Published On: Thu, Aug 17th, 2017

ASUU and unending battle for the soul of university education, by Iyabo Lawal

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With Nigeria’s Academic Staff Union of Universities’ gung-ho disposition towards militancy and industrial action, Head, Education Desk, Iyabo Lawal, writes that the union’s incessant strike action may cause more harm than the immediate benefits it seeks.

On Sunday, Happy Elusoji – a student of University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Enugu State – with dreary eyes reluctantly decided to verify the report she has heard a couple of days ago. On Sunday night, the report that the Academic Staff Union of Universities has decided to go on an indefinite strike gained further currency.

She typed in www.asuu-ng.org into an internet browser and a simple, three-sentence message popped up: “Bandwidth limit exceeded. The server is temporarily unavailable to service your request due to the site owner reaching his/her bandwidth limit. Please try again.” That was an ominous sign.

By Monday, August 14, inside a hall, the union held a press conference. It was ASUU President, Prof Biodun Ogunyemi, who spoke on behalf of the group about a strike described as “total and comprehensive.”           Bespectacled, dressed in white and with a cap to match, Ogunyemi in unmistakable words expressed why the union decided to go on strike.

“Primary and secondary school system has already collapsed in Nigeria. But not all Nigerians have the funds to send their wards to private schools.“Our members in state universities have experienced untold hardship owing to denial of salaries for several months in Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (LAUTECH), Ondo State University of Science and Technology, Tai Solarin University of Education, and Ekiti State University, among several others.

“A deliberate attempt to turn Nigerian academics to beggars and people of unsure footing must therefore be resisted by all who care about the future of our children and the transformation of our country,” Ogunyemi claimed.

Founded in 1978, – replacing the Nigerian Association of University Teachers (NAUT; established in 1965) – ASUU has a history of militancy.Its first national strike was in 1988 to agitate for fair wages and university autonomy, leading to its proscription that same year on August 7. In 1990,  it was unbanned two years after. Two years later, on August 23, it was banned. By September 3, 1992, a truce was reached. But again, another two years later, in 1994, ASUU went on strike; it also did in 1996. All those years were moments that the military dictatorships of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida and Gen. Sani Abacha reigned supreme.

It would appear that with the advent of democracy in 1999, the academic union might shed its militant toga. Barely three years into the democratic administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, ASUU was unsparing in its agitations for rights of its members – in 2007, it went on strike for 93 days and in 2008, it called for a two-week “warning strike” demanding for improved salary scheme and reinstatement of 49 lecturers that were kicked out of the University of Ilorin.

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A year later, the union went on another strike that lasted three months over disagreements it reached with the Federal Government which the latter was accused of not keeping. By October 2009, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed by both parties and the strike was called off. There was respite for about four years.

By July 1, 2013, ASUU embarked on an industrial action that was only stopped in December – 16 – of that year. During that time the union continued to press for the welfare of its members and sometimes for that of the students and the state of government-owned universities.It is 2017, and the narratives of ASUU has not changed.

Observers of the tertiary education sector are, however, wondering how incessant strike actions by the union have not brought about lasting solutions to the issues it often raises, more so when past ministers of education – and the incumbent Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu – were at one time or the other members of ASUU.

With the chequered history of the group, some members of the public are wont to think that the academic association have become an arm-twisting gang that cares about its own selfish interests. The primary responsibility to train youths to become professionals has been pushed to the background.

The union, over the years, has felt that successive Nigerian governments have become deaf and not open to agreements; and thus, the only language they demonstrated they could understand is strike action which does not take into cognisance the future of tomorrow’s leaders.

Due to ASUU’s incessant strikes many a student’s ambition has been cut short; years wasted and more financial burdens imposed on the parent.More than 36 months of industrial action in its kitty since 1999, the union on Monday showed no sign of relenting. The announcement of the indefinite strike was apparently met with silence – silence from the Federal Government; silence from the students (who will be most affected); silence from the parents and guardians (whose children and wards) are in public universities and silence from civil society organisations.

A couple of months ago, the union and the Federal Government had expressed optimism in the appointment of Dr. Wale Babalakin to head a 16-man committee that will renegotiate the 2009 Federal Government agreement with the group. According to the minister of education, the committee was constituted back then to engender sustainable peace and industrial harmony in tertiary institutions.

