In Nigeria, governmental insensitivity is legendary, even though it became worse during the several years of military interregna. It does not matter which government is in power, Party A or Party B, as the de-ideologisation of politics over the years has continued unabated. Government’s indifference or insensitivity to the education sector is not likely to change, what is more likely is its deepening, consolidation and intensification. As long as the children of the political elite are in schools elsewhere, and Europe, America, and some places around UAE continue as their destination rendezvous, except when global pandemics like the current Corona Virus Disease, otherwise called COVID-19 forcibly quick march them back to their roots of origin seen by these parasitic elites as places of plunder, so long shall the interest of those in Government remain tokenistic. Successive occupants of the throne of State Power have always acted with different machinations, intrigues, schemes, or more appropriately scams as ASUU has rightly labelled one of such with a sheepish connotation – IPPIS.
The history of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has been one of struggle, unending contestations with a coalition of successive ruling class regimes. Nothing, I repeat, nothing in the Nigerian University System at least since the late nineteen seventies has been achieved without a major struggle. In one of my interventions in a Paper titled “ASUU Strikes: Curse or Blessing?” I argued persuasively that strikes amidst its misperception by the gullible public have rather been a redemptive utility purpose vehicle for the transformation of Nigerian University Education, without which, the nunc dimitis would have been sung for burial of university education, if not education generally in the country.
I remember with nostalgia our first year in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 1980/81 where we were treated to what arguably could be one of the best anywhere in Africa, had lectures in environments that conduce for learning, our meals in Margaret Ekpo Refectory, particularly were of international standard. Students before us had loftier stories to tell, as in their final years, they had different job offers from reputable establishments and conglomerates in the country. Not to forget the revolutionary fervour and radicalism of students’ union leaders led by right progressive ideals, which culminated in the Ali Must Go students revolt in 1978 and accompanying police brutality under the regime of Gen. Obasanjo, as he then was.
It is not as if one is indulging in the exuberant romanticisation of the seventies and early eighties, but the truth is that the situation then was a lot better than where we are currently, even though far from the ideal. The situation went however from bad to worse, and this deterioration was rapid as International Financial Institutions led by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank came up with their deceptive liberal policies which have conspired to hold down the entire country. These informed the formation or evolution of ASUU as a Union of Intellectuals with a broader mandate to protect and advance the welfare, livelihood of its members, while also keeping an eye on what is happening not only in the educational sector, but other areas likely to impact on the life chances of Nigerians.
Some of us who chose teaching in the University as a career in the late eighties had to face different frustrating experiences. From a paltry 520 naira a month to about 6240 naira per annum as salary for Assistant Lecturers in those days, to general contempt, even derision by your students, wondering what on earth made you leave the more lucrative Parastatals, for a life in the University, to classrooms that had exploded with large class size, empty laboratories, demotivated and dissatisfied workforce. It became so bad that lecturers had to struggle for even teaching aids, leading to government coming up with Direct Teaching and Laboratory Cost (DTLC) after a strike. From increase in salary, far from adequate though, to all the benefits, privileges, more appropriately RIGHTS like Staff Trainings, under the cover of TETFUND Scholarships, to the many gigantic buildings in public universities in Nigeria, all of which came from TETFUND (itself a product of ASUU struggle) or Needs Assessment Projects, or the tens of billions known as revitalization funds (almost one trillion naira still outstanding), the earned academic allowance, all direct outcomes of laborious and exerting sacrifice and struggles by members of ASUU, to the seeming autonomy where lecturers are now represented in the Governing Councils of Universities, no longer the era of military Sole Administrators, all are products of union struggle. We have indeed come a long way with scars and wounds from the struggle, but our heads unbowed.
The truth is, all successive governments in Nigeria have shown a predilection to ignore the Universities, or at best enter into Collective Agreements which often are observed in the breach. There is no scintilla of seriousness on the part of the government to respect these agreements. They break the agreements with impunity and executive rascality. Many of the strikes embarked upon by ASUU have been to get the government to respect these MoAs, as in the current dispute. The decision to declare an indefinite strike was therefore right, reasonable and the only option in the light of the notoriety of governmental intransigence. It is going to be a long drawn battle, and like I say always, union struggles are not for sprinters, or weak or faint hearted, but long distance runners, courageous and strong. The Government is likely not going to react in a hurry to our demands as they are currently embroiled in battling COVID – 19.
That means this is going to be another protracted dispute. We need to gird our loins. I do hope the Executive Committee is doing something with coping strategies. We have been owed six, seven months in the past, at one time under the despotic Abacha regime, all lecturers of Nigerian Universities received sack letters. We held our ground, insisted on our demands. This current strike is further emboldened and given added impetus by the manner in which the central government applied for a whooping loan of 22 billion dollars without factoring in the ugly and pathetic situation of public universities in Nigeria. Let us all rally behind our leaders, both local and national. Let’s remain united and focused. This battle is just beginning. United we stand, divided we go groveling, begging and sorrowing. Until Government does the needful, engage our leaders in sincere discussions and negotiations reaching and coming to terms with our demands, we remain at home, in the trenches. Please my colleagues, remember to stay safe and accept the assurances of my very warm regards.
•Prof Au. N. Nnonyelu teaches Sociology at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka and is the National President of Nigerian Anthropological and Sociological Practitioners’ Association (NASA).