How to End ASUU’s Perennial Strikes

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Professor Joseph Ushie

My attention has been drawn to a two-week ultimatum issued supposedly to both the Federal Government of Nigeria and the members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) by the President of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), Danielson Akpan, to end the current strike by the lecturers, failing which the students would take certain actions to force an end to the strike.

In the report, the NANS President has clearly inclined himself to the side of the federal government by suggesting that the lecturers have something to hide, which is why they would not encourage NANS’ participation in the talks or whatever is going on between the government and the lecturers. The president is further reported to have threatened the lecturers to pay back, either to the students or to the government the salaries being paid them during the strike period, even when highly placed Nigerians outside the orbit of the university system, including the eminent lawyer, Femi Falana, have condemned government’s attempt at stopping the salaries of the lecturers over the current strike.

As a member of ASUU, I was initially shocked and astounded that a Nigerian student, let alone a student leader, could go this far in shooting himself and the Nigerian university system in the leg; but when I remembered the story in one of Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’O’s beautiful narratives, my anger simmered down and turned into deep pity not only for this species of students but also for the Nigerian educational system as a whole. In the narrative by Ngugi a boy asked his father who was more dangerous in society, the thief or the witch? The father explained by telling the son a story of one community that was afflicted by all kinds of calamities. In time the community assembled and agreed on bringing a medicine man to divine the cause of the afflictions. The medicine man arrived late in the night and had to pass the night before getting down to his task the following day. But when he woke the following morning, a thief had stolen his bag in which he had put all the things he needed for the operation. His mission thus failed since he was rendered impotent and incapable of fighting the afflictions of his client-community.

This story was what calmed me down when I reflected on the NANS president’s reported vituperations, threats and insults targeting the lecturers. Simply, the successive governments of our country have effectively weaponised ignorance through their perennial strangulation of public schools, a result of which even a typical Nigerian university student has had his thinking faculty so hopelessly mangled. In other words, many of our students have been rendered cerebrally impotent such that all we can hear from some of them is echolalia of thinly veiled government position on a matter that they ought to champion as members of the Nigerian university community. To start with, the NANS president is angry that ASUU discourages students’ participation in talks with government. Here, we find the first sign of reasoning failure. ASUU is a registered trade union. As the doctors’ or nurses’ or lawyers’ or oil workers’ unions have the public as clients to serve, ASUU has students as its primary clients.

How many times in this country have doctors or nurses brought in patients into their negotiations or talks with any government? Or, how many times have the oil workers brought in all who fill their cars or containers at filling stations to join in negotiations with their employers? When, in this country, have members of the Nigerian Bar Association brought their clients to join in their negotiations with any authorities? A student whose mental potency is intact would not have contemplated such a suggestion, and if any government suggested it, any discerning student would have politely turned it down. But here we are having Danielson Akpan, the current NANS President, asking what ASUU is hiding by not bringing students to the talks with government. It does not matter to this president that the President of the country, Mohammadu Buhari has repeatedly owned up that ASUU is right about going on strike. Neither does it matter to him that many years before him, what ASUU is fighting for were what student unions fought for, while lecturers went about their business from a safe distance.

Perhaps, like many Nigerians, the NANS president forgets that ASUU, as a registered trade union, has squarely its members’ welfare as its primary objective, and the union would be quite in order to pursue this and only this objective without reference to any other extraneous issues. That is essentially what other unions do. How many times have members of the Nigerian Medical Association gone on strike because there are no stethoscopes or syringes or beds in hospitals? How many times have members of the Nigeria Union of Journalists gone on strike because the voices of the poor are not adequately represented in the news or that there are not enough facilities in radio or television stations? But because of its concern for the total health of the nation’s deep concern about, and commitment to, the total health of the nation’s university education system, the union always carries this along, sometimes to the displeasure of some colleagues within the fold who feel other components of the university community -students, non-teaching colleagues, principal officers, for example – should also share in the burden of crying over poor facilities on the campuses. ASUU religiously adds this to its demands, not because it is the union’s constitutional responsibility, but just as a patriotic and altruistic action to ensure that government-funded universities are not allowed to die as the public-funded primary and secondary schools have died. As such, it would be quite legitimate even if ASUU’s talks or troubles with government centred only on its members’ welfare.

But if the above were the case, if ASUU were to narrow its demands down to just its members’ needs, it looks like the lecturers would have been faring better. For instance, a major issue in the current talks with government is government’s failure to release anything out of the initial N1.3 trillion that government was to give for a period of over six years towards the provision of infrastructures and facilities such as student hostels, laboratories and lab equipment, lecture halls, libraries and books, staff offices, etc.

