Will NLC Protest End ASUU Strike?

Despite a two-day national protest by the Nigeria Labour Congress over the continued closure of public universities, the federal government has not changed its lacklustre approach to the implementation of an agreement it brokered with the university lecturers, Gboyega Akinsanmi writes

The closure of public universities entered its 167th day today. By implication, students of these public institutions have been at home for five months and 17 days. Yet, this never occupies a prime place in the priority of the federal government to resolve the dispute as urgently as it could.

Rather, its principal negotiators – the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu and the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige – keep going back and forth, rejecting the reports of its own renegotiation committees and setting up new ones as though public universities had lost their relevance in national development.

To know that the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) wants to continue in office in 2023 despite these obvious flaws, baffles many Nigerians.

 This situation prompted the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Trade Union Congress (TUC) and their affiliates to embark upon a two-day national protest to solidarise with the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Non-Academic Staff Union of Universities (NASU), Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) and National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT) that had been on strike since February 14.

Labour activists, civil society actors and human rights campaigners peacefully marched to the government houses nationwide to register their concerns about the closure of the universities and the government’s failure to honour an agreement it entered with the striking unions in 2009.

 In Abuja, the President of NLC, Comrade Ayuba Wabba, led the protesters from the Unity Fountain to the National Assembly on Wednesday. The leaders of National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) also took part in the protest that complicated traffic congestion in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) with a strong message to rescue the public universities.

The protesters challenged the government to decisively address the demands of the striking lecturers and their non-academic colleagues in all public tertiary institutions. They also challenged the federal government to end the strike, which they argued, had utterly disrupted the academic calendar of the public universities.

But can the protest end the strike in public universities? At least, for two consecutive days, the protest succeeded in drawing the attention of the world to the state of public universities in Nigeria, failure of the government to respond to the public education crisis and the paucity of clearer vision to rescue the institutions from outright collapse under the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari

 Beyond evoking global awareness, the protest may not really push the government to rejig its lacklustre approach to the implementation of the 2009 FGN-ASUU Agreement. This is evident in its penchant for setting up renegotiation committees and rejecting the reports of the committees on the ground that it lacks financial wherewithal to implement the agreement it brokered with the ASUU.

Besides, as shown in its recent balance sheet, Nigeria is now practically running on debt. In the first quarter, for instance, its debt cost was N310 billion more than its actual revenue with its debt burden that increased to $100.1 billion recently. With its gnawing liquidity crisis and deepening insecurity, the government had already prepared its reasons to box the ASUU into the corner again.

Even though the government appeared unruffled by the protest, it may be under undue pressure eventually to address the causes of incessant strikes in the public universities for two reasons. First, as the labour unions observed, the protest was just the first phase of their strategy. The labour unions are subsequently planning a three-day national strike to further push for an antidote if the government fails to respond decisively to the demands of ASUU within the specified time.

 Second, unlike before, the striking lecturers are no longer ready for a compromise that will not elicit the government’s commitment to the 2009 agreement, a trap hole that the ASUU has vowed never to fall into. This resolve is perhaps built on a  premise that previous strikes since the agreement was brokered did not produce a significant outcome before they called them off.

Under Buhari alone, for instance, ASUU had embarked on strike action four times. In 2017, ASUU was on strike for one month. The union went on strike for three months in 2019, nine months in 2020 and its latest ongoing strike will enter its sixth month on August 14. This indicates that the public universities for about 20 months between 2017 and 2022, were closed. President of ASUU, Prof. Emmanuel Osodeke said any progressive  government ought to have addressed such unending crisis as an issue of national emergency.

But why has the government been playing a hide-and-seek game with the striking lecturers? Why has the government failed to honour the 2009 government? For the government, the core rationale relates directly to the deficit of wherewithal to fund the demands of ASUU. In its argument, the government claimed that the country had slid into recession twice within four years and might be plunged into its worst economic doldrums before the end of the year.

For the labour activists, the government is insensitive to the degenerating conditions of public universities nationwide. At the National Assembly, last week, Wabba put forth compelling arguments to justify the government’s insensitivity to the crisis that bedevilled the public tertiary institutions. In the first instance, according to him, the government is not concerned because the children of the less- privileged are the victims.

 In another instance, as some labour leaders observed, the government functionaries are never concerned about the five-month industrial action because it is now fashionable among them to either enrol their children in private universities within the country or in foreign universities in Europe and North America. Hence, whatever happens to the public universities is not their business. 

 For the lecturers and parents, it is a sheer deficit of patriotism and vision for the strategic positioning of the  public institutions on the part of the Buhari’s adminstration. Like most members of Federal Executive Council, Buhari’s children had their tertiary education in the United Kingdom. This trend spurred the Chairman of ASUU, Niger Delta University, Prof. Kingdom Tombra to call for a bill to regulate how children of the government’s functionaries enrol in schools outside the country.

 “This is one of the challenges confronting us as a federation,” Emeritus Professor at the University of Ibadan, Prof. John A. Ayoade said. “Those who are leading do not believe in the country they are leading,” the don lamented. From these perspectives, Ayoade observed that successive governments from 2007 to date do not actually understand the place of public universities in the development agenda of any country that desires a double-digit economic growth, one of the triggers, which according to him, plunged Nigeria into an intractable fiscal crisis that now undermines governance at all levels.

 Rather than exuding so much energy on the implementation of the 2009 FGN-ASUU Agreement, the don believed the national debate should focus on “developing a national strategy for tertiary education and framework for implementation to produce graduates, who can compete effectively anywhere they find themselves on the globe.”

 As it is in the western world, Ayoade canvassed a paradigm shift in the management of public education, an indispensably critical sector, which he argued, Nigeria required for its socio-economic rebirth. On this note, he challenged the political leadership to embrace public universities as a tool for sustainable economic growth if the government can inject significant investments into the sector.

Achieving this lofty feat definitely requires strong political will, which the don said, should start with a holistic review of existing education policies. He argued against the current regime, which under-price the cost of tertiary education. He called for an outright autonomy for universities, though with cushioning strategies to enable indigent students access tertiary education.

 He explained how public universities were run in the 1960s and 1970s with a view to producing graduates for global competitiveness. During these periods, he observed that tertiary education cost a lot of money. However, according to him, the government set up indigent scholarship scheme, disable scholarship scheme and merit scholarship scholarship to guarantee inclusion across all the strata of the society.

Like Ayoade, the Chief Executive Officer of Economic Associates, Dr. Ayo Teriba subscribed to repositioning public universities for the country’s national socio-economic transformation. While Ayoade canvassed a national strategy for tertiary education, Teriba argued for leveraging human capital to redirect the economy from the path of regression to progression.

 He thus explained how China, India and the Philippines, among others, adopted strategies of massively training highly skilled citizens in different fields to meet both domestic and global demands. With this approach, Teriba claimed these countries “have been able to generate funds that help them tackle the roots of economic crises through remittance and employment generation.”

These options are before Nigeria. But the government, especially under Buhari, has not accorded public tertiary education a prime place in its programmes. This perhaps justifies the government’s resort to delay tactics as an approach to the university labour dispute rather than implementing the agreement it entered with the university teachers since January 2009.

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