“Our dilemma is that we hate change, but we love it at the same time. What we really want is for things to remain the same but get better”.—Sydney J. Harris
There is no significant difference between Nigerian students and students in other parts of the world. However, marked differences do exist in the physical and conceptual environment in which the students find themselves. The environmental factors (variables) include the kind of government in the country social and political values, management style adopted by the school authorities and a litany of others. These variables differ from country to country; even within a country but students are always students.
They are an integral part of the society. Students can speak when others cannot. According to Arthur Nwankwo:
“The undergraduates are well integrated in the society. They suffered the same reaction as other Nigerians. They shared their fears and echoed their thoughts. The difference was that they were a coherent group, predominantly in their twenties, who were monolithic in outlook. It was natural that, being very vocal, they made their reactions most prominent.”
In his letter to my Countrymen addressed to tomorrow’s leaders, Nigeria’s  Minister of Information and Culture in 1989, Prince Tony Momoh stated that the youths are the only group that does what it does a great deal of the time from conviction. However, he was of the view that the youths need facts to be convinced, facts that are veritable and can be verified through asking questions and insisting on answers. The Minister also observed that “sometimes, you (the youths) do raise issues which the powers that be seem to be unable or unwilling to address and then you do what you think is the next best. You demonstrate, and sometimes violently.”
Prince Tony Momoh drew a line of distinction between the youths and the wasted generations. In his words, ‘the difference between you and the wasted generations we have had is that while these generations could contemplate their failure after the event, the times we are in shall not let you go unscathed if you fail”. He further asserted that, “the only group which is in a natural situation to see tomorrow as of right are the youths … The reason is that you are not cluttered by those considerations which age, time and space impose on people as they bargain their way through life”
In order to put the role of students in a proper perspective, it will be appropriate to consider the relevance of University education in Nigeria. Ambrose Okeke, a foremost educationist and Author, believes University education in Nigeria should mean the acquisition of the spirit to render service honestly and diligently for the solutions of the country’s social and economic problems:
1. To provide basic and professional training for personal economic efficiency and for national manpower needs.
2. To assert, transfer and transmit the best in Nigerian culture and civilization by blending this with the larger African and world cultural heritage.
. To stimulate the intellectual community for creative powers in finding solutions to every facet of the nation’s problems; and
4. To seek the truth, teach the truth, and disseminate the truth.
These objectives are definite and achievable. However, what we require is consistency in policy formulation and implementation. In a way, education exposes the students to the principles of democracy and civilized values. Having come to terms with the reality that the only society that can guarantee freedom and the right of all citizens is the one that is guided by these principles, the students are enthusiastic to see their dreams come true. In their quest to close the gap between what is and what ought to be, they demonstrate, and sometimes violently.
In Nigeria, the expectations of successive governments and the students have always been at variance. Students are indicted for meddling in political affairs. They are warned not to oppose any government policies and programmes and to primarily mind their books. However, these same people tend to forget that ‘minding books’ and nation-building are not mutually exclusive. They also forget that the youths/students need to understand the basis and direction of government policies and programmes, as well as the reasons behind the success or failure of governments in order to guide those who desire to play leadership roles in future.
The youths and students constitute a dominant segment of our society. They are the engine and catalyst of change and great deal of them believe that they have a good understanding of the nation’s socio-economic problems and can proffer viable solutions if given the opportunity. In the early sixties, Clerk Kerr a foremost American university administrator and writer posited inter alia:
“University’s invisible product, knowledge, may be the most powerful single element in our culture, affecting the rise and fall of professions and even of social classes, of regions and even of nation”.
Newman Cardinal writing on University Education in the United State of America also made a similar observation:
“A university training aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspirations, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political powers, and refining the intercourse of private life. It prepares a man to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility”
All over the world, especially in democratic societies, students, just like other citizens have the constitutional right to freedom of expression, including the right to criticize and even oppose policies and leadership in their countries that threaten their future. This role, given impetus by their knowledge, youthfulness and number positions students as natural watchdogs, and a barometer for measuring government acceptability.
PROTEST AND CHANGE
It is generally said and accepted that change is a permanent phenomenon in life. The implication is that those who refuse to change are, most of the time, compelled to do so. Change can be started and facilitated in different ways: Its mechanism also varies with individuals organizations and nations.
