RIGHT OF REPLY: ASUU Has Outlived Its Shelf Life

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By Ade Okopi
I want to start this intervention by apologising to Mr. Shaka Momodu, (spelt Moodu in the December 4 column) and the ardent readers of the column-THIS REPUBLIC (appearing these days fortnightly or so?) and the generality of the Nigerian media space for coming late. I have actually been on my honeymoon for about two weeks now; accordingly, connubial best practices and obligations require that there be nothing of interest that would bring about divided attention for my darling betrothed, whatsoever may be the case. However, I am particularly motivated to do this rejoinder because Mr. Momodu himself has written in this piece that “I challenge ASUU to prove otherwise”. I follow this column like a religion, accordingly, whatsoever may be my submission in the current instance, my respect for Mr. Momodu does not diminish by any inch and my allegiance to the column is still cocksure intact.

As a starter, I do not know the motivation or inspiration behind this particular intervention by Mr. Momodu which was actually riddled with bile and brimstone against ASUU which is my constituency. However, I want to assume and believe that, this particular intervention was done purely out of altruistic and patriotic zeal and candour as the columnist is won’t to doing with his pen on other pressing national issues. I am very sure Mr. Momodu is the type of journalist that is not motivated by hate and prejudice. No matter what he has said about Nigerian academics, I shall endeavour all I can not to be confrontational but to stick to some of the valid talking points he had raised in his column. As an academic, I was strictly trained to be always open-minded, ready to bow to superior logic and not to be hysterical and presumptuous whatever may be the case. Accordingly, I shall approach the meat\bone of Mr. Momodu’s submissions as they have come in his paper.

He started the conversation with: “in 20 years, university teachers in the country under the auspices of ASUU have embarked on strike over 15 times (a strike almost every one and a half years) that saw them stay away from work for about 50 months cumulatively, resulting in a loss of about 21% of academic time”. As truth as this assertion may be, it is important for the public to know that no ASUU strike happens overnight, accidentally or sporadically. Before the union embarks on any strike, it must have explored all avenues and done so many things for peaceful and amicable resolution of the contentious issues. A process is usually followed and sometimes the process leading to any industrial disharmony could be up to 3 months. ASUU as a labour group subscribes to the conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

The union is an umbrella body of intellectuals; accordingly, all its actions are always guided by standard regulations and global best practices. The same modus operandi that guides the activities of intellectuals be it in Germany, UK, Canada, USA, Malaysia Japan etc. What this means is that if you take the Nigerian condition and apply it to any of the efficient nations that have been mentioned above, the same symptoms would suffix. The reason(s) it seems as if Nigerian academics delights in embarking on strike or “de over-do” is because Nigeria is a peculiar country and particularly at the moment it is led by an extraordinary and a wonderful president. Also, I want Mr. Momodu to know that there is no labour union in the world (non!) that is in love with strikes and embarks on it at will and at the slightest provocation. Also, no scholar worth its onions delights in docile and unproductive moments. Strikes are usually the last resort and it is usually embarked upon with much pain and difficulty (sometimes reluctantly) especially when all available options have been explored. Also, it seems to be the only language those who control things round here understand.

Mr. Momodu also claims that: “ASUU’s current strike over the union’s refusal to enroll its members in the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) commenced on March 9”. Thereafter, he added that the strike is meant to compel the FG to implement the agreements reached by both the ASUU-FG in 2009 and which subsequently metamorphosed into the 2013 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and the 2017 Memorandum of Action (MOA). Mr. Momodu’s assertion makes it seems as if the main reason for the current strike is because of ASUU’s refusal to enroll on IPPIS and the subsequent non-payment of its members. I make bold to state that such claims run hollow because it is contrary to the actualities of the issue. On IPPIS and why the union is on strike, I implore Mr. Momodu and others like him who are interested in the enlightenment of the Nigerian society to an opinion I expressed in the Sunnewsonline edition of April 9, 2020.

