With the Muhammadu Buhari administration playing deaf and dumb it’s time for striking university teachers to postpone the fight, writes Bolaji Adebiyi
Obviously frustrated by the prospects of an indefinite strike by the nation’s university teachers under the auspices of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, many Nigerians have started to call for a truce and an end to the raging hostility. In aid to the frustration, several media outlets have yielded their platforms to the complaining public, including notable public intellectuals asking for an end to the dispute.
Unfortunately, the balance of the blame for the prolonged strike is tilting towards ASUU, which many of the complainants now think is intransigent in the face of the clear incapacity of the Muhammadu Buhari administration to either understand the issues or solve them. The ivory tower teachers are said to be behaving like the proverbial in-laws of the Tortoise who tied the creature to the tree for too long as punishment for an infraction of ethics.
An increasing proportion of the public now thinks that ASUU has made its point and should go back to work in the interest of its students and their parents particularly because this administration seems incapable of resolving the issues just as it has failed to tackle all of the other challenges it promised to deal with when it came onboard more than seven years ago.
This view may have gained strength from the government’s increasing efforts to becloud the issues in the public domain as well as wear out and isolate the university teachers. This was what was at play last week when Adamu Adamu, the taciturn minister of Education, addressed the public, claiming that all the demands of the university unions had been met and pointed out that four of the five had opted to go back to work, leaving only ASUU on the battlefront.
The minister suggested that the teachers had remained adamant because of their disagreement with a paltry raise in their pay and the government’s insistence on its no-work-no-pay policy.
Perhaps responding to the rising public outcry that this obvious blackmail of the academics by the government has generated, ASUU has fixed its National Executive Committee meeting for Sunday to review the state of play. Its zonal congresses already met yesterday to make their decisions that would be communicated to the NEC. The hints coming out of the congresses are that the union might be warming up for a prolonged battle to force the government to rethink its propensity for infidelity to its 2017 Memorandum of Agreement.
From the responses of Emmanuel Osodeke, president of ASUU, to the anchors of ARISE News Channel’s Morning Show programme yesterday, it would appear that the hostility is set for prolongation. Pushing the responsibility for the elongation of the dispute to the Buhari administration, the ASUU president called on Nigerians to remain steadfast in holding the government to account for its abysmal budgetary allocation to education, which stands at a miserable 5.39 per cent in the 2022 fiscal plan.
“As citizens, we should not give up,” Osodeke agitated, telling Nigerians that the flank that should be appealed to end the fight is the government that has claimed as its birthright the habit of not keeping to agreements it freely enters into. He argued that the issues are resolvable if only the government will accept to prioritise public education as deserving of the heavy investment that is required to move the nation away from its chronic backwardness towards real and concrete development.
No doubt, the ASUU president did a good job of restating the position of his colleagues that the issues are beyond their personal comfort of better pay and enhanced allowances but the need for a sustainable funding system for public education. According to him, that matter needs to be resolved once and for all otherwise, the barber’s chair’s intermittent crisis will persist.
A part of the problem is the opacity with which the negotiations are done. Under the principle of collective bargaining, parties are enjoined not to externalise discussions and interim resolutions until final agreements are reached and endorsed. While ASUU has kept faith with this principle, the government, as usual, has been very wayward, releasing half-truths that tend to paint the teachers as recalcitrant. So, while the government pretends to have responded to the issues by making concessions, ASUU is unable to give details of the administration’s several reneging on interim agreements acceded to by its negotiating team.
For instance, Adamu claimed that the government had agreed to release N100 billion for earned allowances and an additional N50 billion for revitalisation and that on the basis of this, four of the five unions in the universities, except ASUU had agreed to call off the strikes. But this is not an accurate picture.
By the 2014 MoA with the Jonathan administration, N200 billion was supposed to be released to the universities annually until the agreed N1.2 trillion revitalisation fund is expended. The Buhari administration that took over in 2015 failed to honour this agreement until another strike forced a renegotiation in 2017. Under the 2017 MoA, therefore, the government was to release N100 billion by 2019 and another N50 billion in 2020. These did not happen. These are the same figures the government is promising to pay.
Essentially, the basis of the unions’ return to work is a promise of payment by a government whose trust and integrity deficit is huge. Already, members of the Non-Academic Staff Union have revolted against their leadership for agreeing to the suspension of the strike for two months. No wonder, ASUU is weary.
However, public intellectuals have argued that since it is evident that the Buhari administration has become incapable of doing virtually everything, it is better for ASUU to face that reality, suspend its strike that is not making any headway, and await a new government that is bound to take over in the second quarter of next year.
This is a plausible proposition. Among the Yoruba, you do not engage a madman in a public spat essentially because the bystanders will not be able to decipher between the sane and the insane. In the circumstances that ASUU has found itself, it is expedient for it to review its position and align it with growing public concerns about the prospect of an indefinite strike, which could put in jeopardy the short-term interests of its students and parents.
Adebiyi, the managing editor of THISDAY Newspapers, writes from firstname.lastname@example.org