Of this sum, N200 billion was released to the universities and shared among them. Given the level to which the students’ mental development has deteriorated, and the vandalization of value system in our society, it is not impossible that the students do actually believe the government when its ministers mischievously announce that money has been given to ASUU for infrastructural development when anyone with some basic education should know that ASUU as a trade union cannot be handed over money meant for the universities, including ASUU members’ own entitlements. Or, possibly, given the level of depravity in the society, the students might as well be aware of these things but would tend to feign ignorance of the fact that the N1.3 trillion is actually to be given to the university authorities for the provision of facilities; or it could be both ignorance and mischief bordering on criminality.

It is this sum of N1.3 trillion to be given the universities over a period of six years that is the big stumbling block between the government and ASUU even when it was to be released in phases over a time frame of six years. Yet, a student union leader would elect to pillory the lecturers for taking this battle up on behalf of the system. Or, does the president want the world to believe that he is unaware of the suggestion by the Chairman of the government’s negotiating team, Dr. Wale Babalakin, that in order to be able to make this sum available over a period of six years, government must introduce school fees such that each student would have to be paying up to N1,000,000? This news is all over the social media and the internet, and a NANS president worth his salt cannot pretend to be unaware of it.

For the avoidance of doubts, ASUU members have their welfare issues based on our agreements and memorandum of understanding with the government. For roughly two years or so, the government short-paid lecturers in federal universities across the country. The government is aware of this and had accepted paying the shortfall. Further, there is provision for payment of certain earned allowances, which the government had set up forensic audit teams to verify. This had long been completed, but the government lapsed into silence after completing the exercise when, indeed, there had been timelines for the implementation of this, mutually agreed upon by both sides. Also, since the military regime of Ibrahim Babangida, ASUU had entered into agreement with government with the proviso that the agreement would be renewed every three years. The last time it was reviewed was in 2009; is it too much for ASUU to press on government to renegotiate the agreement? As at now none of these or other issues have been implemented. Yet, if all these were the only issues the union has with the government, we can be sure that there would be no strikes and Nigerian lecturers would not be so pauperized as it is now the case. But the lecturers tend to be fighting on all fronts: government to release enough funds for the system, university administrators to ensure prudent use of the funds, the society to understand what ASUU is fighting for, and now the students to let us fight our collective battle in peace and for the common good of the country.

ASUU has a choice to stop carrying excess load (which includes such load as the N1.3 trillion to revitalize the system for the good of students and other members of the academia); and if the union drops this load, there would be relative peace since government would not find it difficult to meet the union’s lean demands that are for its members’ benefit. Or, if the government wants to cause confusion within the ranks of the union, the government can quietly use the African average for payment of salaries to university lecturers, implement it and improve on the general welfare conditions of university academics. This way, the union’s leadership would need a lot more effort to convince its members to embark on these perennial self-sacrificing strikes that only give an ill-informed public and students the opportunity to pillory us as the current NANS president is doing. This would give us, as ASUU members, the relative peace of mind and comfort which colleagues in other professions and callings and unions are enjoying even amidst stark absence of facilities in their offices.

Perhaps it is at this time that both the Nigerian public and the students would decide for themselves whether to rise against the decay in the university system or to continue to cope with it as if all were well. This would reduce, if not end, strikes by lecturers, but then it would mark the beginning of the final death of the public university system, just as the pre-tertiary public institutions in the country are dead. And, of course, the owners of the daily-springing private universities would smile, since their institutions would be making huge harvests from among Nigerian children shopping for admission. This is the destination of government; and this is why owners of private universities who are in government want the public institutions dead, and the NANS president is solidly supporting them. It’s just like making an electricity generator dealer a minister of power; if he makes the public supply of electricity to function, he destroys his own business. Similarly, if the public-funded universities work, the private ones would die.

This is one truth which Nigerians either do not know, or have become too involved with the menu at government’s table to give anything else a second thought. And at the forefront of this is the current NANS President, Danielson Akpan, who has announced his readiness to either join the ASUU-Government Negotiation Team or order the government to stop the lecturers’ pay or annihilate them in some other way within two weeks. This is the harvest that the thief of the nation’s education is reaping from the mental impotence cultivated among the youth of our dear country. So, as in Ngugi wa Thiong’O’s narrative, the government has successfully weaponised ignorance among the citizenry by stealing from them the potency or mental capacity to think even about the very afflictions of which they are the primary victims.

Professor Ushie wrote in from the University of Uyo,

Akwa Ibom State