Let me quote myself here:
“What really are the points of discrepancies between ASUU and the FG? I mean what are the issues at stake? But before then, let me strip the most ludicrous and inconsequential of them all, and which has been introduced into the narratives by the FG because of its sinister agenda. In this case, the so-called Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System (IPPIS) which ordinarily is a non-issue but the FG has made it to become one in order to confuse and obscure the main issues, distracts ASUU from pursuing the real issues which is to the best interest of the downtrodden masses, put the union on the defensive (lose momentum), whip up and sway public opinion to its side, hoodwink the masses and then buy them ample time to effectively and comprehensively ground tertiary education in Nigeria as they have done to primary and post-primary education”. As I have said then, nothing has changed ever since. IPPIS is never the reason for the current strike and even if all our salary backlogs and the one for 2021 are paid today, the tendency is that the strike would still subsist. The FG is being snaky and crafty by foisting on gullible Nigerians to believe that IPPIS is the main issue of contention here. Nothing has changed actually! Also, I plead with all to endeavour to read the press release of ASUU of March 9 when it embarked on the current industrial action.

For the avoidance of doubt, this is the summary of why the ASUU has currently downed tools. A major issue of differences between the FG and ASUU has to do with the lack of goodwill and commitment to honour agreements and keep to timelines on the part of the FG. In fact, the Buhari government has become a serial deceiver. The government does not have sincerity on its currency list and fidelity is a luxury to it, but ironically, it claims and sees itself as the best thing to have ever happened to Nigeria and Nigerians. For instance, between 2016 and 2019, the FG went into negotiations with ASUU on the need to make funding available for the Revitalisation of Public Universities. These revitilisation funds do not go to the coffers of ASUU, neither are they managed by the union. Such funds are exclusively at the mercies of the Vice-Chancellors to manage who are in real sense appointees of the FG. The funds are meant for the infrastructural development of our ivory towers. Today, a tour round our University campuses reveals nothing but an eyesore! Students still sit on bare floor to receive lectures! A country that prides itself as the “giant of Africa” could still afford to have its university students sit on bare floor to receive lectures in the 21st century. Our ivory towers and other ancillary establishments are not only straddled with moribund and decayed infrastructures but also suffer critically from infrastructural deficit.

Even Mr. Momodu agrees with ASUU on this when he crooned that “Students’ hostels still stink like police barracks unfit for human habitation with bedbugs feeding on our adolescent youths. The toilets and bathrooms are a disgrace to human civilisation. Visit the lecture theatres or classrooms where ASUU holds sway as lord of the manor and see the deplorable state. Go to faculties of engineering, science and medicine of various public universities – visit the laboratories and you would cry for our beloved country. Equipment being used to teach our youths in this fast-paced, technology-driven age of the 21st century was procured in some cases since the founding of the universities. How can they compete with their peers around the world? But this not really ASUU’s worry. They are much more interested in their pockets”. And this is a major reason why ASUU is on strike. How does this amount to selfishness and a fight for the pocket? In the light of this, some ASUU chapters are beginning to fund projects in the universities. For e.g. the University of Jos ASUU chapter presented a 1000 sit capacity lecture theatre to the university in June\July this year. What other nobler way can one be more altruistic and selfless?

The second contentious issue has to do with Earned Academic Allowances (EAA). Is it a crime for one to peacefully get and enjoy what is legitimately due to him\her? These are accumulated allowances that lag up to the year 2014 of which if not for the nonchalant attitude of government, it should not have been allowed to accumulate for this long. This has led to accumulations, thereby amounting to humongous sums to the point that it is becoming “tough” for government to defray. What is the logic in withholding someone’s allowance he\she is legitimately entitled to for up to five years in arrears? What if the person expires before this time? Which of course is happening to so many. Is that how other employees and functionaries of government are owed their allowances for that long; especially those of them in the political class? We all know how they allocate to themselves humongous allowances and severance packages sometimes they pay upfront of one year. So why is ASUU’s own always an issue? This to me is not fair at all.

Before the ASUU suspended its last strike in March 2019, the government pledged that they were going to defray the backlogs of EAA from 2013-2018 in four installments beginning from November 2019 and running through February2022 and subsequently mainstream all EAA into the monthly salaries of lecturers starting from 2019. Government in its characteristic style failed to keep its words. Allowances they ordinarily ought to get and enjoy quietly and without stress and turbulence. It is also proper to state here that it is only in Nigeria that the intelligentsia is made to go through a lot of struggles, unnecessary embarrassment and public ill will before they get what is rightly due them as if they do not deserve it. Sometimes, a professor barely gets up to a hundred thousand naira in this whole EAA brouhaha with all its attendant and irreverent publicity and stigmatisation. Nothing can be more demoralising.

