By Joseph Ushie
The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) is a union of the teaching staff of public universities in Nigeria. Established first as the University Teachers Association (UTA) in the mid-1970s, ASUU has been such a dogged fighter for the survival of the Nigerian university system, especially through strikes, that once the acronym “ASUU” is entered in most of the online search engines or other electronic systems, the next word that commonly follows is “strike”. The union has come to be known both nationally and internationally as Nigeria’s lone fighter for the survival of education in Nigeria, and also often unfortunately erroneously perceived as an enemy to nearly all of the country’s neocolonialist leaders, military or civilian, and often as an enemy even to the management teams of many of the nation’s universities where its branches exist. But while ASUU has become recognised by many as the only hope of, and strongest surviving trade union in, the country, there has also been the paradox that even the university community, including some of the members of the union, have not escaped the general climate of decay enveloping the nation, as the filth from without the ivory towers now pervades also the universities even where ASUU branches exist. Almost routinely, the Nigerian university community is accused of such wrongdoings as misuse and mismanagement of funds by the management, admission racketeering, sale of grades for marks, sorting, sexual harassment by lecturers, cultism both by some of the students and staff, plagiarism by both students and some of the teaching staff, sale of handouts and textbooks to the captive student buyers, nepotism and hyper-ethnic-consciousness.
Even outside of the lecturers’ respective campuses, the lecturers are often blamed for recommending various degrees of healthy accreditation status to poorly funded and poorly equipped universities during the routine accreditation exercises under the aegis of the National Universities Commission Accreditation. And, beginning from the 2015 general elections in Nigeria during which lecturers played various roles as ad hoc staff, ASUU members have generally had added to their “sins” the “offence” of being the ones who stamp the election results that have produced the very horrible leaders that have continued the mangling of the nation’s education from where the previous administrations had stopped. In a way, therefore, ASUU as a union is often considered by some to be self-contradicting when the union engages the same governments of the land either which its members are accused of “helping” into offices, or of being guilty of the various manifestations of corruption which the union condemns in the larger society, particularly in the governance of the nation.
No one who is passionately and genuinely concerned about the parlous state of education in Nigeria would dismiss all of these accusations offhand as false. Indeed, the situation has somewhat degenerated to a point where a few of the lecturers have turned themselves into a perversion of the great Brazilian legendary footballer, Pele, who was said to have once taken the corner kick and returned to score the goal himself at the centre. Like Pele, such lecturers would approve or assign a project topic to a student and then turn around to write the project and award a score for the student, all for a fee from the student. There is also the most sophisticated unfortunate practice which sprang up coevally with the return to civilian rule in the country. This entails that a very senior teaching staff, most likely of the rank of Senior Lecturer or above, would attach himself to a high political office holder either as a legislative aide or something of the sort; then the office holder would pay the big lecturer a morsel out of the droppings from his allowances, which of course would be many times more than even the professor’s annual salary; and in return the professor would take care of the political office holder’s Masters or doctoral work, sometimes even as the dissertation or thesis supervisor. If the office holder is a senator, then the professor is lucky since the droppings from a senator’s humongous monthly earnings would be far more than the professor’s IPPISed monthly salary of just over #300,000.
This state of affairs has often been some Nigerians’ “justification” for standing aloof while ASUU battles the government alone. For instance, the Punch newspaper of July 3, 2020, credits to the highly cerebral Nigerian historian scholar, Professor Toyin Falola, the story entitled, “To enjoy public support, ASUU must wage aggressive battle against members’ corrupt tendencies”. In a similar vein, a former vice-chancellor of the Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike, Abia State, Prof Ikenna Onyido, is reported in the social media to have condemned the way doctoral degrees are being awarded “undeserving” candidates by our universities. He is also said to have “blamed the ivory tower for allowing mundane things in the larger society to influence” the universities. Before these two scholars, the immortal Chinua Achebe had, in a publication entitled, The University and the Leadership Factor in Nigerian Politics (1988, p. 21), lamented: “Those who have remained in the ivory tower have hardly fared better. Many have cheapened themselves and eroded their prestige by trotting up and down between the campus and the waiting rooms of the powerful, shamelessly vying for attention and running one another down for the entertainment of the politician. For this and other reasons the University has deservedly lost its luster, its mystique and squandered the credibility, which it had in such abundance at the time of Nigeria’s independence”.
