Nigeria: Ludo and Draught, ASUU Strike, and the Minister's Leprosy of the Mouth

opinion

The unguarded utterances of Dr. Nigige are likely to negatively impinge on his abilities and capacity to serve as chief negotiator with trade unions on behalf of the government. I am also underlining this view with the Igbo saying: mkpisiri aka ruta mmanu, ozue ndi ozo, which means that, if one finger dips itself into oil, the oil spreads to other fingers.

A few days ago, media outlets quoted Dr. Chris Ngige, Nigeria's minister of Labour, Employment and Productivity, mocking the country's striking university lecturers for playing ludo and draught in this time. The minister also loathed the lecturers' failure to contribute towards the fight against the ravaging COVID-19 pandemic. He capped his frustration with a threat to draw the curtains on the federal government's ongoing negotiations with the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). As one of those on strike, I seriously felt insulted and continue to be incensed by this attack, which labelled us as somehow irresponsible. Nevertheless, on a close examination of the minister's utterances, it appears that he is in a frothing trouble. As a concerned academic, I intend to respond to the minister, not through counter insults but through the deployment of knowledge and information. In other words, my rejoinder is informed by empiricism (application of experience) and rationalism (deployment of reason). At the end of this, the minister would understand that even when academics play ludo and draught, it is for hatching wisdom. My outcry will also hint that a derided prophet at home is elsewhere handled with difference and deference.

While the honourable minister was snoring somewhere, ASUU had already given its members the gate-pass to contribute to the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, from Usmanu Danfodio University (UDUS) in Sokoto to University of Uyo and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) in Akwa Ibom and Enugu States; and also from Nayero University Kano (BUK) to University of Lagos (UniLag) in Kano and Lagos States; and equally from University of Ilorin (Unilorin) through University of Jos (Unijos) and UNiversity of Maiduguri (Unimaid) in Kwara, Plateau and Borno States, ASUU members are actively and selflessly working round the clock to help Nigeria flatten its COVID-19 curve. Some of us are on the frontline, some are in the laboratories trying to create elixirs, while some are in the workshops producing equipment and products, such as ventilators and sanitisers. Yet, many are handling the human dimensions of the challenge through tools of mathematical and social sciences or even humanities. Many are more so publishing papers on the subject matter as well. Unfortunately, we lost a few colleagues to the virus, and fortunately some of our colleagues were rather lucky to escape the jaws of COVID-19. In Kano, at least, BUK has demonstrated the best practice of shielding the virus by barring entry into its campuses without the donning of face masks. To the best of my knowledge, no other organisation in Kano strictly enforces such needful response, asides this academic community.

Such are our verifiable and transparent contributions, even though the minister has never seen nor recognised any of these. I think the men and women around the minister, including fellow cabinet members, should feel ashamed of such utterance coming from their colleague. An Igbo adage says: Ihere adigh eme onye arak a o na eme umunna ya (the insane does not feel shame for his actions but his relatives do). From my decades-long crave for knowledge of the Igbo culture, I understand that elders don't say negative words. For instance, when they lack kolanuts to break for their guests, they say courteously: oji ejula ulo (the house is full with kolanuts). This symbolises politeness of the elders. The unguarded utterances of Dr. Nigige are likely to negatively impinge on his abilities and capacity to serve as chief negotiator with trade unions on behalf of the government. I am also underlining this view with the Igbo saying: mkpisiri aka ruta mmanu, ozue ndi ozo, which means that, if one finger dips itself into oil, the oil spreads to other fingers. A person occupying the office of the minister of Labour must understand what an emeritus professor of Political Economy at Warwick University, namely, Robert Skidelsky, said in his book, Keynes: The Return of the Master, that it is the responsibility of the government to maintain high and stable employment. For veteran ASUU members, the minister's affront is de javu. Nevertheless, I don't think ASUU is an organisation that turns the other cheek.

Dignity in labour is paramount. Indeed, it is part and parcel of good governance, hence its inclusion by the United Nations as one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG 8 - Decent Work - particularly underscores the imperative of dignity, rights and privileges of workers and the necessity of a conducive working environment. But then why all sorts of prejudice against academics from agents of the government? Probably those in power today have found prejudice and disdain as good vehicles for driving their distaste for academics. Wole Soyinka's 1963 poem, "The Telephone Conversation", encapsulates such disdain in the way the white landlady embarrassed the aspiring black tenant. In this situation, the Nigerian government is the landlord, while ASUU members are the tenants. The maverick American writer and filmmaker, Michael Moore, the author of the Stupid White Men hit the nail on its head in driving his anti-capitalism, anti-corruption and anti-environmental destruction views in the book. If I were to write a novel, I would entitle it, "The Stupid Black People in Power." In as much there are stupid white men, there will be stupid black men. How can a negotiator ever think of creating a firewall around the seats of dialogue?

