Insight

Ugly sides to the unending ASUU strike

The Nigerian academic system is bleeding, universities across the country have been under lock and key in the last six months owing to the protracted strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) for failure of the Federal Government to honour agreements it entered into with them. ADEYINKA ADENIJI takes a look at the implications of the strike and what the nation is losing

There is lingering tension in the university community in the country; the various unions and the Federal Government are locked in battle of wit over sundry issues bothering on autonomy, welfare and academic infrastructure among others. The non-implementation of a 2009 agreement between the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) led by Prof Emmanuel Osodeke and the Federal Government has been a huge issue yet to be resolved. Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational (NASUE), Associated Institutions, and the National Association of Academic Technologists, all University- based trade unions, has been at loggerheads with the government over various issues stemming from the said agreement. Two ministries had been interfacing with the unions on behalf of the government. The Ministries of Education and that of Labour and Productivity, led by renowned journalists, Professor Adamu Adamu and Dr. Chris Ngige respectively are at the forefront. Among other things, the university trade unions had demanded the creation revitalisation fund, constitution of visitation panels for probity and accountability, settlement of outstanding earned bonuses and allowances, renegotiation of the 2009 agreement, discontinuation of the controversial Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) and adoption, in lieu, of the ASUU funded homegrown University Transparency Accountability Solution (UTAS). ASUU’s demands centre around proper remuneration and the systematic redemption of the decaying tertiary education sector. A sum of N1.2 trillion was to be released in tranches as part of ASUU’s demands for the revitalisation of the university system. Earned academic bonuses are to be paid and infrastructures must be upgraded. The Law establishing the National University Commission (NUC) must be revised to control the proliferation of University system. A 1-100 lecturer-to-student ratio is also unacceptable.

Government failed to convince unions

Subsequently, the government tried to excuse itself from the responsibilities, while the labour union insisted it is either a deal or no work. Pleas for understanding by the government fell on deaf ears of the striking unions. While the government cited paucity of funds as the reason for its inability to meet up with their demands, the unions refuse to be persuaded. The enormous petroleum subsidy and loan repayment obligations, which the government never concealed from the public, were equally insufficient to foster equilibrium between what the government could offer and the union’s demands. ASUU and other trade unions noted the government’s penchant for reneging on agreements, as carried forward unto the 2020 FGN/ASUU Memorandum of Action (MoA), which they now want the government to honour, as lecturer and students no longer trust the government. Expectedly, concerned Nigerians, both individual and corporate bodies nationwide, have severally called for dialogue as the only antidote to the resolution of the impasse. While many cited the need to rescue the general education system from a total collapse, others based theirs on the need to consider the youths whose lives are wasted by the strike actions The Federal Government, in response to the ASUU strike, after an earlier display of what the union described as nonchalance to the decadence in the university system, inaugurated panels, and committees to find a workable solution to the industrial impasse. Nevertheless, dialogues between ASUU and government representatives/ panels soon became traumatic and a source of anxiety, to students and parents, who are the ultimate sufferers of the horror of strikes. Each time the government committee was to meet with the unions, the general public waited in anxiety for the outcome, sometimes overnight, as meetings often ran for hours, only to be inundated by rounds after rounds of depressing stale mates and announcements of a rollover of the strikes. It had become almost predictable that deliberations were going to end in futility, so much so that students are losing faith in dialogue as the path to an amicable resolution. As pressure mounts on the government to find a solution to the crisis, it became clear daily that it may not be able to meet up with the demands, hence the request that the workers resume work, while deliberations continue.

FGF seeks assistance of the people to prevail on ASUU

Like a judgment debtor, cap in hand seeking representatives/panels, who could help persuade his creditors, that the broke man may not be re-arraigned for contempt of court over his inability to settle his court-ordered debt, the President enjoined all well-meaning Nigerians to prevail on the unions to consider ending the strike, appealing to their emotions to consider the children who have been at home for half a year. But the tactics also failed. President of the National Parents Teachers Association of Nigeria (NAPTAN), Alhaji Haruna Danjuma, quickly referred the government to one of the many recommendations and reports from the various committees on the industrial imbroglio. Reacting to the President’s appeal, Haruna posited that the government had not shown seriousness and commitment to the crisis. “My advice for the government is to first attend to the report of that committee and see what it can do about it. Let the government make its position on the report judgment known to all. It is when that is done that critical stakeholders in the sector can see how they can come in. “If the President works on the report, no matter what the decision of the government is, that is what is well-meaning for the intervention of those who want to meditate. The mediators will know what to do and what to base their actions on,” Haruna said, while appealing to both sides to sheath their swords and find an amicable ground to resolve the over six-month-old strike.

