By: John Eriomala
As a 2nd year student of the University of Ibadan, I’ve had the opportunity of witnessing a number of student body elections. Of these, however, three, in particular, have involved my direct participation as an electorate; the Student Union elections, that of my Hall of residence, Great Independence Hall, and the University of Ibadan Medical Students Association (UIMSA) at the departmental level. They took place in that order, they were not only exciting but also enlightening, especially, for a newbie in the world of intra-varsity students politics.
Interestingly, one occurrence was common to all three elections; one I initially waved aside as inconsequential. However, by the time the Hall elections came around, it was nigh impossible to ignore and then my department’s elections only helped to ‘hammer it home’, prompting me to delve deeper. The ‘common factor’ being referred to here is the apathy shown towards contesting for positions. Simply put, the right to vote was being exercised by the majority while very few – in some cases, none – exercised their rights to be voted for. This raised three questions: “Was this also happening elsewhere?”, “Why?” and “How could it be stopped?”.
THE NEW NORMAL?
For the UI Students Union elections which took place on the 9th of October, 2021, 8 executive positions were available and only 4 had multiple aspirants. For Independence Hall (December 14, 2021), 7 available positions, 6 of which had sole aspirants. Last of all three, the UIMSA elections (30th April 2022) for which only 2 out of 10 posts were contested and one (Sports Secretary) was left void.
However, knowing this was not enough. I had to be certain that this apathy was prevalent in other student bodies. First, I inquired from students in other halls about the nature of their elections. Well, I could say I expected positive responses and further claim that they were true and positive; but that’d be miles from the truth.
From the Kenneth Mellanby Hall to the Obafemi Awolowo Hall and right back to the Nnamdi Azakwe Hall, this form of political apathy was the order of the day. For example, in the supposedly ‘politically vibrant’ Zik Hall, out of 8 available executive positions, only 1 – Hall Chairmanship- had multiple candidates. In Lord Tedder Hall, it was also a similar situation as just 1 out of 6 positions was contested; in fact, 2 of these 6 posts had to be filled by appointment.
This phenomenon of multiple uncontested positions was also present in both Queen Halls (Elizabeth II and Idia); ruling out the possibility of it being a ‘male thing’. Unfortunately, though opportune to speak with members of these halls, I was unable to acquire the opinions of their Hall leadership on this subject.
At the departmental level? Similar situations, regardless of the size of the department or nature of the faculty. For example, even in the Faculty of Social Sciences, varying levels of political apathy were exhibited. One would expect the Department of Political Science (under the aforementioned faculty) to be a powerhouse politically, brimming with politically aware students; but the reality on the ground differed greatly.
A conversation with Elesho Ayotomiwa, a 200-level student of this department, revealed that not only was there an unwillingness to contest but also a high level of voter apathy. According to him, “The apathy among the electorate is even worse compared to the contestants. On the day of elections, not many people turned up; just a handful of people were available to vote during elections”. This unwillingness to contest was cited by students I spoke to in departments under the Faculties of Technology, Agriculture, Renewable Natural Resources, Economics, Public Health, etc.
Satisfied with these findings, I moved on to the more pertinent question, “Why?”.
OF BENEFITS AND THE LACK THEREOF
Why are students apathetic towards politics? Why is it such a common occurrence, especially in an institution like the University of Ibadan that prides itself in the quality of leaders it produces? Why?
In the weeks leading up to the Students’ Union elections, I had assumed that offices such as that of the Vice President and Public Relations Officer, for which there were only 1 aspirant each, had such because those who had come forward were ‘the most capable for the job’. Not until the results of the Union of Campus Journalists (UCJ) screening were released did I discard this theory.
One other assumption I had was that students were demotivated by the lack of incentives and inadequate benefits associated with these posts. This was not far from the truth. Speaking with Adekunle Titus, final-year Medical student and a one-time FOPA nominee for Campus Journalism, he said, “It (taking up political posts) is just not appealing. You work yourself through a mentally, physically, and financially rigorous electioneering process, serve the entire year on your dime and time, under scrutiny and criticism (from those you serve and the management). What do you get in return? A plaque and a line to your LinkedIn profile. Maybe a one-man room if you are president/hall chair.”
