ASUU As Human Exemplar

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National President of ASUU, Prof Abiodun Ogunyemi

Nigerian government has failed to live up to its responsibility of providing education, argues Jeff Godwin Doki

The clearest symptom of true madness is when a man burns down his own home stead (African Proverb).
Nigeria as a country has continued to persevere under the burden of bad governance, political charlatanism and, most painfully, the deleterious role of the political class. And the reason for this is simple: for the past three or four decades, those who are charged with the duty of guarding public patrimony have deliberately abrogated their responsibilities; those who occupy positions of power are parochial, insincere and incompetent; those who are voted, or who rig themselves, into power say one thing in order to get into office but do the opposite once they get there. The Nigerian nation has continued to travel on reverse gear because its journey is bedeviled by untruths, deceit and thwarted dreams and desires. Honesty, honor, truth and humanistic sympathy have all but taken leave of the ruling class and the citizens have been reduced to mere playthings in the hands of the rulers. But let me not sermonize about Nigerian leadership and turn to Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), which is the theme of my story.

It is very clear to anybody with two eyes that in the year 2001 precisely, the Nigerian government signed an agreement with the union of university teachers (ASUU). The chief intention of that agreement was to fund Nigerian universities properly in order to revitalize and burnish them to international standards. But from the regime of Obasanjo to that of Yar’Ádua, to Jonathan and Buhari, it has been the same drama of sham, indifference and disdain. Promises were made but not fulfilled, negotiations began and were stopped only to begin again and stop. For the past two decades, no Nigerian leader has dealt with the ASUU- FGN agreement seriously, sincerely and honorably. From 2001 to date, the rot in the university system has also continued unhindered; from 2001 to date the university teachers have embarked on several warning strikes and an indefinite strike all in an attempt to press the Nigerian government to tread the path of honor by respecting its promises. Now, as I write presently, Nigerian university teachers have embarked on an indefinite strike since March, 2020 for the same reasons: adequate and proper funding of Nigerian universities, payment of Earned Academic Allowances and University autonomy among others. Talking about University autonomy reminds one of the federal government’s recent disregard and debasement of intellectual labor by imposing the IPPIS on university teachers. University autonomy is a global practice associated with universities all over the world and if the Nigerian government denies Nigerian universities autonomy it will be another unfortunate reflection of the levity and contempt with which Nigerian leaders treat serious national issues. The on-going ASUU strike may not have profound impact for now because of the dreaded global pandemic COVID:19, but when our medical experts find a cure for this pandemic in the not-too-distant future, parents will begin to ask questions why their children are still at home.

Lamentably, ASUU has earned the wrath of the Nigerian public as an intransigent, strike-prone and insensitive union for embarking on strikes to draw attention to the problems of university education in Nigeria. This kind of attitude is not surprising, it is only amazing. Here in Nigeria, intellectual labor is not prized and the teacher is treated as a criminal because of his capacity to seek, find and tell the truth. As a parenthetical remark, the Nigerian Medical Association called out it members on a national strike during the present CO1VID:19 and the President of Nigeria hurriedly approved huge sums of money as extra budgetary allocations for their hazard allowances. The irony of that strike was that Medical Doctors usually take an oath to professionally serve humanity in all circumstances. But in our precarious situation in Nigeria where Medical Doctors work without Personnel Protective Equipment (PPE), it dawned on the medical doctors that strike is the only language the Nigerian government can understand. Again, many unsuspecting members of the Nigerian public think that ASUU strikes are meant to demand for higher pay or salaries. But this is the grossest falsehood. One of the strategies Nigerian governments (past and present) have adopted, though without success, to punish and muzzle ASUU has been the stoppage of salaries. Obasanjo’s regime stopped ASUU salaries for close to eight months, that of Jonathan stopped ASUU salaries for six months and the Buhari government has done that for five months. The stoppage of salaries is usually a deliberate ploy to make ASUU hungry and miserable so that the Union will cower at the negotiating table. But ASUU is a union that has been hardened by hunger and it can always wear courage like a shield.

What is clear for now is that ASUU can endure hunger, ASUU can accept poverty and misery but by far the most outstanding characteristic of ASUU is its magnanimity and the capacity to turn the other cheek. In no other branch was ASUU’S generosity demonstrated with complete abundance than at the University of Jos. From 2009 to 2011, the ASUU University of Jos Branch requested its members to make voluntary contributions/donations from their, paltry and sometimes withheld, salaries for the construction of a 1000 capacity Twin Lecture Theater. The deductions went on for 15 months and the branch raised a whopping N63.2 million for the project. On Friday, July 2020, the Lecture Theater was officially commissioned by ASUU national President and handed over to the management of the University of Jos. While this gesture is historic, exemplary and first of its kind in Nigeria, it is also outstanding for reasons that are perfectly clear. For one thing, the construction of the lecture theater by ASUU is an abundant testimony of the fact that ASUU does not embark on strikes for selfish demands or increment in salaries. For a union that has often been starved, punished and vilified by various Nigerian governments to raise money from the meager salaries of its members for the construction of a lecture theater is not only heroic but commendable. For another, the construction of the lecture theater by ASUU has redrawn attention to the numerous inadequacies on Nigerian university campuses. In other words, there is a general lack of classroom accommodation on all Nigerian university campuses. This ugly situation has assumed embarrassing and alarming proportions. My cousin who lives with me failed some compulsory courses at the end of the semester. When I inquired, his response was that all through the lecture period he could neither see nor hear the lecturer because there were thousands of students crammed in the small hall while some of them perched on windows and for that reason they could neither catch a glimpse of the lecturer nor hear what he was saying because he spoke without a public address system. As a matter of fact, there is no meaningful learning taking place on our university campuses because the government has refused to fund education.

But again, the construction of the lecture theater has also helped to clear the innumerable misconceptions about ASUU strikes and the struggle. Is it not the height of irony that the university teacher who is quite often denied his pay would use his meager resources to construct a lecture theater and donate same to his employer? Is it not the height of irony that the university teacher who is publicly perceived as a ‘trouble shooter’ is the one taking the lead in infrastructural development in society? But more than that, it is also on record that ASUU University of Jos branch has produced hand sanitizers for its immediate community and even beyond as a way of ensuring public hygiene during the present COVID:19. Besides, the branch provides scholarship to some indigent students in the university. While the University of Jos branch takes credit for these commendable projects, it is also a thing of glory for ASUU as a union. All these gestures have demonstrated abundantly that the Nigerian government has failed to live up to its responsibility of providing education.

A final caveat: the construction of the lecture theater was made possible because the deductions and donations made by the ASUU University of Jos Branch were done before the Nigerian government forcefully migrated ASUU into the IPPIS. This again brings us to the question of the veracity of the IPPIS. The truth remains that the IPPIS has no way of advancing university autonomy because it is by its very nature retrogressive. For example, the IPPIS does not make room for third party deductions. A situation whereby university teachers are coerced and forced into the IPPIS, they would be denied the opportunity of making donations, contributions and deductions that would enable the union embark on more meaningful projects for the development of education and the Nigerian society. But most importantly, with the construction of the 1000 capacity lecture theater, ASUU has the strongest claim to be considered as a union of permanent standing among all other unions in Nigeria. With this gesture, ASUU has demonstrated abundantly that charity begins at home or as they say in common parlance: example is greater than precept.

––Doki is a writer and Professor of Comparative Literature with University of Jos.