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Pick your fights, ASUU members

Pick your fights, ASUU members
July 22
07:24 2022

Discussions about strikes by lecturers in the public universities in Nigeria have since assumed a life of their own at various fora. As it is in football where millions of Nigerians are self-certified coaches and can always tell why their teams win or lose, all of a sudden, virtually everyone knows what or who is right or wrong in a situation that threatens the very survival of our apex tertiary education. While I do not claim to have a complete grasp of all the issues surrounding the perennial closure of our ivory towers, I am not a stranger to them either. Having had my undergraduate schooling at the University of Benin, Benin City in the 1980s and later obtained my higher degrees at the University of Ibadan – the nation’s last and first of the first-generation universities respectively- both owned by the federal government, and also privileged to teach in a federal university at the moment, let me express my thoughts here, sincerely.

In doing so, I choose not to employ almighty statistics to analyse the demands the government claims to have met and what some critics see as the high-handedness and obstinacy of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). A lot of that is already in the media arena. As is usually the case in prolonged disagreements and quarrels, lines between facts and fiction get blurred with time and you are let with a situation my lecturer once described as ‘faction’. Last week, a colleague sent me a chat saying that Dr Chris Ngige, Minister of Labour and Employment, was being used to cause confusion in the ongoing crisis. My question to her was: “By who, is he not a part of the government?” For most lecturers, Mallam Adamu Adamu, Minister of Education, may as well be another anathema in the current quagmire.

As for President Muhammadu Buhari, their boss and upon whose desk the buck stops, he does not appear to be in possession of all the details and arguments necessary for informed and decisive decisions on the matters in contention. His ‘enough is enough’ comment made last week from the comfort of his home in Daura in relation to the lecturers’ strike has only added petrol to the flames. It is difficult to ascertain what he actually meant to achieve with that. That it came at the time when ASUU members were under the illusion that negotiations with their employers had been concluded, only awaiting the president’s endorsement, further dampened hopes for quick and amicable resolution. Some attribute Buhari’s seeming aloofness to lack of adequate communication between him and his aides. Others simply write him off as not having genuine interest in instituting a healthy education sector. But now that he has given Adamu two weeks to resolve the conflict, five months into the impasse, very few persons would expect concrete outcomes soon. That pessimism is understandable. Should Nigerians look forward to any sustainable answer from one individual and within a very short time after series of attempts by several governmental, cultural, religious and industrial entities?

I am not too sure if ASUU has properly articulated its positions to the satisfaction of the other critical stakeholders, especially students, parents, guardians and the rest publics but, at the heart of the agitations, in my view, is the fight to perpetuate and nourish the very soul of public universities in Nigeria. Even if some of the methods adopted by the lecturers are faulty, surely, the credibility and desirability of the mission are indisputable. Not too many people are aware that the bulk of the monies in contention is for the revitalisation of the various institutions, which means that individual lecturers will not gain directly from them. What concern can be more noble than that? But for the struggles embarked upon by the past generations of dons, a large percentage of the amenities in our institutions would not have been. One major motivation of lecturers in the pursuit of their cause today, in the face of daunting odds, is the need to keep with that tradition. No self-respecting trade union would let down its guards easily. A truth that should not be ignored is that majority of Nigerian families cannot shoulder university training, hence the push to keep the government in. Over time, ASUU has felt compelled to defend the right of Nigerian youths, particularly the less-privileged, to advanced learning.

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In prosecuting that goal, however, the union which proudly parades an enviable pedigree should urgently wake up to some pertinent present truths. The first is that times are changing faster than was anticipated even in the recent past. With that comes, inevitably, shifts in capacities, perceptions, values, dispositions and strategies. When that defining document was signed between the government and ASUU in 2009, the realities then were radically different from the ones now. The one revised under the last administration is also far from being implemented, unfortunately. The lesson here is that, time was when governments were a continuum. Not anymore. The pain of the university teachers is compounded by the fact that while official cries of shortage of funds and appeals for sacrifice fill the air, functionaries of state are yet to lead the way in that regard. Instead, reckless spending of public funds has continued unabated.

For long, ASUU members have been bearing burdens that should not be theirs primarily. In societies that place premium on education, the legislature as representatives of the people, civil society, alumni associations, parents, students and the enlightened segment of the populace constantly mobilise themselves to protect the integrity of academic organisations. The protests being planned for next week by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) to support ASUU could signify a welcome departure from the docility that has come to describe the weary population. It could also mark the prospect for a better appreciation of lecturers’ efforts, self-assigned troubles largely misunderstood and dismissed right now by those who should be thankful.

In the past, lecturers and students were usually on the same page. It is a different world now, one in which some branches of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), the main target beneficiaries of the industrial action, randomly threaten their teachers and ‘order’ them to return to work. The current financial condition of Nigeria makes sufficient educational funding very difficult, if not impossible. Perhaps, if ASUU can look the other way while commensurate tuition fees are charged, most homes will realise the enormity of the crisis and comprehend its role more. The heaven will not fall, in any case. This posture of “the defender of the universe’ assumed by the strikers has brought needless disrespect and disdain from unexpected individuals and groups. People hardly mention lecturers when they count the victims of the closure of universities because they are often viewed as the aggressors.

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As a critical component of the university system, the union should invest more energy in the enhancement of the wellbeing and entitlements of its members. It should engage the government harder in order to extract better conditions of service. That would not be selfish at all. Self-love is an inalienable law of life, after all; for there is only one material existence. When medical doctors are tired of shouting for equipment, they quietly establish private clinics where patients patronise, thankfully. Cottage universities are impossible here, so, lecturers, many of whom are in the process of losing their dignity altogether, should wear new sets of gloves and face their professional battles squarely. A friend once said that even if lectures are held under trees, like what obtains across the country in many primary and secondary schools, Nigerian parents will still send their children there.

Dr Ekpe is a member of THISDAY editorial board.



Views expressed by contributors are strictly personal and not of TheCable.

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