When military intervention in politics becomes attractive, a change in government is effected by force via a military coup. The Church depends on the Word of God to effect change in the society, while students rely on protests when dialogue fails or is not considered as a critical option. In the advanced nations, a great deal of both students and other civil protests are peaceful. These societies respect the will of the people and their fundamental human rights which includes the right to protest. By so doing, they encourage the aggrieved to always use peaceful means when the need for protest arises.
At this stage it is important to clarify that change is only a means, and not an end in itself. The result of any change must justify the need for it. I subscribe to the saying that all change cannot be spontaneous and radical; some have to be gradual. A company Chief Executive in Port Harcourt in a radio programme once said that many older members of the society don’t seem to listen to the youth until they get violent. Writing on The Manager’s Job: Folklore and Fact, Henry Mintzberg stated that lack of foresight on the part of managers often leads to underperformance. He added that disturbances arise not only because poor managers ignore situations until they reach crisis proportions, but also because good managers cannot possibly anticipate all the consequences of the actions they take.
In this connection, it will be appropriate to note the position of the late Ikemba Nnewi, Dim Emeka Ojukwu:
“We must accept student protest as a necessary training for leadership whilst decrying violence as the worst form of irresponsibility.”
There is need for leaders in Africa in general and Nigeria in particular to create an atmosphere that encourages the use of peaceful means to bring about desired changes. This initiative will encourage the aggrieved to seek redress through rational and civilized means.
Billy Graham made a point when he said that, “anger brings out the animal nature of man”. Graham also observed that “many people are charming, lovable and likeable until they become obsessed with a fit of rage, and then, they are transformed into repulsive irrational creatures more like wild beasts than civilized men”.
There is always the tendency for people to protest in their own way when all their entreaties are ignored. The essence of protest is to attract attention to a problem and for immediate action to be taken to address it. Speaking on why he disagreed with Obasanjo, Professor Ade Ajayi (the Vice Chancellor of University of Lagos during the 1978 “Free Education Jihad”) had this to say:
“Where I could not go along with (the military government) was to say that students must accept authority just like that and should not be given the right to protest. The real issue is that the right to dissent is not necessarily an act of disloyalty. And to say that a group of young people should be allowed to protest does not mean that they are being guided to pull down the government. Within a developing country, the government tends to get so sensitive, especially where you have a military regime which realizes that it is not in any sense a popularly elected government”
STUDENTS UNREST AND COUP
Military dictators see protests involving students and any other kind of unrest in any section of the country as being master-minded by enemies of government. This position was made public during the Maitatsine religious uprising of 1986, referred to as “civilian coup”. Considering the fact that government tends to have more information on issues, one may be tempted to accept the argument. However, from several indications, it does not seem that all students’ crises have such undertones. There is no doubt that some could be political, but in the main, protests represent outbursts of students’ grievances and general dissatisfaction with offensive status-quo Its purpose may not necessarily be to unseat the government, but rather to unseat the problem, which may be persistent irregular supply of electricity, water and other problems. The considered opinion here is that protests targeted at pulling down governments are often the exception rather than the rule.
It is however understandable if undemocratic governments express such suspicion. This is because students’ protests have been used as a viable weapon to fight unpopular governments. It is on record that Nigerian students participated actively in the struggle against colonialism in Nigeria. They employed many strategies including propaganda, open criticism and formal protests to warn the colonialists that they had over-stayed their welcome.
THE NIGERIAN YOUTH: IS HE A VICTIM OF CIRCUMSTANCE?
The Nigerian youth has been the subject of many government programmes and discussions. In a Radio Rivers (A.M) programme, Meeting Point on the 28 of January, 1990, a panel of three discussants dwelt on the topic: The Nigerian Youth: Is he a victim of circumstance?
The panel adopted, as their working definition, the youth as people within the age bracket of 18-39, as according to them, when a man gets to forty, he is regarded as an adult. They also reasoned that if one is unable to realize most of his life dreams at this age, it may be difficult if not impossible for him to do so in his life time. This position appears to be in agreement with the saying that a fool at 40 is a fool forever’. The panel also stated that youths are mostly in educational institutions, in the office and on the streets; they are everywhere, as one can’t talk of a country without the youths.
The youths desire a sense of belonging and direction: The best in terms of everything that nature has provided for the country –education, health, moral uprightness. They seek recognition and opportunities to actualize their dreams. The discussants were of the opinion that the Nigerian society has not met most of the needs of the youths.
