Shakira Martin has been the subject of a series of bullying complaints made over the past few daysNUS UK

The National Union of Students (NUS) exploded into all-out conflict last night, with president Shakira Martin saying she “will not be silenced” following allegations that she has harassed and abused officers and staff members.

The NUS has now confirmed that it is investigating complaints made on social media about Martin’s conduct, and that of other officers.

NUS women’s officer Hareem Ghani has told Varsity the full details of her allegations, first made on Saturday, saying she believes Martin should be suspended from the organisation. Ghani told Varsity there “needs to be an honest discussion about the atmosphere of bullying, intimidation and manipulation that exists within this institution”.

Her words were echoed by several other senior NUS members, with two elected officers and two members of the organisation’s political executive offering strong criticisms of her leadership.


Mountain View

NUS President accused of bullying and comparing criticism to domestic abuse

In a statement posted on Facebook on Tuesday, Martin said she had been “baited and provoked on purpose” by “those who claim to support working class black women like myself but would happily push me to the limit and watch me break.”

In a Facebook Live video posted the previous day, Martin had said that “people are spreading lies” and claiming to be the victim of classist and racist discrimination.

Separately, Varsity has received a leaked audio clip, apparently showing Martin in a very distressed and confrontational state in a meeting of senior NUS figures. In the recording, from December, Martin says “I have nothing fucking left”, and claims she has no money and has been unable to see her children. Afterwards, the NUS’s CEO can be heard calming members, and describing the situation as “distressing” for all involved, including Martin.

There is now once again an open rift between factions within the NUS’s leftist and centrist sections ahead of its annual conference, with three of the organisation’s twelve non-regional sabbatical officers publicly speaking out against Martin, joined by several members of its main board of scrutiny.

In the past four days:

  • The NUS women’s officer, Hareem Ghani, alleged that president Shakira Martin had “reduced staff and officers to tears” and called for her suspension, saying she has filed a complaint.
  • The NUS parents and carers’ representative, Deej Malik-Johnson, alleged Martin had been allowed to “harass and bully volunteers” and claimed that the president used Malik-Johnson’s daughter “as a knife to my throat to comply with her agenda”.
  • The NUS LGBT+ officer, Noorulann Shahid, claimed Martin’s presence produced an “unsafe” and “toxic” environment.
  • An NUS National Executive Council (NEC) member, Myriam Kane, alleged that Martin had harassed her on social media.
  • An NUS NEC member, Amelia Horgan, claimed that the NUS was “not functioning” and referred to fear of bullying as a deterrent to members getting involved in the organisation.
  • Martin responded on Facebook, claiming “People are spreading lies about me, saying that I’m a bully. I’m a bully hater. I am far from a bully”, and saying she intends to stand for re-election as NUS president.

In a statement, the NUS told Varsity: “As chair of the NUSUK board, Shakira Martin has called for the complaints on social media to be investigated. These complaints and others are now under investigation and as an interim measure to protect all parties, all officers will be working from home this week.”

Explained What is the NUS?

The National Union of Students (NUS) is a confederation of students’ unions, including over 600 university and college unions.

The group aims to represent the interests of students at a national level, in particular to lobby the government on issues relating to student finance, rights, and welfare. Notably, it has campaigned in the past to reduce tuition fees, implement votes for 16-year-olds, and to encourage universities to divest from fossil fuels.

The NUS also provides services to its member unions, including publishing guidance on issues such as sexual harassment. Students can also purchase an NUS extra card which provides discounts to students at a range of outlets across the UK.

In spring each year, NUS national conference elects a new set of officers to lead the organisation. These posts have one year terms, but officers can stand for re-election.

The organisation has been the centre of controversy in recent years, with last year’s president, Malia Bouattia, accused of anti-semitism. Her tenure saw several member students’ unions disaffiliate in protest.

The University of Cambridge narrowly voted to stay in the NUS in a referendum held by CUSU in May 2016, with 51.52% voting to remain.

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The explosive and public row marks a return to political crisis for the NUS, which was caught for most of the past two years in an extended internal battle surrounding its former president Malia Bouattia, who was accused of anti-Semitism. Martin, formerly NUS vice-president for further education, defeated Bouattia in an election last April. In her victory speech, she vowed to spend her time in office “listening, learning and leading”.

The accusations arrive as campaigning begins in earnest for the NUS’s upcoming officer elections, to be held at its conference in late March. At the conference, delegates from affiliated students’ unions from around the country gather to vote on NUS policy, and to elect its officers for the coming year. Cambridge will send six delegates this year.

