By Rotimi Fasan
THE decision of the Court of Appeal, CoA, ordering the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, back to work after an eight-month long strike has apparently wrong-footed the union, while simultaneously offering it a way out of the industrial bind into which it had been led by a duplicitous Federal Government that does not feel bound by agreements it freely entered.
The CoA’s decision has in my view given ASUU an opportunity to re-purpose its decade-long argument, focalising it into a channel through which ASUU can address issues that should of necessity be of immediate concern to it. This rather than playing its self-imposed role of defender of the masses that portrays it to the larger public as a do-nothing body that is given to unnecessary posturing and avoidable belligerence.
The decision of the CoA followed its advice two days earlier to the bickering party, namely: ASUU and the FG, to explore political options in the resolution of their differences. But just two days later the appellate court returned with the dampener that members of ASUU should return to the classroom with immediate effect.
What happened between Wednesday and Friday that resulted in this? Had anything happened in the last eight months that could have steered the CoA in the direction it went, leaving no wriggle room for ASUU to stand its ground or debate the issues animating its principled pursuit any further? Where does the decision leave ASUU as a union and its place as the umbrella union of university teachers in the wake of the emergence of rival unions?
It is important to make clear that ASUU has good reasons to fight for the survival of university education among other categories of education in Nigeria. It is both fair and appropriate for it to work to prevent the calamity that has befallen public primary and secondary education from aggravating the universities beyond any redemptive intervention in the future.
It has done this by making a case for better conditions of service for academic staff in the universities, while extending that argument in favour of other tiers of the education sector. No one will dispute the fact that university teachers and tertiary institutions in general have been badly served by the Nigerian system led by brigand rulers, cultural philistines as well as nihilists that were in some cases former academics themselves.
Nobody would dismiss the fact that university teachers are poorly paid and humiliatingly resourced. The environments in which they function are decidedly rigged against them to produce the worst species of miseducated humanoid, indeed, nothing that could be of redeeming value to the society that should in the ordinary scheme of things look to the universities for direction given the developmentalist agenda and expectations that were foundational to the idea of the university in our parts of the world.
This is without prejudice to the early imperialist orientation that framed university education in Nigeria as in other parts of Africa. But in spite of this, those truly committed among the lecturers, which would be most of them, have been heroic in the discharge of their duties amid the growing debilitation of their existence.
All of these considerations obviously factored into the decision of ASUU to demand improvement in the lot of its members beginning afresh in the late 2000s and culminating in the enhanced salaries of 2009, the last time lecturers’ salaries were raised. The agreement for periodic upward review of the salaries and other conditions of service have so far been breached by succeeding administrations whose apparent stance is to disavow an agreement they were not privy to, even if they would not by the same logic deny the benefits that have accrued to them from previous administrations.
The conventional wisdom of government/governance being a continuum is clearly lost on the peculiar creature that is the Nigerian leader or politician that is too eager to claim the perks of governance without the responsibilities that are concomitant to them.
Disagreements over the contents and implementation of the 2009 pact between ASUU and the FG is at the centre of the ongoing strike and in pursuing its goals, ASUU has allowed itself to emerge as a grossly idealist group, cocooned in the ivory towers from where it peeks disconcertedly at the reality of everyday life.
It would also appear that the welfare of its members is not of paramount interest to it when it conflates it with other issues of governance and leadership that leaves it with a bloated list of demands while keeping it permanently in the trenches as some career unionists and two-penny activists within ASUU, it would seem, would rather have it. They are everywhere, especially at local branches, running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.
Using the union as a meal and career-preferment ticket, they hold both management and union positions and rise to the professoriate as pliant surrogates of vice chancellors before abandoning their face or kagol caps, their only inheritance apart from jaded “solidarity” songs, from service-minded unionists of old.
Yet any careful observer would see that Abuja has no serious desire to fulfill anything more than the basic minimum of ASUU’s demands if at all any. This for such reasons as that it is right now in a very bad place economically like many governments around the world; unbridled corruption, especially in but not limited to high places, and the self-aggrandising reason to serve ASUU, a perennial adversary and supposed foe, a cold dish.
But ASUU goes to negotiation with a shopping sack bursting at the seams where it could more articulately make a credible pitch for the welfare of its members, their salaries and other financial and consequential career options. It can simultaneously fight to ensure the best use of the dividends of previous “struggles” like the NEEDS and TETFUND support that are either being underused, misused or stolen outright by university administrators.
ASUU obviously never expected a judgement in the form of what the CoA has thrown at it, which speaks to its naivety, the same that has seen it taking for granted the support and understanding of Nigerians. It was too sure of the righteousness of its position to think of that. But having appealed the previous judgement of the National Industrial Court, it would take crass ingenuity to reject the bitter pill of returning its members to the classroom.
It would have been better off not going on appeal. We are at the point where he who would save the nation must first save himself. Enough of ASUU’s messiah syndrome. In its present quandary, it should follow the political route and get Abuja to concretely commit to a robustly enhanced salary and other welfare package for lecturers. Other things can follow later.