The “All or Nothing” Dialogues of University Protests in Papua New Guinea

One reader of the first part of this series: “Investigating the Underlying Causes of Student Riots in PNG Universities” Mr. Johnathan Reef, left the following comment below:

“The highlighted issues are not worth boycotting classes & resorting to violence & vandalism over. These should be discussed with UOG management & education dept. It’s always the same story of a few intimidating others. Be more respectful of others. I wonder how these future teachers will lead their students & school?”

Factor Nº 1 - PNG University Protests being used as Platforms for Launching Political Careers. 

It has been observed by many that the most critical and underlying reason for the “All or Nothing” type of student protests, strikes and boycotts especially at the University Of Goroka is caused by student leaders using their final year of University to launch political careers.

The University of Goroka is predominantly a teacher training institution. And most trained teachers are faced with the prospect of having to teach in public schools, some located in very remote parts of Papua New Guinea. 

For those who have come to UOG genuinely interested in becoming professionals in the education industry, the possibility of starting their careers from very humble beginnings may be a normal part of their career progression. 

But for others who have used this path as a highway into political notoriety, the time to start acting on becoming famous is during the 4th year of a teaching degree. 
For those people who have this motive, the best time to launch a political campaign is obviously one year before a PNG election year. 

Let’s face it, the best time to have maximum attention when launching a political career is from the comfort of campus life - preferably at the UOG and not from a remote and rural school especially one where there is no Digicel tower.

Not everyone is able to have a perfectly timed degree program, where the launching of a cheap political campaign coincides with the final year of a degree.

For instance one protest happened in 2013 and so no doubt, the protest leader there unluckily just missed the political elections which happened the year before.

Another interlocutor I spoke with eloquently replied that: 

“The final year at university provides a last chance to gain national public attention and to engage with national political actors, for preparing their own platform for national election campaigns, before taking up a post as teacher… in a school somewhere in PNG from where entering national politics (would) be much harder.” 

The source also points out the logic behind this reasoning:

“This explains why student leaders are systematically subverting all attempts at dialogue and to finding solutions, and deliberately seek escalation to force national political actors to come "down to them," as they say. Or, if they don't come, student leaders travel to Moresby to seek audiences with the politicians they like to meet, which happened in 2010 and 2013. A number of 2010 boycott leaders stood for elections in 2012 and didn't fare badly despite low resource campaigns, some of them will be back to the ballots in 2017, and I expect those from the 2013 and recent boycotts may join. Students at university are constantly groomed as future national 'elite' and 'leaders', and they take their chances to become that in the pathways that contemporary PNG politics open up for them.”

The most popular slogan used by SRC leaders to incite student uprisings and riots at the UOG is as we know it: “Remove the Vice Chancellor”. Despite the fact that this already seems to be a very tired slogan, it is the most dramatic slogan available to people with very little or no experience in public management and without the big budgets required for a more elaborate political campaign.

The perception around Goroka town is that the students riots of UOG are often led by “Upper Highlanders” but this is not always so. The first phase in launching a political career is to vie for presidency of the Students Representative Council (SRC). Some years, the student body elects a genuine SRC president who does the work of liaising between the student body and the university administration. But in most years, students are stuck with a person with political motives that are looking beyond campus. And for this, the person, usually an alpha male from any region, he has to compete with other alpha males for the top student spot at a university. Once an ambitious political campaigner has achieved the SRC post, then they may move on from campus onto the national political arena. The 2010 protest was led by a very charismatic Eastern Highlander, and the 2013 uprising was led by a student from Morobe.

“There are two sets of students pulling off a boycott, those doing the talking and "leading" the boycott, usually final year students from all over PNG with apparent political aspirations, and those enforcing compliance among students. The latter set is dubbed the "pressure group" by students, usually comprised of younger students and mostly from the Eastern Highlands - indeed they operate with reference to a specific notion of "papa graun" that appears to legitimise their patrolling of students' movement (or at least makes any attempt to resist them appear futile for a non-local), usually in small squads armed with sticks, forcing students to leave dormitories to attend assemblies and rallies or to prevent students from leaving the campus."

As a female student has reported this week:

Every day during the boycott, we are made to attend meetings. The entire student body is forced to come out to a place where the “enforcers” are able to make sure that we are not attending classes” 

In the next part in this series, let us explore the role that the UOG administration may add to the turmoils of campus life.

Martin Maden