NUS women’s officer Hareem Ghani told Varsity of an “atmosphere of bullying, intimidation and manipulation”NUS UK

Responding to allegations on Monday night, Martin said: “I am not what people make me out to be, it is election season, they are coming for me.”

Yesterday, Sahaya James, a candidate from the NUS’s far-left and a national committee member of the National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts (NCAFC), announced that she intends to run against Martin at the upcoming conference, declaring herself “the left’s candidate for NUS President.”

Under Martin’s leadership, the NUS has moved away from demonstration-orientated action, instead pushing for more incremental reforms to higher education by lobbying the government directly.

Explained Factions in the NUS

The NUS is loosely split into four main factions. From the left to the right of the political spectrum, these are considered to be: National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), Liberation Left, Organised Independents (OIs) and National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS).

In last year’s election, Shakira Martin and her slate, which included former CUSU president Amatey Doku (now NUS vice-president for higher education), were backed mostly by OIs and NOLS. They are largely set to back her again in the upcoming election in March.

Martin’s agenda has attempted to push the NUS towards working more closely with students’ unions and the government, and has put less emphasis on public demonstrations.

Last year’s president Malia Bouattia was primarily backed by the two more left-wing factions, and emphasised direct action as a means for change.

Sahaya James, who announced her candidacy for NUS president on Monday, is a senior member of the NCAFC.

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Since she took up her role last summer, the organisation has largely avoided public disputes, though it received a setback when none of its officers were chosen for the board of the Office for Students, the government’s new higher education regulator.

Some on the left of the NUS have criticised Martin for not pushing hard enough for free tuition fees, and she has also been criticised in recent days for not demonstrating strong support for impending UCU-led staff strikes. A joint NUS–UCU statement was released today, in which the NUS expressed its “full solidarity” with those set to strike.

It appeared too late to stop senior ranks of the NUS falling apart. On Saturday, Ghani, who is in her second term as organisation’s women’s officer, accused Martin of using “deeply dangerous” words and of “bullying”, after the president compared criticism of her stance on a anti-gentrification campaign to her experiences of domestic abuse.

This also followed a Facebook video posted Martin on Tuesday 23rd January, in which she condemned those talking down the work of students’ unions, citing the students’ union at her former college, Lewisham Southwark College, as a reason for her still being alive.

She also said she was glad to have pushed the NUS to the political centre, and accused her critics of pretending “like they know about the struggle”, saying “everybody wants to be working class and broke these days.”

‘Atmosphere of bullying, intimidation and manipulation’

The public acrimony of the past four days was first prompted by NUS women’s officer Hareem Ghani, who became the first senior officer to publicly challenge Martin following comments the president made comparing criticism to domestic abuse.

Ghani has detailed to Varsity her full allegations against Martin, which include:

  • Sending foul-mouthed rants in voice notes to officers
  • Reducing staff and officers to tears
  • Making gun signs at officers with whom she disagrees
  • Throwing out motions with which she disagrees
  • Threatening to beat someone up during an office Christmas party
  • Shouting and swearing at officers during meetings and conversations

She also claims that “officers have resorted to entering NUS HQ in pairs, because they are afraid to be alone with Shakira Martin” and has called for Martin to be suspended.

Describing Martin’s leadership style as “authoritarian”, Ghani continued: “There needs to be an honest discussion about the atmosphere of bullying, intimidation and manipulation that exists within this institution”, which she claims is fuelled by the “manipulative” president.

Ghani said that she had submitted evidence as part of an internal complaint into Martin’s behaviour, which could not be released to Varsity as it would be discounted if made public before the conclusion of the complaints procedure.

“The only reason I decided to air my grievances publicly was because her behaviour over the last two months has escalated, and it has been a breaking point for many officers and NEC members,” Ghani said.

“I have less than six months left in this organisation and I refuse to let things continue on as they are,” she added.

However, Ghani said that she has “no faith in the system” and that she does not believe that the NUS will “respond effectively” to her complaint, which will be handled internally according to NUS’s code of conduct.

“The sheer fact that things have been allowed to progress this far is a testament to how broken this system is.”

’If we’re going to have the big talk of ‘kicking the bullies out’, let’s start at the top’

On Sunday evening, an NUS NEC member, Myriam Kane, published a post on Facebook in which she said the previous three months had been “extremely hard to cope with”, alleging Martin had told her she was “not important” and had harassed on her Facebook page. Kane included screenshots on Twitter of comments by Martin apparently mocking Kane’s beneath her Facebook posts.

The following evening, NUS parents and carers’ representative Deej Malik-Johnson claimed that Martin had refused to write a character reference for him to help him see his estranged daughter because he was “on the wrong side” of the political divide, after he attended a rally for free education.

