Henry A. Onwubiko, Ph.D
History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Letter from Birmingham Jail. —Martin Luther King Jnr.
In the past few decades, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), has languidly undergone metamorphosis from a Union of visionary patriots to an elitist trade union with Peacock characteristics. It has become the bird who from pride and over-consumption, forgot how to fly. Its revolutionary flame which heralded so much promise for a just and egalitarian rebirth of our ailing country and attracted our most sagacious citizens at home and abroad to join the University system with ASUU as the passage of enlightenment to our national liberation, began to generate more heat for the nation than light.
Gone were the days when ASUU glittered with patriotism and a bellicose posture more influential and motivational to the Nigerian people than their government of kleptomaniacs. Those were times when ASUU shared a vision of national liberation with other labour unions and their umbrella organizations such as the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and others. Then, ASUU with its intellectual labour power did not discriminate against other forms of labour and made equity a principle. It also showed no evident tendency to exploit Nigerian students and consciously demonstrated itself as the head-leaner of a triumvirate leadership with the other labour unions and students as they strove to tackle neocolonialism and actualize the project or the birth of a productive and self-reliant new Nigeria.
The patriotic leaders of ASUU also bequeathed important lessons in frugal living through their choices of transportation, accommodation and consumption as they let their lives speak for them. They encouraged openness and criticism, just as in debates and meetings, they welcomed democratic centralism. ASUU was not for them a means of primitive accumulation but a vehicle for emancipation. Each was vigilant to correct the historical, indiscriminate appetites and patterns of consumption among other corrupt tendencies of the petit-bourgeoisie lurking in the bosom of each member, and periodically updated their rules in their constitution to guide their decorum and match the changing times.
Seldom did these patriots compromise their rights and duty to choose their leaders for privileged positions and a criminal alliance with university chief executives in the quest for primitive accumulation. Well aware of student power and the amount of money that could be extorted from their large population, every university administration exerted its best effort to capture the executive branch of the student union government and appointed a loyal academic staff to the privileged and lucrative position in money-making as the Dean of Students. Only a patriotic leadership of ASUU could ensure the emergence of a free student union which could protect the student body from exploitation. Also patriotic ASUU leaders served as staff advisers to the numerous student organizations on campus and gave political education in word and deed, as they matched in tandem with their student comrades towards their collective vision of national liberation.
In the Sciences and the Arts, ASUU patriots, many who had returned from Europe, America and other parts of the African continent as the Golden Fleece, busied themselves with their Nigerian compatriots to mold students with knowledge and skill passionately distilled from the truth. For them Nigerian students were the determinant productive forces to dismantle the neo-colonial tentacles of imperialism and transform Nigeria to an industrialized Pan-Africanist and self-reliant nation, devoid of its present mass poverty. ASUU patriots supported student protests against the lack of water and electricity in the hostels, the incessant increase in school fees, or the imposition of unjust levies; the blocked and leaking sewage pipes and the over-crowding in the hostels that reduced the living conditions in the hostels into prisons. As long as the popularity of ASUU soared, the nation’s narrative and ears belonged to ASUU.
But the process of primitive accumulation which is turning ASUU into landlords, big farmers, primary and secondary school owners, investors in the stocks of Shell, Mobil and other multinational corporations, had gradually continued to transform ASUU into an elitist trade union, insensitive to its student victims with a conspiratorial silence surpassing that of the graveyard.
It was the patriotism of ASUU together with its shared vision with Nigerian students and labour for National liberation that led to the nation-wide protest against the Structural Adjustment Program, the indiscriminate privatization of our public assets and other anti-people neoliberal prescriptions recommended by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and implemented by the Nigerian military junta. It was also the patriotism of ASUU and its triumvirate leadership with the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) joined by Civil Society that led to the erection of popular street barricades and mass uprisings which terminated military rule, ushered in the Campaign for Democracy and the present democratic dispensation in Nigeria. Great Patriots of ASUU were responsible for making ASUU a house-hold name even in the remotest armpit of the nation. They won for ASUU the narrative and a national voice. ASUU was only to issue its demands against any Nigerian government and it was echoed as an ultimatum by Nigerian students. It was supported in synergy with additional demands by the Nigerian Labour Congress and echoed in our streets and motor-parks by the downtrodden majority. Guided by its patriotic vision over the years, the nation narrative belonged to ASUU.
Past governments were always quick to settle with ASUU at the end of every strike or face the wrath of Nigerian students, workers and the wandering majority. The won increments from the strike were adjusted to the salaries of ASUU members – living and non-living, fictitious and real workers, sabbaticals and non-sabbaticals, original and those who have cloned themselves in other universities and satellite campuses, workers entitled to promotion arrears, and those denied such arrears – all possibly known or unknown to the chief executives and bursars of our universities. Sometimes, money were further injected to neutralize the ever recurring demand of university underfunding to augment the amorphous “internally generated revenues”, which makes the booty for primitive accumulation more attractive to these gladiators.
•Onwubiko, is a Professor and Head, Department of Biochemistry, University of Nigeria, Nsukka