Saying it as it is

By Douglas Anele

Many Nigerians are wondering why more than three weeks since the current fuel scarcity began  nobody has been sanctioned. Maybe what is playing out is the sacred cow syndrome in which certain individuals because of their connections with people in power can do anything and get away with it, which is why the I-don’t-care attitude, acting with impunity, has become normalised in the public sector.

More generally, the APC government under Buhari is dominated by avaricious bulimic politicians whose primary objective is primitive accumulation in conjunction with serving the vested interests of Fulani caliphate colonialists and their enablers both in Nigeria and beyond. Nigerians with their legendry shock-absorbers for enduring leadership-induced suffering would move on with their lives until the next crisis erupts.

The on-going warning strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) is a pointer that government officials hardly learn from the past. Several years ago I wrote series of essays on the ogbanje phenomenon of strikes by lecturers in which I argued that both the government and ASUU are responsible for the lingering crisis in the universities, although the former bears a greater share of the blame than the latter.

Looked at holistically, successive governments especially in the last four decades or so have unwisely neglected education at all levels due to myopic leadership and failure to appreciate the fact that optimum development of human capital through education is the centre of gravity for nation-building in all its diverse ramifications.

Because of that and lack of creative imagination, Mallam Adamu Adamu and Dr. Chris Ngige, Ministers of Education and Labour and Employment respectively, are still repeating the thread bare false claim that the federal government does not have enough funds to pay lecturers decent wages. No reasonable Nigerian should take them seriously.

The main problem is not lack of money to meet the legitimate demands of ASUU but persistent mismanagement of available resources due to greed, corruption, and misplaced priorities by government.

Moreover, it appears that because Buhari and a sizeable percentage of those in power can afford to pay exorbitant fees charged by privately owned universities in Nigeria and foreign universities they do not really care about the decay in public institutions of higher learning.

Government’s repeated failures to abide by agreements with ASUU indicate lack of integrity and untrustworthiness, an act of bad faith unbecoming of those entrusted with the well-being of the citizens. On the other hand, hard core Marxist ideologues in ASUU leadership have consistently manifested naiveté and lack of pragmatism while negotiating with government.

The ultima ratio of any trade union is the welfare of its members, especially in the form of adequate remuneration. Most times however, ASUU does not prioritise the stomach infrastructure of lecturers probably to make people believe that it is a union of high-minded intellectuals for whom material comfort is secondary.

If that is the case then ASUU has been making a strategic mistake. A lecturer, like every other person engaged in a legitimate occupation, deserves wages that guarantees him or her a dignified standard of living. Therefore, ASUU’s strategy of putting issues like revitalisation of universities, White Paper on reports of visitation panels and so on ahead of competitive emoluments for lecturers is disingenuous.

Of course, those other matters are important, but they are secondary to the issue of paying lecturers wages commensurate with what their colleagues are paid in most other African universities. Thus the more pragmatic approach should be for the union to negotiate first with government a one-point agenda focusing exclusively on getting the latter to pay lecturers the African average for salaries and allowances.

Then on a continuous basis ASUU can continue meaningful discussions with government on other problems affecting efficient functioning of the universities. Looking at the recurrent ASUU strikes, I believe that the current highly centralised organisational structure of the union is outdated and should be modified to meet current realities.

In other words, membership of the union ought to be restricted to federal universities while state universities can create their own local union of lecturers that would engage with the particular state governments that established them.

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For example, there is no good reason why lecturers in Lagos State University (LASU) cannot have its own union that is not part of ASUU national but which can negotiate better conditions of service for its members with the Lagos State government. And assuming that the latter reaches an amicable settlement with the lecturers and consistently implements it to the letter, there will be no need for lecturers in LASU to embark on strike called by ASUU.

Some of my colleagues would argue that state universities are represented during negotiations with the federal government and also benefit from strikes. But if Nigeria were truly a federal system, why would state universities expect any funding from the federal government?

I believe that the present arrangement instead of discouraging the proliferation of universities actually encourages financially challenged states to float universities they cannot maintain in the hope of receiving assistance from TETFUND and other intervention programmes of the federal government.

Let us face it: the advantages of unbundling ASUU far outweigh whatever disadvantages that might arise from it. To begin with, it will reduce the negative impact of ASUU strike on different stakeholders in the system by trimming down the number of universities affected by it at any particular time.

As a corollary, this implies that anytime ASUU declares strike only federal universities would be affected, thereby encouraging more prospective students to apply to state universities. Second, it allows some degree of flexibility and creativity in the manner lecturers in different universities respond to the peculiarities of their working environment which is in tandem with the realities in each university.

Now, it is surprising that in principle ASUU supports true federalism, restructuring, or devolution of powers but does not want to apply the same principle to itself. Besides, frequent strikes by university teachers, notwithstanding that it seems to be only way of getting our insensitive governments to respond to ASUU’s demands, is damaging the very system the union repeatedly claims it is trying to save from collapse, and in the last few years each successive strike brings diminishing returns.

Let me be clear on this point: the insincerity, foot-dragging and plain refusal by government to deal decisively with the myriads of problems facing public tertiary institutions can task the patience of biblical Job to breaking point.

Still, ASUU ought to have continued discussing and negotiating with the relevant officials especially now that the negative economic repercussions of covid-19 pandemic together with gross mismanagement of the economy by Buhari and his acolytes have ruined the country financially. ASUU must recognise that the country is tottering on economic cliff-hanger presently, and modify its expectations accordingly.

It appears that the union is beginning to learn from its past mistakes: in the current negotiations it has prioritised the welfare of its members. That is how it should be instead of grandstanding on the relatively inessential. It must be observed at this point that the idea behind the introduction of so-called Earned Academic Allowances (EAA) which is a stop-gap measure or palliative for lecturers is understandable.

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