Last week, the strike embarked upon by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) which started on November 4 last year came to an end, at least for now. That should come as a relief to students, parents, guardians, committed lecturers, concerned federal and state governments, and other stakeholders. Without being patronising, Nigerians should appreciate this government for not allowing the huge pressure associated with electioneering to hinder it from making efforts to resolve the crisis.
It shows its capacity for governance in the face of the daunting challenges occasioned by the present turgidity of our polity. This also reveals the priority it places on tertiary education, contrary to the picture of nonchalance painted by some of its opponents. Equally noteworthy is that coming at this time, the suspension would enable students to vote. Many of them registered within or close to their universities. The statistics of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) that puts the population of voting youths at 51 percent further accentuates this significance.
Considering the fact that the industrial action was only suspended, however, time is clearly not ripe to roll out the drums in celebration. The statement of the leadership of ASUU while making that announcement should get all of us into a sober mood. The National President of the union, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, was emphatic is explaining the reasons for the decision to stay away from classrooms: “Comrades and compatriots, as we have always argued, the last thing ASUU members love doing is to cause disruption in smooth intellectual engagements with colleagues, friends and students right on our university campuses.
“This has nothing to do with the dubious advertorial of ‘non-disruption of academic calendar’ by proprietors and administrators of some cash-and-carry universities and other self-styled enemies of ASUU. Rather, it is about deep-seated pains members of the Union undergo to prevent strike actions and the equally painful consequences strike situations bring to all who are genuinely averse to the mercantile disposition to university education. Why Strike Action? The question has been asked time and time again: Why does ASUU like embarking on strike action that causes disruption and dislocation in the universities? … ASUU is strongly convinced that if academics fail to fight the cause of university education, the fate that befell public primary and secondary schools would soon become the lot of the public university system in Nigeria.
“ASUU’s advocacy on the need to stem the continued slide into rot and decay in public universities since the 1980s has fallen on deaf ears. Our experience, as a trade union, shows that successive governments in Nigeria always entered into negotiated agreements only to placate those pleading the cause – be it education, health, transportation, employment or any other issue of meaningful living. This proclivity of the Nigerian ruling class, irrespective of which wing of the insensitive stock they belong, must be continually be tracked, engaged and resisted by all people of goodwill…. Finally, ASUU acknowledges the understanding and support demonstrated by patriotic Nigerian students and their parents all through the strike period.
“We equally appreciate the comradely assistance from the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), represented by the newly re-elected President, Comrade Ayuba Waba, who has stood by us throughout the struggle. We also acknowledge the solidarity of the civil society organisations, especially the Joint Action Front (JAF) and the Education Rights Campaign (ERC), and members of the progressive wing of the media who have consistently partnered with us in our mission to rescue Nigerian public universities from imminent collapse. While we put a closure to this phase of the struggle, it is our hope and desire that the Nigerian governments (Federal and State) will play the roles expected of them in order to make the new Memorandum work. We shall never abandon our obligation to ensure the survival of a sound university system. For ASUU, the struggle certainly continues!”
Those same words that brought hope to most Nigerians should also make them reflect on the condition of our public institutions of higher learning, their products and indeed the nation’s future. Yes, we must think deeply about the generations ahead of us because at stake is what becomes of Nigeria tomorrow. Here we are trying frantically to grapple with the vicissitudes of the moment. Do we need angels to warn us that if we fail to institute appropriate policies today and carefully implement them, we will surely reap chaos and more pain? What made the current truce possible was the Memorandum of Action (MoA) entered into by the federal government and ASUU. For that, we should commend both parties: the government, for agreeing to meet some of the dons’ demands; and the lecturers for believing in their employers even when some of the items were yet to be delivered. This last point must not be taken for granted. The major reason strikes have assumed an inglorious feature of the country’s university profile is the failure of successive administrations to honour previous agreements with the teachers.
Members of ASUU should also realise that the cogent rationale for their actions notwithstanding, time has come for them to be more creative and broad in the quest for improved academic environment. In the not so distant past, they had more robust engagements with governments and the society on a variety of issues. They constituted a more respectable, sublime segment of national life. Sadly, that quality seems to be fading. While it would be cruel to cast the whole blame on them, they can do a lot to reverse this slide. No doubt, today’s problems are different from those of yesterday but our lecturers are capable of devising other means of registering their grievances in place of the time-worn down-tooling.
We cannot afford to live with the effects of long absence of students from our centres of higher learning. How do we even begin to measure the negative influence on the morale of the learners, lecturers and non-academic staff? Will the hurried calendars being produced by the various university senates properly address the lost grounds? Hopefully, the government will lead the way in finding lasting solutions to the hurdles that threaten to irreversibly undermine our ability to adequately educate our human capital – arguably the most important factor in building a cohesive, functional and productive nation.
By Stanley Chidi Ebube
Ebube, Public Affairs Analyst, writes from Abuja