By Salihu Moh. Lukman
Emma Ezeazu, former President, National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) – 1986 – 1988, former National Secretary, Civil Liberties Organization (CLO) – 1990 – 1992, former Executive Director, Community Action for Popular Participation (CAPP) – 1992 – 2000 and until the early evening of Monday, May 18, 2015, Executive Director, Alliance for Credible Elections (ACE) died after a protracted illness.
He died at the age of 52 after clearly more than four years of health challenges. Everyone that may have encountered Emma in the last few months would have certainly noticed that he was going through very trying times but one thing that is also very clear was that he remained his determined self. Partly on account of that, conversations with him never focused on his personal health. Rather, it remained as usual around politics and national issues.
I first met Emma sometime in 1985 while attending the meeting of Patriotic Youth Movement of Nigeria (PYMN), which was the coordinating body of all Marxist movements in higher institutions across the country. Through the PYMN, Marxist movements were able to control the leadership of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS).
Central therefore to the deliberations of the 1985 meeting was the issue of NANS convention, which was scheduled for early 1986 and Zone D covering campuses such as UNN, UniPort, UniCal, UniBen, etc., were by NANS constitution to produce the Secretariat – President and General Secretary.
Emma Ezeazu and Jonas Awodi were introduced to the meeting as leading cadres of the UNN-based Marxist Youth Movement (MYM) and proposed NANS’ candidates respectively for the positions of President and General Secretary from UNN.
I was introduced to the meeting by the then NANS President, Hilkiya Bubajoda and the General Secretary of the ABU based Movement for a Progressive Nigeria (MPN), Ado Yahuza. I was introduced as a representative of Students’ Liberation Movement from College of Advanced Studies, Zaria.
That 1985 meeting had representation from many Marxist movements from Nigerian universities, notably, UniJos, ABU, BUK, UNN, UniBen, UniCal, Ife, Kwara Tech, etc. Attending the PYMN meeting for the first time was to say the least very intimidating. The debates were very antagonistic and highly academic. They reflected sharp Marxist tendencies that at least challenged every delegate to study Marxism deeper especially if one hoped to participate in debates at the meetings of the PYMN.
The Jos 1985 PYMN meeting, which held at the Secretariat of the then Civil Service Technical Workers Union on No. 3 Tafawa Balewa Way started around 9 am on a Saturday and ended in the early hours of the following morning of Sunday around 5 am. Attending the Jos PYMN meeting convinced me that revolutionaries were knowledgeable people and student activists as revolutionaries in the making were very hungry for knowledge. I still recall some of the intimate personal discussions we had with Bubajoda and Ado Yahuza on our way to and from the meeting. Ado Yahuza was very emphatic that activists must aspire to make 1st Class. This was in some ways much later corroborated by Chris Abashi of blessed memory and Labaran Maku.
Femi Ahmed, popularly then called Sandinista was the one that introduced Emma and Jonas Awodi to the Jos PYMN meeting as General Secretary of MYM. I remember very well that my only contribution at that meeting was presenting the report of the state of the movement in our campus, CAS Zaria. Emma certainly, although attending the PYMN meeting for the first time, made more contributions largely because he was far more advanced both academically and ideologically. He was already a postgraduate student in UNN.
I must confess that I left the PYMN meeting very confused because some contributions around the debate on the state of the nation was too advanced and there were often lengthy references to Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. I remember asking Ado Yahuza and Bubajoda if it meant that to be able to contribute to debates on the PYMN floor, one had to be able to quote at length Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin? Both Ado and Bubajoda unanimously made the point that some of the references were just empty and often out of context. They cautioned that I must not go about studying Marxism with the objective of memorizing Marx, Lenin or any other person, but instead seek to understand the central message and logic of analysis.
Some weeks after the meeting, there was a follow up meetings of the PYMN. I wasn’t able to attend some of the meetings but was privileged to be briefed by our ABU comrades – Ado Yahuza and Bubajoda. I was made to understand that the issue of NANS secretariat moving to UNN was settled with Emma and Jonas Awodi as candidates for President and General Secretary respectively. The debate shifted to the issue of which campus would produce the PRO. The contest was between UniJos and UniLorin.
