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Ali Must Go and the Struggles of Nigerian University Students against higher fees.

Education is The Most Powerful Weapon which You can use to Change The World – Nelson Mandela

President Tinubu and his men do not share Mandela’s view that education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. They believe that higher education is a luxury commodity whose price should be determined by the market. They want to raise school fees to the level of private universities. University education will be only for the rich. The Education sector has NGN2.18 trillion or 7.9% of the 2024 NGN27.5 trillion budget compared to 15%-20% of the annual budget as recommended by UNESCO. In 2021, there were 2.1 million university students in Nigeria with 94% or 1974000 students registered in 98 public Federal and State universities. Only about 6% or 126000 students were registered in the 79 private universities. The Tinubu administration is considering granting licenses to 270 more private universities. Every big Nigerian politician wants to own a private university. University fees have increased dramatically since PBAT entered Aso Rock. These arbitrary increases have met with resistance from university students on many campuses.

Last year, university fees for non science students, at the University of Lagos (Unilag) , were increased from NGN19,000 to NGN100,750. Unilag students protested with the slogan – #Fees must fall and the university management reduced the fees to NGN80,750. The fees for new students were reduced from NGN126,325 to NGN116,325. The students rejected the reduced fees and insisted on a return of the former fees. Thousands of students protested, at the University of Jos (Unijos), after a 300 percent increase in school fees. The fees for 100 and 200 level students were increased to NGN213,000 while that of 300 and 400 level students were fixed at NGN160,000. These fees were reduced to NGN110,000 and NGN140,000 respectively after the protests. The fees for new students at Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), were increased from NGN70,000 to NGN151,200 while those for old students were increased from NGN19,000 to NGN89,000. Following a protest by the students, the fees were reduced to NGN131,000 for new students and and NGN76,000 for old students. Protests erupted at the University of Calabar, after school fees for new students were increased from NGN64,050 to NGN110,000 and those for old students were increased from NGN52,050 to NGN91,500. The new fees were suspended after the protests. Protests also broke out in Ekiti State University, Ambrose Ali University and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN). History teaches us that Nigerian students have the autonomous capacity to struggle against higher school fees. These struggles intensify as the resistance becomes a national movement. We will examine the Ali Must Go crisis of 1978 which was one of the principal struggles of Nigerian university students against higher fees during military rule.

The reduction in oil revenue in 1978 changed the education policy of the Federal government of Nigeria. The Federal State reacted to the reduced revenue with a budget proposal that included austerity fiscal and monetary policies, the land use decree and increases in school fees. University hostel and feeding fees were increased by 200%. Feeding fees rose from 50 Kobo per day to 1Naira 50 Kobo per day. The changes ignited a struggle by university students. The National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS) initiated a 6 months resistance campaign against the Federal State. The campaign was made up of 3 operations – (1) operation consultation, (2) operation consolidation, and (3) operation confrontation. Operation consultation called for NUNS to consult all decision makers included the University Vice-Chancellors, university council chairmen, Military Governors, the commissioners of education, and the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces. The Students demanded that the Federal Commissioner of Education, Colonel (Dr.) Ahmadu Adah Ali, should be fired from his job (Ali Must Go!) and the new increase in school fees rescinded. The students demands were not met, so NUNS initiated operation consolidation .

Operation consolidation called for seminars, lectures, press conferences and symposium. Programs were held at all Nigerian university campuses. These events were directed at educating and mobilizing the general student body and Nigerian populace. NUNS demanded the removal of soldiers from school campuses, a reduction in bus fares and feeding fees, the speedy implementation of UPE, a reduction in school fees, the re-establishment of Federal government’s control over the student loan scheme and the resumption of normal school activities in all schools closed since September, 1977. On March 23-27, 1978, NUNS decided to lunch operation confrontation.