Today, the majority of the public see lecturers as the highest paid in the land with other side benefits. On this, I would want to challenge the National Salaries, Incomes and Wages Commission (NSIWC) to come clean on it; they should make public the different salary structure of all public and civil servants in the country. This is the only way ASUU can be vindicated from the bashing of the public. Is this the right way to treat the group of people a nation is depending on to mould and build the brains and minds of her future? “Nigeria is a carcass” crooned Dan Agbese and truly it is. This is what Momodu terms “selfishness and a fight for the pocket”. Even the holy books clearly state that a labourer deserves his\her dues.

Another issue at stake in this whole saga has to do with salary shortfall of its members for the months of January, 2017 and 2019. ASUU has drawn the attention of the DG budget office to this for rectification and subsequent payment of these salary arrears, but as usual, the response has been “we are working on it”. Ordinarily, this should not take time in rectifying but it is not very clear why government is foot-dragging on this.

Again, a salient item on this whole FG, ASUU face-off has to do with the proliferation, underfunding and poor running of state-owned universities. ASUU is saying too many state governments are setting up universities without adequate funding and proper management and hence these institutions are suffering unnecessarily. In fact, it seems as if some of these universities are being set up for political expediency and exigencies rather than the purpose for which they are meant to be. There is nowhere in the modern world where universities are established on account of politics. And because these universities start off on a wrong footing, they are largely neglected by those who should cater for them and see that they blossom. But this has not been the case, so what we have as state universities in most cases are glorified secondary schools that are ill-equipped, ill-manned and poorly funded. Accordingly, the output from most of such institutions is a disaster. So ASUU is saying why set up a university in the name of it if you know you are not going to properly fund and manage it? What is the point in that? And because ours is a behemoth federal structure, ASUU is saying the FG through the instrumentality of the National Economic Council (NEC) should prevail on the visitors’ (the governors) to these state universities in order for them to do the needful. In other words, there is nothing wrong with setting up a university but there is everything wrong with failure or refusal to fund it. How does this amount to a fight for the pocket?

And then there is the issue of the government visitation panels to all its universities. The visitation panels are meant to checkmate the level of accountability and transparency on all issues as it affects university management. They are meant to look into the books, appraise the level of government spending on infrastructure that is on ground and see if the university is administered in strict compliance with the laws and regulations establishing them. The greatest selling point of this administration is its purported fight against corruption and so this is a good avenue of demonstrating such fight. But curiously, the government is foot-dragging in constituting and sending these panels to the universities. It has been one complaint too many. So ASUU is also beginning to wonder why the government is exhibiting such nonchalant attitude towards a fundamental issue as this, especially as it relates to accountability and transparency. But this government is supposed to be an exterminator of corruption. What an irony! Is government afraid of something or they have something to hide? Enough of the blackmail! ASUU stands for everything that will promote transparency and accountability. Friends and folks, these are the issues at stake.

Back to Mr. Momodu, even though some of the issues he raised have been touched. For want of space, I shall try to be brief as possible in responding to the issues he has raised in his intervention. According to him, “the 50 months tally translates to over four years of lost academic work by lecturers and study for students – enough time to be admitted to, and graduate from a standard four-year course in the university and this should prick and shame the conscience of ASUU if it has any”. In case Mr. Momodu does not know, the current battle is a battle of conscience and that of posterity. ASUU still has conscience and that is why it would endure pain, hardship, hunger, blackmail and humiliation to fight for the betterment of the Nigerian education system. Although people like Mr. Momodu do not believe in such, he thinks it is “a hardline stance that is more often than not, borne out of selfish considerations but cleverly disguised as an attempt to save university education in the country”.

