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“Authoritarian and impulsive”: Union Officers speak out against Ahmad Nawaz as members prepare to vote

Freya Jones and Isaac Ettinghausen report.

As President of the Oxford Union, Ahmad Nawaz, faces a vote on the future of his presidency, multiple senior members of his committee, including the Secretary, Librarian-elect, Treasurer-elect, and Chair of Consultative Committee, have spoken out against his leadership. 

Last week Cherwell reported that Nawaz’s lack of attendance at three meetings of the Union’s Access committee would trigger an automatic resignation unless he could provide a valid reason and collect enough signatures to bring the matter to the house. While successfully gathering the signatures, Nawaz argued that his absence from the meetings was due to “infectious or debilitating disease”. However, on one day when he claimed to have missed a meeting because of illness, he was later seen attending a dinner and speaking at a debate. Tim Green, the Union’s Senior Access Officer, said: “If [his disease] was infectious, then the president was knowingly endangering those around him. If it was disabling, then the speed of his recovery was remarkable given that just a few hours later he was able to make a 10-minute speech to a packed house.”

Daniel Dipper, the Oxford Union’s Librarian (vice-president) provided Cherwell with an on-record statement on the President’s absences, before requesting its retraction.

Ahmad Nawaz told Cherwell: “The role of President is extremely time-consuming, often with multiple speaker meetings, events and internal meetings in the same day which is why I have had to miss parts of earlier internal meetings this term. It is clearly absurd that illness is not deemed an acceptable reason for an absence with a grossly disproportionate penalty.

“It was an oversight that I had not passed earlier due to the fact that this term has been extremely busy. I did then bring my absences to the Access Committee and it was here that a member objected. This same individual had passed her own absence on the very same grounds, the previous week. This level of hypocrisy is completely unacceptable in any setting but is certainly not what members should expect from an elected committee.”

Following objections to Nawaz’s illness excuse, a vote on whether to accept his explanation and thus cease the automatic resignation will take place by secret ballot on Thursday. All Union members will be able to vote, although some of the committee have said it will only be open to those issued with voter tokens on the door of the chamber debate at 8:30pm.

Nawaz, meanwhile, claimed in a Facebook post that individuals from the committee are choosing to enact “nasty political ploys” against him. However, many members of the committee maintain that their complaints go beyond the failure to attend meetings and are a result of Nawaz’s leadership style as a whole.

The Union’s Secretary, Matthew Dick, said: “There have been countless times when he has failed to turn up to some of the more manual jobs such as moving benches or termcards, leaving Junior Committee demoralised and showing a disregard for the people who make his term and ultimately the glory he receives happen.”

The Librarian-Elect, Disha Hegde, said: “The President has shown a repeated failure to do the job that he was elected to do. From missing several meetings – without providing any reason, a failure to provide budgets when required to do so, and a failure to work a single shift during the membership drive. He has, however, shown up to every free debate dinner and drinks reception – which are all financed from the members’ money”. 

Nawaz said in response that the claim about his failure to work a single shift during the membership drive is “false” and that under Rule 14(b)(i) it is the responsibility of the President-Elect to organise the membership drive. He added that under Standing Order C1, “the Sitting Junior Offices are obliged to attend each Presidential Dinner and shall dine free of charge.”

As previously reported by Cherwell, the The Union’s Access Committee meets every Thursday and the President is obliged to attend. Failure to turn up on three occasions triggers an automatic resignation unless a valid reason for absence can be given. Under Union rule 23 (c)(ii)(2), “Any member of any Committee… having missed three ordinary meetings of that Committee without good reason in the same term, shall be deemed to have submitted his resignation from that Committee.”

The Chair of the Consultative Committee (a senior position within the organisation), Chloe Glynn, also told Cherwell: “It’s embarrassing for a President who is supposed to represent so many, to care so little about one of our most diverse committees. … There are many who have worked hard for him on different occasions and felt they did not receive the praise and rewards they deserved whilst a select few continuously seem to be at debate dinners.”

Committee members told Cherwell that Nawaz has given a group of personal friends  (“the Donnies”) a high number of privileges inside the Union. 

Image from the Michaelmas Term 2022 termcard of the Oxford Union.

Beau Boka-Batesa, an elected member of the Secretary’s committee, said: “The peer nepotism is quite blatant, which meant tensions were present in Union premises.”

Nawaz told Cherwell: “All appointments were made on merits through interviews and were ratified by the standing committee as per Rule 31 (e)(vi) without any objections from any member of the standing committee.”

Danial Hussain, a member of Nawaz’s college, Lady Margaret Hall, was appointed Director of Research. As the committee member responsible for researching questions to ask speakers, he was criticised by Standing Committee member Hannah Edwards in the 5th week Committee meeting for “asking people to write questions, when the point of this job is to write these questions”. Hegde claimed that she was asked to write questions for Nawaz’s guest AJ Tracey – a highlight of the term’s speaker schedule – the day before the talk.

Confronted with this claim, Nawaz told Cherwell: “I would refer you to the minutes of Standing Committee in 5th week where Danial’s efforts were praised by the Librarian who said he felt “quite prepared” and cited the “performance improvement” in the Union because he “always had the questions 24 hours in advance”.”

Two friends of Nawaz were specifically invited by Nawaz to the meet and greet with tennis legend Billie Jean King on Tuesday. When Cherwell reporters asked how they had procured an invite, one of them simply replied “a bit of nepotism”.

An elected member of the Secretary’s committee who resigned early in term, Kajaanan Vijitharan, told Cherwell: “The main reason [for my resignation] was that I could not justify serving under a President whom I believed to be morally reprehensible. One example that comes to mind is, when the motion ‘This House Believes Woke Culture Has Gone Too Far’ was proposed, multiple members of committee … raised to the President’s attention that the motion pandered to a right-wing ideology. Similar sentiments were shared by invited guests who refused to speak on the motion for this very reason …. In response, the President only cared about the media attention such a debate would receive, for narcissistic reasons, and not about the quality of debate at the Oxford Union.”

These sentiments were echoed by the Standing Committee member Spencer Shia, who said: “I have seen the President not take disagreement and criticism very well, often assuming a very litigious posture and not seeking to understand the opposing party’s position or to explain his own. … It is my view that the President’s authoritarian and impulsive management style has led to a breakdown in committee morale and cohesion.”

Nawaz disputes these claims, telling Cherwell that “No members of the committee raised concerns about this motion to me. The debate motions for this term were voted on by the entire committee and all the debate speakers for the term were sent to the Standing Committee for approval. This was received with no objections. The purpose of the Oxford Union Society is the advancement of education and upholding freedom of speech which naturally entail debating complex and challenging motions.”

Disha Hegde added that “a repeated failure to care about access within the Society, or the basic requirements of the job you have rusticated to do is an insult to the rest of committee and to the members.”

Asked about the vote, Nawaz told Cherwell: “I care deeply about this society. I believe that my committee and I have delivered a solid lineup of events and ask the members to consider the effort that goes into a line up of speakers and debates such as this. I would also ask for the members’ understanding that this role can be extremely demanding and exhausting. I do regret that I had to miss occasional meetings but assure members that this was indeed due to illness and ask for their understanding when debating whether or not to consider this as a reasonable excuse. Thank you.”

The Union’s 6th Week debate motion will be “This House Believes Woke Culture has gone too far”. The vote on whether Nawaz is fit to carry out the remainder of his term as President will take place that same evening.

Image credit: Meghana Geetha / US Department of State.

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