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Shang-Quartey, Leonard (2005) Students struggle against authoritarianism in Ghana. Centre for Civil Society : -.

by Leonard Shang-Quartey

Many are those who look back at the student struggles of the 1950s through to the 1980s, and to some extent the early 1990s, with feelings of ecstasy, reverence, and adoration. These emotions are usually held towards the participants in those struggles, ostensibly for their implacable stance against all forms of authoritarianism, ranging from the village-school-headmaster attitude of vice-chancellors to the colonial masters with the mindset that they have a God-given right to spread civilization. The internationalization of the struggle is another unique thing about this epoch, cutting across religious, racial and national borders. This was the era when the Vietnam War inspired protest marches on the streets of America and Zambia alike. This was the era that saw students and progressive lecturers, united by their common plights and conviction in a better world order, protesting, picketing and striking together.

The significant part played by African students at home and abroad in these struggles cannot be overlooked. The monumental achievements of bodies such as the African Students Union (ASU) and the West African Students Union (WASU) are important as they portray the earnest and altruistic nature of the struggle and of student organizations, their leadership in particular. (Even though leadership is the least essential component of an organization).

The role of Ghanaian students in these struggles as highlighted by several chroniclers and historians is indeed impressive. This impressive record is explained by their zeal in combating colonialism and resisting the men on horseback. By 1957 many former student activists had metamorphosed into key political figures 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 Kwame Nkrumah.

About four decades down the line from this period, the experiences, practices and focus of the Ghanaian student movement (save for a few accidental achievements chalked) make for a sad reflection. The flame of student struggle which was set burning and handed down to successive generations of Ghanaian student leaders began dimming from the early 1990s, got worse in the late 1990s, and in the year 2005 I can state without fear of contradiction that this flame has finally gone off.

It can be argued that this comparison between two different eras risks the danger of falling victim to historical anachronism. Certainly, it may be argued that the implacable aversion towards foreign domination and exploitation provided the impetus for the struggle against colonialism, and that the same aversion against repression kept the flame burning during the era of the men in khaki and then with the coming of multi-party democracy there was nothing to fight for. Those of this opinion would rather blame multi-party democracy instead of the student movement institutions which have refused to adapt to changing trends. The argument is that multi-party democracy, or in the Ghanaian situation the two-party system consisting of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the National Democratic Congress (NDC), has created a phenomenon where the student front has been divided amongst these two parties, hence stalling the progress and advancement of the student movement.

It would be hasty for anybody to be readily given to blaming multi-party democracy for the sorry state of the student movement in Ghana today. The conquering of colonialism and Khakitocracy do not provide any excuse whatsoever for the Ghanaian student movement to become complacent and adamant. The truth of the matter is that there are a thousand and one outstanding issues to be fought for. The fact of democracy not being a perfect and self-sufficing system just like other systems has produced its own monsters that need to be combated with all the zeal and enthusiasm one can garner.

It is within this multi-party system that we have a Western gang led by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – with the connivance of our democratically elected government – plundering the resources of a country which declared its highly-indebted poor country (HIPC) status just recently, and in the process unleashing unimaginable disasters to the environment and local communities. It is in this same system that the gulf between the rich and poor is further being pushed apart. There is even an outstanding issue of World Bank and IMF policies being implemented on campuses across Ghana with the end goal of throwing poor students out of school, under the so-called cost-sharing (which, in the real sense, is cost-shifting) policy adopted by higher institutions in Ghana. (A point to prove that the international financial institutions [IFIs] are exacerbating poverty in Africa rather than reducing it.)

It is now the ‘strategy’ of student leaders to aggressively fight the effects of these scandalous policies of IFIs such as hikes in school fees and reduction in student loans, while leaving the visible and glaring causes unattended to. No wonder the student movement in Ghana has now been reduced to a Loans and Fees Movement, but often without real commitment. It also comes with little surprise that the National Union of Ghana Students (NUGS) and the University Students Association of Ghana (USAG) have no position on issues such as water privatization and domestic violence and the recent unrealistic increase in petroleum prices and deregulation of the petroleum sector. If they have positions, they have not made them known and public.

We now have a suit and tie culture replacing the jeans and T-shirt culture of the 1970s and 1980s. Whatever they choose to wear is not as important as the mindset that informs what they wear. Student leadership positions in recent times have been high jacked by very smart and ambitious students with little or no interest for the larger cause of the student body and struggle. The paramount concern of the average Ghanaian student leader in recent times is not about the strategic question as to the way forward for the student body, but as to how to transit from student politics to national politics. Sure, they are very good at this. There is nothing wrong with individuals being ambitious but there is a world of wrong with ambition at the cost of betraying the cause of students and society.

Grandiose and very flamboyant press conferences, prestigious closed door meetings with government officials and an exclusive leadership structure detached from the larger student body is what now characterize the student movement in Ghana. The title ‘honorable’! must be dutifully added to the names of the average Ghanaian student leader in order to avoid his or her overt or covert displeasure.

Central Committee and Senate meetings of NUGS and USAG respectively have become platforms for campaigning by ambitious students aspiring for national student leadership positions. In the process lots of compromises on very sensitive issues are made here and there, worsening the already deplorable situation. This makes nonsense of the whole exercise, turning it into a recreational activity, as it becomes a contest of who can speak the best English.

Corruption is another monster eating deep into the fabric of student leadership in Ghana. This permeates through from the Junior Common Room level to the national level. For instance, a tall list of acts of corruption were alleged against two successive presidents of the Akuafo Hall JCR of the University of Ghana for the 2003/2004 and 2004/2005 academic years which nearly caused their impeachment but for some constitutional constraints. However, allegations regarding misappropriation of Student Representative Council (SRC) funds of the University of Ghana were so glaring and scaring that the 2003/2004 academic year SRC president and his vice got booted out of office. The story is no different for the national body. The 2004 GETFund representative of NUGS was impeached because it was alleged that he took some money from the ruling NPP Government to compromise his position on an issue concerning the right balance of the account of the Fund.

Way forward

There is an urgent need for a radical change in the top-down organizational structure of the Ghanaian student movement as it exists today. The closest that the average Ghanaian student gets to this structure is on the day that s/he casts his or her vote to elect a leader. There are no avenues within the constitutions of these bodies to allow for the involvement of ordinary students in the decision-making process. This would be a sure means through which corruption among student leadership could be combated.

The issue of money and flamboyant spending during students’ electioneering campaigns must be brought under check. Millions of cedis are spent by individual student candidates during campaigns for office. This phenomenon cuts across from the JCR level to the national level. Consequently, it becomes a contest between rich kids or those with the ability to garner resources from political parties. This situation is seriously undermining the quality of student leadership.

It is also important for student leaders to focus on endogenous factors impinging the progress of students on their respective campuses. It is now very common for student leaders to be seen engaging government on the most trivial of issues whilst students battle unassisted with their academic concerns on their respective campuses. For instance, it takes close to six months for some students to receive their results after writing exams; the ‘normal’ period is four months on the University of Ghana campus. On the same University of Ghana campus a student has to part with the equivalent of $5 in order to obtain a copy of his transcript, for introductory letters one has to part with the equivalent of $4.

It is the responsibility of the general student body to wake up from their slumber and demand for the entire existing elitist structure to be replaced with structures that rely on mass mobilization and bottom-up organizational structure.

Students Workers Solidarity Society, Ghana.
Tel: 023244419713

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