By Obu Udeozo
She sat up as if stung by a wasp; and declared her stark apprehension over the continuing trend: the palm oil had gone; the kerosene had finished; no beans left; we had some potatoes but no tomatoes; no onions, no maggi and no money. We have passed several Kilimanjaros of financial crises and instability since our 13 years of marriage; but my wife has never confronted me with the despair and devastation in her tone on Monday, 12th September, 2009. When we reconvened in the evening, she espoused that what stirred her anger was that I never seem perturbed nor panic when complete lack of cash or near starvation confronts us in the family. Further details, fortuitously belong to the novel. As the bread winner, husband and head of the family; I awoke to an epic illumination. ASUU’s National President, Professor Ukachukwu Awuzie is also a prophet! In his 20th of August, 2009 declaration he said: It is better to die fighting on our two feet instead of crawling on our knees. It is true this government has instrument of coercion but we know that truth will always prevail.
ASUU’s current strike is indeed that final chapter of a Class War that has been raging silently since independence. Like they say in military parlance; small arms fire low intensity warfare has been going on between excessive wealth and modest wishes among our citizens in this nation. I have volunteered this ultra private opening to this article to demonstrate that ASUU Strike has consequences on the street level. It affects real people across the country: parents coping with erratic school fees; students’ low morale over constant closures; and the desecration of the academic calendar. No amount of borrowing petite cash from neighbours or relatives can ever off –set the payment of children’s tuition fees – as and when due. Once the strike is prolonged the casualty list blossoms! That is the nuclear bomb of Government Logistics.
The ASUU Case and Government’s Posture, is an archetypal Nigerian crisis. University Lecturers’ strikes in an earlier season were so rampant as to elicit public resentment. But those were also the years in which a Professor’s salary in our Federal University was less than Seven Thousand Naira a month. However, whatever the rationale, the cumulative effect of incessant strikes finally deflated the sanctimony of the academic ideal as it is known worldwide. The rampant and wanton closure of schools; without regard to quality or duration of actual teaching / learning led to disillusionment, poor performance, the purchase of certificates, doctoring of Dissertations, and every form of collusion and compromise with an equally dubious and debauched teaching staff in the University system. On the other sphere, radical and sometimes irrational students’ activism made governments overly cautious to prevent protesting undergraduates from burning official vehicles, administrative buildings, or any government, corporate or institutional property that can succumb to flames – within their sight.
The consequence and confluence of these state of affairs ranging from government negligence; the culpability of lecturers and the hooliganism of Nigerian students has finally caught up with the tempo of our education and the quality of our certificates at home and overseas. As a lecturer in English, I have encountered less than 4 –page scripts after a 3 –hour examination in which there is no single correct sentence or meaning in the answer sheets! Our university undergraduates are so apathetic that some never bother to buy or read any books at all. The phenomenon of graduate illiteracy is therefore on the rise: degree holders in Mass Communications or English that fail to function in newspaper houses; medical doctors who consult textbooks on their laps in consulting rooms; a trend which Professor Chukwuma Soludo, estimated that about 60 % of Nigerian undergraduates were unemployable. Today almost the entire male population in Eastern Nigeria has quit academics. And there is an international reverberation to this effect. Owing to demoralization, racketeering, cheating and fraud; other nations and institutions overseas now subject Nigerian degrees and certificates to scrutiny, more portent than gene –tech scientists scurrying over AIDs Virus with electron magnification. Even our PhD holders are compelled to pre –trial examinations for nursing careers in Europe and America. That was the first phase of the decay. Now, the insidious monsters have emerged full scale. And the current strike is its fresh and final face. What is the difference between Lord Lugard, Sir John Macpherson; and Chief Gamaliel Onosode, and The Hon. Federal Minister of Education Sam Egwu? At the root of the current impasse is the critical concept of the honest broker. Who is a bona fide stake holder in terms of our university policy and her subsistence? The stunning revelation in ASUU’s face –off with our government officials is that the negotiators do not have any stake in the on –going imbroglio because their children are ensconced in foreign universities. The Hon. Minister for Education offered what seemed like a splendid rebuttal when he said that ASUU officials also have their wards in campuses across the globe.
Hidden between these two worldviews is a terrible dimension that is almost genocidal in its consequence: the truth and reality of a class war. There is no crime in offering one’s off spring the best of education; and no legal horizon where this privilege can occur. There is nothing sinister or unseemly about a Harvard, Oxford, Witwatersrand or Toronto degree. But we also know the income portfolio which can inspire, fetch and sustain such an aspiration. Not all wealthy men are government officials. Not every luxury was looted from the public purse. There are Honourable men and women who can afford any manner of education, in any nation of the world.
