By Olu Fasan
IT would be important that the Federal Government keep to its implementation of the agreement that led to the Academic Staff Union of Universities suspending its eight months long strike. It was the failure of the Muhammadu Buhari-led administration to stick to the terms of the agreements reached between 2020 and 2021 that led to the two longest strike actions by university academics in the five decades since the Union first embarked on a strike in 1972. The strike between 2020 and 2021 lasted about nine months. Each strike lasted for the equivalent of an academic session, time when students ought to have moved from one academic level to another.
The combined 18 months of both strike actions meant university undergraduates lost two academic years. For this reason, many of them would never fulfil a few lifelong ambitions, having stayed longer in school than they ought to. Opportunities for participation in the National Youth Service programme, time- or age-bound jobs, trainings and scholarships, may have forever eluded many students, not to mention those who died while the strikes lasted and are now permanently locked out of university life. How would the family of such students view the return of ASUU to the classroom? What would their take be of the truce between government and the lecturers?
Let us bear in mind that the strike has, in the usual manner of ASUU, only been suspended not called off. Which then means that there could be a call to arms again in the event of Abuja reneging on its words in the near or distant future. This in spite of it making provision for the agreement in the 2023 appropriation to the tune of N470 billion.
That being said, it has to be acknowledged that it has not all been a smooth ride for the academics too. Aside the deprivation of their seized salaries and the discomfort and embarrassment of being suddenly pauperised, unable to perform their duties as family people – parents, spouses and relatives, made dependent on others for their sustenance and well-being, they also had to endure the pain of not doing that which they probably love most to do, namely, teaching. Most were still able to carry on with their research and community work duties while under the grave inconvenience of hungry bellies. Some lost their lives in the course of the struggle. Yet others lost loved ones they could not cater for due to their unanticipated immiseration following the stoppage of their salaries.
The pain, loss and entire cost of the strike were on all sides, including government that will have to do without the goodwill of many Nigerians in the few months it has left to spend in office. This is in addition to the permanent blight that some of its officials are burdened with as destroyers of the country’s educational system. Which amounts to imposing on the candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress in next year’s presidential election the additional task of trying to convince sceptical Nigerians that the APC can be trusted with the ship of the Nigerian state, particularly the future of its education among several other ailing sectors of the polity.
With the strike now over, at least for the moment, ASUU has nothing to do but to get about the job of teaching without much ado. It is also time that the union strips itself of its messiah complex, the self-imposed idea that it is in the unique position of putting right all that is wrong with and about Nigeria. It can engage with the Nigerian system, particularly its rulers, without the illusion that it can alone save it where everyone else has failed. Which is the same thing as saying that while its altruism, even patriotism, is both admirable and commendable, it could very often be exaggerated and is increasingly misplaced, no thanks to some of the career unionists and agitators who as leaders of the body have become the cankerworm feeding on its entrails.
They appear permanently wired to taking the worn path of constant opposition and are sworn against any form of negotiation that does not involve the total grounding of the system they claim they are out to salvage. They are quick, too eager in fact, to call out their members on strike even when there are less adversarial options to be explored. We see how they go about their activities in local branches where some of them hold dual positions in both the union and the management. Little or no intellection goes into their action. It is always about their pocket and position for which sustenance the battle cry of “aluta!” and “no retreat, no surrender” is summoned. Yet these battle cries can suddenly go silent upon the private invitation and patronage of the powers-that-be at any point in time.
While the latest agreement could be seen as a victory of sorts, provided government keeps to its own side of the bargain and does not go back to its vomit of disavowing agreements it freely entered into – ASUU should bear in mind that this victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat. It was a very close call as ASUU could well have lost everything for its lack of strategic thinking. The Appeal Court decision that ASUU go back to the classroom was a near debacle which the union apparently did not see coming in its self-absorption.
When it could have made a strategic retreat by sticking, in the time being, to the issues that most speak to the needs of its members, like drastic improvement of their pauper’s salary and other financial entitlements; improved condition of service and accommodation of the peculiarities of academic appointments on the payment system of IPPIS or the adoption of UTASS, ASUU rather hawked around a bucket list of demands, totally outlandish and idealistic in the context of the competing demands of other sectors of the economy. And it was not too keen to shift ground until all demands are met to the last letter. Why didn’t ASUU fight up to a point, make a strategic retreat with some gains in its kitty, and then return to fight another day over outstanding matters?
Why should ASUU leaders operate like some of the officials or appointees of Abuja (people like Chris Ngige, Adamu Adamu or even Wale Babalakin) – as if the union is on a personal mission of vendetta, thereby leaving government to play footsie with its demands, turning it round in circles while pitching Nigerians against the union’s members? ASUU’s duty is first to its members. It is only after saving itself, it can hope to save others. It has no business assuming the role of Voltron, the so-called legendary defender of the universe.