By Hakeem Baba-Ahmed
“Two small antelopes can beat a big one.” –African Proverb.
In the study of the use and limitations of power, an understanding of the tactics involving the deployment of compelling inducement for compliance by adversaries is important. Strong-arming involves coercion or physical force, but is not limited to them. As a tactic, it is defined by a number of characteristics. One, it is predicated on knowledge that it will achieve desired results. Second, it is informed by conviction that the target of the tactic is in a weaker position. Three, it is self-justifying: the use of the tactic is explained by its results. Four, it is based on the assumption that it will achieve temporary or permanent effect, because the target is incapable of fighting back, or deploying the same tactic. Five, it is unpopular to apply in a context where parties are involved in negotiations which suggest some equity in distribution of power, or where both parties are accountable to each other or third parties. Finally, it is often a sign of structural weakness to engage adversaries in negotiations first, and then apply strong arm tactics when the party with superior access to power or force fails to achieve an acceptable outcome.
President Jonathan’s order to Federal University Vice Chancellors to re-open universities and sack teachers who refuse to resume teaching, and to the police to guarantee the safety and security to staff and students who may or may not resume represents a good opportunity for the study of strong-arm tactics. The order represents a poor reading by Jonathan of sequencing strategies, and of his own range of options. The deployment of force at a point when you have submitted to negotiations appears to be a belated endorsement of August Bebel’s (1848-1913) dictum: “All political questions, all matters or right, are at the bottom only questions of might.” Acceptance to negotiate the 2009 Agreement, the initial release of billions to Universities, and ultimately a marathon meeting with ASUU leaders have made the recourse to strong-arm tactics products of poor judgement. If President Jonathan had read politics, he would have encountered the famous words of Prince Otto von Bismarck (1815-98): “Politics is the doctrine of the possible, the attainable.”
Those words could have led the president to ask some questions. One, was his negotiations with ASUU being conducted in a manner which engendered trust on both sides, such that they were guaranteed a fair chance of success? Two, did both sides understand the strengths and weaknesses of each other, so that demands which are impossible to meet were not made? Three, was the negotiating process credible enough to survive setbacks and frustrations and still deliver results?
The length of this strike by ASUU before the President pushed aside the Vice President to get personally involved should have been a warning that it is going to be more difficult to resolve this time. When he did get directly involved, Jonathan should have known that it was going to be a resolution of war of sorts. A student of politics would remember the contrariness in the words of J.K. Galbraith: “Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.” This ASUU strike has been a major disaster all round. It was bad for government because the public thinks it was not forthcoming enough in settling with ASUU. It was bad for ASUU because on an empty stomach, it was being reminded of its poverty in strategies for dealing with cumulative failures to arrest the alarming decline in university education. It was bad for parents and students because it reminded them of how powerless they are to affect the manner universities are managed. It was bad for the public because it was reminded that its opinion is inconsequential in the manner government, ASUU and key stakeholders respond to its influence.
What was left for President Jonathan was to explore the least unpalatable option. ASUU saw a weakness in the apparent desperation of a President to settle, and went back to re-strategise. Accepting to resume without the full implementation of 2009 was always on the card, but it saw an opportunity to tighten the noose. Its rank and file was becoming restive, as much from pressure from empty bank accounts as from public opinion which cannot understand why ASUU will not do the usual. It attempted to tighten a few nuts and bolts and pin the President to a more certain compliance. The death of one of its pillars, Professor Festus Iyayi played into its hands, by allowing it a few more days to re-assess its position. Its congresses showed some potential for damaging divisions and an undignified capitulation. More worrisome, however, was the rumoured impact of the spin that the ASUU strike is another Northern assault on Jonathan. You would have thought academics are above succumbing to this type of manipulation, but you would be guilty of gross exaggeration of the political sophistication of academics.
A least unpalatable option for Jonathan was to make more promises if the teachers resumed. The mistake he made was to sit back and await a stampede back to the classrooms, from people who have virtually no trust. It did not help his case that police chased them around and scattered them wherever they met. Many felt his promises were too good to be true. Politics of 2015 is around the corner. New scandals breaking out around people close to him suggested that he may be less than reliable in being held up to high accountability standards. What will happen next year if nothing is done; or the year after that?
It is possible that the President took his eyes off the ball, committing a grave blunder which cautions that you never lose control of a negotiating process. By the time ASUU resurfaced, they had put back a few of the bits and pieces in different places. They wanted tighter guarantees and a little bread on their butter. They miscalculated badly: they failed to realise that Jonathan’s perception of his personal involvement was that he was playing his last card. He had no more to give without doing more damage, for a man with his back to the wall. Demands that minions below him should guarantee what he promises were flashed before his eyes as contemptuous subversion by advisers who want to see a bit more of a backbone. It is quite possible that among his advisers one or two have cautioned against specificity and water-tight guarantees because they have read Edmund Burke (1729 – 97); “It is in the nature of all greatness not to be exact.”
The President chose the worst possible context in which to apply strong arm tactics. If he had read history he would have known that Gowon and Babangida had both attempted to install new orders in our universities using coercive instruments, and failed. Or perhaps he had been convinced that he could chart a new course in history because he had read U.S. President Adams who said, “Practical politics consists in ignoring facts.” One of the facts his directives to academics to resume or get sacked ignores is that majority of them will not resume. He may have powers to eject them from quarters, but another fact he is ignoring is that he cannot replace them even if universities stay open for a long time to come. There is also a fact he is ignoring that Vice Chancellors and administrators who he says advised him to order them to reopen cannot guarantee that campuses can remain safe and secure without teaching for even two weeks. Students know better than to resume when there is no teaching; and Vice chancellors know what it takes to keep peace on campuses.
The concept of strong-arm is impor-tant to understand because it needs to be used under the most appropriate of circumstances. President Jonathan chose the wrong context to flex his muscles. He will lose more than a face if police secure gates, university administrators’ open classrooms and laboratories, yet students and teachers do not engage. Perhaps President Jonathan is relying on the possibility that he can engineer a massive split of ASUU along geo-political lines, the type that will confirm that there is indeed a subversive element to the strike.
This is a very risky gamble which, at its most successful point, will achieve nothing. Either all federal universities are open or all are shut. His problems with ASUU will not go away unless he reengages with them, again.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Hakeem Baba-Ahmed/Daily Trust