FG’s efforts to break rank of unions

As the deliberation continue the government and the unions except ASUU announced a suspension of the strike for 2 months. ASUU rejected the offers because the government invoked the principle of ‘no work no pay, in respect of the over six months that academic work had been put on hold in the universities. Reacting to calls for the suspension of the actions, an unconvinced Osodeke opined that there was no need for the strike in the first place, had the government prioritised its tasks. “We were told they spent billions to feed children in schools. Is that correct? How many children have you seen being fed? They released N200 billion for entrepreneurship programs. “Your universities are closed for five months, you did not release N100 billion, but you released money to share in villages,” said the ASUU president. While ASUU insisted on being paid, it claimed that the elongation of the strike was evidence of government’s nonchalance and penchant for breaking agreements, the government it said is relying on some portions of the law to uphold its stand. There now appears to be no solution in sight, as the resumption of the other unions may only mean the start of skeletal administrative works and not the real work of imparting knowledge through lectures. ASUU seemed emboldened by their conviction that the government only needs to prioritise its actions. They appeared to have been further emboldened by the conduct of the political class. Recall how the government claimed to have spent billions on feeding schoolchildren and bought vehicles worth over one billion for the neighboring Niger republic, which the government claimed was to help combat insecurity in Nigeria. Lecturers have also demanded a probe of the IPPIS, with reports that a government official has been charged for embezzlement of over N100billion through the same controversial payment solution.

Why other unions suspended their strike

Announcing the suspension of their strike, the spokesman of the Joint Action Committee of SSANU and NASU, Peters Adeyemi, said the unions had agreed to a two monthly ceasefire agreement after the government agreed to meet their demands. Though some of their members alleged divide and rule tactics by the government to mar cohesion in the struggle for the revitalisation of education in the country, JAC, insisted its decision took into consideration the education system and the overall interest of students who are the primary victims of the protracted strike actions.

ASUU strike now indefinite

On Monday, August 29, 2022, after a meeting that involved principal officers, zonal coordinators, and branch chairmen of the union, ASUU president, Professor Emmanuel Osodeke, announced the transmutation of the six-month-old strike into an indefinite action. The decision was expectedly greeted with mixed reactions. While some praised ASUU for not chickening out before achieving its set goals, others condemn the union for its insensitivity to the plight of students whose lives and future are at stake. Many also implored ASUU to consider the fact that students whose lives are being wasted continued to stay at home. While the union replied with a demand for full implementation of the contentious agreement, many commentators are also of the opinion that ASUU should put on a human face in pressing home their demands. They called for self-reinvention on the part of the union to proffer other creative ways of protest and avoid the dangers posed by government’s neglect of the education system. In a self-reinvention move, the president of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), Comrade Asefon Sunday also spoke in favor of the government’s position, describing ASUU as grandstanding without the interest of the nation. But in a swift reaction to Asefon’s outburst and an expression of sides-taking with ASUU, NANS Zone D, comprising students from the six southwestern states dissociated themselves from his remarks. Speaking with New Telegraph on the issue, the Public Relations Officer of the southwest zone of the student’s body, Opeyemi Awoyinfa, described the former NANS president as a betrayal and an impostor who is looking for ways to cash out with the government, “He has always been confused. He is not our president,” said the NANS PRO. Implications of protracted strike actions are usually grave, with both direct and indirect impacts, mostly negative; on the students, lecturers, education system, economy and society at large. The implication on the students, being the primary victims of the rot in the education system, poses massive danger for the future of the society. Rendering the hands of 1.8 million active youths idle intermittently is equivalent to activating the devil’s factory each time, just as an idle mind becomes a devil’s laboratory where all sorts of vices are concocted. The stalemates created by the intermittent closure of universities to strikes have over the years created administrative commotion in the operations of not only the schools system, but also, other allied bodies and parastatals like the Nigerian Youth Service Corps (NYSC). The NYSC, in its constitutional duty of mobilising graduating students for the mandatory one-year youth service scheme, has to contend with various backlogs of unenrolled multitude of graduates occasioned by the intermittent closure of tertiary institutions. Staggering admissions windows have inevitably created distorting shifts in orientation windows of the NYSC. This is partly responsible for the multiple batches of mobilised graduates, which consequently increases running costs for the government. NYSC orientation windows preceded by strike actions were also reputed for the higher number of pregnant corps members. Many females are rushed into unwanted pregnancies and premature marriages as a result of the strikes. This increases the rate of dropouts. Many students also become psychologically frustrated and disinterested in continuing with education after the protracted closure of schools. While many of them, in an attempt to maximise their time take up jobs or sign up to learn certain trades, they soon lose focus on their studies, prematurely drifting off the course of education. Their initial life plans are distorted as they end up dropping out of school. Usually, when strikes are called off, in their bid to make up for lost time, school administrations hurriedly wrap up the session, in some cases, a 3 months course are hurriedly packed within two weeks. This development has contributed to lowquality graduates being churned out in hundreds of thousands annually, to the detriment of national development. Another disheartening negative dimension in the country in the lack of sound education system as exemplified by the protracted ASUU strike, is the loss, to the country, in terms of flight of intellectual capital, as many of the good hands in academia are lost to European and the American institutions. It thus ends in self-deprivation for Nigerian tertiary institutions, poor management of differences on the part of major stakeholders, unwittingly, succeeding in creating additional challenge with lethal future implications for the education system. Worst still, ‘greener pastures’, in most cases, preposterously, are the diaspora malls and factories where professionals have chosen job motivation, over satisfaction and fulfillment, which is derivable from gainful engagement in serving humanity through ‘rabbinic’ calling.

