Unionism and the Illusory Influence of Students’ Leaders

By: Olajide Oladokun

Two recent events charted the course of this article. First, I stumbled on a thread on Twitter by an ex-OAUite, reminiscing on the good old days of Students’ Unionism, particularly in the ‘Great Ife’, a period when students’ leaders were a force to reckon with; an era when their work rate spoke for them; a time when leaders were rated par excellence. The thread narrated how a former OAU SU President, in solidarity with other students, stood up against injustice, even though they were not the direct victims. Eventually, the authorities had to yield to their demands. What a way to wield one’s influence! 

Secondly, a certain individual, probably out of boredom induced by the compulsory election break, compiled a list of the ‘10 biggest personalities’ in the University of Ibadan. As expected, the list generated a lot of controversies as it left out certain people whose personalities were considered big, according to popular opinion. The compiler was forced to release a statement explaining and justifying the parameters used in selecting UI’s biggest personalities. In the statement, the writer established that those who made it to the list “have the power to pull forces on campus”, and phrases like “powerful figures”, “exerting significant influence”, “seasoned political juggernaut”, “expertise as a publicist”, “political icon”,  “seasoned parliamentarian”, among many other appellations were thrown around to describe these people of influence even though in the real sense of it, they barely wield any influence in their respective faculties, not to talk of the whole University. 

Perhaps we should educate ourselves on what leadership is not. According to Forbes, “Leadership has nothing to do with seniority or one’s position in the hierarchy of an organization, leadership has nothing to do with titles, leadership has nothing to do with personal attributes.” In contrast, “Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.” Without mincing words, one of the hallmarks of leadership is the ability to influence people. Therefore, before we begin to add the prefixes ‘influencer’, ‘capacity’ and ‘leader’ to anyone’s name, we need to ask ourselves, ‘To what extent do such individuals exert influence?’

Using the last presidential election as a litmus test, it is hard to identify any students’ leader in UI who possesses influence as a salient attribute of leadership. Most of them, including the Students’ Union president, Adeyinka Adewole (Mascot) and some hall executives, openly endorsed the flag bearer of the All Progressive Congress, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, yet, they could not even deliver one out of the many polling units in the University. So much for leaders with influence! It, therefore, follows that influencing goes beyond running ads on WhatsApp status, promoting brands, and harnessing views on online TV or blog. 

Apart from the fact that UI Students’ leaders could not successfully influence the voting decisions of UItes, the Students’ Union has also failed to influence the management in many a number of instances. So bad that UItes hardly look up to them for anything. A recent Editorial of the Law Press exposed the state of affairs in the Kunle Adepeju building. In the last semester, students suffered the dire consequences of a protracted power outage during the examination. Students demanded an alternative to the use of kerosene stoves. In spite of the many discomforts and silent wailings, the most that the union executives do are ‘study the situation’ and ‘engage the management’ with no tangible favourable resolution in the students’ interest. Maybe we should cut UI Blog TV some slacks for not including major office holders in their list, except the PRO of the Students’ Union, who by the way is yet to give account of how he mismanaged funds of the UISU TV.

With the way unionism is being practised now, one is forced to reflect on the selfless Aluta spirit of yore. So significant was their influence and impact that even the authorities were proud of them; their feats sit gracefully in the Students’ Union Constitution – how the University of Ibadan students championed the 1962 nationwide students demonstration; how the students, through their leaders, took over the streets to condemn the Dimka-led military coup attempt of 1976. Unionists in the past had an excellent knowledge of and employed the three Cs of Aluta judiciously, but it seems the current union’s attempt at activism is limited to consultation. All past consultations – studying the situation and engaging the management – have yielded little or no reward. Maybe it is high time the union changed its approach.

The Students’ Union might want to ascribe its diplomacy-like activism to the clampdown on its autonomy by the authorities. Still, it must be wary lest it becomes too complacent with the status quo. The union is fast becoming an appendage of the school management while neglecting its responsibility as regards the welfare of the students it vowed to serve. While there is no one-cap-fits-all approach to activism, the union must endeavour to explore all available options to improve the well-being of students and not be like the proverbial sheep; oppressed and afflicted, led to the slaughter, yet openeth not its mouth.

Our Students’ leaders should snap out of the illusion that occupying leadership positions translates to influence; it is merely proof of your popularity in an election. Serve your people with unbridled desire, diligence and selflessness; only then would your personality command real “influence” and “capacity”. And on a lighter note, our politicians are tired of investing in you. How could you not deliver one polling unit with your “jugganautic’ influence”?

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