And then he drops the bomb, “they are much more interested in their pockets”. That’s what Shaka thinks about this continuous struggle by ASUU; he sees it as a battle of pockets. Interesting! In case you don’t know sir, there was a time that the FG through its main negotiator the late Mr. Gamaliel Onosede wanted the union to forget all this “funding university thing” and concentrate on her welfare, of which they are ready to attend to with swiftness. Mr. Momodu confuses the issue more when in one breath he claims that “ASUU’s battle is a selfish one and all about its pecuniary benefits\battle for its pockets and in another, he claims that the union has been resistant to every reform in the university system by refusing to allow proper fees to be charged in universities, in its warped thinking that the government can fund university education”. Is this not contradictory Mr. Momodu? So, it is no longer about “pecuniary motivation and selfish interest”? It is very unfortunate and regrettable that a prolific columnist like Mr. Momodu would think as a typical Nigerian, and conceive and think of every struggle and fight as a battle about mammon. We are truly in interesting times.

He also thinks “ASUU loses nothing after each prolonged strike, it sacrifices nothing, instead, for all the months its members stayed on strike, they got paid their salaries and allowances”. Sir, that is not true. Sometimes, the union loss is more than that of the students, their parents and the government put together. A large chunk of these academics are themselves students who also bear the brunt of the cessation of academic activities within our ivory towers. ASUU’s members also suffer setbacks in so many unquantifiable ways and they make humongous sacrifices. If for nothing, the excruciating emotional baggage suffered by its members as a result of biased and uninformed public opinion is more than enough to bear. What about the hunger, penury, hardship and the joy derived from the classroom? What about the trauma the union’s members’ families are subjected to?

He also accuses the union of “having ‘Marxist-leaning’ leaders who are stuck in a time capsule and have refused to evolve with a fast-moving world”. On this, let me still reiterate my earlier submission that strikes are usually the last resort of the union and that strikes have been continuously utilised by Nigerian academics to settle industrial disputes because Nigeria is a peculiar nation. Even if Canadian, Indian, German, Swiss, Japanese etc. intellectuals are brought into this system, the same tendencies would still obtain. It is actually a system thing and there is no gain in strike. I would like to inform Mr. Momodu also that the union will appreciate him sufficiently if he can help proffer solutions to ASUU on how it could make\compel government to meet its demands. This would be a welcome development. ASUU is a progressive group that is open-minded and humble enough to accept ideas and wisdom from non-members.

The columnist also asserts that “apart from producing half-baked graduates, can these university teachers tell us what value has come out of our so-called ivory towers? Has ASUU ever advocated for the modernisation of the university curriculum to bring it in tune with a fast-moving, digital world? How many of them have ever written books recommended for use in universities around the world? They sell to students at exorbitant prices hurriedly plagiarised handouts. How many of them are technologically proficient”? True, the quality of graduates from the universities today are monumentally deficient and below standard, however it is important to state that one cannot give what someone does not have. ASUU does not make admissions into the universities. These days merit is hardly an option when admitting students into our universities. The basis for admission nowadays ranges from such sentimental considerations as politics, religion, ethnicity, romance, nepotism and all such mundane and inconsequential factors.

So, there is a structural and in-built defect in these undergraduates before their training even begins. There are so many cases where people who struggle to write their names are admitted into the universities. ASUU does not admit students but this is not to absolve it of complete fault. True the academics also have their own share of the mess. At least if they were clinical with their work, they should have been able to identify and weed out every unwanted wannabe from the system before reaching graduation. But the crux of the matter is that this whole ineptitude is a systemic thing. What goes around would always come around. Omelettes are made from eggs and not potatoes! So much is actually coming out of our ivory towers and I want to implore Mr. Momodu to use his journalistic antennae and scoop for information round Ivy League universities in the world to see the level of exploits and records being set and broken by graduates from Nigerian universities that “nothing valuable” can come out from, in his words.

As for modernisation of curriculum and upgrading the system to be digitally compliant and effective, Nigerian academics in the face of wanton governmental neglect have been doing their best. A large proportion of lecturers today are computer compliant; the onus now lies on the government to provide the enabling environment and the facilities. The claim by Mr. Momodu that “They {lecturers} sell to students at exorbitant prices hurriedly plagiarised handouts” is not true from my personal point of view. For one, I know that there is a standard and operational policy in all FG universities that forbids the sale of handouts and even books. Yours sincerely has sojourned and adequately operated in at least three Federal universities both as a student and a lecturer, but I have never been asked to buy handouts and neither have I been selling handouts to students and I don’t know of any colleague that does that. I challenge Mr. Momodu to come forward with proof(s) where handouts are sold in Federal universities. The last time I checked, plagiarism (academic stealing) is a grave offence with capital repercussions in the academia. Any academic that is found wanting should be made to face the full wrath of the law squarely. Many academics are still living with the scars of such infractions.

