February 23, 2024

By Aare Afe Babalola

THE Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, was founded in 1978 principally to demand the rights of academic staff in Federal and state universities in the country. In the exercise of this mandate, the Union had never shied away from embarking on warning and indefinite strike actions or even acting as a watchdog against corruption by its members who hold key positions in its member institutions.

In July 2002 under the presidency of Dr. Oladipo Fashina, the Union petitioned the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission, ICPC, to investigate the management of the University of Ilorin for financial mismanagement and corruption. In May 2008, the Union embarked on a series of warning strikes to press a range of demands, including an improved salary scheme and reinstatement of 49 lecturers who were earlier dismissed.

In June 2009, the Union ordered its members in federal and state universities nationwide to proceed on an indefinite strike over disagreements with the Federal Government on an agreement it reached with the Union about two and a half years earlier.

On July 1, 2013, the Union embarked on another strike which lasted five months and 15 days. By the strike, the Union demanded adequate funding and the revitalisation of the public universities, as well as the payment of their earned allowance which was in arrears of N92 billion. One thing is certain: the Union has always been vocal in resisting whatever it perceives as injustice to its members, and has been at the forefront of the call for the revitalisation of public tertiary institutions.

It would be recalled that the proliferation of universities in Nigeria got the attention of the leadership of ASUU who lent a voice towards criticising what it referred to as ‘constituency projects’. The National President, Professor Emmanuel Osodeke, had reportedly noted that:  “Our position on that had been that the Federal Government is toying with the future of the society. They are turning universities into constituency projects where every village must have a higher institution; the purpose is not to have good universities and a good environment for academic excellence.

“Every politician wants to have a university in his village. This is not how a system is run. They are establishing a university of medical sciences and other specialised institutions; why not go and fund those old universities so that you can upgrade the faculty of medical sciences to professional standards, so that the Nigerian politician, including the President, who usually go outside the country for medical attention, will have their medical issues solved here.

“But we will not do that; rather, the Federal and state governments are busy establishing mushroom universities. It is very unfortunate. But as a union, we are also thinking of what we can do in the future to compel them to stop this. One of the things we did in the earlier agreement was that we agreed that the National Universities Commission, NUC, law should be reviewed to make it almost impossible for any governor or Federal Government to start a university without adequate preparation for funding for over 10 years. But till now, that resolution has not been implemented. What we are saying is that the law should be reviewed to give NUC power to ensure that before you can start a university, you have to show good evidence that you can fund the system.”

Truly, the establishment of universities by the Nigerian federal and state governments without a sustainable plan of adequate funding is one which calls for concern. To this end, one cannot but agree with the Union that the funding and upgrading of the old universities to international standards is a better call than merely establishing mushroom institutions which will, in the nearest future, suffer the same fate of neglect as the current institutions.

Public perception of the Union’s strike actions: No doubt, the Union has always embarked on warning and/or indefinite strike actions to press home their demands. Naturally, the Union’s strike actions have always fostered divergent opinions and reactions by those affected, directly or indirectly.

Government perceives the Union as being overly critical, and having a surreptitious ambition of portraying government as being unwilling to accord the country’s education system the financial attention it deserves. For the parents, they perceive the Union as constituting a major impediment to the academic growth of their children or wards, and perhaps constituting a delay in their reaping the fruits of their labours.

The students, especially the serious ones, perceive the Union as using them as a leverage and bargaining tools to achieve whatever their demands may be, and that the frequent interruptions in the academic calendar has constituted a clog in the realisation of their pursuits.

Some other reactions gathered from the comments of members of the society is that the incessant strikes by the Union has been an attempt to hoodwink the Federal Government into lining their pockets, and that the Union has majorly contributed to the rot in the nation’s education system. While for some others, the demands of the Union are legitimate, particularly against the backdrop of government’s ineptitude in maintaining the public tertiary institutions and paying the earned salaries and emoluments of the members of the Union.

Regardless of whatever perception is given to the Union’s strike actions, one thing is certain – everyone loses at the end of the day. In fact, Professor Christopher Imumolen of the Global Wealth University, Togo, reportedly noted that the current one-month strike is an “avoidable tragedy resulting from systemic failure and an injury consciously inflicted on the future of youths”.

Ít would be recalled that the #EndSARS campaign received its traction and widespread acceptance due to the simple fact that it coincided with the nine-month strike embarked upon by the Union at the time, thereby driving students who, otherwise should be in their classrooms, to the streets. Certainly, strike actions by ASUU is not one that should be taken lightly by the government.

The current strike action: The recent one-month strike action embarked upon by the Union was announced on Monday, February 14 in reaction to the failure of the government to meet the demands for the revitalisation of public universities, failure to pay earned academic allowances and the University Transparency Accountability Solution, UTAS, promotion arrears, renegotiation of 2009 ASUU-FGN agreement, and inconsistencies in Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System, IPPIS, payments. It is also in reaction to the non-implementation of the Memorandum of Action earlier signed with the Federal Government.

The current strike action is a continuation of a nine-month strike that grounded academic activities in 2020 for the same reasons. This, therefore, calls to question whether the demands of the Union are being unreasonable or whether the government’s non-implementation of the executed Memorandum of Act is not borne out of a total disregard for the Union.

Regardless, I consider it imperative for the government to negotiate and immediately implement all negotiated terms with the Union. The government should not only listen to ASUU, it must be ready to live up to its end of the bargain. It is indeed said that where two elephants fight, the grass beneath their feet must suffer. Both the federal government and the Union must realise that the interest of students of the tertiary institutions is of paramount consideration at all times.

Rather than fighting to a standstill or continuing to be at loggerheads, all the stakeholders must resolve to settle the imbroglio. Following the commencement of the warning strike, the National Association of Nigerian Students, NANS, has resolved to block all Federal roads across Nigeria if government and ASUU fail to reach a compromise.

Certainly, there are certainly better ways of causing the parties to reach a compromise rather than worsening the situation by causing a standstill. Nevertheless, stakeholders must be willing to meet each other half-way, rather than sticking to their guns.

As Nelson Mandela once remarked: ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’. If, however, the quality of our tertiary education is marred by incessant strike actions, what hope lies for the Nigerian youths in changing the world?

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