By Sunday Saanu
The industrial action declared by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) on February 14, 2022, which began like a feeble spark gradually turned to a flickering flame. Sadly, with the Federal Government’s cavalier attitude towards containing the flame, the simmering blaze has now become a huge conflagration, burning different interests and destroying not a few life ambitions, with no end in sight, at the time of writing this piece. Indeed, the strike has become a national embarrassment with beleaguered parents and their distraught children scratching their heads in puzzlement!
However, it must be stated that it is not only ASUU members that are aggrieved, other campus-based unions, including the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), Non-Academic Union of Allied and Education Institution (NASU) and National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT), have also gone on strike on similar grounds of poor funding of the university system, poor working conditions, as well as alleged poor welfare.
The strike, which was hitherto being handled by the Labour and Productivity Minister, Dr. Chris Ngige, on behalf of the Federal Government, has not only escalated in cascading discomfort, it has, without doubt, become a problem of profound proportions, coming at a season of sickness when the country is in the throes of convulsions on multiple fronts! Beclouded by banditry, kidnapping, killings and all other forms of insecurity, coupled with a high level of poverty, the country, under the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari, seems overwhelmed, given the plethora of challenges confronting it.
Ngige soon lost the confidence of ASUU leadership in the half-hearted attempt to resolve the crisis, just as his junior in the Ministry, Mr. Festus Keyamo, who came on stage with his own grandiloquent sophistry, compounded the matter as ASUU leadership accused him of dishing out half-truths and outright falsehood, thus, lacking competence to handle the case. While parents, students and other interest groups were praying for a quick resolution of the crisis, so that the students could return to classes, Education Minister, Malam Adamu Adamu, who had hitherto remained reticent over the nagging issue, was said to have promised President Buhari to resolve the crisis within two or three weeks. But after the expiration of the deadline, it is still all cloud without rain. Matter of factly, the discerning could detect a hint of official testiness and tetchiness towards this strike and protesting workers.
Before the commencement of this strike, however, ASUU and other campus-based unions had been driven hither and thither in the course of demanding their legitimate rights from government. An example will suffice here. President Buhari’s government paid arrears of national minimum wage to all categories of federal workers in 2019, whereas those working in the universities did not get their own until April this year. Three years after some other workers in other ministries and agencies had been paid. Clearly, this government’s attitude to education is not only perfunctory but noncommittal. And this is the kernel of the incessant strikes. It is unfortunate that the political elite gleefully ripple over inanities, but deliberately stay placid on vital issues of national interest. Evaluating the way this current strike is being handled, government’s attitude is obviously marked by a great deal of motion but far less movement. In fact, the snail-speed movement towards resolving the crisis has now finally come to a halt as there’s no clear indication of how soon the strike will end. Nobody is talking about it anymore!
Call it what you wish in any linguistic twist of your choice, government’s disposition to education, to me, is not less an attitude of indifference. Some observers have argued that the reason for this lackadaisical attitude of political leaders is because their children are not in the Nigerian university system. A national newspaper even went a step further to publish photographs of the political leaders and their graduating children from foreign universities.
Interestingly, it is said that all problems become smaller if you don’t dodge them, but confront the problems. Ludicrously, the Buhari regime has decided to dodge this problem by resorting to weaponizing hunger against the lecturers and non-teaching staff who are protesting the poor conditions of the ivory towers. Government has stopped their salaries in the last six months in a misguided belief that the striking workers will back down when they have no money. However, it must be pointed out that this satanic strategy is a sad addition to the basket of burdens on the knowledge workers for the striking staff have vowed to remain with hunger rather than go back to work without any concession from the government!
Who will resolve this conundrum? Campus-based unions may appear to be making a deluge of requests, but what is government willing to offer? This is where dialogue is useful. Government must come out and state what it can afford, rather than creating a climate of uncertainty. Now, there is a deadlock. Nobody knows how this strike will be resolved as nobody is talking about it. The political elite seem to be preoccupied with the 2023 elections at the expense of the students whose times are being wasted! Does government know that this lingering strike amounts to a deliberate demarketing of an already battered Nigerian educational system? This situation demands decisiveness and urgency. What stops President Buhari from inviting ASUU leadership and leaders of other unions to a meeting, state what government can offer and plead for their understanding?