In the midst of so many disadvantages suffered by Nigerian academics, a large proportion of them are still very visible in international academic journals, seminal papers and scholarly publications which are the hallmarks of intellectualism. Even with poor working conditions and ridiculous monetary rewards, they still endeavour to write books and put up a good fight among their peers around the world. Nigerian academics are still competitive anywhere and anytime in the world. This does not preclude the fact that there are no laggards and sluggards among their ranks. We all know how the Nigerian system works and how people are given jobs in the Nigeria of today. In most cases today, one is qualified to be a lecturer because he or she knows someone in government house, national assembly, palaces, senate, council of the universities and has what it takes to be able to display estrogenal or testosteronal muscle. The system is just awkward and too bad!

Mr. Momodu also claims that “ASUU has been the most destructive monster, wreaking havoc on university education in Nigeria with incessant strikes. ASUU has remained constant in the rot plaguing our education, while pretending to be the conscience and advocate of its restoration. ASUU’s insensitivity to the plight of students and parents borders on the callous and wicked disregard for the future of education just like the government it is negotiating with”. This is a claim gone too far and extreme and to a large extent is lacking in substance and content. The greatest threat to the Nigerian university system is governmental neglect as a result of the fact that those at the helm of affairs have no stake in our education system. If ASUU has no regard for the future of education in Nigeria, it will have no business to be on strike at the moment because government has failed in its obligation to make funds available for the revitilisation of Universities. Again, it is height of mischief and analytical miscarriage to equate and place ASUU with this conscienceless government. This current fight is largely a fight for the preservation of Nigerian university education; a fight for posterity. In the midst of all this, someone is still accusing ASUU to be wicked and callous with no interest in the future of education in Nigeria. If truth be said, it is not only university education that is undergoing rot in Nigeria; the rot also applies to all levels of education including every facet of Nigerian life.

So, is it ASUU that is also responsible for the rot in all these other areas? The Nigerian condition is a system failure and collapse thing that needs a total re-invention and it would be better if no individual or group is made the scapegoat. This is not to say ASUU does not have its own fair share of the blame. Whatever light that is emitting from our ivory towers today is because ASUU has kept faith with its creed and ideology! So, ASUU cannot be a monster to a baby it has salvaged and battling with its life to preserve. ASUU cannot be insensitive to the plight of students and parents. That is not possible! A large percentage of the students are children and wards of ASUU members who do not possess the type of resources needed to send these dependents to school abroad. Most Nigerian professors receive between 300 and 400 hundred thousand naira; and the majority of its PhD holders do not even receive up to 200 thousand naira. So, I guess Mr. Momodu can connect to what I am battling to say. What this ultimately translates to is that you cannot cut your nose to spit on your face.

Another beef Mr. Momodu has with ASUU members is that “the only reason ASUU loves to call a strike so much is because it has become the pretext to receive undeserved pay. Strike pays, it seems, has become an excuse not to work, but to earn wages for doing exactly nothing”. Mr. Momodu thinks the best way to curb this is to enforce the no work, no pay treatment on striking lecturers as it has been done to health workers before. Waooo! This is a serious allegation and I think ASUU has to come clean on this. My response to this is to reiterate what I have said earlier on. No trade union in the whole world delights in strike. What people don’t really know is that ASUU doesn’t normally declare a strike, it is the government that usually does. But if Mr. Momodu thinks the no work, no pay formula could do the magic, then so be it. Myself and many others like me are no longer expecting any salaries from the government any longer. For us, everything is normal and life goes on. However, what brought about the strike must be attended to.

Mr. Momodu also contends that all these endless strikes embarked upon by a “senseless and perverse ASUU has amounted to nothing and haven’t achieved much by way of improvements in the system”. No sir, on the contrary, whatever vestiges of artefacts that bestrode the Nigerian university landscape today, is to large extent a product of ASUU’s struggle. There is no naysaying in mentioning here that some of the masterpiece edifices that dot our campuses today through whatever interventions it is christened; be it NEEDS assessment or Tetfund are all the brainchild of ASUU’s struggle.

