Prof. Joseph Ushie
In Nigeria the struggle for independence was borne mainly by the nation’s intellectuals. Broadly speaking, these intellectuals were of two sub-families: the political class and those from the academia whose input was very loudly from the cultural flank. The following words of the University of Sheffield Professor of Sociology, Ankie Hoogvelt would help us to better appreciate the role of culture in the thralldom or freedom of a people: “No society can successfully dominate another without the diffusion of its cultural patterns and social institutions, nor can any society successfully diffuse all or most of its cultural patterns and social institutions without some degree of domination”.
This is what many educated persons know, even as culture almost means nothing to us today as a neo-colonial people. This is why men like Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Dennis Osadebay (who fought both on the political and cultural flanks by writing anti-colonial poetry), Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, Gabriel Okara, John Munonye, Cyprain Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola and all the other early Nigerian writers of the period of the agitation for independence should be very important to the country today.
In the end, independence came and the newly formed Nigerian government, still appreciative of the indispensable potential of the intellectual play for the development of any society, placed utmost premium on the nation’s education. As an indication of this, the professor’s salary then was much higher than the cabinet minister’s and the politician, working in close association and affiliation with the academia, provided whatever facilities the universities needed, thus placing the early Nigerian universities among the very best 10 within the Commonwealth of Nations.
One clear harvest from this state of the Nigerian university of that time is in the high quality of its products, which the late Chief Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu in his interview published in the Nigerian Army’s official publication on the Civil War, attested to: “For the sake of posterity let it be known that in the year 1968 indigenous Biafran rockets were able to strike their targets six and a half miles… A group produced indigenous rockets that could go and be guided to their targets six and a half miles away”. Commenting elsewhere on the scientists produced by Nigerian universities of this era, Ojukwu maintains: “The people who did all these are still around… The only thing is that they cannot do it without motivation. One thing I can assure you is that even if I were holding a cabinet meeting and the scientists came with a proposal and a note was passed to me, I would stop the cabinet meeting because I thought they were more important by then than anything else”. And this is the place still accorded the intellectuals of all the advanced and fast-developing economies of the world even now, which has informed UNESCO’s emphasis on nations devoting not less than 26 per cent of their annual budgets to education.
But after the war, the military took over governance and down went the appreciation and significance and importance of the role of the intellectual, particularly those of the classroom, among the priorities of the country. The salaries and significance and respect for and general welfare of the intellectual in the classroom were not only drastically downgraded, funding of the universities began to wane, and with all this the erstwhile respect and promise that Nigeria as a nation had held within the international community began to wither. By 1972, the administration of General Yakubu Gowon did the hitherto unthinkable of sacking and ordering seasoned professors out of their residences on university campuses. But, with their role in the struggle for independence still fresh in their minds, and a feeling that things could get out of hand for the nation if the trend was left unchecked, the university lecturers settled for unionization, and by about 1976, the Nigeria University Teachers Association, a forerunner to the present Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) was formed. This association and its subsequent incarnations accoutered and have been fighting for the very soul of this otherwise great country till today, both from the education and political flanks.
Unfortunately, to many Nigerians today, ASUU seems to have become synonymous with strikes and nothing more. But to the committed members of the union and other discerning, patriotic Nigerians, ASUU is the last and only hope of the country. For, it is only in ASUU that real democracy still exists and the union’s members are largely still oblivious of the divisive tendencies we find in the larger society along the lines of region, religion, ethnicity, state and other forms of favoritism. It is in ASUU that “the force of one’s argument rather the argument of force” determines the direction the union follows.
Every strike action goes through a painstakingly rigorous and dizzying protocol or procedure of, first, convincing the members of all the efforts made to have a dialogue with the government of the day, then consultation among the branches, organisation of referendums (which are often repeated and all dissenting voices are listened to and accommodated), and the resolutions of the followership consequently direct the actions of the principal officers and board of trustees. It is the one union whose members a vice-chancellor could bruise today only for the members to embark on strike the following day on behalf of same vice-chancellor if he is wrongfully removed from office.
ASUU is the only union which devotes about the most time of each and every National Executive Council meeting to detailed discussion of all aspects of the Nigerian nation, with reports from every nook and cranny of the society, and a communiqué issued to the nation. And it is, possibly, the only union which has stoically intervened in the plight of the downtrodden through its direct contribution to the wellbeing of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in camps across the country. Also, ASUU is one union which, unlike other unions, places premium on the total health of its work environment in the interest of the nation by embedding the health of infrastructure and the condition of the students among its perennial demands of government. ASUU’s philosophy of self-sacrifice showed up once when during a national strike, salaries of members were stopped and an ASUU-friendly state governor offered to pay the salaries of lecturers in a federal university in his state, but the lecturers politely and appreciatively turned down the offer, insisting on being left on the same page with their comrades in the rest of the country throughout the strike. There is also a certain regime of prudence and austerity at all times, except that this is not extended to matters bordering on the state of health of members and feeding and safety. But besides these, members, including the principal officers of the union, are encouraged, if not expected, to travel by road, share hotel rooms where necessary, go for the cheapest hotels and avoid, as much as possible, possible contamination with the goodies of the government especially when on ASUU official assignments. Above all, ASUU rules have no sacred cows, such that at the moment, a one-time president of the union who went against the rules after his tenure, has been suspended.
