“Promises are only as strong as the person who gives them.” —Stephen Richard
By Omoniyi Salaudeen
Without the risk of sounding too cynical, there is no indication that the prolonged strike embarked upon by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) will end anytime soon. No reprieve yet from either side of the two warring parties involved in the protracted crisis that has paralysed the nation’s ivory tower since February 14, 2022, when the union called out its members to seek redress on sundry issues bordering on the Federal Government’s default on its agreement, the IPPIS payment system, the revitalization of the decaying infrastructure in the university system, among others.
For the first time in well over five months of the commencement of the industrial action, President Muhammadu Buhari only recently made a feeble attempt to intervene in the negotiation that had dragged on for too long, asking the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, to wade into the crisis. For the seeming tiredness, some members of the populace have turned the issue into a butt of a derisive joke that Buhari might not be aware of the ongoing strike until the recent resurgence of the pocket of protests from distrusting students demanding the reopening of their institutions.
Such is the attitude of Mr. President who claimed to be unaware of the threat by terrorists to kidnap him until Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, the pint-sized but cerebral governor of Kaduna State took the terrifying news to his doorstep in Aso Villa because they were both on the radar of the monsters terrorising the whole country. Such is the disposition of a man who “swore to hold this office by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, whether you call me Baba Go-Slow or not.”
Media reports said that Adamu was given a two-week ultimatum by the president to resolve the ASUU strike. But the Senior Special Assistant on Media, Mallam Garba Shehu, came out later to debunk the claim, saying there was no urgency in the matter to warrant any ultimatum.
“The President never directed the education minister to end the strike in two or three weeks. It was the minister himself who hinted of a possibility of an end to the crisis between two and three weeks,” he said.
The two-week expired this past week. But within the time lag, another bombshell fell. The National Executive Committee (NEC) of the ASUU announced a further extension of the strike by another four weeks. Though Adamu has not turned in the much-awaited report, there is no glimmer of hope that the crisis will end anytime soon or in the near foreseeable future under the current economic crunch.
According to the latest report, Nigeria now spends 78 per cent of the Federal Government’s earnings on debt payments and personnel costs. Analysis of this figure shows that debt servicing has exceeded retained revenue by as much as N310 billion in the first four months of 2022. This is the first time the country’s debt service to revenue ratio would hit or exceed 100 per cent.
If there is anybody who may be tempted to deny this glaring evidence of the comatose economy, it is certainly not the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige, who represented the face of the Federal Government while the negotiation lasted. In terms of disposition, Adamu is reticent, suave, and urbane, while Ngige is blunt and down-to-earth. He will always say it as it is.
For this reason, ASUU leaders are not comfortable with Ngige, who they blamed for allegedly constituting a clog in the wheel of the progress of the negotiation toward addressing the crisis. Adamu too has his own grouse against Ngige, claiming that he had since 2016 argued: “that only the Labour Ministry has the mandate to negotiate with striking workers unions in Nigeria.”
The truth is that the figures being bandied around lately are not looking good for the economy. And the crisis within the university system appears to be much deeper than the way the public see it.
This past week, Ngige told whoever cared to listen that the crisis in the ivory tower is a whole basket of problems.
“I have been Minister of Labour and Employment for seven years. Before, we negotiated with ASUU alone, which then suspended its strike. But NASU, SSANU and NAAT were on strike. The non-teaching unions locked the classrooms and lecture theatres. They also shut down electricity and water supply to the universities, which almost led to outbreaks on those campuses.
“So, what I am saying is that negotiation with ASUU will not lead to the reopening of the universities. All of them must be involved in the negotiations,” he said.
What happens after negotiation? Without pre-emptying whatever may be the outcome of the Adamu committee, this is not an auspicious time for anybody to expect an enduring resolution of the crisis.
As the deposed Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, rightly noted in his lecture at the Akinjide Adeosun Foundation, “this is the only country that is grieving at the moment when oil prices have gone up as a result of the Russia/Ukraine war.”
And, of course, without prejudice to its right to industrial action, ASUU should take full responsibility for calling out its members in the twilight of the administration that has had virtually no clear-cut policy direction for education since its inception seven years ago.
Some critics have even questioned the intellectualism of the union leaders who always think that the best way to resolve any disagreement on the issue of welfare is by resorting to strike action while using the revitalization of the university system as bait to attract the public sympathy. Again, there is also a sense in which some concerned stakeholders see the union as collaborating with private universities to kill the public-owned institutions.
In June this year, Afe Babalola University was widely celebrated for ranking number one in Nigeria by Times Higher Education (THE) and first among the 400 best universities in the world. None of the hitherto respected public universities made the list.
This retrogressive development did not happen by accident of time. It was the cumulative results of the incessant strikes that had robbed the university system of its global respectability. Those who are leading the union know too well that advocating revitalization, while at the same time destroying the system is not the way to reclaim the lost glory because it is like building something on nothing. Such an argument turns logic upside down.
Nigeria is a metaphor for confusion. ASUU has only added its quota to the comprehensive failings of the Buhari administration who promised so much, but gives little in return.
By way of quick reference, Buhari’s visit to the Chatham House, London, in the buildup to the 2015 general elections remains one of his finest movements. Being part of his electioneering itineraries, the trip was purposely arranged to secure the endorsement of the Diaspora community in the United Kingdom of his candidature.
And as the presidential hopeful walked languidly into the hall with his Spartan frame to unveil what was in the offing, silence enveloped the atmosphere, regaling his audience with mouth-watering programmes of action well knitted by his handlers. His comportment was decorous and dignified. His face sparkled like a piece of Chinaware.
Dressed in the toga of a harbinger of good tiding, he held his audience spell-bound, reeling out his manifestoes. You could hear the loud applause from the background, punctuating his speech.
He promised to rework Nigeria and make it a livable place, he promised economic prosperity, jobs for the youths, and a corrupt-free society, among other things.
“I as a retired general and a former Head of State, have always known about our soldiers, they are capable, they are well trained, patriotic, brave, and always ready to do their duty in the service of their country. But in the matter of insurgency, our soldiers have neither received the necessary support nor the required incentives to take on this problem. Let me assure you, if I am elected president, the world will have no cause for Nigeria as it has so recently. Nigeria will return to its stable role in Africa. We will pay substantial attention to the welfare of our soldiers in and out of service. We will be tough on terrorism and tough on its root causes by initiating comprehensive economic development and promoting infrastructural development, job creation, agriculture, and industry in the affected areas. We will always act on time and not allow problems to irresponsibly fester. I Muhammadu Buhari will always lead from the front,” he said rhetorically.
But today, a proper audit of his comprehensive failings only shows a direct breach of these promises. Under his watch, the problem of university education has not only festered but has also metastasized into a huge purulent sore. Under his watch, insecurity has assumed a threatening dimension. Under his watch, the economy has virtually collapsed with Nigeria maintaining the leading position as the poverty capital of the world.
With the Senate now dangling an impeachment threat, with an unending ASUU strike, escalating insecurity situation, and rapidly nose-diving economy, it is now understandable why Baba said “the job of president is tough” and he is “eager to go” back to his country home in Katsina.
That is the honest truth from Mai Gasikiya. Nigerians can’t wait to say farewell.