There isn’t a Student Representative Council at the University of Papua New Guinea when Nou Vada commences his studies in law in 2010 – the elected officeholders have been barred from taking up their office by a National Court injunction. But the freshman law student soon finds himself helping to organise students to take action against what they see as undemocratic actions by the National Parliament.
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The student body didn’t have a Student Representative Council (SRC) when I started my studies in 2010. This was because the elections that had been conducted for the council the year before had become the subject of litigation at the National Court. An injunction was placed on the occupation of the offices. As a result, for most of the year we had a caretaker SRC appointed by the University’s administration.
I was a freshman year law student, and it was in that year that I had my first experience in student activism. The Somare government had proposed amendments to the Leadership Code, which is a generic name given to a number of constitutional laws that set out basic ethical standards for leadership, and the machinery to uphold and enforce those standards.
The amendments had been dubbed the “Maladina Amendments” after Moses Maladina, the member of parliament who had proposed and become the chief proponent of these constitutional amendments.
In an environment without an SRC, a group of us banded together, and organised forums on campus. I was young and in equal parts impressed and uncertain about the overnight movement we had started. The forums were intense with nationalistic sentiment and driven by a sense that there were blatant injustices occurring in the halls of power at Waigani. We felt that we students were the chosen few who could bring these inequitable forces to light.
It didn’t help that I myself was a fan of the rock band U2, and was going through a particularly religious phase in my fandom, especially with their 80s and early 90s body of work. I remember giving an address to thousands of students, and reciting parts of the song New Year’s Day from their 1983 album War.
There is something about the Australian-inherited education system in Papua New Guinea that sustains the belief in PNG families and communities - as well as among university students themselves - that to be selected on merit to study in a PNG university is a hallmark of community leadership.
This representative role was something I considered long and hard, and I would often spend time attending student gatherings for people from different district and Local Level Government (LLG) areas – even for districts and LLGs I was not personally attached to. The cultural context changed in every meeting, but the over-arching narrative was always the same: we were the representatives of each of our remote communities, each of them cut off from the enormous beast that is Waigani - the seat of administration - and Port Moresby, the centre of business.
We were each ambassadors for our lowly villages to the great government and the marketplace.
I was always reluctant about the idea that we were all there at this campus, barely out of high school, and were all somehow the designated leaders of our people back home, who had dispatched each of us, often with community-wide feasts and fundraising efforts, to the faraway-but-so-close land of dreams and opportunities that was the city of Port Moresby and the Waigani Campus.
I would often wonder if communities did this out of some silent fear that we would forget them, and never return home. Reflecting on this today, I know this is true in many respects.
We marched to parliament, and even without effective networking with NGOs like Transparency International PNG, we were able to push the government into submission, and the amendments were abandoned.
Student protestors from the University of Papua New Guinea at Waigani, 2010.
Picture: Lukim Piksa PNG Blog
Success at activism was a beautiful feeling - and addictive.
Those of us who had been involved in one way or another at the forefront had earned for ourselves the name "lida" around campus.
It was a serious affair - and yet it was also wildly comical at the same time.
This article is the first 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. Read the next article in the series here.