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Feature Article of Sunday, 4 March 2007

Columnist: Kpessa, Michael Whyte

Students Activism and Ghanaian Politics in Retrospect

A Historical Snapshot

As we celebrate 50th anniversary of sovereign nationhood, it is prudent for us to critically reflect on various aspects of our national history. The great Greek philosopher-Socrates once proclaimed that "the unexamined life is not worth living."

The examined life however is worth living only when lessons learnt become a guide for future progress. The intention of this article is to offer a historical snapshot of the relationship between students' governance and national politics in Ghana over the past 50 years.

In a second part to my Golden Jubilee article on this topic, a detailed analysis of the evils that have besieged students? movement in Ghana and how those evils have cast student governance in negative images?a situation that has pushed the young minds in our nation to the margins in policy circle - will be analysed.

Our nation has benefited tremendously from student activism. The role of Ghanaian students in the independence and anti-colonial struggles as has been widely noted by many historians and political scientists. By 1957 many former student activists had metamorphosed into astute politicians of the first Sub-Saharan African country to become independent - Ghana - thus leading the way for the decolonization of Africa. Notable amongst them was the illustrious son of Africa, the visionary and ambitious Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. Osagyefo's years as one of the leaders of the West African Students Union (WASU) helped to prepare him for leading our nation to independence. The need for a national student movement became apparent in 1948 when some students from Adisadel, Augustines and Mfantsipim were dismissed. The dismissal was immediately met with the establishment of Ghana National College to accommodate dismissed students. This event generated the need for a radical, organized and credible mass students' movement. Even though various organized students? groups started to emerge in the country from 1949, it was not until 1959 that the National Union of Ghana Students (NUGS) was formed to give the students a national platform for a single voice, and also to curb the rise of tribal as well as ethnic associations that were becoming common on the various campuses. NUGS however, became formal in 1965/66 after the University of Ghana, Legon, University of Cape Coast and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology amalgamated their various unions to form a multi-level governance structure for the administration of students' affairs. The intention was for NUGS to negotiate, administer, or represent Ghanaian students on national and international issues of interest, while the sub-units on the various campuses focus on issues pertaining to their specific campuses.

Unfortunately as a nation, we are slow to realize the potential of students? activism in training and recruiting our future leaders. Fifty years after independence, it can hardly be said that the students' movement in Ghana is capable of providing the necessary leadership skills. In spite of the monumental achievements of the students? movements in Ghana, a-five decade retrospective look at the experiences, practices and focus of the Ghanaian students' movement make for a mixture of nostalgic and melancholic reflection. The flame of student struggle which was set ablaze and handed down to successive generations of Ghanaian student leaders began running out of steam from the early 1990s. Now, it is doubtful if there is any energy left in the Ghanaian students' movement.

To a very large extent our political development is responsible for consigning students? activism to the margins of current socio-political space. The very circumstances that led to lumping together of the three student governments in the University of Ghana, University of Cape Coast, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology into the National Union of Ghana Students (NUGS) after the fall of Osagyefo's CPP, and the rather unpleasant engagements between students and the various civilian as well as military governments that followed, bear testimony to this assertion. Much of the confrontation between students in Ghana and the CPP government centred on the socialist inclination of the CPP, the introduction of the Preventive Detention Act (PDA) which gave sweeping powers to the government to detain anybody up to five years and the perceived interference of the CPP government. The CPP government on the other hand expressed surprise at the absolute silence of the student movement in Ghana on the attempts by some opposition groups to use unorthodox means such as throwing bombs and other strategies to assassinate and overthrow the nation's founding father and first president - Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. The overthrow of the CPP government by the National Liberation Council (NLC) gave students a sigh of relief.

As was expected, the NLC's action received support from the students' movement. The cordial relationship between students and the NLC ran into difficulties in no time as students from various campuses especially Legon demanded a swift return to civilian run. Eventually when the NLC relinquish power to the Progress Party (PP) under the leadership of Dr. Kofi Busia, students who had played a key role in the return to constitutional rule saw the Second Republic as an opportunity for educational progress. Many who demonstrated against the monotony of free rice and chicken meal in the premier University's halls of residence were of the view that Dr. Busia?s government would punctuate the monotony of such meals by introducing some variety. But as it turned out, The PP shocked Ghanaian students the most.