And there is nothing wrong with that. Let us assume that not even one government official in Nigeria is corrupt; and those who have their off spring in overseas universities are conducting legitimate transactions.
But that is where the concession stops!!! It is immoral and criminal that those whose children by birth and choice and prestige are above Ahmadu Bello University Zaria; those whose youths eclipse The University of Nigeria Nsukka; those whose taste and pedigree is superior to the University of Lagos; persons whose wards sneer and cannot tolerate The University of Ibadan and / or our numerous native institutions across this country – will again hold us to ransom –with the claim that their decisions are in our BEST INTEREST. Since independence, the Nigerian nation has waged an unending battle for integrity and financial accountability across all spheres of existence. Some Nigerians have acquired money which seven genealogies of mankind cannot exhaust. Some people simply have no inclination whatsoever for the pursuit of material wealth as an end in itself. And there is nothing wrong with that – either. Today, those who have acquired money, willy nilly; and can afford to spend same in whatever shores they please; now sit astride the citizens of this country and pretend to co-ordinate our national interest with dissociation and disinterestedness.
What stake has a man whose children have graduated from Yale or Columbia with the prolonged ASUU Strike in The University of Maiduguri or Federal University of Technology Yola? Nothing. The truth is that comfort and financial security separate and insulate government officials who are waging war against ASUU on our behalf – and the rest of Nigeria. When The Federal Government refuses to sign agreements reached with ASUU; when inoculated political appointees threaten ASUU with ‘no work, no salary’ rule’, and implement same: they are banking on that portentous weapon which perforates even rocks and metal: HUNGER. When you starve a man enough; in time, he will yield or expire. It is a tool employed by oppressors across time. The Colonial masters did it for Her Majesty The Queen. Our contemporary overlords understand the instrument’s efficacy and have harkened to it. But there is a moral side of the struggle. The ASUU position is that this is a strike to end all strikes: because beyond the trivialized issue of equitable pay; The Union is fighting against infrastructural decay in Nigeria’s University system.
Again, as a witness, I speak as a lecturer that no degree of madness, illness or indisposition would warrant a member of staff to use the Lavatories in The University of Jos’s Permanent Site – for what we may call the ‘senior –order ’relief! In my 18 November, 2008 Lecture to All Nigeria Students of English and Literary Studies Conference, I wondered what it would cost to renovate University toilets and urinary faucets; and who will rescue us from antiquated contraptions after nearly 30 years of their existence; nobody thinks it proper to change, re-paint, or even repair crude facilities we endure in the name of campus life.
An Asian senior staff once told me the ordeals Nigerian undergraduates in the natural sciences under go: no access to elementary laboratory equipment, lack of reagents, absence of modern electron microscopes; and that without reliable power supply most experiments in microbiology, pharmacy, chemistry and medicine are compromised or cannot even be conducted because they depend on accurate time –schedules for effective results. ASUU Strike is therefore also about bequeathing the Nigerian nation with a university infrastructure and policy which will endure across seasons and international comparisons. It is about treating our students’ population with mercy and sensitivity; about providing university campuses with adequate and clean water supply; it is about upgrading their needs for accommodation on campus and promoting private –sector sponsored initiatives over realistic off –campus alternatives. Many students have lost their lives in sectarian crises around this zone for living in violence –prone corners of certain cities. In one of the most lucid expositions on the current ASUU crisis, Professor Omotoye Olorode states that: The ills of the Nigerian University System will not disappear via pontifical
Sermons and blanket and recurrent vilification of lecturers! Students who have no books to read, who stand outside the auditoria to receive lectures, who are ill –prepared for exams, are likely to cheat and prostitute themselves. Young people who are unleashed in their thousands on ill –provisioned universities and university towns will join cults and turn into cannibals! Young girls who have no place to live decently or food to eat adequately are likely to become prostitutes. Lecturers who work in make -believe universities, like the ones we are asked to surrender to, will never be proper academics! That is the political economy of the crisis. That is what ASUU insists must change.