Certainly, these eminent Nigerian scholars mean well both for the nation’s university system and the nation itself. In sum, their voices are directed at the conflagration consuming the Nigerian university system and, by implication, the nation’s entire education system. However, while one is not supporting these unethical, unprofessional, self-degrading and atrocious activities, the views of the eminent intellectuals need to be complemented and discussed holistically within the context of the situation in which the Nigerian university system finds itself today. For instance, it appears that the three contributors have all directed the nozzle of their fire extinguisher at the high flame above the ground rather than at the base of the fire. Flame does not get put out permanently when the faggot or base of the fire which produces it is left untouched. We had argued earlier that soon after independence, the nation lapsed back into a neocolonial rather than a truly postcolonial state. A typical neocolonial state is defined by two major characteristics. The first is that there is internal recolonization of the weaker by the stronger segments of the society, which we see in the oppression of the ethnic and religious minorities, and of women and children and albinos in the country. The second major characteristic is that in a neocolonial state, the former colonizer and or other advanced economies remain in control of the economy of the former colony. However, a former colony desirous of profitable manumission depends and relies on the intellectual input to design the true path for the nation to follow in making real meaning out of its freedom. But this intellectual component was detached from the process of governance early in Nigeria following the nation’s independence. The consequent relapsing of the nation into a neocolonial status therefore affects all aspects of the whole nation, and not just the education sector alone. As we saw recently during the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic, both the health and education sectors had collapsed in the nation, just as the roads had decayed; just as the security system had collapsed; just as the judiciary had lost its innocence; just as materialism and ostentation have become our new gods. Perhaps, the only aspect of our national life that has remained vibrant and invincible is the competitive looting from the treasury by the neocolonialist lootocrats. Whatever vices or unethical practices or misdemeanours one finds in the Nigerian University system are, hence, only a fragment from the ruins that the entire nation has become. Still in the image of burning fire, a compound surrounded by burning bush cannot insulate itself from receiving burnt dry leaves and smoke falling into it from the sky above. That is the nature of the Nigerian university system today. It has been voluntarily and involuntarily receiving from the surrounding skies and bush the burnt dry leaves and smoke from the conflagration that the nation has become.
Specifically on the nation’s education sector, there was this real life experience I had encountered in Sokoto in the 1970s. From the then popular Harry Brothers Supermarket in the town, a sales boy working in the supermarket had pilfered some edible items and was caught and ultimately tried at a magistrate court in the town. Although he confessed to having committed the offence, the magistrate surprisingly discharged and acquitted him following a cross-examination of the owner of the business and employer of the sales boy. This was when the owner owned up that the sales boy’s monthly salary was just thirty naira (N30) when the sales boy was expected to work from 6 a.m. till 6 p.m. each day. The magistrate asked the owner if even his dog could be sustained at such a low level of monthly expenditure. The magistrate then told the owner that if he did value his goods, he should have taken better care of whoever he had entrusted them to, and that his failure to do so, as in the case of the guilty sales boy, was a certain unwritten message to the sales boy that the boy should sustain himself on the meager salary, and whenever it was exhausted he could help himself to the goods under his care. The judgement was generally applauded in the state then.
The implication of this scenario for our education system is that even in the face of the total decay that the nation has faced, successive governments would have done something to insulate the universities from the fire surrounding the environment if, indeed, the nation had valued the “goods” entrusted into the care of the system in the forms of the nation’s impressionable minds and the engine for the nation’s true growth and development, as Ghana and other former colonies are doing. Not that the Nigerian government does not know how to protect sectors that it values. It does. For instance, the government values the security of the nation’s money, so the Central Bank workers are insulated from the possible influence of the national decay in terms of what they earn. The government values its petroleum sector, so NNPC and other oil workers earn living wages. The government values its security apparatchik, so the Army General, the Police Commissioner, the director in the Department of State Security and so on, who are the equivalents of the University Professor, are paid such wages that it would be sheer greed if they still have to help themselves to the goods under their care. Similarly, the federal Permanent Secretary, the Director-General and their equivalents are highly valued by the government, so the government places them under what is known as the consolidated salary system; but not so the professors, who are their equivalents in the university system. These ones earn less than even the Chief Lecturers of the nation’s colleges of education and polytechnics, let alone their equivalents in the army, the Central Bank, the NNPC and the permanent secretaries or even directors in the core civil service of the nation.
