In the final article in this series, Nou Vada reflects on what he has learned from his time in student politics, and provides advice to future students thinking of getting involved in activism. While many of his contemporaries are going on to pursue careers in politics, he finds it has also given him good guidance for his career in the law.
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My student politics days are behind me now and I work as an insurance lawyer at a law firm in Port Moresby. In my spare time, some friends and I work on a proof-of-concept for a blockchain project for decentralized insurance applications.
Politics has become a distant memory for me, except on social media. It has been interesting to see how many of my circle of ‘lida’ friends from UPNG pursued careers in politics at the 2017 elections. Some succeeded – most did not, at least for now.
- George Sikin came in second for Manus Regional;
- Laken Lepatu Aigilo ran for Enga Regional;
- Reinbo Paita ran for Finschaffen Open and won;
- Bobby Yupi ran for Koroboa Lake-Kopiago Open;
- Lazarus Towa ran for Moresby North-West;
- Albert Kamane ran for NCD Regional;
- Songo Nore ran for Henganofi Open;
- Mek Hepela ran for Enga Regional;
- Bill Minjikul ran for Kandep Open; and
- Peter Numu – our former SRC president - ran for Eastern Highlands Regional and won.
It is tempting to conclude that student activism is just a part of the cycle of politics in PNG.
This may – in some respects – hold true.
The current Prime Minister, and a notable number of his ministers and close advisors were once UPNG student leaders. They no doubt went through many of the same experiences my friends and I went through.
As someone who went through that process and came out with no ambitions for a life in national politics, I can say that student activism can be an important part of a Papua New Guinean student’s development as a responsible person after university.
Nou Vada on a visit to Japan as SRC representative.
Photo supplied: Nou Vada
The triumphs, the failures, the campaigns, the comradery, the emotions and all that happens in between are lessons that inform our sense of what is right and just, what is wrong and unconscionable, and what is equitable and fair in a personal relationship, at the workplace, in development and industry, in art and science, in philosophy, in policy and jurisprudence and society at large. Civics and Ethics often take a backseat to communal, tribal and kin needs and aspirations in this country. This often leads to cronyism, nepotism and unacceptable conduct in the corridors of power, in the country. And so the experience of standing together with other young Papua New Guineans against unjust and unfair actions of the big-man infested Government - even if only for a few days in a lifetime - can be a positively life-changing experience.
For current and future university students, I think there are five general principles one should observe when participating in student activism in PNG:
Know your issues - Do extensive research on the issue at hand. Do not rely on the opinion of a politician or even an NGO. Arrive at your own conclusion, with community consensus from the student body, and regard for the rule of law. Remember that politics in PNG is unpredictable, and enemies one day become friends the next. We have seen this with the recent shift of PANGU Pati to the Government. Utilize your UPNG faculty members to gain opinions and third-party views. Do not just bullishly consider your own opinion, but understand opposing opinions as well, and always engage in meaningful dialogue. If a line of dialogue does not add value to your stated aims, abandon it.
Respect your adversary - Remember that the politician on the other side of the debate is a human being. Respect must always remain. Nothing good is ever gained from taking away the humanity of the people whose decisions and policies you are challenging. Once that line is crossed, any sincere civil society movement is capable of doing terrible and unacceptable things. The case of the innocent Southern Highlands student who was murdered by student protestors at Unitech in 2016 is a sad example of what happens when a movement gets too caught up in attacking the personality of a politician instead of their policies and politics.
Compromise where you can - Do not be unreasonable about the outcomes you can achieve with the resources you have, especially as leaders and community organisers. If your initial activism results in meaningful dialogue, then that is a victory. If your activism results in a Supreme Court Reference or a Judicial Review, that is a victory. Our strategy in 2012 to shut down the Judicial Conduct Act initially started out with the goal of having parliament repeal the legislation. We achieved our goal by getting political actors to refer it to the courts, which nullified it.
Former SRC President Peter Numu successfully campaigned in the 2017 election
Photo: PNG One Nation Party/Facebook
Stand your ground where you cannot compromise - As long as your position does not compromise your education, and that there is a clear path forward for completion of studies, hold your ground on what you think ought to be done to rectify the issue that you are organising against. If your message is coherent and your stance is not politically compromised, you will have widespread public support and real political support, even within the ranks of your opponents.
Don’t jeopardise your studies under any circumstance - Never plan a mass withdrawal. Never carry out your causes to a point where you cannot cope with your studies. That part about students being representatives of their remote villages is true. Each of you carries a tribe's hopes and dreams.
The author speaking to students at the University of Papua New Guinea
Photo supplied: Nou Vada
And, to finish - I don’t know if I could have held myself together through some of the more difficult times in the various matters I was involved in as a student leader and activist, had I not been able to laugh off some of the uglier, frustrating and hurtful experiences along the journey.
So, my final piece of advice is that it is always important to have a sense of humour about things.
This article is the final in a series based on a speech that the author gave to students at the University of Papua New Guinea in 2017 in conjunction with Transparency International Papua New Guinea. Previous instalments have covered the author’s experiences in 2010, 2011 and 2012, as well as his election as SRC Vice President in 2013.