The Nigerian youth, like youths elsewhere often go to the extent of dying for what he believes in. Some don’t have a family of their own, no wife and children. They can therefore go to any extent in pursuit of a cause. The panel of discussants also agreed that education has led to an increase in youthful exuberance which became very significant after the civil war. The youths in general and students in particular can read between the lines and know when someone is playing on their intelligence. And when they notice that someone is playing on their intelligence, they take to the streets to express their dissatisfaction when other options fail.
While agreeing with the panelists, it will be pertinent to note that in any civilized society the freedom to demonstrate is not absolute. Without restrictions it could lead to lawlessness, violence, arson and untimely death of participants. We must not forget that the law enforcement agents are paid to maintain law and order. Whenever their lives are threatened by demonstrators, they have the right to defend themselves.
NEED FOR PEOPLE TO BE INFORMED
It is possible for one to know some of the reasons for his distant relations action based on past experience. Be that as it may, chances are also high that many of such conjectures like any other action based on assumption, may be wrong. This is because, in negation of the popular economic assumption- ceteris paribus, all things can hardly be equal.
Government officials may know the reasons behind every government action, but what of other citizens who are not in government? Adequate information and deliberate efforts to educate the governed should be one of the priorities of every government. When the desired information is not forthcoming, sometimes, some people begin to dream: They send out their tentacles near a possible source of information. What they get at the end may not be satisfactory. In order to get some meaning out of it they dot their “l’s and cross their “T’s”. In the end, some semblance of a story emerges, with a resultant spread in rumour.
Some of these rumours have negative consequences on the peace and stability of any nation. This was exactly what happened in 1989 when grave allegations were leveled against General Ibrahim Babangida, his wife, Miriam and some other top government officials. The unidentified writer claimed to have got the information from a black American magazine, Ebony. But, his claims were found to be false. Media houses which went in search of the magazine confirmed that the magazine never carried such story. Meanwhile, the writer succeeded in adding fuel to the fire of student demonstrations all over the country in 1989.
It is believed in some quarters that the protest against the Structural Adjustment Programme would not have been as disastrous as it later turned out to be but for those inciting leaflets. Although the author misinformed Nigerian students, some observers held that the situation would not have degenerated with grave consequences if the military regime had responded early to the allegations. Many Nigerians (who were confused, not sure whether or not the allegations were true) had expected the government to clear the air early enough to save its face. Dr. Tai Solarin, educationist and social critic was one of them, and he had this to say:
“The President should have cleared the air even if the report was anonymous. He should have cleared the air in his own interest. He should have denied and deflated the allegation.
It is the desire of most Nigerians to understand the rationale for government policies and programmes, and whenever this expectation is not satisfactorily met, people tend to depend on rumour.
The provision of timely and desired information and convincing argument to support government action is a must for any government that wants its policies and programmes to be appreciated. When Group Captain Earnest Adeleye, Governor of Rivers State (in 1989), met with Tony Momoh, Nigeria Information and Culture Minister on September 21, 1989, Radio Rivers reported him as saying that: “If the generality of the people are well informed, they will be able to appreciate government policies”.
Jim Bluick, President and Chief Executive Officer, Zondervan Publishing, a dynamic United States organization, shared his years of experience in handling and dealing with people in this manner:
“While I need some privacy from time to time, I  think the openness is essential in terms of management style. That doesn’t mean everybody agrees with everything I do. But I want to be open, and I  want to listen, and if I can’t respond affirmatively I still want to let them know why I really believe this attitude on the part of most of our people is one of the reasons we have peace and stability during these uncertain times.”
These sincere words of the accomplished Chief Executive are instructive. Some measure of openness and mutual confidence between those in authority and the public is necessary. Since men everywhere including students, desire participation in decisions affecting them, it is expedient that those for whom policies are made have clear understanding of policy objectives and how to contribute to ensure attainment.
Sometimes, depending on the significance of an issue, it may be necessary to encourage open debate among the people (on nation issues) or among students (on campus matters). Most of the time, people tend to accept decisions that result from such debates. We had some experiences in 1985 and 1986 when the issues of the IMF loan and political system for the third republic were thrown open to the public. Nigerians participated and contributed to chart a new course for the country; a confirmation of Sir Michael Holden’s view that:
“When laws are open to public debate and consensus, you find out that they work.”
While it is advocated that laws be open to public debate to ensure their acceptability, research has shown that it may not been possible to subject all government laws, policies and actions to public debate, particularly in a military regime.