Furthermore and in opposition to those who might argue that were indeed benefits, he went on to say, “Some will argue for the prestige, skill acquisition, opportunities, and other things. But then, most of these things can be gained through less rigorous service portfolios”. Perhaps, most students weigh the pros and cons of public service and have realised that the scales do not tilt in their favour at all.
After all, the nature of Nigeria’s educational system requires that one put in the intensive effort if solid grades are to emerge. Combine this with the numerous bottlenecks in the system and the other aspects of their lives that require attention and it becomes easy to understand, and subsequently, empathise with these students.
Also, there’s the fact that the majority of these positions require a level of experience, that for the most part, only students in their penultimate or final year can provide. Sadly, these are the toughest years in any tertiary institution and the University of Ibadan is no different. Not many are willing to sacrifice this ‘eleventh hour’ to listen and proffer solutions to the clamouring of hundreds of others.
THE LABOURS OF OUR HEROES PAST
Still, in the search for reasons for this high level of apathy, I had the opportunity of speaking with Abdulsalam Saheed Olawale, 500 level student of Agronomy and President of the Agronomy Club (the umbrella body for students in the Department of Agronomy). Agronomy is a department consisting of about 240 students, a size that would suggest a high level of participation but according to him, there was a low turnout for their most recent departmental elections which took place last year. Just 5 out of 10 available positions had any aspirants.
On the topic of “why?”, after referring to the aforementioned lack of incentives, he said, “I also believe students are showing no interest due to the performance of our predecessors. Most were seen to be inactive and proper actions towards the affairs of students were not attended to”. Not many would be willing to ‘fill the shoes’ of inept and poor predecessors. To be fair, some might be motivated to serve and represent irrespective of the failure of their predecessors. At the expense of replicating this failure, however, not so much.
Saheed also pointed out a factor that had been mentioned in conversations I’ve had with older UItes; disciplinary cases. And no, this is not due to bad behaviour or abuse of office. Rather, it’s the speed with which the authorities clamp down on student leaders who they deem to be “causing division” or “fomenting trouble”. Needless to say, quite a few have had roadblocks placed on their path to attaining a degree.
Finally, there’s the matter of fundraising. Students in every public (and even private) tertiary institution can attest to the need to raise funds for everything from the day-to-day running of associations to holding events. Within my two years of studentship, I’ve had first-hand experience and knowledge of just how difficult this aspect of student leadership can be. Hall week, departmental week, projects, outreach programmes, etc. all require money (lots of it), and having witnessed past leaders go through this, many end up unwilling to take up their mantles.
LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL?
If the leaders of tomorrow refuse to be leaders today, then, what is the use of looking forward? Can anything be done to encourage political participation among students (and not just as electorates alone)?
Frankly speaking, the current outlook of the University of Ibadan political scene is bleak. Bleak! This continuous show of apathy doesn’t look likely to come to an end, soon. It seems to be a cycle of “politically enthusiastic freshers” becoming “discouraged stylites” and ultimately, “politics-avoidant finalists”.
But like most aspects of modern society, politics and the political scene can be revitalised regardless of the current state. For starters, students need to be able to associate more positives with these roles. According to Titus, “ I do not see it (apathy) ending anytime soon unless we start making it count for something that these people sacrificed some things to take up these roles”.
Taking up these positions has to be a rewarding experience beyond having one’s name on a board with predecessors. Achieving this would require effective collaboration between administrators and these student leaders.
Furthermore, students need to be more informed on the nature of politics within each of these spaces. Records of service should exist in secretariats (physical or virtual) and be easily accessible for reference purposes.
Press organisations also have a role to play by proper documentation of each administration’s activities, achievements, and shortcomings. That way, freshers (100 level students) and sophomore students can attend Press and Manifesto Nights having beyond basic knowledge of the political sphere.
A decade from now, we might look back on these years of apathy and wonder how we thought it would become the norm. Or, we might have student politics in such a weak state that appointments become the only option. Both of these and possibly a mid-point depend on the events of the next couple of years.
Hopefully, we get to witness a political revival before the phrases “Class of ’22 and Class of ‘23” become references to ages past. Hopefully.