DURING the years when defiant academics held sway in tertiary schools in Nigeria, there were very many “hot heads” even a child in secondary school destined for critical learning had already been used to reading about in newspapers and possibly watched on television. There were very few newspapers and television stations then, most of them state-owned.
News media organisations that were daring enough reported the public appearances of these patriots that occupied campuses across the country.
Then, the students’ movement was very strong. Strong because there existed a synergy between the students and their teachers; and indeed, the working people. And the movement was driven by an ideological conviction that is pro-people and strongly against neo-liberal economic and social policies that were coxswained by the Bretton woods institutions.
Indeed, the movement was clear in purpose and focus and was able to resist state attack for decades until the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida invaded the campuses with World Bank policies that decimated the quality of education and organised resistance by students and lecturers through the World Bank University Sector Loan Facilities whose underlining aim was to retrench and rationalise staff of Nigerian universities, targeting mainly radical lecturers who were accused of “teaching what they are not paid to teach.”
Determined to foist anti-people policies of the Bretton Woods institutions on Nigerians, the Babangida regime banned the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) between 1988 and 1990 to ensure the union as well as the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) were circumscribed in their mobilisations against the policies, especially the Structural Adjustment Programme which was mainly aimed at transferring public institutions to private hands ultimately to deepen mass poverty.
Humble, very humorous and exceptionally humane, Prof Olorode remain ageless in physique and commitment since my first meeting with him in Ife when the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR) sent some of us, led by Comrade Femi Falana (SAN) to investigate the gruesome murder of some students by a group, obviously state-sponsored, in the university. We had deep discussions with our comrades who were able to give a clear perspective of what happened. Among those we met were Prof Olorode, Dr Awopetu and Dr Dipo Fasina. These three, among many others, formed the fulcrum of the legendry Ife Collective, which at inception had people like Prof Segun Osoba, Dr Seinde Arigbede who later retired to a small community to organise farmers, the subjugated and allies for our collective struggles.
The academics refused to be confined, just as the students resisted; and decided to form the Association of University Teachers (AUT) which led the anti-World Bank/International Monetary Fund struggles, after the proscription of ASUU.
Indeed, AUT, Obafemi Awolowo University Branch, successfully organised and held a well-attended conference on the World Bank University Sector Loan Facilities at the OAU, Ile Ife Campus on April 20, 1990. The conference was attended by university teachers from all Nigerian universities, students, human rights activists, trade unionists, the Nigeria Bar Association, led by the late Mr Alao Aka-Bashorun and prominently covered and reported by both local and international news media.
The courageous leadership of the AUT at OAU then was under Professor Omotoye Olorode, who we celebrate now as one of Nigeria’s best as he turned 80 years in age but not ageing enough to daunt his commitment to our collective struggles.
Soon after the conference ended, a frightening coup against the Babangida regime led by Major Gideon Orkah was announced and Prof. Olorode, Dr Idowu Awopetu as well as Obaro Ikime were arrested and detained for three months on allegations of being part of the coup. On regaining their freedom, they were dismissed from the university. Amnesty International had reported then that they were not interrogated on anything in connection with the coup but on their political views and opposition to government policies.
Olorode, a professor of Botany, is a giant leader in the progressive movement in Nigeria and has been part of our collective struggles for decades and even at 80, he is still as strong, vibrant in intellect and physique as he has continued to deploy his rich intellect, organising capabilities and resources to our collective cause in and out of the academic community.
He is a key leader of the academic community who has strengthened alliances between the student movement, labour and other progressive non-state actors and a foremost striking voice of the voiceless that no one can ignore.
As a leading member of the Ife Collective, the academic community related perfectly well with the students’ movement which benefitted immensely from the Collective’s alliance. This made the struggles of students under the auspices of NANS successful, especially in the 80s and 90s when the movement was very strong in focus and commitment.
Prof. Olorode did not only join students in protests against the repugnant Structural Adjustment Programme but also with the labour movement against removal of petroleum subsidy and other anti-people policies; providing leadership and valuable intellectual inputs to debates around the issues.
Before then, and during this period, every week, a symposium on critical national issues will hold in most campuses where we had lecturers and clear-headed students debating on the same platforms, without mutual threats except state attacks.
This helped to strengthen the movement such that even the most docile campuses picked up in our collective agitation for good governance, not just on the campuses but more in the society in general.
When some of us who have read these events and “hot heads” in newspapers and heard them on electronic media eventually left secondary school to tertiary institutions and joined the movement, we discovered that these tough talking patriots were not only very humble, humane and genuinely caring but also strong in conviction and focused. And behind the steadfastness of the organisations such as NANS and ASUU were a collective of ideologically deep, well-grounded, highly committed and selfless individuals that acted in communal manners without any primordial differences as pervades contemporary discourse and relationships in Nigeria today.
Humble, very humorous and exceptionally humane, Prof Olorode remains ageless in physique and commitment since my first meeting with him in Ife when the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR) sent some of us, led by Comrade Femi Falana (SAN) to investigate the gruesome murder of some students by a group, obviously state-sponsored, in the university. We had deep discussions with our comrades who were able to give a clear perspective of what happened. Among those we met were Prof Olorode, Dr Awopetu and Dr Dipo Fasina. These three, among many others, formed the fulcrum of the legendry Ife Collective, which at inception had people like Prof Segun Osoba, Dr Seinde Arigbede who later retired to a small community to organise farmers, the subjugated and allies for our collective struggles.
The Ife Collective was clear in ideology and purpose and didn’t shy away from relating strongly with campus-based radical students’ organisations, especially the Alliance of Progressive Students (ALPS), which harnessed all progressive students to provide leadership and focus to the struggles of the movement at Ife and also carry out national struggles as directed by the Patriotic Youth Movement of Nigeria (PYMN) and driven by NANS.
Today, several decades of the struggles of Nigerian people, far beyond the struggles for justice and equity by the academics can never have a complete history without multiple mention of the unfaltering professor of Botany, who like many ideological scientists in history, finds an intimate link between science and people driven change in society for the benefit of the people. After all, science and society are dynamic.
For us, younger people, we still learn from the humility and strong commitment of a comrade who had been deeply involved and still courageously and undauntingly leading us in the struggle, even at 80 when so many others had faltered.
Prof Omotoye Olorode remains one of the heroes of my generation and even those before and after mine. He stands tall in all our struggles.
Happy birthday to this distinguished Professor who had taught in Obafemi Awolowo University, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, University of Abuja, Olabisi Onabanjo University and others; not only teaching Botany but growing the garden of struggles.
Denja Yaqub is an Assistant Secretary (Industrial Relations and Organising) at the headquarters of Nigeria Labour Congress, Abuja.