The National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) seemed helpless when they lamented that the country’s political leaders no longer bother about the protracted ASUU strike but have now preoccupied themselves with the 2023 elections. This assertion by the NANS President, Comrade Sunday Asefon, is even more depressing against the backcloth of how obsessed Nigeria’s political class can be when it comes to pursuing their political ambitions. As things stand, nothing else matters than the scheming for who gets what in the next political dispensation. Nigerian lecturers and students are unfortunately caught in the vortex of all of this. Yet, the solution lies within them, not without!
Since February 14, 2022, university teachers have been on strike to protest the non-implementation of its demands by the federal government. What started as a one-month warning strike has now morphed into an indefinite strike with the authorities playing possum. The federal government was accused of reneging on the Memorandum of Action which made ASUU suspend the 2020 industrial action the duration of which was the equivalent of an academic year. ASUU has decried the government’s attitude towards the renegotiation of salaries and allowances as well as the adoption of the University Transparency Accountability Solution (UTAS) payroll software. Government favours the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS), which ASUU rejects as “inconsistent”.
The situation has now become fluid that no one can tell when university classrooms will be re-opened for learning. The current industrial action is coming on the heels of the 2020 edition which crippled activities in public universities for nine months. The last spell coincided with the Covid-19 lockdown, hence the authorities weren’t subjected to so much pressure. Barely a year after the strike was called off, undergraduates have again been forced to be marooned at home. The students’ protest in Benin this week brought to the fore the fact that young Nigerians now spend seven years for a four-year programme for which they gained admissions. To drive home his point, one of the protesters flashed his identity card which is now expired not due to spills or carryovers but solely as a result of incessant disruptions in the academic calendar.
While the precious time of the youth is being wasted in such an unfeeling manner, those who have one role or the other to play in the impasse are busy pursuing political preservation. They should heed the warning of the Lagos State First Lady, Ibijoke Sanwo-Olu, who said of the ASUU strike: “it is a ticking time bomb when our children sit at home doing nothing. The devil will find work for the idle hands”. More public-spirited Nigerians must drum it into the ears of the authorities that this strike cannot continue. The voice of reason should ring louder as the country is steadily relapsing into the season where government becomes lame-duck as politics takes the centre stage.
Though not entirely under his purview, the Under Minister for Education, Emeka Nwajuiba felt no moral scruples picking up the N100million APC presidential nomination and expression of interest forms while the universities are shut down over poor funding. Also in the midst of the labour dispute, the lead negotiator in the impasse, Chris Ngige is also carrying on with his presidential ambition. The Senate President, Ahmed Lawan, whose predecessors had successfully negotiated the return of striking government workers to their duty posts is reported to be revving up the engines for his 2023 presidential ambition. Nwajiuba says the federal government has limited resources and cannot borrow to meet ASUU’s demands. This re-echoes an earlier statement by Ngige, the Minister of Labour and Employment, to the effect that the federal government lacks the funds to meet the striking teachers’ demands.
Naija News considers it barefaced deceit for the federal government to claim that it has no funds to meet ASUU’s demands when government functionaries are gleefully parting with N100million for the starting line of their quest to clinch the ruling party’s presidential ticket. This confirms that Nigerian politicians are among the highest paid in the world. Yet, those who toil day and night at the university classrooms and laboratories are paid what their counterparts in other countries can consider as chump change, little wonder the brain drain that has robbed Nigerian universities of the very best. It is highly despicable for professors to earn less than USD12,000 per annum whereas the annual income of Nigerian legislators ranges between USD150,000 and 190,000? This speaks to the fact that education is not the priority of the Nigerian government.
In specific terms, ASUU has been calling out the government for reneging on the payment of “about N880 billion” (as stipulated in the 2009 agreement) which is meant for the “revitalization of universities and has also refused to mainstream earned academic allowances in the 2022 budget as promised.” We believe that there is no way the federal government won’t be able to meet up this obligation if it can as little as cut the corruption and profligacy. An example is a claim by the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Sadiya Farouq, that her ministry spent N523.3million on the school feeding programme during the Covid-19 lockdown when children were actually not going to school. Every year, the Nigerian budget has retained bogus allocations which end up in private bank accounts. Sometime in 2017, Nigerians were shocked to learn that notwithstanding the N331million budgeted for the state house medical centre, the facility lacked basics like paracetamol, syringes or cotton. This revelation came from no less a person than the President’s wife, Aisha Buhari.
That top government functionaries would by rushing to buy the ultra-exorbitant nomination and expression of interest forms of the ruling party is a clear pointer that the Nigerian government can actually fulfil the fine details of its 2009 agreement with ASUU. The government can’t be finding it difficult to disburse the funds which have now been devalued by the ravenous effects of inflation. More so, the rotten infrastructure it was meant to redress as of then must have deteriorated further.
Yet, for all of its efforts in ensuring that public universities do not suffer the same fate as government-owned primary and post-primary schools, ASUU is now being framed as the problem of Nigeria’s university system. It is for this reason that Naija News advises the union to rethink its strategy. With the growing popularity of private universities, ASUU may soon find out that its approach to having public universities up and running may just be the death knell. Public universities will be worse off when the cost of the strike-imposed extensions and inconvenience is more than what parents spend to see their children through private universities.
The union is in a good place with the students venting their spleen on the government. They are already threatening to disrupt the presidential primaries of the two major political parties in Abuja if the strike is not called off. The striking university teachers have a ready ally in the students. According to the NANS President, the association boasts 41 million members. Armed with the voter card, half of that number may just be enough to elect the next President of the country. Lecturers, students and their affiliates must therefore look beyond strikes and demonstrations into using the 2023 general elections to collectively sponsor or elect credible candidates who they trust not to give them any reason to down-tool all through their tenure.
Naija News believes that if ASUU and NANS can successfully mobilize their members to shut down the universities and even stage the University of the Street, they have what it takes to sack leaders who don’t care about the education sector. A fine place to start is for the university teachers to call off their current industrial action in spite of the government. This will give them an opportunity to interface and strategize with their students toward electing the right kind of leadership for the country. The chance for a paradigm shift which general elections throw up is only periodic hence must be maximized. Political science scholars in the Nigerian academic milieu should know better!