ASUU Strike and Nigerians’ Suicidal Silence

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National President of ASUU, Prof Abiodun Ogunyemi

Joseph Ushie is worried that Nigerians have not approached the ongoing ASUU strike with enough outspokenness

Since the beginning of the current strike by my union, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), in early November, 2018, very many disturbing thoughts and worries have invaded and held me hostage over the general state of affairs in my country, Nigeria. This and several other strikes by this Union have led me to very frightening conclusions and fears and sorrow about this country. The summary of all these is that each strike further dims the hope of a reversal of the drifting of this country to its final doom, its final apocalypse, its perdition, its damnation.

What most educated persons know is that no nation ever rises above the level of its quality of education. This is what all modern world economies know. The government and people of Britain know this, which was why their former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, when asked what his three priorities were, he answered, “1. Education! 2. Education! 3. Education!” And another, David Cameron, even as he decreased allocation to some sectors of his economy, increased the budget for education.

That is why most of the fast-developing economies of the world, both advanced and developing, both former colonial masters and colonies devote not less than UNESCO’s prescribed minimum of 26% of their annual budgets to education. It is this recognition that had taken India, Ghana, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa and others to where they are, far ahead of Nigeria.

Today, rich Nigerians, mostly those who have the opportunity to steal from the commonweal, shamelessly yank off their children from here into schools in Ghana, Malaysia, Benin Republic, the United States of America, Britain, Canada, South Africa and just anywhere else in the world into which economies they empty our nation’s treasure in exchange for the exclusive education of their children.

Yet, at every public outing, especially during their notorious political campaigns all the candidates lie competitively about their noble, laudable plans for education, which shows that they are indeed, like citizens of other countries, aware of the importance of good quality education as a necessary tool for the development of the country. Yet, while in office, none of them, right from the military era till date, has veered off this heinous treachery, this betrayal of the people to a patriotic and altruistic commitment to the cause of education in this country.

This is no accident at all. It is a well-planned, well executed scheme by the few rich in the country to fossilize even the progeny of the country into children of the rich and those of the poor. This began somehow innocuously through the mangling of education at the pre-tertiary level. Majority of those in government today attended public-, that is, government-funded primary and secondary schools, which were adequately funded to produce for the country an educated class that can hold its own anywhere in the world.
But in time, the evil spirit of capitalism set in with its destructive impulse. Teachers in the public schools were consciously reduced to paupers in terms of their welfare; facilities in these schools dried up as budgetary allocations to education thinned down.

Generally, the zeal and zest for hard work on this poor class of Nigerian workers waned and, ultimately, the public schools died a slow, painful, agonizing death only for them to reincarnate in the private primary and secondary schools to where the erstwhile seriousness of the public schools has been transferred.
But the question is, given the forbiddingly high fees of these schools, how many honest Nigerian civil servants, let alone the unemployed, can afford to send their children to these aristocratic schools? As such, through this system Nigeria’s successive governments have re-created through the education system in Nigeria the equivalents of the social class markers in apartheid South Africa where we had the Reserves and Soweto for the Blacks, and Pretoria, Johannesburg and other aristocratic cities for the Whites.

At the tertiary level, particularly the university, there have been two openings for the children of the affluent. These are education abroad for those who can afford it, or education in the fast-growing voraciously expensive private universities, while the children of the poor have remained in those public universities which, in this case, I will describe as the Soweto or Reserves for the ordinary Nigerian child.
However, the death of public universities in the country is being slowed down by the stoical, self-sacrificing and altruistic patriotism of one group of Nigerians who come under the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).

This is a union of scholars which, like any other trade union in the country, ought to be concerned only about its members’ welfare, and asking traditionally for increases in wages and allowances and ensuring job security for its members, as all other unions do.
But since the union has chosen to talk on behalf of the Sowetoed Nigerian class whose children can neither be sent abroad nor to the private universities in the country, the union has been marked for all kinds of humiliation and destruction by the country’s rich who make up every government.

It has thus become a war for survival between each thieving, aristocratic government and members of ASUU. Sometimes, and regularly, the government functionaries grab at the lean throats of the members by stopping their miserable salaries or sacking them altogether. But the pain, the real pain is that while this has been the case for decades now, those educationally Sowetoed Nigerians either do not know this or do not appreciate the Promethean role of ASUU or just simply do not care.