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“The 16-member team is chaired by Dr. Wale Babalakin, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). Babalakin, who was adjudged the best pro-chancellor at the time of the negotiations in 2009, headed the agreement implementation committee then,” Adamu pointed out

Other members of the team are Prof. M.M. Jibril, Pro-Chancellor, Federal University, Lafia; Prof. Nimi Briggs, Pro-Chancellor, Federal University, Lokoja.

Also in the team are: Senator Gbemisola Saraki, Pro-Chancellor, Federal University, Otuoke; Arc. Lawrence Ngbale, Pro-Chancellor, Federal University, Birnin Kebbi; Prince Alex Mbata, Pro-Chancellor, Imo State University, Owerri; Prof. Olufemi Bamiro, Pro-Chancellor, Tai Solarin University of Education, Ijagun. Representatives of the federal ministries of education; labour and employment; finance; justice; budget and national planning; the National Salaries, Incomes and Wages Commission (NSIWC) and the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (OSGF) are also in the committee.

The committee is expected to dialogue with the ASUU; Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU); National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT) and Non-Academic Staff Union of Associated and Allied Institutions (NASU).

During the inauguration of the committee, Babalakin had said, “A conducive environment in the tertiary institution is the bedrock for the development of a nation’s intelligentsia. A nation’s development can be seriously enhanced by the active participation of the intelligence in the pursuit of the country’s developmental goals.”

If ASUU had believed in the committee earlier, since Monday when it announced the indefinite strike, it became obvious that the dozen-and-four committee lacked the powers to resolve the issues pertaining to the 2009 agreement.

The ASUU boss explained, “Issues outside Babalakin’s negotiation committee are what we are discussing. We are saying that the government did not continue the implementation of the existing issues from the 2009 Federal Government-ASUU agreement. The government has abandoned the implementation.”Even though Adamu had once said this year that the administration does not consider the union as an enemy, there appears to be no love lost between the two.

Since 2009, the Nigerian government and the union have been at daggers drawn. Agreements have been made and promises have been broken and university education has been left to haemorrhage.

The nation is, again, filled with a full swing of a sense of déjà vu; how long the indefinite strike called by ASUU will last nobody knows; what the lasting damage of it may be to scholarship remains easy to guess.

Already, stakeholders are divided on the relevance or otherwise of the latest action by university teachers.Prof Baniro, former vice chancellor  of the University of Ibadan ( UI) and a member of the renegotiation committee faulted ASUU on its approach which he said was uncalled for and unnecessary.

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Bamiro said the committee met with ASUU on August 1 and they resolved to meet between September 6 and 8 to further discuss the vexed issues.

He said, “ The strike came to us as a rude shock, unexpected because there’s no basis for it. I don’t know the point ASUU is trying to prove or what the union is driving at; if they want us to resume the negotiation earlier than scheduled, we have no objection but declaring a strike action midway into the negotiation process is uncalled for. What is ASUU driving at? Why declaring strike at this point?”

Factional leader of the National Association of Nigerian Leaders ((NANS), Aruna Kadiri said while ASUU has the right to embark on strike, it must take into cognizance the present state of the nation’s economy and the fate of students, particularly those writing their final examinations.

“While it is expected that government should be alive to its responsible of funding university education and at least meet some part of the FGN/ ASUU agreement, the union must also take into consideration the  state of our economy which is presently in shambles and opt for dialogue. Besides, the striking teachers should note that whatever action they take does not directly affect the government or the union but students because the truth is salary of ASUU members would be paid  while academic activities suffer.

“ Our plea as NANS is that both parties should go back to the negotiation table,” Kadiri stated.Some parents who spoke on the latest action also faulted ASUU’s decision saying since negotiation was on, the strike was unnecessary and out of place. Mrs Eunice Udoka whose child, Precious  is a 300- level student of LASU said ASUU should have given the Babalakin panel  some time.

According to her, declaring a total strike when some schools are preparing for or writing examinations is condemnable.   She appealed to the striking teachers to sheath their sword and embrace dialogue, in the interest of the students and the nation at large.

Each time the union goes on strike, Nigeria’s tertiary education undergoes a slow and painful death in human development, research, science and technology.As that is not the future the country desires, stakeholders  are calling on the union and the government to fashion out a more constructive means of resolving conflicts or differences on time – without one party buying time unnecessarily and the other shutting down negotiations at will.Until then, Nigeria will continue to grapple with incessant strikes and stunted academic growth.

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