Opinion

ASUU and the Limits of Permanently Winning the Argument, Prof. Jibrin Ibrahim  

On Monday, ASUU declared to extend the strike it commenced on 14th February, 2022 because: “the demands of the Union had not been satisfactorily addressed. Consequently, NEC resolved to transmute the roll-over strike to a comprehensive, total and indefinite strike action beginning from 12.01am on Monday, 29th August, 2022.” This action is in keeping with the tradition of long strikes to seek redress to ASUU grievances against the federal government.

It is phenomenal that in spite of all the changes that have occurred in the last forty years, ASUU has been able to retain its radical engagement for over four decades. Governmental cynicism and ASUU strikes have become part of Nigeria’s national strife and trauma. Enormous working days are lost regularly due to these strikes. In the Forth Republic, the days lost are staggering: 1999 – 150 days, 2001 – 90 days, 2002 – 14 days, 2003 – 180 days, 2005 – 3 days, 2006 – 7 days, 2007 – 90 days, 2008 – 7 days, 2009 – 120 days, 2010 – 157 days, 2011 – 190 days, 2013 – 150 days, 2016 – 7days, 2017 – 35 days, 2018-2019 – 97 days..

All these strikes have ended with ASUU winning the argument and forcing the Federal Government to accept its key demands. The ASUU logic is clear – the power of strikes is the only thing that forces government to provide additional resources for universities so they believe they use the power in pursuit of the public good. These are however a certain logic that might not be completely altruistic in the conduct of these long strikes. By closing down the universities and sending students home for long periods, their parents are forced to put pressure on government to accept the ASUU demands. During the strike, the staff do not work and Nigerian law is clear in its “no work, no pay” policy and during each strike, Government says they will not pay academics. However, after each and every strike, government has been forced to pay the back log of salaries to the academics. Meanwhile, many academics use the period of strikes to teach in private and State government universities and get paid. Many academics therefore benefit materially from the strikes as they lose nothing and gain more money, which might explain why the strikes often run for a long time.

Each strike ends with an agreement in which government commits to provide significant additional financial resources for the universities but never pays up all that it has promised. The result is anger in the universities, warning strikes and usually the organisation of a very long strike every two years or so. The focus of the strikes has become very narrowly focused on material benefits for lecturers. Students become the collateral damage of these strikes as their studies are disrupted and they spend more years in universities before graduating.

ASUU is right that government promises and never deliver so they should be held accountable for what they have promised. The fact of the matter however is that the Nigerian Government is irresponsible and signs deals it has no intention of complying with all other stakeholders within and outside the education sector. The struggle for a responsive and accountable government is a much larger one and goes far beyond the ASUU struggle. ASUU must go into introspection and learn what every trade unionist knows, the gains in the struggle are never total; they are always incremental.

Increasingly, my concern is what does it mean to say ASUU wins the argument each time when at the end of the day, government does not keep to its promise. Has ASUU done the analyses of what winning means? Government and the Nigerian elite have done their analysis and given up on public education for their children, who go to private institutions in or outside Nigeria for their education. They are cynical and uncaring and don’t give a damn for the children of the poor who go to public institutions. It is for this reason that they make promises and do not deliver.

ASUU’s biggest victory is winning the war for academic freedom and university autonomy. Academics determine their leaders from Head of Department to Vice Chancellor and have a strong representation in Governing Councils. During my days as an ASUU leader, this victory for us meant we would use our autonomy to maintain the highest academic standards in the university and crush creeping academic corruption. That did not happen. There are multiple problems that have grown around academic malpractices and sexual harassment affecting the system. There are clear limits to the struggle of ASUU. It has not been extended to the arena of the responsibility of academics. Academic ethics has taken a hard blow as many lecturers exploit their students through the sale of hand-outs and sexually harass their female students. The academic principle of peer review has declined and a significant part of university professors are promoted on the basis of self-publication.

The key question in the struggles between ASUU and successive governments has been financing and financial matters are addressed in budgets. We know that since 1999, no budget of any government ministry, department or agency (MDA) has ever been fully implemented. The Federal and State universities are government agencies and struggles and strikes to increase budgets do not translate into improved funding. The monies may be appropriated but most of it would not be released mainly because it is not available and sometimes other priorities such as security provisioning are considered more important.  Often, the money is reserved for corruption, to be stolen. ASUU’s persistent demands that the agreements it reaches with government must be fully implemented is correct but does not reflect current practices. It is despicable that Government commits itself to budget line items it cannot deliver but the significance of this is that the real crisis is not one of commitment to tertiary education but a generalised incapacity of government to deliver on all its commitments.

At a time when the governing class has withdrawn from public education at all levels, it is good principle to keep the struggle on but there should be no illusions about outcomes. Today, most universities in the country belong to state governments and the private sector but ASUU’s only interlocutor is the federal government, WHY. There should be an engagement with wider stakeholders and the conversation should not be limited to finance but to our core principle of education as a public good. The Nigerian Constitution defines education as a public good that the State has an obligation to provide to citizens in an equitable manner. Accordingly, Article 18 of the Constitution states that:

18. (1) Government shall direct its policy towards ensuring that there are equal and adequate educational opportunities at all levels.

(2) Government shall promote science and technology

(3) Government shall strive to eradicate illiteracy; and to this end Government shall as and when practicable provide

(a) free, compulsory and universal primary education;

(b) free secondary education;

(c) free university education; and

(d) free adult literacy programme.

In pursuance of this policy, university stakeholders such as student unions, the academic staff union of universities, trade unions, political parties, religious organisations need to come into the discussion. It’s almost a “sin” for a Nigerian government to propose the introduction of tuition fees in the tertiary education sector. At the same time, government does not provide sufficient funds for universities to provide the quality academic and research output expected from them. The result has been a steady decline in the quality of the university system and the lowering of standards as university stakeholders responded to the crisis of meeting standards in a climate characterised by insufficient resources.

When government announced that it would apply the “no work, no pay” law to ASUU, the Union’s immediate reaction is to blackmail students by saying it would force them to repeat the year outlying the period of the strike.

The Way Forward

The present government has run out of time to address the complex issues around the university system and also finds itself in a very difficult economic, political and security conjuncture. Both government and ASUU should become flexible and end the strike as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the campaigns are on and we have the list of those contesting to take over power, we need to draw them into the debate about their plans for education if they win.

We should also demand they commit themselves to a broad-based conference in the first three months of their tenure to develop a consensus programme for rebuilding and revitalising our universities.

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