specialist hospital in Awka, though the state police command was to later strongly deny that any student was hurt in the ensuing melee. It was at this point that what started as a peaceful protest would have degenerated into violence but the students ignored the provocation and continued to urge passersby to help them pass on their plea to the state government to do something about the exorbitant school fees, even as they continued to endure courageously the beating, flogging and tear-gasing of the law enforcement agents.
This reporter gathered that what could be regarded as the lightning rod for the fracas started last year when the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), ANSU branch, declared a face-off with the state government, due to a demand for an upward review of salaries of the lecturers as previously agreed between the ASUU national body and the Federal Government. They had also demanded for an increase in the school’s subvention, from the state government.
But the state government bucked at this demand, claiming they were not the Federal Government that agreed to the Consolidated University Academic Salary Structure (CONUASS), and that besides, they could not pay, because there was no money. The lecturers’ salaries were largely paid from the school’s subvention.
After about six moths of battling with each other, the Obi administration, following the intervention of religious and traditional rulers, agreed to raise the subvention to N90 million, up from its initial N50 million. But then it urged the school to find alternative sources of generating income.
It was in the light of this fact that the management, lecturers, students, elders and parents and other stakeholders were said to have held a meeting when they agreed to raise the fees from N36, 000 to N86, 000 for non-medical students and N120, 000 for medical students. But in an interview with Daily Sun, the Students’ Union President, Mr. Paul Okafor, denies agreeing to the said amount, claiming the students’ representative body was excluded from the actual tuition fee agreement.
The school management, through its two Public Relations Officers for both campuses, Mr. Emmanuel Anakwue and Chigozie Ntomchukwu, reacted differently to the peaceful protest. While Anakwue condemned the way the anti-riot police squad handled the situation, he nevertheless blamed it on the unruly conduct of the students who he claimed are being used as tools by the enemies of the state government.
Ntomchukwu stated that the demonstration was peaceful and wondered why the police should use force on the students. He equally noted that the security agents’ treatment of the students might have stemmed from the students’ resistance, “but even then, harshness should be avoided.” Whichever is the case, the fact remains that countless lives would have been lost that fateful day if the students had taken it upon themselves to turn violent in their protest.
The school’s ASUU have equally chosen to dance around the matter. The reporter’s chat on the phone with its local branch chairman, Mr. Jaja Nwachukwu opened up the possibility that the students might have been abandoned in their fight with no choice than to submit to the university authorities’ order. Nwachukwu, alleged that he had been witch-hunted since he started intervening on the students’ behalf, and had even been accused of masterminding the protest.
Mike Udah, the Chief Press Secretary to the governor, attributed the protest to the work of political detractors who would do anything to pull the administration down. But he urged that genuine efforts be made to reduce the plight of parents, who are bearing the burden of the said exorbitant school fees. After all, he noted, “the Igbos say that nwa bu nwa ora” (meaning that the public is the owner of a child).
Members of the public who witnessed the protest praised the students for showing restraint in the face of provocation by the law enforcement agents during the peaceful protest. In their opinion, the students demonstrated that peaceful protests can be carried out to press home one’s demands without resorting to wanton destruction of lives and property.