The PP government scrapped the free meals students were enjoying under the CPP, stripped students of the allowances they were receiving and introduced what was then described as the infamous students' loan scheme. The introduction of this policy and the withdrawal of the vital privileges of the students by Dr. Busia did not come without a price. Demonstrations rocked the various campuses and in the end, Ignatius Kutu Acheampong and his Supreme Military Council (SMC) found it opportune to intervene and boot out Dr. Busia and his men who were perceived as heartless right-wingers with policies that have no human face.

On hindsight, one can say Dr. Busia's policies were well-intentioned but poorly marketed and abysmally implemented. Perhaps to please the students, Acheampong quickly reversed some of the PP government's policies including the students? loan scheme. Thus, the SMC elicited students support for most of its policies including the Famous yentua that scared the IMF and the World Bank to renegotiate Ghana?s debts. But the honeymoon for the SMC was short-lived when the students began to question the perceived or real corruption in the Acheampong government and called on the military leadership to publicly declare their assets. The student leadership also criticized the SMC's human right records and most importantly opposed Acheampong's proposed 'Unigov' project. The intransigence of the SMC led to students-led demonstrations in Accra, Kumasi and Cape Coast calling on Acheampong to resign; the government responded by sending the police and the military whose callousness led to the death of the then president of National Union of Ghana Students (NUGS) at the time. The NUGS secretary at the time - Mr Totobi-Quakyi also sustained horrifying injuries as result of the police brutalities. In the cause of paying final respect to the late NUGS president in Legon, an edifice of the head of state was set on fire and in less than five minutes, the police and the military descended on the University campus and inhumanely assaulted students in some of the most uncivilised ways ever since the slave trade. But these were pivotal moments in the relationship between national politics and student activism.

In an attempt to control the universities, Acheampong's SMC placed them under the Ministry of Education so as to deny them autonomy. Students mobilized themselves and decidedly stay away from lectures. The unexpected then happened; the SMC ordered the universities closed on the reasoning that students were complaining of high costs of living. The musical chairs that occurred in the SMC from Acheampong to Akuffo did nothing to change the very hostile relationship between the students and the military government; rather it made fertile the ground for the emergence of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). The AFRC and its successor government, the Limann administration generally had good moments with students perhaps because both were short-lived. The usual honeymoon granted every government?military and civilians by the Nation's students' movement were extended to the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC). In a reciprocal gesture, the NUGS was awarded the Highest Order of Star of Ghana?Civil Division for its relentless efforts against social injustice. But as fate will determine, things fell apart so quickly and the PNDC and the students' leadership began trading words. As tension grew between the government and the students? body, the PNDC recruited its youth cadre who attacked the NUGS during it congress in Kumasi in May 1983. In the end both sides sustained various degrees of injuries but as associated with such violent clashes, the students burned down some state vehicles that carried the PNDC cadre. In its attempt to silence a rather radical student body now questioning the legitimacy of the government, the PNDC associated the students leadership with the 19th June 1983 Uprising and issued a warrant for the arrest of both the president and secretary (Arthur Kennedy and Dan Botwe) respectively of NUGS for treason. Both had to seek political asylum in a neighbouring country to the east to spare themselves the wrath and insanity of the revolution.

Following this incident, the universities were closed down for almost a year and the campuses were used as the training ground for the PNDC vigilante group - people's militia, a group of celebrated extortionists. Unrelenting, the NUGS in its 'Winneba Declaration' of November 1984 castigated the governments torture of former ministers of the Limann administration, lashed out at the social cost of the IMF policies the government had embraced, decried the poor state of the country's universities and most importantly challenged the grounds on which key students leaders were dismissed, and questioned the rationale behind the trial and conviction of prominent students? leaders such as Akoto Ampaw, Arthur Kennedy, Kwame Akyianu, Kofi Gyamfi, Abeeku Brew, Augustina Agyiraga, and Kwasi Ofori-Yeboah in what were perceived as kangaroo courts.

The PNDC arguably was most heartless in its dealing with students and at a point it came close to abolishing university education in Ghana because students were perceived as a real national security threat. It became the norm that universities were closed at the least confrontation between students and authorities.

