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ASUU’s unending strike actions

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Ehi Braimah

By Ehi Braimah

MON, 28 DEC, 2020-theGBJournal- After what seemed like eternity, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) called off its nine-month old strike. At a press conference in Abuja on Wednesday December 23, 2020, Biodun Ogunyemi, President of ASUU, announced a “conditional suspension” of the strike. Nine months is a long time for students to be at home doing nothing – it is the equivalent of a full academic session and a baby can be born after nine months from conception. This is not the first time ASUU will embark on a long industrial action. In 1988 when the body was 10 years old, ASUU declared a nationwide strike that lasted for about 21 months which led to its proscription on August 7 that year by the military administration of General Ibrahim Babangida. Two years later, ASUU bounced back but another strike was again banned on August 23, 1992.

Since then, we have witnessed several regional or national strike actions. For example, the June 2001 ASUU/federal government re-negotiated agreement that was not signed was the cause of another indefinite strike declared on June 22, 2009. No parent or guardian enjoys the ugly scenario of long strikes. ASUU embarked on the recently suspended “total, comprehensive and indefinite” strike action which began on March 23 after a two weeks warning strike that was called on March 9.

Students without a doubt are usually bored to death with all kinds of ideas playing games with their minds, and to know that the strike period coincided with the coronavirus season amounted to a double whammy – university campuses would have been shut down anyway. In fact, even with the suspension of ASUU strike, the National Universities Commission has issued a directive to the effect that all universities are to suspend academic activities until further notice due to the second wave of coronavirus.   

To be fair to university lecturers, they have been very consistent with their shopping list; not anything outrageous in my view. The dispute became a festering sore because the federal government did not honour the agreements reached with ASUU since 2001 and then 2009. Between then and now, government officials come and go through a revolving door of duplicitous behaviour and lack of sincerity thereby portraying ASUU as the recalcitrant party.

To the best of my knowledge, children and relations of ASUU members are also affected by strike actions which are clearly an ill-wind that does no one any good. But I fear that ASUU might return to the trenches again which will be very unhelpful as the fate of students will continue to hang in the balance. Strikes by university teachers are a nagging concern because they have become too frequent.

How did we get here? The terms of the 2009 agreement – that was 11 years ago — between ASUU and the federal government has been the bone of contention. In simple language, ASUU wants a better academic environment from the perspective of better funding, academic freedom and university autonomy. The position of ASUU is that government is an unwilling partner in the development of university education in the country. What is the evidence? We have half-baked graduates who cannot spell their names and brain drain as well as money drain has become almost irreversible – university teachers are leaving in droves to take up appointments outside Nigeria.

You really cannot fault or blame them. Due to poor remuneration, ASUU members are faced with two survival options: go into private practice even when they are still on government pay-roll or search for greener pastures elsewhere. Unfortunately, our hapless and helpless students who cannot tell when they will graduate due to incessant strikes are at the receiving end of the face-off between ASUU and government. This situation is unacceptable. I’m using this opportunity to appeal to ASUU to lift their “conditional suspension” to save the future of our students.

Let them give Chris Ngige, the Labour and Employment Minister, the benefit of the doubt. Nigige boasted recently that he will ensure ASUU does not resume the strike. That is a good feeling. What the Honourable Minister is saying – and we can hear him loud and clear – is that he will do everything that is humanly possible under the sun to find a lasting solution to the dispute. Let someone shout Halleluyah! I hope Ngige knows that ASUU and other critical stakeholders will hold him to his pledge because that would be the ultimate test of his leadership skills.

Enough damage has been done to the image of government in the constant face-off with ASUU, and I dare say that in the court of public opinion, ASUU appears to be having the upper hand. It means the federal government must wake up and deal with the issues head-on once and for all – the collaboration and engagement must continue. More importantly, Chris Ngige, Adamu Adamu, the Minister of Education and Prof Abubakar Abdulrasheed, Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC), should work together to develop a framework to revitalise Nigeria’s tertiary institutions. By the way, what is the position of the Education Minister in this matter? He has been very quiet or is it that he working from behind the scene? It appears only Ngige, or so it seems, is the only key government official on ASUU’s firing line. My view is that Adamu should step out of his shadow and join Ngige to resolve the issue of ASUU’s unending strike actions.

I can testify that the quality of learning, scholarship and research in our universities have dropped to abysmally low levels, and our global ranking is very poor. Why should anyone be surprised; what we have are mushrooming of universities and most of them are glorified secondary schools. Once you are able to lobby and charm your way through the approving authorities, a university license will land on your laps.

In spite of this development, Nigeria still does not have enough tertiary institutions to cater for the teeming number of applicants seeking university admission every year. Early this year, the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) disclosed that over 1.9 million candidates registered for the 2020 Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME), the highest registration in the 41-year history of the Board. The irony is that the number of university admissions is limited. In a country with a population of over 200 million people, we have only 172 universities out of which 79 are private universities owned by individuals, Christian and Muslim organisations, while the rest are owned by the federal and state governments. These universities have a student population of only 2 million representing 1% of Nigeria’s population, according to Prof Abdulrasheed.   