Martin (centre left) with successful candidates from last yearNUS UK

Malik-Johnson said he received a phone call from Martin saying they were “enemies”. In his Facebook post, reposted on Twitter, he labelled Martin a “bully”.

“Shakira Martin talks a big game about driving the bullies out, about being a Black working class parent in the movement and about this new era we are supposedly living in where students come together in unity. I call bullshit,” he said.

“Shakira has demonstrated endless times this year that Shakira only cares about what helps Shakira. For all the tweets, posts and live videos about the membership – when push came to shove Shakira attempted to use my daughter as a knife to my throat to comply with her agenda.”

He ended his post by saying: “If we’re going to have the big talk of ‘kicking the bullies out’, let’s start at the top.”

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In response to the post by Malik-Johnson, NUS black students’ officer, Ilyas Nagdee, condemned Martin’s alleged behaviour, tweeting: “To use a difficult scenario like this as political leverage is one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen in my time in the student movt”.

NUS NEC member Amelia Horgan, a former CUSU women’s officer, told Varsity that the NUS was “not functioning” and alleged that “many officers and volunteers do not feel able to participate in democratic events and structures for fear that they will be bullied or spoken down to.”

On Monday evening, one senior NUS LGBT+ officer, Noorulann Shahid, tweeted in reference to Malik-Johnson’s allegations, calling Martin’s behaviour “absolutely abhorrent”. Shahid also referenced experiencing “nearly [having] a panic attack” on the way to a meeting at the NUS offices due to anxiety that Martin might be present, calling such an environment “unsafe” and “toxic”.

NUS CEO Simon BlakeNUS UK/Benny J Johnson

An audio clip leaked to Varsity of a meeting of senior NUS officers and staff shows further tensions within the organisation. In the clip, which is dated to last Thursday, Martin launches into a tirade against those present, apparently prompted by criticism she had received on Twitter.

One member of the meeting asks Martin to calm down and have an “open and frank discussion”, but Martin shouts back: “Are you taking the fucking piss?” she continues, noting her financial difficulties and saying work limits her ability to see her two children.

After Martin speaks, one person, who the leaker identified as NUS CEO Simon Blake, attempts to diffuse the situation and tells those present that they may take time out or leave, calling it “not a situation any of us want to be in”.

In a statement posted on Facebook on Tuesday, Martin said she had been “recorded in my own workplace by those who claim to support working class black women like myself but would happily push me to the limit and watch me break”.

‘All I’m asking for is a little bit of respect’

Martin responded to critics on Monday night, in an emotional public live video posted on her Facebook account.

In it, she said “I know there’s certain people out here that want to see me fail”, adding “I wanna let everybody know that I love my job”.

Martin told critics “The real flipping enemy is the Tory government”NUS UK/Benny J Johnson

“I didn’t realise what was going on, and the type of political things people would use just because there’s elections,” she said. “People are spreading lies about me, saying that I’m a bully. I’m a bully hater. I am far from a bully. But guess what? I will never be silenced.”

During the 32-minute video, Martin said that she had considered resigning from her role that day, but vowed to run for president again at the upcoming NUS conference.

“Today I was going to stand down, I was going to resign. Because I was like if people want this so much, you can have it. Because it’s bigger than NUS, it’s bigger than the left, it’s bigger than the right, whatever this fucking means,” she said.

Martin admitted she has told people “to shut the F up”, but called for unity and respect, saying “The real flipping enemy is the Tory government”.

Alluding to the allegations of bullying, Martin insisted: “I am not aggressive, I’m not rude, I am just me. And I can’t be anybody else.”

“Please do not be clouded by anybody’s judgement. It’s election season, and people want me out. I don’t know why, I don’t know what I’ve done, I don’t know why people hate me so much, but it seems by any means necessary people will do what they can,” she said.

“I love my membership, I love my job, and I know my mission, and I know my purpose,” Martin said.

Her defence continued in a statement posted on Facebook the day after the video. Although she did not feel comfortable nor safe, Martin reiterated her desire to continue her term as President.

“I know this is a broadchurch [sic] and not all students agree or have the same ideas about how I should do my job,” she said. “Unfortunately within the movement and the walls of NUS the values we hold so dear and even cover our walls with are not upheld.”

“I have a duty and a responsibility to the membership to create a vision and shape a political environment that is free of petty tit for tat or personal attacks for political gain.”

  • This article was updated on Thursday 1st January after the date of the recording referenced was revealed by The Guardian.
  • This article was updated on Wednesday 31st January to include further reference to Martin’s statement on Facebook.

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