Union chief dies at fees protest meeting

February 14, 1997

Fee increases estimated at more than 500 per cent have led to violent incidents at some Nigerian universities.

The Federal University of Benin has been closed indefinitely and the students sent home on the orders of vice chancellor Andrew Onokhokheraye following the death of the student union secretary general, Ubong Williams.

According to witnesses, student leaders called a general assembly to discuss ways of resisting the increases. The National Association of Nigerian Students has said it will oppose them by "all means necessary". As the students gathered, some people with broken bottles and sharp knives moved towards the rostrum and repeatedly stabbed Mr Williams, a petroleum student, in the chest. Most of the students ran away and Mr Williams died before he could be given medical attention at the university hospital. Five other students were treated for injuries.

Student union chairman, Mike Osho, said that the presence of university security guards had not deterred the "faceless" attackers.

He said: "We had heard a rumour of the imminent introduction of fees by the university authorities, following which the students' leadership met with the university authorities. Although we are not opposed to the introduction of fees, we asked to consult other students to ensure that what was finally agreed on would be affordable by our parents and guardians." He expressed surprise at the announcement by the university authorities that he was suspended as local chairman as a result of the incident.

"This meeting was legal because very many students on the campus were strongly in favour of such a gathering. I don't understand why the vice chancellor was opposed to the meeting. The incident cannot be blamed on the students. Certain powers-that-be do not want the students to hold a consultative forum. And we shall not take this matter lightly," he warned.

Mr Osho called on the head of state and university visitor General Sani Abacha to set up a commission of inquiry into the incident immediately.

Students at other universities are also up in arms over the fees. At the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, a group of students, led by Momalachy Ugwumadu, took the university to court late last year over fees. Justice Ramonu Kassim granted an ex parte motion in favour of the students ordering, among other things, an interim injunction restraining the university authorities from enforcing or collecting any of the newly increased fees pending a full judgment.

Confident of support from the federal military authorities, the university administration decided to ignore the injunction. "My appeal to students is that they should not do anything foolish. They have suffered enough due to strikes and closure of the university, so they should not do anything foolish," warned Umaru Gomwalk, the sole administrator who was unilaterally imposed upon the university by General Abacha after the suspension and dismissal of the vice chancellor, Kenneth Udeale.

Angered by incessant harassment by 500 newly-recruited security guards, the Nsukka students organised a protest march and headed towards the vice chancellor's lodge.

Chanting anti-military slogans the students clashed with the guards. Fighting broke out, the 26-year-old lodge was burnt down and several official cars smashed. Professor Gomwalk was away on official business in Abuja, apparently to consult with the military authorities.

Finber Ezeazu, the head of the security force, managed to escape with his family before his house was burnt down. The university has been closed indefinitely.

Vice chancellors are concerned that similar incidents might spread to their universities. The authorities at Edo State University, about 100 kilometres from Benin City, have postponed the resumption date for the new academic session indefinitely to avert the chances of similar demonstrations.

Student leaders, according to reliable sources, have been moving discreetly from one campus to another, talking to the students about the need for a well-coordinated effort to resist increased fees.

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