However, since there is a stalemate regarding the resolution of this crisis, perhaps it is apposite to call on stakeholders, including traditional rulers, opinion leaders and religious leaders, among others, to prevail on President Buhari to find a creative way to resolve this strike as soon as possible. These students have stayed at home much longer than necessary. These students are losing interest in education. Some of these idle students are becoming the devil’s workshop. While some of the male students have become Internet fraudsters, their female counterparts have become professional prostitutes, parading and patronizing club houses every night!
A one-time Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, once asserted that, throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted, the indifference of those who should have known better, the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most, that has made it possible for evil to triumph. In his own submission, Dante Alighieri postulated that the “darkest places in hell should be reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”
This is indeed a time of moral crisis when stakeholders should stand to be counted. A time President Buhari is feeling unconcerned about the plight of our children is a time of moral crisis! A time Boko Haram activists are celebrating that they have succeeded in banning and proscribing scholarship in Nigeria is a time of moral crisis when those who have been sleeping are not expected to go back to sound snoring. A time millions of university students are rotten at home! A time government has stopped the salaries of university workers including academic and non-teaching staff for more than five months, leaving them to die of hunger and starvation is a time of moral crisis!
It is against this backdrop that one is compelled to call on the Governors’ Forum to wade into this matter, raise this issue with President Buhari. Good enough, Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti state who is the Chairman is a sound and erudite scholar of note. He should be more enthusiastic about this case, more so when his state claims to be a Fountain of Knowledge . He equally professes to be an Awoist with his trademark Awo cap. Mr. Governor, what have you been doing over this matter? Have you raised it at your Forum? Can’t you prevail on President Buhari to dialogue with the aggrieved university workers with a view to putting the strike behind us? Governor Fayemi, it is not enough to be donning Awo’s cap every day, you should be seen as defending Awo’s legacy. Education is one of Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s legacies without which this writer would not have been able to taste education to the university level. Governor Fayemi, please wake up!
Also, traditional rulers have a role to play here. It is said among the Yoruba that “elders should not be present in a market place and allow matters to go awry”. What is going on here? Your children have been sitting idle at home for the past six months and you are comfortable enjoying the company of your queens. With due respect, Sirs, kindly get up and visit President Buhari and broker peace.
What about religious leaders? Yes, some of you may have directed your congregants to pray. After prayers, there should be actions. Christians Association of Nigeria (CAN), Islamic scholars and leaders, get involved. Pay courtesy call on President Buhari. Mount pressure on all these people whose priority is 2023 elections. We know that their children are not here in Nigeria. But you can appeal to them to do the needful.
But where is the National Peace Commission headed by General Abdulsalam Abubakar and Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah? I don’t think this important Commission should be concerned with peace during and after elections. Education of our children is equally much more important. This Commission can step forward and broker peace here. From the body language of this government, quick resolution of this matter is not on its table. This is the more reason they have been lukewarm. By the time electioneering starts next month, nobody will be talking about ASUU strike. Please step in and do what you know how to do best. This is not the time for those who have been sleeping to return to sound snoring, I repeat.
More importantly, one would have expected National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) to mount relentless pressure. Unfortunately, NANS leadership has parodied executive luxury of President Buhari, being chauffeur- driven around, while their co students are wasting away at home. You have been too docile. Has the leadership been settled? Have you been bought? Wake up, and fight for your tomorrow.
Above all, Like every other parent, one is very uncomfortable seeing students who are supposed to be in school, staying at home doing nothing. Four of them are living with me in the University of Ibadan. The cost implication is huge. Some of them would have graduated were it not for this strike! Their ages are irreversible. Their lives are at stake. Their counterparts all over the world are fast moving on in this highly competitive global market. This strike must be seen and handled from a developmental perspective rather than partisan predilection. We shouldn’t leave the students and their parents bewailing their plight without meaningful intervention. Let us all work towards the betterment of the lives of these students. I will be glad to see action from the people I have mentioned as from next week.
President Buhari, no father abandons his children to die in the wilderness of hopelessness and helplessness. I know you are itching to leave, but don’t leave this matter for the incoming administration to handle! Some people allege that you don’t care, but I tell them that you are a caring leader. Prove your critics wrong and justify my endorsement for you. You can do it. Crisis management is a great hallmark of a statesman. We need action from your office, and we need it today.
• Saanu is with the University of Ibadan; [email protected]