Adamu Muhammad Hamid PhD
Tuesday this week the Nigerian Labor Congress executed a nationwide protest against what they called the government’s insensitivity to the demands of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). Tracing its origin back to 1978, ASUU is an association of intellectuals working as ‘teachers’ in public universities, both state and federal. As a result of continual strike actions especially from the 90s up to today, the union becomes more popular with the passing day. It does not need further publicity or public sympathy. Because of the public’s general attitude to governments in Nigeria, the common man has sympathy for ASUU even if they do not understand the real issues between the government and the union. It appears ASUU, and to a lesser extent, ASUP (Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics) are the strongest unions with the muscle to confront the government successfully. But while they challenge the government every day, the big question is why aren’t they completely successful once and for all so the tertiary education sector can sail smooth? This question may sound too unformed, but I’ll turn to the answer later.
From a broader perspective, the tertiary education sector isn’t isolated from other levels within the education sector. For example, Basic Education and Senior Secondary levels affect the intakes of public universities. As long as primary and secondary levels remain in fiasco, the tertiary system will never get it right. One of the major complaints of ASUU is class size is statutorily 30 students; therefore because they take classes of sizes multiple of 30, their employer must give reward commensurate to the load. These are real systemic problems because even if rewards reflect, what about the quality of teaching and learning? Classes larger than 100 are the predominant feature of public primary and secondary schools. In some primary schools, I visited in the Northeast recently, teachers do not have basic infrastructure like tables and chairs to prepare for lessons. They contribute money to buy mats, sit on the ground and write lesson notes.
Quite well, it was this type of infrastructural deficit that ASUU feared and went on strikes in the early 2000s, which gave birth to the Education Tax Fund and later TetFund. Today, all over Nigeria’s tertiary institutions, almost all infrastructure including municipal ones and facilities are funded by TEtFund. Yearly, TetFund provided for fellowships for master’s and doctoral studies, including conferences home and abroad for the tertiary institution’s lecturer. Though members of ASUU, ASUP and COEASU (of colleges of education), many times abuse this privilege by collecting huge sums of money and refusing to enrol for study, abandon it by absconding or refuse to travel for conferences applied for, the fellowship has substantially improved faculties of tertiary institutions. For the TetFund to be a result of ASUU struggle is an accolade for the union because it has yielded the fruition of unquantifiable measures. Now where I’m driving at, just as a comparison, consider the gap the TetFund has created between the working condition of lecturers in tertiary institutions and lower levels of schooling like secondary schools. No one would argue that the conditions of service should be the same because intellectual requirements and work tasks differ. More so, lecturers are expected to conduct and supervise research, which is ideal for countries that are the seed of development. But the point here is, since ASUU and ASUP are considered to have the muscle they stand firm for the tertiary education sector against bad governance, why have they consistently refused to devise a way to support the primary and secondary education sectors against the wanton and total annihilation they’re facing today. This would be a mark of patriotism and can convince those nursing doubts that those unions are only struggling to have a share of the ‘national cake, rather than to salvage the education sector.
In the ongoing ASUU strike which is close to six months now, the major point of departure between FG and ASUU is the government’s rejection of ASUU’s proposed payment system called Universities Transparency and Accountability Solution, which, according to them, accommodates all their peculiarities that are not covered by IPPIS. Careful observers look at this point of disagreement just as polemical. Ab initio there was no need for there to be an alternative payment system because the government’s payment system is flexible and payment environments can be made to take care of different peculiarities of Sabbatical appointments, Visiting lecturer appointments, etc. Nevertheless, ASUU is right to have rejected IPPIS, because to join IPPIS payment platform in the typical Nigerian context is literally to reduce ASUU to just like other ministry civil servants, which they are not. They struggled for years to push governments to accord them special treatment in order to safeguard the university system. It’s common knowledge that if the university system is treated in terms of remuneration and other allowances like any other government civil or public service, no one would stay in the universities and academic institutions generally because of their plethora of peculiarities.
Understandably, consigning ASUU with other government civil servants on the same payment platform would mean greater difficulty for ASUU to bargain for different welfare packages in future, knowing truly the Nigerian system too well. So, the intellectuals do not simply want president Buhari to go away and leave them with bigger hurdles in their subsequent bargains. They are right!
Concisely, while ASUU continues to woo and beseech for public support for their struggle by employing subtle propaganda appeals to show the public as though the struggle is for all and belongs to all, the real purpose is selfish. ASUU is too racist in their pursuit of welfare in the tertiary education sector. For example, why was it impossible for ASUU to coordinate a concerted effort with ASUP and COEASU for the overall welfare of academic staff in the tertiary education sector? In fact, according to some online sources which ASUU denied, one of their latest bargains is for a professor in Nigerian Universities to earn around a N2million per month. This bargain is right because a professor in Universities abroad earns multiples of N2million. But the problem is, because of the racist approach to struggle, in the bargain, they make a substantial part of the N2million to be for post-graduate supervision. This bargain was ostensibly orchestrated so as to preclude any possibility of extending that portion of pay to other sister unions like ASUP and COEASU, because, in Nigeria, only universities handle Masters and PhD postgraduate programs. The way the welfare bargain was carried out in a most racist approach is probably the reason that the striking SSANU and NASU (both working in the university system), two weeks later, distanced themselves from the agreement, saying they were not consulted in arriving at such position.