Not many are aware of this fact. Today, if you see any caterpillar or bulldozer dancing Azonto (apologies to Patrick Obhiagbon) on the campus of any Nigerian university, just give it to ASUU. Very interesting and befuddling is the fact that outside any of such effort, you will hardly see any project(s) on the campuses brought about as a result of direct capital funding from the government. In other words, if not for NEEDS and Tetfund, infrastructure would have collapsed completely our tertiary institutions today. So, you see that this goes beyond ASUU’s personal interest and pocket infrastructure, it’s about Nigeria and the tomorrow of its education. The question I want to ask Mr. Momodu is why he is this heartless and insensitive to entrust the education of his children to a group of people he has referred to as “senseless”? Do you also want to make your children senseless?

“How else does one explain ASUU’s easy resort to industrial action at the slightest disagreement? How else does one explain that the union has led its members to cumulatively stay at home for over four years of the last 20 years”? On this I plead with our revered columnist to ask the government. At this point in time, ASUU cannot answer every question because it lacks capacities for their answers.

The submission that there is no innovation coming out of our ivory towers is not far from the truth. The reality is that innovations are not achieved with empty and decrepit laboratories and equipment, not even in the most advanced and educated countries of the world. No matter how experienced and knowledgeable a farmer is, he can never sow water yam and reap white yam. It is not possible; you can never cheat nature!
As for this observation “It is instructive that ASUU has never taken any hardline public position against the plague its members have infected campuses with. I mean, the numerous scandals of money-for-grades, sex-for-marks, lecturers failing students who refuse their sexual overtures. It is now so rampant on campuses that it has become the norm. As the rot in the system has grown, so has the decadence and moral bankruptcy among lecturers.

University education has painfully been reduced to organised citadels of immoral life, sex-for-marks temples of predator teachers with many of them caught with their trousers down in hotels, just as same campuses have become playgrounds of cultists’ degenerate wannabes, corruption and maladministration by university administrators who shamelessly embezzle whatever little funds that trickle down their way from our thieving political leadership. These, among many others, are the awful truths which this outdated union has turned a blind eye to or partnered in entrenching”. There is a saying in the land of my fathers which states that “that one Igbo woman was seen eating dog meat does not mean that all Igbo people eat dog meat”. Mr. Momodu also accused ASUU of stifling reforms in the university and also helping politicians rig elections. On all these and other sundry allegations, I have much to say but this space is not sufficient at the moment, I pray Mr. Momodu to still give me another shot in this space so that the topic can be comprehensively dealt with and this is because I am particularly bothered on the audacity and temerity in which he had made some of these sweeping generalisations.

Let me also add that nobody should come and coerce and intimidate us into submitting to his\her machinations under the premise of fighting “corruption” or under the garb and guise of presidential privileges, come and form for us as it is usually said in Nigerian parlance. The general public and various men and women that still got a voice in them should also rise up to the occasion. This fight is not ASUU’s fight to fatten the purse of its members as people like Mr. Momodu are trying to sell to the world and the public has been made to believe.

It is a battle to keep the soul of the Nigerian University system and at least make university education still affordable for the less privileged. What this whole attitude\disposition of government towards education is clearly suggestive of the fact that it is no longer capable and ready to cater for university education in the country. The main agenda of government is to strip the Nigerian university system of all of its proletarian contents and by so doing, they would have successfully paved the way for the privatisation where the wolves and hyenas would hold sway and dominate the space like a colossus. If this is allowed to happen, then, the middle class and those in the third-world family should kiss goodbye to tertiary, particularly, university education in Nigeria. It is also correct to add that no poor man can afford privatised university education in Nigeria. None. This should not be allowed to happen.

Let me conclude with this observation. The Buhari government’s maneuverings of using propaganda, blackmail, chicanery and rhetoric to bamboozle and hoodwink gullible Nigerians is never surprising to me again. What however surprises me is the fact that an ingenious and intrepid member of the fourth estate of the realm in the stature of Mr. Momodu could be swayed by the antics of the same government he has constantly put on their toes through the instrumentality of his pen. We are truly in interesting times!
––Ade Okopi is of the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies, University of Jos, Jos. He can be reached throughadeokopi@gmail.com