This came to be part of the deliberations of the Zaria PYMN meeting. Interestingly, Movement for Advancement of African Society (MAAS) Jos came to the Zaria meeting with two camps. One led by John Odah, who was the PYMN General Secretary and second led by Victor Olisah who was NANS Vice President (National Affairs). While John Odah argued that the MAAS candidate for NANS PRO was Labaran Maku, Victor Olisah argued that MAAS candidate was a different person. However, Adoga Ibrahim of UniLorin was also a contender for the NANS PRO. Eventually, the decision of who would be the PYMN sponsored NANS candidate for PRO was shifted to the pre-convention PYMN meeting to hold in Kano.
This development and internal contestations within the PYMN set the tune for the Kano NANS Convention. Of course, faced with bigger contestation against the Nigerian state with clear state sponsored candidates, PYMN was able to reconcile its cadres and produced the Emma Ezeazu leadership. Labaran Maku eventually emerged as PRO.
Emma was to serve as NANS President under very trying times. Shortly after the Kano NANS Convention, authorities of ABU Zaria expelled Mathias Yohanna and Bala Hamid, student union leaders and on May 22, 1986, ABU students began a protest demanding the removal of Prof. Ango Abdullahi as Vice Chancellor. Police were invited and on May 23 four ABU students were killed, including a female student, Farida Mustapha. The Emma Ezeazu NANS leadership immediately called for national protest.
Government responded with a ban on NANS and appointed Emmanuel Abisoye Panel of enquiry on the remote and immediate causes of the ABU Students’ crisis. In addition to banning NANS, the Federal Government also banned activities of students unions in all tertiary institutions. Emma Ezeazu’s leadership responded appropriately by refusing to accept the ban and continued to operate.
In addition to the Abisoye Panel, the Federal Government also setup the Justice Akanbi Panel to among other things determine the role of teachers in the crisis. Akanbi Panel came up the notorious report that some teachers were not teaching what they were paid to teach, leading to very aggressive state intervention in the content of university education in the country. The deportation of radical ABU sociology lecturer, Dr. Patrick Wilmot in 1987 by the Babangida administration was direct fallout of the Akanbi Panel report.
Armed with Abisoye and Akanbi Panels’ Reports, the Babangida government opened direct attacks on structures of students’ unionism in the country. Without barely any union leadership in Nigerian institutions, Emma was able to run NANS, often spending more time in SSS detention centres. In February 1987, he was arrested and was to face military tribunal with the potential danger of death sentence hanging on him. Students across the country were to rise in his defense and the Babangida regime was left with no option but to release him.
To say, Emma was a committed student union leader will be an understatement. I believe there must have been a genetic factor in the constitution of Emma. His parents no doubt must have been very selfless to be able to accommodate his choice of activism and the periods of tribulation that he had to through. There were periods between 1987 and 1988 that Emma, on the floors of PYMN cried out loud for the need to have a NANS convention. The realities on ground made it impossible for NANS Convention to be organized until mid-1988.
In March 1988, there was an attempt to hold the Convention in Jos and SSS virtually took over the whole of Jos, especially areas around Tafawa Balewa Way. As a result the Convention was aborted. But in June 1988, we successfully had the Convention in Ilorin. Interestingly, two issues that were very clear to us were that the government had a different strategy.
Instead of stopping the Convention, the government wanted to take over the leadership of NANS. Candidates that had no prior knowledge of NANS came to Ilorin to contest for NANS leadership. One of such was the President of Bendel (now Edo) State University, Ekpoma, who came to contest for President. He had no prior knowledge that NANS President was a joint ticket with the candidate for Secretary General. He was flamboyantly dressed with a walking stick.
The second issue was that the NANS Secretariat could not make it to the Ilorin Convention as Emma and other student leaders of UNN were arrested on the eve of the Ilorin Convention. In the circumstance, Labaran Maku was the only member of Emma Ezeazu’s NANS leadership that was present at the Convention.