In case you are still not convinced about why it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the Nigerian university lecturer to insulate himself from the filth of the larger society, let me explain further that within the sales boy’s monthly #30 income paid the lecturer there is the legitimate condition that the lecturer must necessarily be involved in community service as a part of his duties. This explains why lecturers could come out to serve as ministers, commissioners, advisers and to play various roles in election or census or other interventionist public duties without necessarily resigning their appointments from their institutions. Prior to the reduction of the lecturer’s income to its present pathetic level of which an ASUU strike slogan once captured in the words, “My take home pay can’t take me home”, lecturers were not always enthusiastic about leaving their researches to take up political positions. Even as recently as the regime of President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Nigerian professor, Niyi Osundare, illustrated this when he turned down a federal board appointment for the reason that the government did not contact him to know if he would be available to do the job. Chinua Achebe’s publication, for instance, bears a 1988 date, but the first nail on the coffin of the Nigerian University system had been knocked in about 1972 when, for the first time in their history, professors who had, hitherto, not given much thought to building houses of their own, were driven out of their houses in university quarters, and were seen struggling with their personal effects on the campuses. The professors and other lecturers naturally got the message to begin to think about how to own personal houses in case they were at any other time so forcibly thrown out of the university quarters, even as their salaries had been vengefully whittled down to emptiness.
While the above experience of the disgrace of the Nigerian university lecturer was bad enough, the peak of the dehumanization and traumatization of the lecturer was to come during the military days of General Ibrahim Babangida, when the government proscribed ASUU, stopped the lecturers’ salaries for months and even sacked those who refused the General’s order to return to work in violation of the union’s strike. Thus, if the normal community service, which is a necessary condition for promoting academic staff, is seen as the formal exchange rate, the Babangida regime’s actions ignited the “black market” exchange rate known within ASUU circles as “coping strategy”. Coping strategy refers to any self-help measure, sometimes involving using one’s professional skill or any other means, to survive during a strike action or any other period when lecturers’ salaries are withheld, as they are routinely done by the nation’s neocolonial governments. Of course, no one would blame a man who goes the extra mile to source for means of survival for himself and his family members in such life-threatening circumstances. Sometimes, the lecturers find the coping strategies to be even more lucrative than the monthly deception called lecturers’ salaries. And when the strike action is over, the poor lecturer carries along with this coping strategy as a side show or a private practice or even as a part of his community service. Ultimately, both the more formal, statutory community service such as participation in election and census duties, NUC accreditation exercises and even tenure political appointments are handled by many a lecturer with the tinge of a coping strategy, all to the detriment of the lecturer’s reputation as an intellectual. And worse, this explains the desperation of the lecturer for positions outside the ivory tower, and the lack of zeal and zest of some of the lecturers for their primary duties as academics.
This helplessness impels a holistic discernment rather than a rush to blaming the Nigerian university lecturer for being unable to insulate himself from the decadence of the larger society. Or, how else is he to resist the pressure from without the ivory tower when his take home pay can’t take him home; when he is not sure when his salary would again be stopped for months and his survival and that of his family again critically threatened; when the monthly allowances of the councillor or member of the State House of Assembly or of the National Assembly or of the permanent secretary or governor or minister he taught at school are a hundred times more than the professor’s annual salary? This is how the government has opened up the university system to the burnt leaves and smoke from the fire surrounding the system such that the education system is not cordoned off from the decay enveloping it. Evidently, the government, like Harry Brother’s owner, does not value the goods entrusted into the custody of its university system as it does some of the other sectors, or as governments elsewhere in the world do. As such we now have within this system a replica of the aspects of filth that the larger society experiences. The question then is, should Nigerians send to jail the lecturer who is paid less than his due for a service he renders both night and day, or should they, like the Sokoto magistrate did, discharge and acquit the ill-treated and government-ridiculed lecturer since the state has sinned more against him than he has sinned against the system? These are the issues at the base of the fire, which we must address if we truly want to tackle the problems of university education in Nigeria and, by implication, the development of the nation. It is not enough to aim our fire extinguisher’s nozzle at the flame and smoke in the skies, which can always be reinforced if the fire is not attacked at the level of the faggot. The specific roles of ASUU as a trade union will be focused in the forthcoming final part of the essay.
- Joseph Ushie is a Professor of General Stylistics and Literary Criticism, University of Uyo, Uyo