By AMAKA ABAYOMI & LAJU ARENYEKA
Recent Police interference in peaceful protests by education unions has become a cause for concern by stakeholders in the sector. Just last weekend, protesting primary school teachers and pupils in Makurdi, Benue State, were dispersed with teargas by the state police. In the past week alone, police authorities in Bayelsa, Rivers and Cross River ordered the Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities, (ASUU) not to go on with their planned peaceful protests.
It would be recalled that teachers and primary school pupils who took to the streets to protest what the Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT) described as the state government’s inability to pay their minimum wage, blocked the road to disrupt traffic, and chanted: “No school, no road”.
Shortly after the pupils numbering over 500 blocked the road, the police arrived the scene throwing canisters to disperse the crowd. When contacted, the state Police Commissioner, Adams Audu, told newsmen that it was not right for the teachers to block roads in protest for their salaries when, they could have employed the dialogue approach.”It doesn’t make sense for teachers to start burning tyres on the roads when they could simply dialogue,” he said.
The police order, issued against the planned public procession by the ASUU, Niger Delta University chapter, was reportedly signed by the state Commissioner of Police, Mr. Hillary Okpara. The situation was similar at the University of Calabar (UNICAL) last Monday. Vanguard Learning gathered that at about 6 a.m last Monday, there were over 500 police officers who had cordoned off the entire university.
The Chairman, ASUU UNICAL, Dr. James Okpiliya told our reporters that: “As a result of the police presence, a lot of people gathered around the university to find out what was going on. So the plan of the police backfired, because even though we couldn’t go into the streets, the people from the streets who came to find out what happened were much more than our colleagues who gathered to protest. As a result of this, we were able to accurately educate them on the real reasons behind the strike.”
Continuing, Okpiliya said: “ASUU UNICAL, as well as our comrades from Cross River University of Technology (CRUTECH) had a directive at the congress level to hold a peaceful protest on Monday. The intention was to clear the air about a lot of false pro-government information been disseminated, and clearly stating the reasons why ASUU is on strike. We wanted the Nigerian people to get the truth about the issues.
In preparations for the rally, we wrote a letter to the Commissioner of Police, telling them when and where the rally will hold, and asking them to provide security. The police commissioner later invited us for a meeting, telling us that the police had orders from above to stop the protests. We told the commissioner that this was not possible because we had made the decision at the NEC level, we also told him that we would go on with rally. It does make one wonder what kind of a democracy we have if intellectuals under a union recognized by law cannot hold peaceful protests, but miscreants can.”
The Chairman, Joint Action Front, Dr. Dipo Fashina also questioned the right of the police to stop the protests. “Under the laws governing this country, unions have the right to hold peaceful protests. These people were not breaking any law, in actual fact, it is the police who broke the law. The Police is a Federal Agency; so both the police, and whoever it was that gave them the directive to stop the protests, should be condemned,” he opined.
Speaking on the issue, the ASUU Chairman, Dr. Nasir Isa Faggae said: “In reality, this is a contradiction on the part of the government. When people are protesting against ASUU, under aegis that are not recognized by law, they do not face any opposition from law enforcement. But when law abiding unions like ours choose to exercise our rights, we are stopped by the police. The denial of the right to lawful assembly is a clear breach of the constitution.”
The National Coordinator, Education Rights Campaign (ERC), Mr. Hassan Soweto, called for the “immediate removal of the State Commissioner of Police and his trial for ordering the firing of tear gas on little children.” Continuing, Soweto said: “We call on Benue State Governor Gabriel Suswam to tender an unreserved apology to the pupils and their parents and go ahead to immediately implement the N18, 000 minimum wage law to teachers and all categories of workers in the State so schools can be reopened.
Governor Suswam’s despicable treatment of teachers and brutal clampdown on primary school pupils in his own State says all that need to be said about his alleged concern for public education.” The ERC argued that “the series of crimes and ignominy committed almost on a daily basis by this government in its bid to force down peoples throat, the neo-liberal agenda of a privatised, neglected and commercialised education system as opposed to a public education system has become alarming.
For instance over the last two weeks, the Nigerian police has been hunting down, attacking and restricting striking lecturers and all those who support the on-going struggle of University and Polytechnic lecturers to save public education. But compared to all these, the attacks on Benue primary school pupils is especially shocking, wicked and unconscionable.
This chilling brutality on little children in Makurdi whose only crime was their support for their teachers struggle for better working conditions is a new low in the blood-stained record of the Nigerian Police. Despite their age, the pupils were brutally dispersed by police who shot tear gas canisters in their midst. The fact that no one died is not an excuse to maintain silence on this matter.”
Whether these incidents have been politically orchestrated to clamp down the education unions, or are simply the workings of overzealous policemen, remains to be seen.
But as the National Chairman of the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics, Dr. Chibuzor Asomugha put it: “I cannot say for sure the motives behind these recent happenings, but one thing is for sure: there seems to be a pattern to these police interference, and one can only guess that they are following orders. In any case, it is quite unfortunate that such a thing is happening in a democratic society such as ours.”