Confrontation between students and governments in Ghana reached its peak in the NDC era when the universities backed by the NDC government introduced 'facility user fees' of over 1000% of the then existing user fees. Various NUGS leaders from Mohammed Amin, Haruna Iddrisu, Joseph Adongo to Emmanuel Domson have tried to explain how unrealistic that policy was but were unsuccessful. Haruna Iddrisu, NUGS president-1997/1998 spelt the doom of students by committing them to a cost- sharing in principle without knowing what exactly went into calculating the cost. As it became clear students were not against paying fees, rather it was felt that many students lack information on what went into calculating the amounts. There was also the general feeling amongst students that what the university authorities and the Ministry of Education did amounts to rushing the policies without adequate public consultation and education. In addition, students argue that they were already paying for other essential components such as photocopies, transportation, feeding etc that go into their training and can no longer bear any further financial burdens. Most importantly, students also felt that the parties to cost-sharing programs were not clearly spelt out in any document. In spite of the very good reasons given by the students, the University authorities encourage by the Ministry of Education under the leadership of Ekow Spio Garbrah rubbished all their logical reasoning and decided to implement the cost-sharing policy regardless. In response, the NUGS organised miniature demonstrations in various cities across the country to create public awareness but in each case the NDC excelled at using the police to intimidate and harass the students. In 1999, the students of the University of Ghana elected an ultra-radical leadership into office; this coincided with the year of implementing the cost-sharing policy as it was called. Guess what? The students starting from Legon declared their desire to make the campuses ungovernable if the user fees were not withdrawn. Thus, before Legon reopened for the 1999/2000 academic years, the University of Ghana Students' Representative Council (SRC) had declared a national 'mmobrrowa' struggle approved, and championed by the NUGS Central Committee weeks later. Series of demonstrations erupted on all university campuses across the country and in major university cities like Accra, Kumasi and Cape Coast. After an emergency Central Committee meeting of NUGS in September 1999; the students leadership decided and rightly so to march to the Castle-the seat of government, and present their petitions to the then President -Jerry John Rawlings.

The protest and demonstrations of that day saw hundreds of thousands of students from across the country gathered at Novotel pack as early as 6:30am. As history would repeat itself, that day was a replay of the Osu Cross-Roads involving the ex-service men and the colonial government, which saw Sergeant Adjetey sadly gunned down to death. After waiting for five hours at the same Crossroads, the President refused to come out and receive our petition. In fury, the students set various edifice of the President Rawlings on fire to smoke him out of the castle. The police responded with brutal force showing how much of the military shadow was hanging over our young democratic experiment. For many contemporary Ghanaian students, this was the day hell broke loose in our part of the world as some were dragged out of taxis and flogged, others were chased on foot from the crossroads to Dansoma, Medina, Legon and the Kwame Nkrumah Circle. Ironically the police commander?Kofi Boakye who issued the order for the students to be beaten was himself a student residing in Valco Graduate Hostel in the University of Ghana. The persistence of the students in this struggle led to the NDC government?s decision to close down the universities once again. After months of compelling students to stay at home, the NDC government announced a 30% rebate on the fees being charged that year. This was accepted by students? leadership in the hope that it will allow all stakeholders the time and space need to find long-term solution to funding tertiary education in the country. The following year, 2000/2001 academic year, the Student Representative Council (SRC) leadership at University of Ghana, Legon took the proactive step to negotiate for a stay of the user fees rebate; after meetings with the National Council for Tertiary Education (NCTE), the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) and the Ministry of Education, the NDC government announced the ?freeze? and for the first time in five years, students returned to university peacefully all over the country. The New Patriotic Party?s record with students is still unfolding and it will be pre-mature to make any historical judgements now. Most (not all) of the problems that often get the students into confronting various governments remain under the NPP. The government has not mustered the courage to come out with a framework for determining university user fee and for fear of inviting the displeasures of Ghanaian students. Since the NDC rebate on the user fees in 1999 before they were booted out of office in 2000, there had been no major change in user fee policy. It is important that we find lasting solution for funding tertiary education and do away with the adhoc measures currently in place. Students in Ghana can lead the way in this effort by coming up with innovative ideas and suggestions based on comparative knowledge of other systems to solve the problem once and for all. Unfortunately the students' governance and leadership in the country presently has not only lost credibility, it has also been cast in shadow of negativism. How students' activism in Ghana came to be cast in such images is the subject of subsequent analysis on this topic.

Michael W. Kpessa
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada


Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

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