By Jurbe Joseph Molwus (PhD)
It is no longer news that the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) is on another total, indefinite and comprehensive strike following a fruitless two-week warning strike that ended on March 23rd, 2020.
What has remained uncertain, is whether and when the strike will end.
One thing that has erroneously put ASUU in bad light before a section of the Nigerian populace is the fact that they have frequently resorted to strike action in order to force government to do the needful.
A lot of other writers have written about the history of ASUU strikes, the demands and how different regimes of government have failed to honor agreements reached with the union especially the 2009 ASUU/FGN agreement and the memorandum of Understanding/Action (MoU/MoA) of 2013, 2017 and 2019.
The big question is, Could the lingering problems not have been solved before now?
At the resumption (you will understand “resumption” later as you read on) of strike, Government and the general public will plead with ASUU to suspend the strike in the interest of the students and the system.
Another question that begs for answer is, do the students and their parents really know what their interest is?
At this point, it is important to state that had it not been for ASUU, they would have been paying unimaginable fees comparable to what the private universities charge to attend public Universities.
All the completed TetFund and Needs Assessment projects they have been enjoying would not have been there if not for ASUU struggles.
Hostels have been built or renovated, libraries have been raised to reflect the current state of learning (even though most students prefer to use their phones/tablets rather than go to the library) and universities’ campuses are replete with lecture halls.
One is left to wonder how many of them are aware of and appreciate this.
Gone indeed are the days when Students used to join forces with ASUU to fight for the rights of their members against the brutal forces of Government.
We now have “executive” leaders of National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) who prefer to side with Government at times like these for benefits best known to them against the collective struggle for the improvement of quality in the university educational system.
More worrisome is the fact that most students seem to accept this mediocre leadership of their Union.
Back to the main issue, historically, government makes commitments and sign agreements with ASUU detailing timelines and expectations of both parties ostensibly aimed at developing the Nigerian universities as conditions for suspending any strike action but soon after the lecturers have resumed work, government and other stakeholders go to “sleep”.
Until ASUU after playing its part of the agreement is again forced to painstakingly resume the suspended action usually after writing series of letters and reminders to Government without response and or commensurate action.
Will it be wrong, to say then, that the Agreements, MoUs, MoA etc were signed deceitfully by government just to get ASUU back to work without any genuine intention to implement the contents thereof?
More specifically, could the signing of the MoA of February 2019 have been because of the then looming general elections?
Can Government not be honourable and practice genuine integrity?
Well, how the General Buhari’s led Government of “integrity” handles the current industrial disharmony will tell us more.
Recall, the 2017 strike, when the Hon. Minister of education, Mallam Adamu Adamu came out and publicly admitted that Government was wrong (some semblance of “integrity”).
One would have thought, that was the turning point, but they have continued on this path and witnessed 2 strike actions declared by ASUU in 2018 and the current action 2020. Clearly, they have not learned any lessons.
While we wait to see what the government of “integrity” does, it is important for all stakeholders, especially students, parents, religious bodies and civil societies to re-channel the efforts they would usually make in appealing to ASUU towards the Government of “integrity” to do the needful and prove its integrity.
Constituents of the various Federal and Senatorial constituencies should ask their representatives and senators what the government in which they represent them is doing to bring ASUU strike to an end and not to get it suspended as usual. Note that the current strike is a resumption of the one suspended in February 2019.
There is a difference between “suspending” and “calling off” a strike.
Over the years, government had only succeeded in getting ASUU to suspend their strikes because their demands have never been satisfactorily met to have warranted calling off such strikes.
Bringing the strikes to an end is however not rocket science, it will happen seamlessly once both parties (Government and ASUU) play their parts faithfully and honourably.
Let me take you down memory lane and try to point a way forward:
The current Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu in November, 2013 (then not in Government) while writing about the incessant ASUU strikes opined rightly that: “right now, all the cards are in the hands of the government, and if it choses to play the right ones, straightaway, lecturers will be back in class, students, ever so eager to graduate, will be back in school, and the public will applaud.
But a stay in school is not just about eagerness to graduate or receive a certificate; it is more about the content of what one goes through and the receipt of quality and functional education”.
These are exactly, what ASUU’s struggles have been about and I dare to say that without ASUU’s struggles, our public universities (in fact, all public tertiary institutions who benefit from TetFund and Needs Assessment Funds) would have been long dead like their primary and secondary counterparts.
The situation canvassed by Adamu Adamu in 2013 is not different today or may be, it is even better because he is now part of the General Buhari’s Government of “integrity”, in whose hands we can now say all the cards are.
We hope and pray, they play the right ones this time around.
Additionally, it may interest us to know or be reminded that way back in the early 80s, the Buhari – Idiagbon’s Military Government attempted to cancel the Cafeteria services and remove accommodation subsidy in all federal Universities.
This attempt was resisted by ASUU and only part of the plan was achieved by the then military Government.
It is hoped that president Buhari realises that, in a democratic system of governance, decisions/policies can no longer be enforced by a military might in the manner that government is trying to force members of ASUU to join IPPIS against the extant laws of the land.
