Nigeria is again in the throes of the annual rituals of national strikes by workers in public universities. As of now, the non-academic staffs have locked up the classrooms in almost all Federal universities. The yuletide session is not allowing many Nigerians to realise that like the harmattan haze, the strike session is with us. The culprit, according to the workers, is the Federal Government which has reneged on earlier agreements on staff welfare. After decades of continuous and almost yearly strikes, the Nigerian university system is now poorly rated among leading universities in the world.
Yet there was a time in this country when American degrees, except those from the leading ones like Harvard and MIT, were rated as inferior to most Nigerian university degrees. In 1973, there was even a national debate whether graduates from America and the old Soviet Union should be permitted to participate in the compulsory National Youths Service Corps. Because of this hostility and unfairness, some Nigerian students, who were graduates of Russian universities, had to travel to other countries, especially the U.S. and the United Kingdom to bag additional degrees to prove their worth. Now here we are being rated far below the standard of most countries in the world including states of the former Soviet Union.
It may not be appropriate to apportion blames in this matter, but we are all beneficiaries of the cancerous effects. Today most politicians who are in charge of the nation's educational system, instead of confronting it and helping to solve the problem, have decided to jump ship. They send their children and wards to private universities or more often, foreign universities. The lecturers too, those who could no longer stomach the merry-go-rounds of strikes and counter-strikes, have migrated abroad or private universities. Nigeria is left to suffer.
The truth is that this problem is not going to be solved at once no matter the amount of money the Federal Government is prepared to throw at it. We have seen that over the years, the universities workers, especially the egg-heads of the Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities, ASSU, have developed a sophisticated negotiating mantra. I don't think there is any government team that can defeat the ASSU team at any negotiating table. The government team suffers from too many policy flip-flops, too many changes in personnel and too little knowledge. The ASSU team, often confronted with such shoddiness, has developed an attitude of take-it-or-leave-it superiority complex. Therefore their well-nourished grievances are massaged by intransigence and the desire to solve all problems all at once.
It was not always like this. Before the 1974 Udoji Award, many university workers were hardly aware that they were working for the government. They were employed by the university which has its own enabling laws, its Governing Council and other institutions. It was rare to think of another authority outside the universities system overseeing the affair of the university. Though the government was interested in the appointment of vice-chancellors and other principal officers, most other members of staff were shielded from the direct impact of politics and political office holders. Vice-Chancellors of old like Kenneth Dike, Ishaya Audu, Hezekiah Oluwasanmi, Eni Njokwu, Saburi Biobaku, Adeoye Lambo and Jacob Ade-Ajayi, lived and worked in splendid isolation in their Ivory Towers, except for the occasional blizzard of national events. And when calm is restored, the Tower continues with its internal hums.
Then came the Udoji blizzard. Chief Jerome Udoji was the outstanding public administrator who was saddled with the onerous assignment of reviewing the salaries and emoluments of public officers by the military regime of General Yakubu Gowon in 1974. He recommended that university teachers and other staff should be brought in line with other workers in the public service. The teachers rejected the proposal. They went on strike. Perplexed by what he regarded as an affront when the university dons would not agree at initial negotiations, Gowon ordered the striking teachers to vacate the university campuses. When policemen and soldiers were drafted to the campus of the University of Lagos, the dons realised that Gowon meant business. It was a direct challenge to the country's intellectual elite. Since then, the Ivory Tower has never been the same.
The extraordinary labour reforms of the General Olusegun Obasanjo era gave birth to the Nigerian Labour Congress, NLC, after the military regime banned the old unions. This new dispensation also encouraged the unionization of university workers. However, the tough period following the introduction of the Structural Adjustment Programme, SAP, of the General Ibrahim Babangida era and the attendant hardship led to the radicalisation of campus workers. The palliatives, including increase in salaries and emoluments to workers, seem to be too little and too late, at least from the point of view of the workers. The result had been the yearly "celebration" of strikes and more strikes. It has also led to the decline and decline of the quality of Nigerian university graduates.
When Gowon clashed with the dons of Unilag, there were only two federal universities, Unilag and Ibadan. Today, there are more than 50. When General Murtala Muhammed came to power, he compulsorily acquired states and regional universities. Thus, Zaria, Nsukka, Ife, Benin, Ilorin and Jos were taken over. When the military governor of the West, Admiral Akintunde Aduwo, resisted the taking over of Ife, he was removed and posted to the Indian Defence Staff College as a student. Today, our father in Abuja who use to have only two children, now has more than 50 and if politicians have their ways, he would still have more.
And some politicians, who are sending their own children and wards abroad, are not eager to solve the problems at home. In Oyo State, the government has refused to tackle the enduring crisis of the Ladoke Akintola University, Ogbomoso. Instead, it has moved on to create a new publicly-owned private university called Technical University. Think of digging a hole to fill another hole.
What is to be done? Solution has to come from the Ivory Tower itself. The university is the ultimate factory of ideas, the fulcrum of development and the cornucopia of innovations. If the universities cannot suggest solution to the yearly nightmare, then who can? Which institution would step into the breech?
In looking for solutions, we may also reach to the past. In resisting the harmonization recommended by Chief Udoji and his team, the university was fighting for its autonomy. It is time the government fully restore the old autonomy as stated by the enabling laws of the universities. This would allow every university to set its own rules, fix its salaries and enjoy full powers to hire and fire.
Solution is also coming from another direction through private initiatives. It was General Abdulsalami Abubakar who in May 1999 first gave licence to Igbinedion University, Okada, in Edo-State, the first private university in Nigeria. Today, Nigeria has almost 100 private universities and they are proving their competitiveness. Few weeks ago, Afe Babalola University, Ado, Ekiti State, commissioned perhaps the most modern teaching hospital in the country. According to the founder of ABUAD, Aare Afe Babalola, the teaching hospital is meant to compete with the best in Europe and other parts of the world. Last week, I was at Adeleke University, Ede, Osun State, and I was confronted by one of the most beautiful campuses I have ever seen. There are not many campuses in the United States that could beat Adeleke.
Anyone who has visited any of the private universities, especially the leading ones like Babcock, Covenant, Elizade and Lead, would know that they mean business. In the past, the government-owned universities set the standard. The pendulum may soon change and the future of higher education in Nigeria may lay with the private universities. The private universities are not hampered by the yearly rituals of strike. This is a serious competitive edge they have over the public universities. Now that they are aiming for the moon, it is time we consider their strategic importance in our planning.
Our university dons need to think out the solution to the yearly ritual of strikes. The truth now is that our father in Abuja is no longer as rich and buoyant as he was when he had only two children. Now he has many mouths to feed and there is no indication that the situation is going to improve very soon.