Continuing he said: … nobody except ASUU worries any more about the conditions of our students. As for the parents, the truth is that they are simply too disorganized by poverty, low wages and unemployment to apprehend the terrible conditions under which our children are living and learning. They simply want their children to go and collect a degree; any type of degree! … it is frequently forgotten that ASUU members are also parents! And most of our children are in universities where we work, and not in UK or USA! In the seven –day ultimatum, The Imo State Governor Ikedi Ohakim, gave to the striking lecturers of Imo State University; you see the classic class war in full play. Said he: If the school could be closed for several months through strike, the government can also close it even for one year to enable it recruit new lecturers. This is the cavalier –mindset with which university education has been run for several decades in Nigeria: the disposable tissue mentality; less than ‘pure water’ nylon sachets you fling across the streets. Our military rulers who actually had no stake whatsoever in our academy actually closed schools sometimes for nearly a year – and nothing happened – apparently. But the cumulative rot, of despair, and despoliation was inescapable. Today, the ailments afflicting Nigeria’s standard of excellence in education arise from that power –play between those who had nothing to loose; and those of us who have no where else to run to or even to hide! That is the truth of our situation. We now have new overlords in Nigeria, a coterie of cherubic and moist faced denizens who have no rivalry, rancour or divisions at their pecks in their stratosphere. In their perfumed comfort zones they own the financial clout to outlast any logic, mercy, reasonableness or even justice. Those tigers and ostriches, those elephants and giraffes, those crocodiles and sharks of our current dispensation across the country have become a singularity across ethnic groups: a consensus and one right –ventricle of conviction – whose FIAT will outlast our will power or supplications because they exist outside the periphery of our common sweats and tears. That is the challenge our citizens have not woken up to grasp.
Again, The ASSU National President said: No work, no pay rule,cannot bend the union’s resolve …. Nigeria has the resources to improve our universities. What we lack is the political will. The current struggle is not ASUU struggle alone but the battle for all of us Nigerians to have the best education for our children …. Nigeria should be able to create an environment where every child will have access to the best education at the university level, no matter the status or financial standing of his parents. That is the ideal sentiment, as they say in physics; ‘under normal temperature and pressure’. But the bugaboo, the oversight and therefore sickness is that the Nigeria public do not yet appreciate that they are panting under new undertakers! Those who have nothing at stake whatsoever, in the mass liberation of our fellow citizens; who are not involved by bloodline, emotional quotient or genotype; over the lift off and welfare of our academy and her eternal aspirations – have polished python clubs to hammer our dreams into premature sunset.
Alhaji Umaru Dikko was once quoted as saying that Nigerians were not hungry because we do not yet have citizens eating from refuse dumps. We have had to endure such pachydermatous leadership in this country. People who lubricate the steel muscles of our statutes and laws to subdue popular aspirations and our communal good. Today, we are again under White men from Edo, Abakaliki, Awka, Kastina, and Calabar, who have rolled out the arsenal of joint munitions to compel our stomachs to eventual surrender. Fortunately, God has imbued in the souls of men such resilience that can withstand swords and armoured tanks for the sake of transcendental values. That was why Bobby Sands the IRA Activist went down in hunger strike during Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as British Prime Minister. From Nelson Mandela to Mahatma Gandhi; the tales of human liberation areinstances of forfeiture and sacrifice over our biological needs for the superordinate goals of advancing the human species. No less for The On –going ASUU strike.
Nobody cares that Nigerian university lecturers are migrating to Ghana, Ivory Coast and South Africa in search of better conditions of service. Nobody cares that no Nigerian university is listed among the 1000 Best Universities worldwide. Nobody cares that a First Class Economics Graduate in her first employment among our merchant Banks earns a monthly salary of One Million Naira. Nobody cares that a Local Government Councillor with a WAEC Ordinary Level Certificate, earns an annual salary of 12.8 Million Naira, among our political rulers of the moment. Nobody cares that a university Professor in Nigeria earns 3.9 Million Naira, a year; while a Permanent Secretary of commensurate qualification earns 22 Million Naira, per annum. Nobody cares that such salary disparity is contributing to the Brain drain that is daily eroding the residual talent pool left in our academy. Nigeria has been under the grip of buccaneers in the corridors of power. The battle is no less symbolic than the Bolsheviks struggle against the Tsarist Regime in Pre – Revolution Russia. The import of the face –off is no less severe than The Jacobins’ upsurge in revolutionary France, or even more recently the check mating of Romanians against Nicholae Ceaucescu in 1989. Nobody understands and nobody cares that those negotiating on our behalf have nothing to loose whatsoever even if this current university strike lasts for 6 months, One Year, 2 years or even forever; because they simply have nothing to loose: since they are merely our superintendents and the fresh Lord Lugards among us.
.Udeozo, the winner of The Pat Utomi Book Prize for Poetry in Nigeria, 2006, writes from Psychology Department, University of Jos, Plateau State