Proliferation of private institutions

The handling of industrial disputes in the education system has eroded citizens’ confidence in the government institutions and they now seek refuge in private institutions, though not without leaving craters in their finances. The perceived profitability in the education business coupled with long years of official neglect has contributed to the spate of proliferation in the system. Revelations from the Central Bank of Nigeria in March 2022, signals that the country may be spending not less than N2.9billion per year on education tourism. The incessant strikes have staired an incurable pessimism among parents and guardians who now chose overseas institutions for their ward’s education. Sadly, smaller and better-managed economies like Ghana, Benin Republic, and Kenya are among nations benefitting from the inability of the government and the unions to resolve their differences without collateral damage to the Nigerian system. Record from the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), puts the number of Nigerians schooling abroad at around 80,000 and that the country loses about $80 million in capital flight to education tourism. Also disheartening is the fact that Nigeria has lost an average of $2.8 billion every year in the last 12 years. This puts pressure on the foreign currency and the continued free fall of the Naira against its foreign counterparts may not be unassociated to this trend. To parents, financial projections and plans are regularly distorted as they are always forced to repeat the costs of training their wards. Aduagba Yakubu is a civil servant in Kwara State, he says he must pay another rent for Habib, his son, who attends Nasarawa State University. “He lives off campus and the rent there expired in May, when he ought to have concluded his programs, but for the strikes. “We paid N55,000 per annum, which was expected to run from June last year to December 2022. But the strike as we can all see has wasted more than half of that tenancy duration without the boy sleeping in the room for one month,” he said, adding that parents remain helpless each time this happens and have no one to complain to. For instance, the location of a University campus or any other institution of higher learning in a community or town no doubt brings economic transformation to the hosts. Commerce and investments increase in response to a boosted population as a result of the addition of the academic community, which ensures shore-up demand for property and accommodation. But the closure of schools, which brings about a reduction in the total population of the towns, automatically translates to declining economic activities and general productivity of the people. A landlord in Ilorin, Abdulgafar Alaaya, lamented how his student tenants, who ought to have renewed their tenancy locked up the rooms as they returned to their base in Lagos and other places due to the strike. “One of them, his tenancy expired in March, because he paid six-month rent in a “self-contain” apartment in September. I have called him tirelessly to open the place so we may put it to other uses, but he refused to come nor make efforts to renew his tenancy.”

The strike also meant loss of thousands of jobs, directly or indirectly

A “daily need” distributor in Ogbomoso, Yomi Alagbe explained that the depopulation as a result of the strike is killing businesses in the ancient town. “There are no industries in the town. We all know that having the LAUTECH located in our community has been a source of blessing, but the flow of economic blessing has since been paused by the ASUU strike,” lamented Yomi as he appealed to the government to find a solution to the problem of strikes “Nothing is moving again. Since the strike, many of us have found it difficult to pay those who work for us. The students are our main customers and now that the schools are on strike and there is no business, I have told my sales boys to stay at home until the schools resume” A woman who identified herself as Madam Felica Eyo sells food inside the Nasarawa State University. She is visiting Lagos with the unwanted break occasioned by the indefinite strike and says that the value lost to the strike so far cannot be quantified in terms of money. She insists that the government must do the right things to avert further degeneration. “If you take the number business on campuses, and consider the number shop attendants, food vendors, Academic and Business Support service providers, and many others too numerous to mention, who makes daily living from the enterprise called schools, you will know that Nigeria has lost more than what ASUU is asking for,” said the Oyo-born Nasarawa resident, Madam Felicia. Calling off the strike will surely bring relief to all whether economically or psychologically, to help students concentrate on their studies, and save the country from losses to the closure of schools. It however remains to be seen whether the government, judging by its antecedent regarding the agreement, if it will fulfill its promise to continue finding solutions to the many woes confronting the university system or not. It also remains to be seen whether the over 59 Gregorian calendar months wasted on strikes in the last 23 years had achieved its target goals.

 

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