Since the National Union of Nigerian Students was formed in the 1940s, student unions in Nigeria have been a major pressure group.
In the past, student unions were renowned for challenging government policies on education and other national issues, and they were generally considered credible.
In 1960, for instance, there was a student union protest against the federal government’s intended defense agreement with Great Britain, and the government eventually bowed to the pressure and cancelled the deal. When the military government annulled the presidential election in 1993, students also resisted the move and struggled to compel the government to restore.
Power changed hands in the federal government many times between the 1960s and the 1990s, but the unions remained a strong institution for a long time. However, at some point, politicians began to infiltrate the unions and subvert the leaders. Then the system cracked and began to lose credibility.
Presently, the rot in system has been widely observed. According to insiders, campaigns are financed dubiously, and election rigging is usual. Embezzlement and corruption are rampant, too, and administration lacks meaningful impact at all levels.
Most universities, polytechnics and colleges of education have their own student union. These unions are all affiliated to the National Association of Nigerian Students.
In each school, the student union (also called SUG) is usually composed of the Executive, the Legislative, and a Congress, which is the entire body of students.
At the start of a new session, elections are held and students vote for a new set of SUG leaders. Aspirants normally spend a huge sum to organize election campaigns. In some schools, an aspiring SUG president could spend one million naira or more on their election campaign.
Aspirants get some money from friends, family and other personal sources to finance their campaign. However, many aspirants get financial backing from external politicians who usually intend to gain the favor of the students on that campus.
While in office, SUG leaders get to interact with top officials within the school administration, the corporate sector and the political system. This gives the students the opportunity to make important connections and ingratiate themselves with powerful contacts. It is like laying a foundation for future political or career ambitions.
Also, in case of misconduct, the Congress is the supreme organ of the union. Any decision made by it is final. Students can dismiss and call for the punishment of a corrupt union leader through a simple majority. However, this hardly happens. Many ordinary students are apathetic about political affairs, because they believe the system is compromised already and that it would be fruitless to take part in such political meetings.