by Abraham Ogbodo
The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has been on strike for about a month now to draw attention to the non implementation of an agreement it signed with government in 2009. Meetings between government and the union to resolve the matter were reportedly deadlocked dimming hope of early resolution of the crisis. Some media reports last week quoted the Minister of Labour and Productivity, Chukwuemeka Wogu as saying that the agreement in question was impossible to implement. ASUU on its part has vowed to sustain the strike until something gives, accusing government of deliberately pursing policies that will kill university education in Nigeria.
Having given this brief background, let me say that the purpose here is not to go all over the argument of what is required to make tertiary education thrive in Nigeria. All the positions have been extensively canvassed at the many joint negotiations that culminated in the now troubled 2009 agreement between government and ASUU. In fact, the latter had, a fortnight ago, purchased generous media space to compellingly re-state the fine points of that agreement. Reading through, one is tempted to take up arms against successive leaders from 1978 till date for bringing university education to its knees.
We can conveniently call it wickedness in high places, which ASUU has been fighting for well over three decades with one major weapon; strike action. I want to resist the temptation of branding the warfare spiritual, but the evidence so far, shows that the teachers have been up and against powers and principalities and not mere flesh and blood. Clearly, the enemy in the ASUU struggle is far tougher than the weapon fashioned against it. Strike action is not even a Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD) yet what is needed to decapitate an enemy with a Nazist determination and ruthlessness is WMD.
This is precisely the point I am struggling to bring out. The scientists among the teachers should retire from the fronts to the laboratory to bring out a sterner stuff against the Federal Government. In other words, since the Federal Government has become immune to ASUU strike, a new approach is required to move the efforts beyond this over beaten phrase of ‘non implementation of a signed agreement.’ The medical doctors among the teachers would agree that the same anti-body is never applied twice once there is resistance to treatment. And in everyday life, people are told not to expect different results from applying an old rule rule.
How come then that ASUU with all the egg heads in its fold is bent on following the same route that has not led to the Promised Land in 35 years, since 1978, and only five years short of the 40 years that the Isrealites spent to arrive Canaan from Egypt. Except there is a concrete promise that the ASUU’s agreement will move a step forward to being a workable policy if the union manages to hold on for another five years, I will suggest that it retraces onto a more promising path. It is better late than never. The issue here is neither speed nor momentum. ASUU has both attributes in good measure. The issue is the right set of strategies to deliver the big vision. Put differently, ASUU is on a difficult path and no matter how fast a traveller moves on the wrong road, he never gets to destination. Clearly, incessant strikes cannot force the government to implement the agreement and that is the hard reality on ground.
It brings me to the real issue. It seems to me that the targets in ASUU’s strike are not well defined and to move forward, it is very important to put a face to government so that we can understand with whom ASUU is doing battle. Can it be taken that the President, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan or for that matter, the Minister of Education, Professor Ruquayattu Rufai represents the face of government in the ASUU campaign? We can actually do some plastic surgery and expand the face of government to include the Executive Secretary of the National University Commission, Prof. Julius Okojie and even the Minister of Information, Labaran Maku and the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Atahiru Jega.
It is not finished. There is space on the wide face to accommodate Prof. Ita Okon Bassey Ewa, Minister of Science and Technology; Prof. Viola Onwuliri, Minister of State, Foreign Affairs; Prof. Chinedu Osita Nebo, Minister of Power; Prof. Onyebuchi Chukwu, Minister of Health and Prof. Taoheed Adedoja, Minister of Special Duties. I grew up to see the faces of Professors Jerry Gana and Jubril Aminu as part of the big face of government and they have not been deleted long after. In the past, the face of government had had patches from Professors Ibrahim Gambari, Tam David West, Babatunde Fafunwa, Ben Nwabueze, Sam Oyovbaire, Bolaji Akiyemi, Femi Otunbajo, Oke Bukola, Dora Akunyili, Soun Turner, Bart Nnaji, Julius Ihonvbere, etc. This made the face of government look even more serious and studious than the face of the best university in Nigeria.
Hey, are you still there? Therefore, who is this government that ASUU has been fighting? Foremost constitutional law authority, Prof. Ben Nwabueze was the Secretary of Education under the Chief Ernest Shonekan headed Interim National Government (ING). Under him, the issue of the implementation of an agreement that ASUU signed with the Federal Government under General Ibrahim Babangida who stepped aside on August 27 1993, for Shonekan to step in came up. In explaining the constraints of government, the highly respected Prof who is synonymous with the law faculty of the University of Lagos said the agreement that was duly signed by both sides was extracted from a harassed government.
I am getting confused myself. Courage is needed to withstand the conviction of these revelations. As it can be seen, only a slim difference exists between ASUU and the face of government in Nigeria. Specifically, ASUU has had enough content in government to drive or at least affect the direction of educational policies in Nigeria. Why this is not so is to me more important than the trite arguments the union always put forward to go on strike. It is the real reason why the country is not just able to transform beyond political rhetoric. There is hardly an alignment between what the people profess outside government and what they do in government.
Maybe there is a damaging virus in and around government circles that infests upon contact and causes people going into government to do the exact opposite of what they profess. Those who started students’ movement in Nigeria years ago have all come of age and a good number of them are now in the commanding heights of public and private sectors operations. If this is so, why is the positive change they had all promised when they were in the trenches struggling for better Nigeria, including sound university education not manifesting since they mounted the platform of power?
For instance, Labaran Maku, Prof. Jega and even Central Bank Governor, Lamido Sanusi cannot possibly say that whatever struggle they had talked about in their school days is still continuing. It has since ended and even victory is a given certitude. What remains uncertain is the victory of the people and that should include the way forward for ASUU. To put the question more pointedly, why is ASUU so incapable of using its members within the corridors of power to enunciate policies that will favour higher education in Nigeria?
Let us not even go back to the locust years of the military. Since the dawn of this dispensation in 1999, ASUU has had a fare participation in the two critical arms of the executive and legislature and enough to change policy direction in the university system. And this is at both the federal and state level of government. In fact, some members of the union have vacated the corridors of power for the actual house of power. Today, the President who is the chief tenant of the power house is an ASUU member. The one before him was also an ASUU member. What else does ASUU want to get its agreement off the document tray of some idle civil servants for implementation? If the union is having difficulties working through its members, including President Jonathan in government to engage the great issue of better university education, it automatically calls to question the collective character of the teachers. It means the fight to save university education in Nigeria is more about attention seeking and angling to gain official access after which the passion dies in the crusaders.
Besides, the idea of calling its members on strike each time government says no to it is making ASUU look like a collection of electricity workers. Maybe the description should be reworked to remove ‘union’ so that the teachers do not go on strike as often as the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas (Workers) (NUPENG). This has become necessary because the teachers are beginning to see themselves more as unionists and less as intellectuals who should show the way out of every seemingly intractable problem, including inadequate funding of university education.
The strike option has become too cheap. It had some benefits in the time of Atahiru Jega but not anymore. The collateral damage on the students is colossal and surely a topic for another day. It now seems as if successive leadership of ASUU just lash on to strike because it is the path to instant acclaim. University teachers should be far more sophisticated in their approaches. I will end this write-up with a challenge: I will recommend for Nobel Peace Prize whoever is able to arrest the decay in university education in Nigeria outside ASUU strike.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Abraham Ogbodo