Operation confrontation was organized around a single demand – Free and compulsory education at all levels. It called for massive nationwide strikes and demonstrations by students. The confrontation between the students and the Federal government began at the University of Lagos where the student union called for a boycott of lectures and a demonstration. The police fired tear gas at the students to keep the demonstration within campus premises. The students replied with stones and bottles. Secondary school students and unwaged workers joined the demonstration when Unilag students broke out of the police containment. The police responded with rifle fire, injuring 3 persons and killing a university student called Akintunde Ojo. A housewife was also killed. University students continued to demonstrate, so the university authorities decided to close the university. At the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, students boycotted lectures. The police used teargas on the students and engaged them in combat within the campus premises. The students drove the police out of the campus, barricaded the university gates and proceeded to march on Zaria township. State-owned vehicles were burned along the way and oil tankers were used to barricade highways. News of the Ojo’s death in Lagos reached the students, whereupon they disrupted the supply of electricity to the campus. The police attempts to clear the campus failed and some policemen were captured. The Army was called upon to evacuate the fighting students. In the ensuring conflict, gunfire from the Armed Forces units killed 6 persons and wounded 23. After this, the university authorities closed down the university.

In Ibadan, university of Ibadan students carried out a peaceful demonstration on campus. The campus was put under siege by riot policemen who stormed the campus and surrounded it. Some students broke out of the encirclement and engaged the police. By the time the dust cleared, 6 State owned vehicles were aflame and some policemen were wounded. Meanwhile, the students remaining on the campus premises detained 3 policemen and issued a communique in which they offered to exchange prisoners. The police refused the offer until the students threatened to burn down the National Archives located on campus. An exchange of prisoners was made and the university authorities declared the university closed until further notice. In Benin, university of Benin students did not allow themselves to be contained within the campus. First, they captured some policemen on campus and disarmed them. Next, they commandeered school buses and drove into Benin city. The police attempted to stop them as they mobilized city youths and unemployed workers. In the street battles that soon began, State owned vehicles were burnt and the police attacks neutralized. However, 200 students were arrested. The students and unwaged workers forced the police to exchange prisoners. Finally, the Military Governor of Bendel State offered to meet with the students and forward their demands to the Supreme Military Council. The University of Nigeria, Nsukka and the University of Jos were closed when police and students clashed. In Maiduguri, students from the University of Maiduguri marched into Maiduguri township and met with the Military Governor. Students detained 5 policemen and burnt 2 vehicles when they learnt of Ojo’s death in Lagos. They released the policemen when the Governor appealed to them. Peaceful demonstrations were held at the Abdullahi Bayero university, Kano, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, the Universities of Ilorin, Sokoto, Port harcourt, Calabar and the Kwara College of Technology.

The Federal State banned NUNS and established a judicial commission of enquiry into students struggles. NUNS rejected the commission’s terms of reference. The NUNS legal representative, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, was arrested by 50 armed policemen and accused of aiding a banned organization seeking the overthrow of the Nigerian military government. The students therefore formed the National Organization of Nigerian Students (NONS) and proceeded with their legal suit. NONS organized the release of Segun Okeowo, the president of the banned NUNS, by having him elected to the Constituent Assembly where he represented the interests of students. In August, 1978, the judicial commission finished its investigation. The Federal State carried out its recommendations and terminated the appointment of the Vice-Chancellors at the University of Lagos and the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. The Director of Health Services and the Student Welfare Officer at the University of Lagos were also dismissed. All university lecturers suspected of Marxist inclinations or socialist beliefs were dismissed. Two NUNS leaders were expelled and banned from seeking admission in any Nigerian university for 2 years. Other NUNS leaders were convicted on charges of arson, kidnapping and assault on policemen. These students were also expelled from their respective universities. NUNS funds were confiscated by the Federal State and the new student organization, NONS, was denied any recognition. Thus, the State attempted to decompose the power of university students as the leading sector of the unwaged. Despite the State’s repression, the new education policy of higher fees could not be implemented.

Four primary conclusions can be drawn from the above examination of the Ali must go struggle. First, violence was triggered by the repressive actions of the Police and Armed Forces. Secondly, the Nigerian ruling class was not able to decompose the power of the students, despite the violence and the banning of NUNS. Thirdly, the struggle of the students was for concrete economic self-development (lower fees and more scholarships). Finally, the students mobilized over many months and circulated their struggles among many campuses until it became a national movement . They presented a united front against the Federal government. They liked their struggles to that of the urban workers. These are lessons for today’s university students. Thus far, peaceful protests have happened on individual campuses. PBAT men have tried to seize control of the national executive of NANS and gunshots rang out during the NANS elections. It is time for Nigerian university students to mobilize and circulate their struggles from one campus to another, link up with workers, and engage the government on a national level. PBAT and his men should not be allowed to deprive Nigerian university students of the most powerful weapon they will need to change the world in future.


Izielen Agbon



January 15, 2024.



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