No nation can make progress and compete globally without quality education. Due to poor funding, our universities have become a shadow of what they used to be resulting in decaying infrastructure, lack of maintenance of existing facilities, absence of rigorous learning and research, and a myriad of other problems. It explains why so much money in hard currency is spent on outbound students by those who can afford it, especially to study in Canada, United States, United Kingdom, UAE, Germany, South Africa, Ukraine, and Ghana. University lecturers know that strike actions are counter-productive because they affect the performance of students arising from disruption of academic calendars but it appears they are helpless – it’s a Catch-22 situation.

On the average, undergraduate tuition costs between 15,000 and 25,000 pounds per annum in the UK. This excludes additional accommodation and living expenses which makes the cost of studying abroad very prohibitive. Even then, the number of outbound students is increasing on a yearly basis and it makes Nigeria one of the top ten countries in Africa sending students to the UK. Nigerian students are also sponsored to study in Canada and the United States where annual tuition for each student is well over US$25,000 on the average.

When we contrast this scenario with studying in government-owned universities, it is not difficult to understand why ASUU members are often frustrated and we can only sympathise with them. If we agree that the federal government has been giving ASUU a raw deal which must be addressed permanently, we should also use the same lens to look at the other side of the same coin. Issues such university autonomy which was granted has become an albatross in university administration. Three cases immediately come to mind: University of Lagos, University of Uyo and University of Ibadan, Nigeria’s premier university.

The equivalent of a street brawl played out when Dr Wale Babalakin, the erstwhile pro-chancellor of the University of Lagos, announced the removal of Oluwatoyin Ogundipe, the institution’s vice chancellor at the time. It turned out to be a ‘roforofo’ fight until President Muhammadu Buhari intervened. The crisis affected the convocation ceremony that was scheduled to hold at the university in March just before COVID-19 pandemic set in followed by ASUU strike. The event which parents, family members and the graduating students had looked forward to has been put on hold since then. I was also going to pose for photographs and celebrate with my brother and colleague, Mumini Alao, group managing director of Complete Communications Limited, publishers of 25-years-old Complete Sports, a daily all-sport newspaper and Complete Football. Alao bagged a PhD degree from Unilag.

At the University of Uyo, the politics of succession which is like a tug of war in Nigerian universities reared its ugly head. Prof Nyaudoh Ndaeyo who scored 86 votes was confirmed as the 8th substantive vice chancellor even when he came second to Prof Edet Udoh who scored 90 votes. From all indications, the immediate past vice chancellor, Prof Eniefiok Essien with the backing of the university senate, wanted Prof Nadaeyo as the new VC. Prof Udoh was clearly not a favoured candidate by the “cabal” because his “orientation and leadership style”, it was alleged, will not support the old order. They had to stop him.

The situation was not different at the University of Ibadan. The appointment of a new vice chancellor was also enmeshed in a crisis prompting Adamu Adamu, the Education Minister, to intervene. Adamu ordered a fresh selection process to ensure fairness and transparency. The out-going VC, Idowu Olayinka, was accused of manipulating the selection process to ensure that Kayode Adebowale, his deputy in charge of administration, emerged as his successor, according to media reports.

Meanwhile, prominent men and women of Ibadan under the aegis of the Central Council of Ibadan Indigenes (CCII), according to a Premium Times report, had been pushing for an indigene to be the new VC.  Is it not enough to have a Yoruba man or woman – assuming that we buy into this argument — as the VC? Must the candidate also be from the ancient city of Ibadan? Clearly, the issue of ethnicity in the process of appointing a new VC for the University of Ibadan also came into the mix — in an academic environment. This is the same institution where the late Professor Emeritus Takena Tamuno who was of Rivers State origin was VC from 1975 – 1979. I can only imagine how he would be reacting to these developments from his grave. Eventually, the group had their way as Babatunde Ekanola, a professor of Philosophy, was appointed as the first indigene of the university’s host city, Ibadan, to head the 72-year-old institution.

If we also look at the sex-for-grades scandal in our universities, ASUU members must realise that they have a lot of work to do to clean up their messed up public image. Allegations are also rife that students actually pay cool cash – I understand the street slang for it is “blocking” — in exchange for grades to enable them pass their courses and graduate. This is shameful and unacceptable, and the result is that we have so many graduates who are not only unemployable; they are also misfits who struggle to adjust in the society where they cannot speak or write a sentence in English without horrible errors.

As we sue for peace over the constant face-off between ASUU and the federal government, ASUU should bear in mind the consequential damages of the frequent strikes and seek more creative ways of restoring pride to the ivory tower. The federal government on the other hand should as a deliberate policy spend more in the education sector. Since 1999, ASUU has been on strike for a cumulative period of three years! Going forward, all hands must be on deck to reverse this trend.

Braimah is the Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of Naija Times (https://naijatimes.ng

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