It will be wise for the Buhari’s current government to try to carefully examine why previous Governments have been unable to implement the IPPIS in the Universities since 2014. President Buhari should remember that recently, in his 2020 new year message to Nigerians, he promised to comply with the rule of law and the constitution of Nigeria.
This promise should be fulfilled by respecting the University Autonomy rather than forcefully implementing IPPIS. Moreover, Mr President should be reminded of the responsibilities of Government towards ensuring equal and adequate educational opportunities at all levels as enshrined in the constitution of Nigeria, Chapter II, section 18 (1 – 3) which is negated by the seeming move towards privatising education in Nigeria.
He also promised to engage with all well-meaning leaders and citizens of goodwill to promote dialogue, partnership and understanding.
Here is an opportunity to engage the leadership of ASUU in dialogue (to understand the issues more clearly), to partner with ASUU (on how to embrace and develop the University, Transparency and Accountability Solution – UTAS) and develop the understanding to continue to pay lecturers the way they were paid up to December 2019 (because January salaries were not fully paid in one instance) until UTAS is fully developed, tested and ready for implementation.
The spin by government agents that UTAS is not ready is only an attempt to give a dog a bad name in order to hang it. How many years did it take Oracle to develop the IPPIS software? Softwares are not developed over night.
It takes time and ASUU has covered a lot of grounds in developing the software (UTAS), it should be given the chance to complete this homegrown alternative to IPPIS while the status quo ante is maintained.
Expectedly, president Buhari should begin to ask some of his appointees and officers to account for the claims they make and the information they give out.
For example, he should ask the minister of Labour and Employment (luckily, he has a Senior Advocate of Nigeria as a minister of state) to explain how the ASUU strike is illegal and why it is still going on? Similarly, he should ask the Minister of Finance to explain why Government has not been able to faithfully play its part in the February 2019 MoA?
The Minister of Finance should also explain how majority of lecturers have enrolled into IPPIS (as she claimed), yet, ASUU’s strike could shut down the universities?
Also, the accountant general of the federation needs to answer the queries raised in the audit report released from the office of the auditor general of the federation on the running of IPPIS (where he could not account for the whereabouts of over 2.9 billion Naira due to IPPIS and yet, Government still claims it will check corruption-when audit queries are flying around unanswered?).
Infact, I have not read or heard of several queries against the office of the accountant general as I have under the current occupant of the office.
Further, the president as a man of integrity should ask the relevant ministries and officers in charge why they went ahead to stop University lecturers’ salaries even when discussions were ongoing under his directives.
If the truth must be told, the issues in contention that necessitate the recurring ASUU strikes did not start now but the fact is that the issues have lingered because successive governments have failed to honor agreements.
The Buhari led government of integrity today has a golden opportunity to write its name in history as the government that brought ASUU’s strike in Nigeria to an end for the sole pupose of developing university education by satisfactorily and faithfully, fulfilling the commitments it made in the February, 2019 MoA as well as respecting the Universities’ Autonomy otherwise, the much talked about integrity will forever, remain questionable.
Hopefully, this golden opportunity will be taken.
While this lingers, it goes without saying that no committed ASUU comrade was in doubt that our salaries were going to be stopped. When a man tries to humiliate you by threatening you with hunger, he or she loses your respect and your latent strength manifests.
A Government that attempts to humiliate it’s intellectuals lacks the legitimacy to demand respect from the same group of intellectuals.
Let us manage the little resources we have now because we do not know how long it will last and the earliest, we may begin to hear from government is when the COVID-19 pandemic begins to subside. Remember, pregnancy does not last forever, the problems associated with it, from early morning/evening/midnight sickness to the pains of labour, notwithstanding.
The objectives of our struggle can never be achieved without sacrifices, hunger, sufferings, blackmail and victimisation but we must all be ready to weather the storm.
We should be encouraged by the fact that our forbearers and elders were able to withstand the brutal forces of military government.
For example, Comrades Attahiru Jega and Late Festus Iyayi both past Presidents of ASUU were arrested, tortured and detained but they never wavered.
Worthy of note is that Comrades Festus Iyayi, Mahmud Tukur and David Jangkam all died in active participation in the struggle for the betterment of university education in Nigeria.
“The labour of our heroes past, shall never be in vain”.
We will overcome and the University system will become the better for it, if and only if we remain resolute and united. We need to all stand firmly behind the leaders of our union until the desirable end is achieved.
We as a Union, also, have a golden opportunity to prove our principles and integrity at the end of it all.
Perhaps, the first stanza of the “Solidarity forever” song will be appropriate to continue to inspire us all:
“When the Union’s inspiration
through the workers’ blood shall run,there can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sunyet what force on earth is weakerthan the feeble strength of one?
But the union makes us strong…”
I pray we all survive the COVID-19 Pandemic. Stay safe.
Jurbe Joseph Molwus (PhD) is of the Department of Building, University of Jos.