Part of the reason responsible for this was also that most of the Comrades had graduated and had moved on. Shortly before the Convention Bamidele Aturu (also of blessed memory), who was NANS Vice President National Affairs, had graduated, served in Niger and was recognized as one of the best NYSC member but rejected his award. He graduated with 2/1 from Adeyemi College of Education, Ife. Having rejected the award, the government claimed that it was his NYSC discharge certificate that he rejected. Bamidele responded by going to University of Ife to enroll in a law degree programme. Until his death about a year ago, Bamidele was one of the successful lawyers produced from the ranks of student activists.
The address of Labaran Maku to the June 1988 Ilorin Convention scared the government candidates. Once Labaran announced that Emma could not attend the Convention because he was arrested and that everyone aspiring to be part of NANS leadership should be ready to go to jail, my only challenger from Ekpoma, when called upon to respond to his nomination voluntarily stepped down. Eventually, all positions were contested unopposed. In the end, out of about 18-member team, only about four of us ran the activities of NANS. I lost my Secretary, Yiluk Isa Almasihu, immediately after the election as his father who was a Deputy Commissioner of Police forced him to resign.
As student activists, our vision has always been political. Between the late 1980s and 1990s, human rights and trade union organisations became our destination. Emma Ezeazu went to Civil Liberties Organization (CLO) as National Secretary and he opened the space for people like Chima Ubani, Lanre Ehonwa, Ogaga Ifowodo, Abdul Mahmud, Emma Edigheji and many others. Those that went to the trade unions include Yahaya Hashim, Salisu N. Muhammed, John Odah, Chom Bagu, Issa Aremu, Chris Uyot and Didi Adodo.
Our relationship with these organisations opened the space for us to contribute to the struggle against military dictatorship in the 1990s. Having left the CLO in 1992, Emma moved to Abuja and took up the responsibility of establishing CAPP. CAPP was certainly not as successful comparative to CLO and ACE. For Emma, however, one can say without any fear, he was very unhappy that we failed politically. Between 2011 and the time of his death, we had a lot of reflection and we were in agreement that we made big time blunder in 1998 when we decided not to participate in the Abdulsalami transition program. We both came to the conclusion that we must retrace our steps and engage politically.
In 2011, we held series of consultations and agreed that our mission in politics should be long term and must not be reduced to aspiration for a particular position. But one area we debated but had to accept to disagree was the ambition of Emma to contest for Senate in Abuja and not Onitsha. I felt Emma would have made more successful impact in Onitsha. Emma disagreed on the grounds that he was only known in Abuja and he was not ready to go back to Onitsha and start negotiating to appropriate the profiles of his parents. With such strong positions, Emma engaged the process of APC formation in Abuja, aspired for House of Representatives but lost the primaries very marginally.
Unlike many of us, Emma engaged politics on his own terms. He refused to allow the dominant perception of playing politics based on how much you accumulate and therefore eventually simply buy the ticket. More than anything, for many of us Emma represents the future Nigerian politician. In the coming days, months and perhaps, the next four years, our APC leaders, standard bearers will face the challenge of producing new generation of politicians. Otherwise, electoral storm similar to the one that produced the defeat of PDP will confront us again.
It will be incomplete to talk of the politics of Emma without bringing out the fact his nationalism being unpretentious and without any border. At a time when everyone was returning to his ethnic group, Emma chose to integrate himself with the Gwaris. He worked hard and selflessly for the Gwaris. There was no contest; the Gwaris took him as their own. One can say confidently, Emma was born an Igbo man and died both an Igbo man and a Gwari. In our generation, Emma is about the only Marxist that practically lived based on Lenin’s dictum of recognizing your own nationality but never campaigning for the hegemony of your own nationality over others.
The legacy of Emma is Alliance for Credible Election (ACE). It is one of the success stories of organisations established by generation of activists. While I am confident that members of the Board of ACE must have been working round the clock to address the challenges facing the organization with the unfortunate demise of Emma, it is also important that other patriotic Nigerians demonstrate commitment to strengthening ACE. Not just because Emma was associated with ACE but because the future of our country and nation depends on credible elections. Emma’s life and politics provide the nexus for both intellectual and organizational actions for credible elections.
Salihu Moh. Lukman, a former President of the national Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org
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