As such, they are usually among the very people used during each strike to condemn members of ASUU during each and every strike action to rescue the nation’s public universities from the lethal grip of the ruling aristocrats. Sadly, until recently, even fellow pilloried co-wayfarers in the vineyard of learning such students and vice-chancellors were often turned against the Union.
This is where Nigerians are shamefully different from Ghanaians. Right from independence, Ghanaians have insulated education from their politics such that any government, military or civilian, which tampers with the quality of the nation’s education would have imperiled itself, would have pitched itself against the rest of the Ghanaian citizenry, not just the teachers alone.

And that is why Ghana’s education system has survived till date in spite of that country’s similarities with Nigeria in many other ways. As a net result of the Ghanaians’ collective and communal watch over the affairs of their valued education sector, Nigeria’s aristocratic families routinely send their children there for learning, emptying our treasury into that of our more collectively conscious neighbour.
In 2005, I was in Malaysia when the results of one of the world rankings of universities were published, and Malaysia’s best university was 110 or so in the world as against an earlier position of 89. The entire country went wild with attacks on the government, particularly on the ministry of education to explain to Malaysians how that came about.

Suggestions of the sacking of the minister, the setting up of committees, etc., to review the nation’s university system filled their dailies. It was as if the country had been attacked by a foreign army. And I returned to Nigeria where everyone went about their business as usual even when no Nigerian university was among the best 6000 in the world going by same results on the rankings.
Right now, ASUU is again on another of its many self-denying strikes, and the sorrow that has come with it is immense. The sorrow and the worries and the anxieties stem from the fact that even some of those expected to fight on the side of the educationally Sowetoed Nigerians have joined the aristocracy, and these include personalities like Dr John Olukayode Fayemi, a relatively fresh convert from his erstwhile primary constituency as protector of the Sowetoed mass to the aristocracy as Governor of the learned Ekiti State.

At the very beginning of the current strike, this gentleman with the chameleon’s flexible colours rushed into condemnation of the action in order to please his new Lord in Aso Rock, who, incidentally, accepted blame for the strike on behalf of his government. A few of our colleagues have also displayed their loyalty to Aso Rock by giving ASUU knocks for going on strike, some of these querying the Union for not changing methods, as if ASUU had guns with which to plot coups.

The bad thing about sycophancy is that the sycophant or protégé often does not listen to those he wants to murder in the interest of his mentor. So, in all this, this class of the self-appointed spokespersons for the treacherous ruling class would feign ignorance of the many warnings, the many hundreds of letters, the many laborious press conferences the ASUU leadership would go through to get the government to listen ahead of the option of strike, by bringing up the inapplicable lame blame that the Union should “embrace dialogue”.

Yet, this is a situation in which, elsewhere in the world, the citizenry would have spontaneously risen as one against the government in order to end the educational Soweto-Pretoria dichotomy; but here, everyone goes about their businesses as usual while the public schools die a slow, painful death, with a huge vulture waiting for the dying public universities to finally fall.
In the recent past, not even the students who are the primary beneficiaries from ASUU’s altruistic, self-immolating struggles, used to appreciate the Union’s efforts as some of them, educational Sowetoed children, were armed with stones to throw at the Union while the Union engaged the aristocratic governments in some of its historic struggles for the soul of the nation’s public universities.

This is where a country ready for development is distinguished from that doomed to perdition. This is where Ghana and Malaysia and Singapore and even Rwanda hold the hope for their countries while Nigerians and Nigeria remain faithful to the same in government, who have tethered their children’s future to damnation.

And this is why, even as the Union is currently on strike over the poor funding of education in the country, the allocation to education in next year’s budget has been further punitively and spitefully slashed to 5.71, which is a far cry from UNESCO’S suggested minimum of 26%, which many fast-developing countries have even overreached. This is why none of these Nigerians would, now, advise the government against the 2019 consequences for education by the criminally low allocation to education in the budget for that year.

This is why some of us are sad and worried about the future of this country if indeed education is what determines the rate of growth of any nation. This is why I find in the current silence from Nigerians towards the ongoing ASUU strike a national suicide.

It must be a national suicide because, in the end, both the Soweto and the aristocratic beneficiaries from education would end up as members of same society with one group inhaling the smoke from the other in the forms of kidnapping, insurgency, armed robbery, ritual killings, drug addiction, begging and others.
And yet, at every public outing, the rich and powerful pay lips service to education while budgetary allocations to the sector diminish annually in order to create the large financial provision for sectors from which it is easy and lucrative to loot.

By our silence and indifference to ASUU’s perennial patriotic struggles to democratize education, Nigeria is certainly singing her swansong, is certainly arranging herself for cremation within the comity of other nations of the world, where our citizens will continue to be enslaved.
–––Professor Ushie wrote from the University of Uyo, Akwa Ibom State