While discharging similar responsibilities, there is no how ASUU, ASUP and COEASU could be struggling independent of one another and expect there would be lasting solutions to their common problems.
Even as the government committee responsible for discussing with ASUU and reaching a reasonable agreement proposes the salary increase in principle on behalf of the government, the government was hesitant to act because it was aware of the implications of extending similar increment to ASUP and COEASU. Otherwise, if the big welfare package was to be approved for ASUU today, ASUP would proceed on an indefinite strike tomorrow.
For any right-thinking citizen of Nigeria, ASUU’s continual negotiation of salary and general welfare are justified. Except for Sudan, Nigeria is the country which pays professors the least as compared to other African countries. In a public gathering, an Alumnus of the International Islamic University of Medin, made a striking comparison, saying, when he visited one of his professors at the university, the professor was happy; so he gifted him 5000 Saudi riyals, which in today’s black market foreign exchange rate is NGN550,000. This is just a gift to a former foreign student. That Alumnus recounted that a professor in Saudi Arabia earns about 25,000 riyals monthly, which is close to NGN3,000,000. Recently, Universiti Technologi Malaysia (UTM) has advertised positions for senior lecturers (contract, international), the salary per month is RM12,445.00 with an annual salary increase rate of RM290.00. This means that a senior lecturer, two levels below a professor, collects NGN 1,245,000 per month in Malaysia. In Uganda, the average salary of a professor is USD4,650, equivalent to NGN2,614,830, while in South Africa, per month a professor earns an equivalent of NGN505,457. However, in Nigeria, according to a recent claim by ASUU, a professor who reaches the bar of annual increment does not earn more than NGN416, 743 per month. This is how bad the situation is for lecturers in Nigeria.
Consequently, negotiations and bargains most of the time fail because ministers and other top officials representing government know that the lecturers are aware of the monumental sums the government spends on the national assembly, the presidency, ministers, state governors and their wives and cronies. So, the government lacks the moral justification to ask the lecturers to sacrifice for Nigeria. On the one hand, a quarter of the government’s budget goes to the National Assembly, and the Accountant General of the Federation could be accused of having the temerity for carting away more than N100 billion, while on the other hand, you would ask professors to render services to millions of students in sacrifice? Reasonable minds would call this hypocrisy.
Again, in the course of the negotiations, everyone knows that from Federal Permanent Secretaries up to the President himself, only a few have their sons and daughters schooling in public schools at home. Most of them are seen on social media photos celebrating matriculation or convocation of their sons and daughters abroad. So if you are one of such officials, ask yourself what can you bring to the negotiating table.
Funny enough, typical of the Nigerian character, some of the professors engaged in negotiating on side of ASUU have their sons and daughters abroad schooling. This literally means both government and a part of ASUU do not believe in the Nigerian educational system.
ASUU’s is truly a real problem capable of crippling Nigeria’s tertiary education. Despite double standards on side of the union, well-meaning Nigerians should identify with the yearnings of these intellectuals because no society achieves meaningful development without sound education and research. In terms of infrastructure, equipment, facilities and advanced training, Nigerian universities would have been worse than the present state of primary schools but for ASUU strikes across the last thirty years. Paradoxically, the strikes protect the educational system. According to members of the union, the strike is the only language the government understands. Come to think of it, it then follows that the civil society in Nigeria should ideally all rise to protect the right of young adults to education by putting pressure on the government to listen to the striking lecturers, and do what is reasonable, so they would resume classrooms. It is shocking that civil society feigns ignorance and indifference to this all-important calling. Only after more than five months into the strike, did the Nigerian Labor Congress call for a nationwide protest against the government’s failure to address the strike. This is a big shame for civil society. While the strike is still going on, other civil society organizations are reticent, as though nothing is wrong in the country. This is a standing testimony that civil society in Nigeria lacks focus, or its original purpose was ill-conceived. This may explain the reason most of them are only busy managing relief funds from USAID or DFID to address community problems induced by corruption and lack of accountability.
Now, there is no metric to quantify the enormity of the problems confronting the university system or the entire educational system in Nigeria. As intellectuals, university lecturers are aware that since they’ve been continually doing it for more than 30 years without bringing a final solution to the ever-increasing problems, they must change strategy. Perhaps the lecturers do not properly understand the strength of their popularity and public sympathy for the struggle. One wild idea could be for these intellectuals (ASUU, ASUP, COEASU, etc) to come together, organize themselves, and work hard cashing on their popularity to penetrate the political process in the country by sponsoring trustworthy members to stand elections for different strategic positions to the education sector. This strategy may not succeed immediately, but with sincerity, commitment and hope, it would work. This is to act proactively. Strikes are always belated reactions. The intellectuals wait, and look on with indifference, while political processes take place at intra and inter-party levels. Then when elections are won by those who do not appreciate the problems in the education sector, ASUU would expect the opportunists to correctly address the issues. National contexts sometimes beget distinct political movements. The context of Apartheid in South Africa begets the ANC which succeeded and governed the country since 1994, who told you that with the maltreatment of the education sector the same is impossible in Nigeria?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect WikkiTimes’ editorial stance.