By Tonnie Iredia
Like an anniversary celebration, this year’s edition of the annual closure of Nigerian Universities began on Tuesday July 01, 2013. As usual, no one knows when it will end. Indeed, the National President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) Dr Nasir Fagge says members of the Union are resolute that, only a complete resolution of the issues at stake would bring the current strike action to an end.
A sign that ASUU means business was shown last week in Abuja, when the Union walked out on the joint National Assembly Committee on Education at a meeting called by the lawmakers to intervene in the crisis. So, is ASUU rejecting dialogue? If so, is the Union not being insensitive to the plight of ordinary Nigerians who are adversely affected by the strike?
To answer any of these questions in the affirmative would be essentially simplistic. Because that ASUU is the aggrieved party that needs to be assuaged is not in doubt. Unfortunately, government posture does not sufficiently convey a conciliatory mood. In fact, government officials who have a mandate to resolve the crisis are yet to embrace the uncontroverted theory of old that the main aim of political communication is persuasion.
While the Education Ministry says an offer was made to the teachers to which they were yet to respond, the National Universities Commission (NUC) said it was unaware that the teachers were on strike. According to the NUC, “If they are on strike we don’t know. They should write to us”. These unconvincing statements cannot resolve the conflict because they are not credible-even the authors do not believe them.
A comparison of government position with that of parents is instructive here. The Minister of Interior, Abba Moro revealed last week that the Federal Executive Council examined the crisis and “expressed the concerns of the average Nigerians, stakeholders, parents and students and came to the conclusion that passionate appeal be made to ASUU to consider the overall interest of Nigerians in terms of the education of our children”.
He added that ASUU should “see the possibility of using a strike, which has become too incessant in recent times, as a last resort” Speaking on behalf of the National Parent Teacher Association of Nigeria (NAPTAN), its National Publicity Secretary, Chief Deolu Ogunbajo said that it was unfortunate that the government was reneging on an agreement it willingly entered into with the Union.
Ogunbajo insisted that what the lecturers were asking for was not “new and out of place’’. It therefore appears that to condemn ASUU for seemingly rejecting dialogue misses the point because its case is not a claim/request/ demand requiring dialogue but an agreement which requires implementation
Every intervention at this point should thus be well meaning and objective. In this regard, the National Assembly should not relent in its commendable efforts at resolving the crisis notwithstanding that ASUU worked out on its committee last week. First, our legislators should bear in mind that ASUU is aggrieved. Second, it should not see the decision of the teachers to walk out on it as a slight but a refusal of an aggrieved to be kept waiting.
Third, our legislators should remember that during the last strike, their own efforts were virtually thwarted by the halfhearted official handling of the matter. That only two issues — the review of the retirement age of professors from 65 to 70 and the reinstatement of prematurely dissolved governing councils — were the only ones implemented in a list of items of a four-year-old agreement suggests that we need to work towards a more sincere approach by all concerned.
Considering that President Jonathan is himself an academic, it seems strange that his team of Education Minister and NUC’s Executive Secretary who are also from that constituency are unable to win the confidence of their former colleagues. Could it be that the agreement with ASUU to which government initially committed itself in 2009 was later found to be unworkable like the famous ‘Aburi agreement’? If so, it is the body language of government that should change. One good way of doing this is to shun blackmail and explore the persuasive mobilization expertise of people like the legendary Jerry Gana who himself is now Chairman of a University Council.
Their work would be to let ASUU into the costs of unexpected emergencies like our unprecedented security challenges and the ravages of flooding. They should then seek to convert ASUU members to partners in progress by evolving a road map based on an agreed and sincere instalmental implementation of the other items in the 2009 agreement.
This would obviously be more persuasive than the present trend whereby some privileged persons in the corridors of power are as usual busy convincing government that ASUU members are charlatans as well as tools being used by the opposition to destabilize government.
University management teams must also change their approach to the crisis at hand. Many of them appear too comfortable to be bothered about ASUU feelings. At the Nnamdi Azikiwe University (UNIZIK), Awka, for instance, the authorities allegedly locked ASUU members out of the multi-purpose hall where they were to hold a scheduled meeting.
Some examinations were reportedly held in the School during the strike in line with what is called the Vice Chancellor’s ‘students first’ philosophy and policy. Who will mark, collate and grade those examinations? Such an approach which can antagonize ASUU is similar to that by which honorary degrees are often given to government officials known to be ‘unhelpful’ to the cause of ASUU
University managers can in earnest reduce the frustrations in their campuses. For example, every session, some universities admit over 200 students for courses for which available classrooms can hardly accommodate 50 students.
Painfully, what is collected yearly as internally generated revenue (IGR) makes little or no impact on the overcrowded facilities in our universities thus stamping into the sub-consciousness of a pressure group like ASUU, the inadequacies of the environment. It is submitted that a more judicious use of IGR is capable of putting some smiles on the faces of teachers and students in our universities.