Today, Nigeria’s academics remain among the poorest earners even among their colleagues in Africa. No Nigerian government has pushed their pay near what is generally considered “the African average”. Yet, ASUU bore the worst from of the brunt during the struggle to oust the military from governance, a struggle which resulted in the present attempt at civilian rule. Lecturers under the auspices of the union had their meagre salaries withheld for months during strikes in the era of military rule, especially as most of the strikes had an anti-military element.
Twice or so all loyal members of the union were sacked and then later reinstated, including an attempt to replace them, but which failed because no one outside the country responded to the government’s advertisement based on the salaries advertised. Yet, something happened during this period that Nigerians are unaware of. In the cause of the struggle to oust the military and restore democracy in the country, some foreign bodies, believing in the integrity of the union, offered to support the union financially; but the union gratefully turned down all such offers and elected to combat Nigeria’s military rule on its own terms and using its own resources only.
Today, the civilians, many of who were complicit with the military regimes and benefited robustly from those regimes’ misadventure into political space, are reaping from the sufferings and deprivations the lecturers went through, and are ready to annihilate the class of Nigerians called lecturers. Today, the gulf between the elite in politics and the intellectual in the classroom has continued to widen, and this is also how the gap between the glorious Nigeria of the 1960s and today’s ghost of a great nation has become in the aspects of national unity and integration, prudence and probity, national development and altruistic commitment to the cause of the nation as we still find within the membership of ASUU. Thus, while products of the Nigerian university of the 1960s could fashion out a rocket that could get its target six-and-a-half miles away, it is uncertain if our graduates of today would know what is meant by a rocket.
And, curiously, those Nigerian lecturers whom the inclement conditions at home have driven to other lands quite regularly have the misfortune of teaching in their classes hundreds of the children of the rich Nigerians, whose parents have sent abroad for qualitative education, which their fathers have denied the rest of the Nigerian children. This is one sour outcome of the total divorce of the lecturer from the process of governance and of the pauperization of the Nigerian lecturer. Yet, when the occasion calls for it, as it is now the case with the union’s current strike, Nigerians, generally, put the blame on the union, which they have either blindly or mischievously come to identify with strikes.
At the moment, the political leadership of Nigeria has brought the country almost to the precipice in all facets of existence: infrastructure, stark absence of national unity and cohesion, ignorance among the electorate, unemployment resulting in youth restiveness, cultism, armed robbery, kidnapping, insurgency, death or near death of education, health facilities and the near-complete absence of an acceptable value system. Worse, many of the country’s institutions such as the security agencies, ombudsmen-institutions, the judiciary, the legislature, pressure groups, including, unfortunately students, have all become complicit and are on their knees in competitive unquestioning obeisance to whichever is the government of the day, no matter that their own primary constituency is at risk.
In all this, however, certain things are certain. If the ruining political class does not murder the country, we will require something revolutionary to return the nation to its pre-military path which correctly and altruistically placed emphasis on education, national unity and cohesion. The new birth of the country will, hence, come through either or both of two ways. Either there will be a revolutionary regime which will recognise and work in harmony with the nation’s intellectuals to re-start a holistic development process from the ashes of the current ruins; or the ordinary people, the systematically disenfranchised, will rise on their own and embark on a mass movement that will free the country from its current predatory stranglehold by the thieving political class who have taken us so perilously close to utter damnation. Definitely, such a moment will come when sanity will be restored to the nation, particularly to its political class which has been so visionless in ruination of everything of value that can propel growth and development.
Such a moment will come when the senator’s winner-takes-all monthly income of N36,000,000 will be brought to the neighbourhood of the professor’s monthly income of N450,000 and the brigadier-general’s N600,000 and, also to some reasonable closeness to the N30,000 minimum wage being fought for by the Nigerian Labour Congress. Definitely, such a moment will come when an emerging patriotic political leader will confer regularly with the women and men in the ivory towers on policies and methods of implementation that can advance our economy and improve the general standard of living of Nigerians as it is currently the case in other nations that have left us behind.
But when that time finally comes, the members of ASUU will be the only ones standing who can serve as models for our unity, prudence in the management of our resources, patriotic and altruistic commitment to the goals of nationhood such as the founders of our great nation had, and as it is the case with all other nations of our world, who are genuinely committed to growth and development. That is when a crosspollination of ideas between the town and gown will restore such universities as the types that produced those scientists who could produce rockets for the Biafran side of the Nigerian Civil War in 1968. But then, Nigerians owe the union the duty of understanding its noble vision and mission, and aligning themselves with these so that the union will survive till that moment when its intervention will be needed; otherwise it could be equally starved to death by these gods of dust whose fingers on any aspect of our national life turn the sector to dust. These are the gods of dust we call the Nigerian ru(ining)ling class.
Prof. Ushie wrote in from the University of Uyo