I have been fortunate enough and sufficiently blessed to go around the world. So many colleagues also, and at no cost to the government. Across my sojourns, I have witnessed, first-hand, how the gown is loved and accorded maximum respect in towns. The contrast of that, as embodied in the minister's utterances, makes the Nigerian elite unattractive and unimpressive to me at all. As an example, in 2006 while working with a British Council project team on Islamic Arts and Calligraphy in Northern Nigeria, the Council's director informed us that His Royal Highness Charles, the Prince of Wales, would be in Kano for the project. The team comprised mostly of academics led by Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu, the current vice chancellor of the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN). A few days to his arrival, I asked permission from Sue Mace, the director, to share a copy of my book with the British crown prince. Mace said that she would need to get clearance from the director general of British Council Nigeria in Abuja for that. Later on, she communicated that the DG feared that only the British high commissioner in Abuja could give such clearance. Eventually, she rang me joyfully to say that the high commissioner had approved my request and this was captured in the protocols. The Prince of Wales received the book hand to hand, and eye ball to eye ball. He glanced at it, browsed through some of the pages and asked me a few questions about other scholars working on Islam and the environment in the 'Commonwealth'. What I am saying here is that what transpired that time was largely due to the immeasurable respect that the British have for scholarship. They could have said I was just one of those gaming my time away.

I had a different encounter with another crown prince in Riyadh during a conference organised by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities. Special clusters of tables were designated for presenters during a Royal banquet, and the then Saudi crown prince, late Sultan bin AbdulAziz, moved from table to table greeting us, the speakers. In the course of the reception, I bumped into Zeinab Badawi, an iconic BBC broadcaster. We exchanged pleasantries and later I unzipped my camera for photos. I asked the other guy standing by her side to take our pictures together, and he did with pleasure, even asking that I check if the pictures were good enough and to my liking. Then, Zeinab Badawi laughed, asking me: 'Do you know the person that you made your photographer?' I said 'No.' And she replied that he was the ambassador of Sudan in Saudi Arabia. I thanked him again as we laughed over it again and again.

My best encounter with an unparalleled respect for academics was in Tokyo, Japan. While attending the 2013 Earth System Governance meeting at the United Nations University, one of the days out there was a sort of black swan, as it was so unimaginably unique. We went for the first tea-break of the day and a notice followed us to the effect that we should not carry any bag or metallic cup into the next plenary session. We then observed the arrival of plain clothed and armed bodyguards who mounted anti-bomb essentials at the doorway. As we watched the display of Japanese technological intimidation, we were asked in and the session began. It was a session of Japanese environmental and nuclear scientists with policymakers. Then, one person came in and sat in the midst of the audience. A row of seats behind and in front of him were marked 'reserved'. It was His Imperial Majesty, Naruhito, the current emperor of Japan, when he was the crown prince. He listened to the deliberations and left quietly without any disruption of the session. Indeed, nobody recognised his presence until much later after his departure, when the session had ended.

From all of the above, I am merely demonstrating how crown princes as top-ranking personalities in the U.K., Japan, and Saudi Arabia hold academics in esteem. I am pretty sure they would never vilify and degrade intellectuals who conduct research assiduously and teach selflessly in their countries and others. When the minister of Labour alluded to our insensitivity to COVID-19, he actually shot himself in the foot. The minister only succeeded in displaying his ignorance of what games can do. Games have been great strategic tools for steering political and economic affairs. Recently, there are knowledge spurts around their usage and development. From military manoeuvres to negotiations on siting an industry, yet to dialogues on sharing fish stock in international waters, and to settling labour disputes and environmental diplomacy, serious games in the fashion of ludo and draught prove helpful and useful. Some academics have used serious games to solve the farmers-herdsmen conflict, as in the Republic of Guinea Bissau. ASUU recently played a kind of eye on the ball game, which effectively silenced Dr. Chris Ngige after his recent outburst against it. ASUU did that by reiterating and insisting on actualising the signed Memoranda of Action (MOA) between it and the government, rather than deflecting public attention and hiding behind the veneer of draught and ludo.

If anything, many of us will continue to enjoy using games in teaching and research. In March 2019, I delivered a talk on the potentials of serious games in implementing some aspects of the Saudi Vision 2030 meeting, organised for top Saudi civil servants by the Institute of Public Administration in Riyadh. Incidentally, the meeting was chaired by Suleiman Al-Hamdan, the Saudi minster of Civil Service. As our strike rages on, I took part in an online teaching of PhD scholars' class on cities and climate change at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In the course of my interactions with the scholars, I made mention of serious games and communicative planning theories, with particular reference to the works of Susskind. One of the students and a tutor there asked if they could link me up with Professor Lawrence Susskind, the person whose works on games makes him move between MIT and Harvard. Next thing, an email descended into my mailbox from Susskind offering more platforms for engaging serious games in teaching and research. So, games are part of academics everywhere around the world. I may not be playing ludo and draught but their principles and logic will govern my thoughts and ideals in the multidisciplinary science and policy complex.

Aliyu Barau is an associate professor of Urban and Regional Planning, Bayero University, Kano.

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