Zaria — In my life, I experienced about five strike actions by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). I lost almost four years of my academic life to ASUU strikes, from my diploma to undergraduate studies. I also had experiences during my master's degree and now PhD programmes and I believe the person reading this also has his own share of experience of the altercations between the Federal Government of Nigeria and ASUU from 1980s to 2020.
There is no need therefore, to over labour over the pains strikes put on students or their parents of the over three decades' crises in the public university system. It is also irrelevant to continue repeating the way, in these three decades that government reneged on agreements it signed with the union.
The present strike, which came at a time the world is facing the novel coronavirus pandemic, is seen by some people as insensitive on the part of ASUU, and therefore they deserve no pity, (as if they enjoyed that pity in their previous engagements with the government).
For declaring an indefinite strike in this time of global health crisis, these people feel that ASUU has ignored the human catastrophe the world faces. They therefore advise ASUU to call-off the strike and join the government in the fight against the COVID-19. But come to think of it; are we expecting the problems ASUU is crying over to go, just because it calls off its strike? Or are we expecting all of us to die during this pandemic and the need to revive our universities will no longer be there? Truth is that; we are going to survive this pandemic, as we survived others before it, and we are going to come back to these problems - our problems in the educational sector already infected by HIV and AIDS by various Nigerian governments.
For us to understand ASUU, we need to go back to how the union was created. Formed in 1978, it came at a time Nigeria was faced with economic crisis as a result of decline in the oil boom. This was the time university autonomy and academic freedom suffered serious blow from the military dictators. The happenings around the world ideological war fare, the cold war between the capitalists' world led by the USA and its Western Europe allies versus the Communists world led by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and its Eastern European allies.
A union with communists philosophy, ASUU's orientation is one of fighting for the common good, broad national issues and standing firmly against oppressors and anti-people policies of the regimes. The choice of this stand was more ideological than convenience.
This usurpation of academic freedom and university autonomy became worst during the civilian government of Shagari and the military regime of Major General Ibrahim Babangida. Many academics were sacked on the directives of the military president without the right of hearing. It is natural for the regimes, whether civilian or military to hate ASUU. Because the union remained the only stumbling block to the idea of commercialising the public universities. This has been the intent of the government since 1978, but ASUU remained resolute.
Whenever ASUU went on strike, the government tried to turn the table over. Instead of discussing the issue ASUU brought to the table, the government quickly circumvents the problems and opt for a negative narrative. This is exactly what they did with the present dispute. After reneging on the 2018 MOA and their refusal to implement what they signed, they re-activated the dubious IPPIS platform and made it an issue. Using paid agents, they go to media to say that ASUU was fighting IPPIS because they support corruption in the universities and their greedy, self-centred struggle for "stomach infrastructure".
This false narrative has gained ground not only within the circle of unsuspecting innocent Nigerians, but even among the educated elite. Quite often, you hear "educated" people asking what are these people looking for, when they are the highest paid public servants in Nigeria? Some of them, even those close to university pay-roll office, will be talking about N1m a month salary of a university professor. It is only when you engage them in discussion and get them educated that they will start apologising, saying it was what "they thought", - what a flimsy excuse?
We wish these people abusing ASUU for their "selfish, greedy, and corrupt tendencies" stayed behind in the university to help fight these things, though coming back is not a bad idea. While most comrades have moved to the other side of the divide, others were not even in this ideological school in the first place. It is when you understand the "education as public good" school of thought that one will appreciate what ASUU is fighting for. This, ASUU believes should be provided by the state as a fundamental human right.
In 1999-2007, Obasanjo and his Bretton Wood agents came with a different plan. The agents, mostly recruited from World Bank and other western financial institutions intended to cancel collective bargaining, introduced tuition fees in the universities and retrenched staff. These were all a prelude to the commodification of education (from the edupreneurs' school of thought). The idea was popularised then. However, ASUU as usual resisted this idea. Had Obasanjo 1978-1979, Shagari 1979-1984, Buhari 1984-1985, Babangida 1985-1993, Abacha 1993-1998 and Obasanjo 1999-2007 succeeded in the commercialisation of public university, those insulting, abusing and cursing ASUU would not have the basic literacy to even write. It is then that you will appreciate the struggles of ASUU. People who know little about these edupreneurs' machinations, people who believe education can also be purchased like a designer shoe in a super market are the ones behind the castigation and insults on ASUU.
The painful part of all this is how most of our former comrades - "Marxist-Capitalist", people who are direct beneficiaries of public education system have now joined the edupreneurs league and now are at the forefront of the ASUU bashing. They have joined the government paid agents in promoting the narrative that a least paid university academic in Nigeria is earning nothing less than N200,000. The truth is that; a university professor, who spent 45 years working in the university earns between N380,000 to N420, 000. For 11 years now, the salary of university academics has not been reviewed. That was 2009, and the implementation of the new salary scale came after the 2011 strike.
With this poor working condition, one wonders how words such as greed, ungrateful, corrupt have become popular lexicons even among our students to describe ASUU on social media. For without ASUU strikes, there won't be TETFUND or NEEDS assessment interventions. Then the few projects we see in our universities won't be there. Universities in Nigeria would have joined their public primary and secondary schools' sisters.
This is our reality; we either accept it or we continue our vituperations.
On the part of ASUU, I think this is time for re-strategising the fight. It may not be a welcome idea, but at a point ASUU as a union has to be realistic with its struggles. It can start by asking government if education on one hand and oil on the other hand are important to the economic development of Nigeria. If the answer is yes, then ASUU can ask the government to put university academics on the same salary scale with NNPC staff. When this is done, I don't think we will have any industrial dispute concerning salary increase or unpaid allowances in the future. Then the fight now should be on forcing the government to revitalise its universities. ASUU strike will no longer be on its members' welfare. Otherwise what ASUU is running from will actually catch up with it sooner or later.
Edupreneurs are gaining ground everyday as the number of academics who subscribe to these ASUU ideal keep on shrinking. Nigerians, it seems are in support of privatisation of public universities, at least from the way they castigate ASUU on public forums and the media.
Kabiru Danladi Lawanti, Department of Mass Communication, ABU, Zaria.