Yes, it is true that strikes in Nigerian Universities have become commonplace. Yes it is true, that strikes should be used as a weapon of last resort.
The ongoing national total and indefinite strike declared by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has entered the sixth week. The union, an intellectual arm of the Nigerian working class, embarked on the current industrial action after wide ranging consultations with its members, and series of notices to appropriate governmental authorities, which, of course, like usual, and is traditional with successive governments in Nigeria since the advent of the military, fell on deaf ears.
The current strike is not unrelated to the previous issues and demands, which governments at all levels, notoriously have failed to address. The current struggle is one out of the many, embarked on by university teachers in their avowed determination to ensure the revitalisation of universities and bring back the glory of university education in Nigeria.
What then are the specific reasons for the current strike? They include: “(a) the non-release of over one trillion naira arrears of revitalisation fund for Public Universities in Nigeria (2014 – 2018), (b) non-payment of the arrears of Earned Academic Allowances (EAA) for 2009 – 2017, (c) failure to pay arrears of shortfall in salaries, where some lecturers for upwards of three years were receiving fifty per cent of their salaries, and this they bore with commendable sense of equanimity, (d) poor funding of State Universities, non-implementation of the Earned Academic Allowances (EAA) and non-payment of arrears of Consolidated University Academic Salary Structure (CONUASS) in various State Universities, (e) failure to release the operational license of the National Universities Pension Company (NUPENCO) to prevent retirement problems, and lastly (f) collapse of the 2017/2018 renegotiation of the 2009 FGN – ASUU agreement due to government’s insistence on the introduction of exorbitant tuition fees beyond the reach of Nigerians” (Why ASUU is on Strike, Publication by ASUU NAU).
Some observers of the Nigerian education system are incensed by the regularity of strikes in Nigerian universities, most times declared by university teachers. In their view, these strikes have become one too many, too rampant, often times leading to the disruption of academic calendars, complete closure of universities for months, and lowering of academic standards. Parents too are worried that their children and wards, rather than being in school, are wasting precious time at home, while others become victims to the vicissitudes of the harsh social, economic and political environment.
Yes, it is true that strikes in Nigerian Universities have become commonplace. Yes it is true, that strikes should be used as a weapon of last resort. The truth is also that no lecturer wants to go on strike, but given the depth of decay, the deterioration of public universities, the imminent destruction and death of public university education in Nigeria, the only option left for university teachers is the strike option. It is the only language that those in government hear. A visit to all public universities in Nigeria will bear eloquent testimony to this. From classroom blocks, furniture, staff offices, faculty buildings, student hostels, libraries and laboratories, as inadequate, ill equipped as they are, yet they were put in place at one time or the other, as a result of pressure, or agreement reached after one strike or the other. In one of the congresses of the local branch of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, lecturers had resolved to write Management requesting Management to boldly inscribe “result of ASUU struggle” on the buildings, and other equipment. Lecturers are also parents, and ninety nine per cent of these lecturers have their children in public universities. They want the best for their children, and children and wards of the poor masses of this country. The children of the rich and wealthy are in private universities, and that is if they are in the country. The rest are studying overseas. That is where the political class send their children.
The same way they killed public primary and public secondary education, they also want, by their actions and inactions to sound the death knell of public university education
in Nigeria. This, in the main, is what ASUU strikes are all about. The strikes, more than anything else are driven by a sense of altruism and patriotism. It is driven not only by a passion for one’s job, but more a desire to safeguard the future of the country, for if public university education is allowed to die, then the future of Nigeria, would have been completely mortgaged.
The current strike, like so many others before it, came about as a result of government’s refusal to honour its own part of the bargain reached after collective bargaining. The Federal Government is dilly-dallying over the 2017 Memorandum of Action (MoA). The 2009 FGN-ASUU agreement is overdue for renegotiation, yet, we are still talking about the full implementation of an agreement freely reached by both parties. ASUU kept religiously its own side of the bargain. Federal Government has not been forthcoming.
The propensity to unilaterally dishonor collective agreements, which has become characteristic, or signature tune of all successive administrations since the military incursion into politics seems to be the single most important activator of perennial industrial actions in Nigerian Universities. The story, making the rounds that the Federal Government is insisting on introduction and raising of tuition fees in order to fund university education is one that will meet the angst of the general public, and one that is bound to
be resisted by all unions. Government should look for alternative sources of funding public education in Nigeria. What is required is the political will and courage to reorder priorities, and these virtues, I can vouch, abound in Chris Ngige and Adamu Adamu. Both of them can still do the needful and advise government appropriately. Not to do so is to abandon what we have best known them to do, identify with the popular masses in seeking an amelioration of their collective plight.
Meanwhile, Nigerian public universities are still groaning under the weight of colossal neglect and government insensitivity. Laboratories and libraries are in name only, as the basic appliances, teaching aids, books, journals and periodicals are absent. Classrooms are overcrowded with some students taking lectures under trees, while some seat in make shift blocks. Hostel facilities look more like concentration camps, or camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), lacking in essential facilities, with very poor toilet facilities and sanitation. Some students, even female students are said to bath in the open in some Nigerian universities, and answer nature’s call wherever. Some academic departments have two or three number regular staff. How they can cope with more than 60 courses is better imagined than described. Departments are terribly understaffed, with its concomitant toll on staff productivity, welfare and lifespan.
Most academics are going through immense stress arising out of the compelling exertions to satisfy the demands of the workplace. Yet, they remain united, resolute and insistent, that the right therapy be given to return Nigerian universities back to their past glory, and on a sustained march to progress. The “keep them talking attitude” of the government negotiating team cannot lead anywhere. Developed societies have moved on relying on the researches and ideas emanating from their universities. Nigerian Universities can play same role if they are well funded, and supported to thrive and flourish. The Federal Government should declare a state of emergency in the Nigerian University System, and address pointedly the multiplicity of issues that conspire to undermine university education in Nigeria. The history of the Nigerian University System has shown that ASUU strikes rather than being condemned, should be positively viewed as a bastion of resistance to the destruction of Public University education in Nigeria. The strikes potentially are blessings in disguise.
Prof Nnonyelu teaches Sociology at Nnamdi Azikiwe University and is the National President of Nigerian Anthropological and Sociological Practitioners Association (NASA). Email: [email protected] edu.ng; Phone no: +234 (0) 803 720 2672