Protests over renaming Nigeria university grow

Associated Press
A police officer carrying canisters of tear gas stands guard after a protest on the Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos, Nigeria, Wednesday, May 30, 2012.  Students from the University of Lagos and unemployed youths shut down the major bridge in Lagos on Wednesday while protesting a proposed name change for their university.  On Tuesday, President Goodluck Jonathan said the University of Lagos would be renamed Moshood Abiola University in honor of a political prisoner who died in jail over a decade ago. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)
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LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Commandeered buses blocked off the main bridge linking Nigeria's largest city Wednesday, stranding thousands of commuters as protesters took over the 12-kilometer (7½-mile) span to demonstrate against the country's president.

Their rage didn't focus on rampant government corruption, increasing terrorist attacks or massive unemployment in Africa's most populous nation. Instead, it came down to simply a name.

Students at the University of Lagos protested for a second day against a decision by President Goodluck Jonathan to rename the flagship school after a political prisoner who died in detention more than a decade ago. While acknowledging the country's other problems, students said they felt the name of their university remained one thing they did have power to protect in a nation where many expect so little from their elected leaders.

The protest ended peacefully several hours later.

"We as Nigerians, we know most of our leaders are incompetent. We are used to the system, the unemployment, the insecurity," said Agoben Tesky, a sociology student. "But (the university's name) should remain with us."

The protest began Wednesday morning after the students commandeered four city buses and used them to block both sides of the Third Mainland Bridge, the main highway linking Lagos to its islands where many businesses have their headquarters. Students waving palm fronds chanted in front of the buses as huge lines of traffic stretched back down the bridge in both directions.

At its height, more than a thousand people took part in the protest, some wearing student identification cards around their necks. Others were from the waterfront slums below the bridge.

Their anger remained focused on Jonathan's announcement Tuesday that the university would be renamed Moshood Abiola University. Abiola was a businessman widely believed to be the winner of a 1993 presidential poll annulled by military ruler Gen. Ibrahim Babangida. Babangida's successor, Gen. Sani Abacha, then jailed Abiola. The businessman died in custody just before Nigeria's military gave up control to the unsteady democracy the country of more than 160 million people has today.

Jonathan said Tuesday that the name change would honor Abiola's "martyrdom."

Some at Wednesday's protest said Abiola should not get the honor. Others said any of the country's numerous colleges and universities could bear his name.

The anger over the name comes amid terrorist attacks by a radical Islamist sect known as Boko Haram that have killed more than 530 people this year alone. Electricity still remains scarce in the country and power cuts remain common even at the University of Lagos, considered one of the nation's top schools. Meanwhile, billions of dollars in oil money get funneled to politicians and the country's business elite.

Members of the elite "send their children abroad to go to school," said Fredrick Bankole, an English student.

He later added: "You don't change Harvard to Michael Jackson University. You don't change Yale to Abraham Lincoln University."

Later Wednesday, the university declared a sudden two-week holiday, sending out a message telling students to leave their dormitories by noon. Many there protested and promised to remain.

While January protests over increased gasoline prices saw military and police use tear gas against demonstrators, Wednesday's bridge blockade ended peacefully. Mamman Tsafe, an assistant inspector general of Nigeria's federal police, calmly walked through the crowd and talked to the shouting and animated protesters, at times simply saying: "I accept your comment."

He also just smiled when a local gang member, wearing a woman's dress and a black wig, tried to embrace him.

"These are my children," Tsafe said as the buses prepared to pull away.

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Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap.

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