The incessant strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, has been an important subject in Nigeria’s public space for months now. This is because of the union’s current industrial action which began in February. Like many other issues, ASUU’s strike continues to highlight Nigeria’s inability to become a nation in the real sense of the word. It highlights our inability as Nigerians to responsibly and successfully manage our affairs, especially in situations of conflict. In the about five decades of its existence, ASUU’S actions have literally made the union a synonym of the strike, with no significant result to show – for the union or the Nigerian society. This then begs the question of whether the union is past its relevance or not.
The Union, at its founding in 1978, had a primary objective of demanding the rights of academic staff in Federal and state universities in the country. The development of Nigeria’s higher institutions of learning is, at best, secondary. Yet, ASUU’s preferred medium for pursuing its interest has been to literally hold the country to ransom for months, repeatedly. How is it doing that? By selling its interest to Nigerians as their (Nigerians) interest.
In 2008, the Union embarked on a series of warning strikes to press a range of demands that included an improved salary scheme. A year later in June 2009, the Union ordered its members in government-owned universities to proceed on an indefinite strike over disagreements with the Federal Government. Again in July 2013, the Union embarked on a strike that lasted more than five months, demanding adequate funding for public universities and the payment of ASUU members’ earned allowance – which was in arrears of more than N90 billion. The same thing took place in 2016 and 2020 when ASUU’s strike grounded academic activities for nine months.
In the current episode, the union had earlier gone on a month warning strike on 14 February, extending it by another eight weeks that came to an end on May 9, 2022 (was earlier written as; “which comes to an end today, May 9, 2022” – on the author’s ‘Medium‘ page). ASUU has continued the strike since then, and it’s still ongoing as this article is being updated, more than five months since it began. The current strike revolves around; the revitalization of public universities, failure to pay earned academic allowances and the University Transparency Accountability Solution, UTAS, promotion arrears, renegotiation of the 2009 ASUU-FGN agreement, and inconsistencies in the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) payments. While ASUU has played a major role in the disruption of academic activities for decades, the irresponsibility and nonchalance of government cannot be excused.
Successive governments have mismanaged the country’s education sector. While existing schools are underfunded and in terrible shape (with shrinking capacity), the government in its wisdom – or lack of it – continues to establish new institutions of higher learning. The proliferation of universities in Nigeria has rightly attracted criticism from the leadership of ASUU who tagged its ‘constituency projects. ASUU’s National President, Professor Emmanuel Osodeke, in expressing the Union’s take, reportedly noted that; “Our position on that had been that the Federal Government is toying with the future of the society. They are turning universities into constituency projects where every village must have a higher institution; the purpose is not to have good universities and a good environment for academic excellence”.
In support of ASUU’s position, a renowned legal practitioner and proprietor of a private university, Aare Afe Babalola in his Vanguard newspaper article on 23 February 2022 said; “Truly, the establishment of universities by the Nigerian federal and state governments without a sustainable plan of adequate funding is one which calls for concern”. “To this end, one cannot but agree with the Union [ASUU] that the funding and upgrading of the old universities to international standards is a better call than merely establishing mushroom institutions which will, in the nearest future, suffer the same fate of neglect as the current institutions”, he added.
While the demands of ASUU are legitimate, the union has been naive in the way it’s been pursuing these demands, holding millions of Nigerian students to ransom in a conflict they are hardly a party to. Nigeria’s challenges are numerous, and ASUU’s demands are certainly not the worst of them, and cannot take the top spot on our priorities list. There are several other issues that are more important and deserve more urgent attention than the things ASUU is holding us to ransom for. Nigeria has been plagued by challenges in all areas of life, including security, economy, healthcare, infrastructure, poor wages (made worse by inflation), and destructive politics, among others.
ASUU’s contribution to these national/societal challenges is not unknown. From mismanagement of the institutions to intimidation and oppression of students to widespread plagiarism allegations, etc. ASUU’s members’ role in our worsening political space is also public knowledge, especially in their significant role in rigged elections while serving as electoral umpires. How about their regular rancor when it is time to elect/appoint new Vice-Chancellors, as seen at the University of Ibadan after the expiration of the tenure of its immediate past VC, Professor Idowu Olayinka? Members of ASUU embark on strike for months, yet expect to be paid salaries, for jobs they did not do.
With the continued lack of success in its chosen approach, why has ASUU not seen the need to explore other means in pursuing its ends? This highlights the Union’s unproven claim to scholarship and explains why a lot of Nigeria’s supposed graduates lack the ability to critically analyze issues and solve problems, with an increasing number of employers lamenting the poor quality of graduates entering the labor market. How do universities in other places get funding? While there is significant funding by the government, other sources of funding include research grants, innovation, investment income, and patent rights, among others. An example is the potentially huge financial impact of the gene-editing technique, CRISPR, whose ownership is still in dispute between Jennifer Doudna, professor of chemistry and molecular biology at UC Berkeley, and Feng Zhang, at the Broad Institute of Harvard and M.I.T.
The members of the staff of Nigeria’s Higher Institutions of learning, especially the academic staff, are simply not living up to their title as scholars. With faculties and departments in Engineering, Sciences, Business, Economics, Agriculture, Arts, etc, it is strange that no significant discoveries, inventions, or business ideas have emerged from our universities. It appears all they do is the metaphorical ‘copy and paste’, with no original additions to various bodies of knowledge. If you ask them, their response will probably be that ‘there is no funding’. You then wonder how private entities get funding for various ideas, in this same country. In a February 7, 2022 report, Nairametrics noted that “Startups operating in the Nigerian economy raised a sum of $1.65 billion through seed and series fundings across 91 deals in 2021”.
No end in sight?
While the Nigerian public remains divided over ASUU and its incessant strikes, many students have expressed displeasure over what they perceive as the Union using them as leverage and bargaining tools to achieve whatever their demands may be. The frustration of students is understandable as the frequent interruptions in the academic calendar have constituted a clog in the realization of their individual pursuits. The President of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), Comrade Sunday Asefon, was reported to have lamented that; “Nigeria students have wasted more than enough time at home doing nothing. With this current situation now, students have wasted time that is enough for them to finish a semester”.
Also expressing disgust with the continued closure of the universities, the National President of the National Parent Teacher Association of Nigeria, NAPTAN, Alhaji Haruna Danjuma said “We cannot continue to waste the time of our children. They are staying at home more than in school now. It is unfortunate that we are yet to get over the issue of the closure of our higher institutions incessantly”. Other observers have even suggested that the incessant strikes by ASUU are a mere attempt to hoodwink the government into lining their [ASUU and its members] pockets, with many insisting that the Union has significantly contributed to the rot in the country’s education system.
How does one explain the fact that Nigerian students pay school fees and other fees, even paying additional sums for late payments, yet the people who were hired and are paid to handle the other side of the transaction continue to deny the students what they paid for? Despite decades of using industrial action as a way to pursue its interest, ASUU has recorded no significant result in the improvement of its members’ welfare, talk more of improvement in the country’s education system. Strangely, all these issues appear to have evaded ASUU’s consciousness, as it continues to display an overrated sense of relevance.
- Seun Lonimi (email@example.com) writes on Politics Today.
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