ASUU STRIKE: One solution, numerous socio-economic cum political multiplier advantageous effects for the Nigerian state at large.



By Kay Aderibigbe

One unique characterization of higher educational system, more like a cultural identity, in Nigeria, since the beginning of the Second Republic, is strike action. Incessant strike action by teachers of our public higher institutions is a resultant effect of irresponsible and primordial mentalities of those at the helms of our political affairs.

Considering the meaning of ASUU, via its ordinary nomenclature might make it symbolizes a trade association that is vested with the task of propagating solely the interests of its professional members. But a delve into the historical appraisal of ASUU’s struggle, travails and eventual wins, would lend more credence to the fact that, the organization has in its DNA, more intrinsic elements of those pro-people bodies like: CDHR, CLO, NADECO and NLC, all put together. Since its formation in 1978, ASUU has stood up against any type of regime in defense of the people, society and education, as an inalienable right of an average person.

This piece could slightly be a long read. Kindly pardon the niceties that pervaded my harangue. I also plead for forgiveness in advance because I could sound offensive, confrontational or quite irritating to some people in some quarters. I chose the path of speaking the truth to power because, my generation, just like the ones ahead of us, is gradually becoming an archetype of the dismal failure expressive of the Nigerian state. I really don’t want to be identified as one of them, hence, my resolve to write again.

The last ASUU strike

The last ASUU strike lasted 252 days before it was eventually called off on Oct 14, 2022. Prior to the Court of Appeal’s ruling which upheld the decision of NICN – National Industrial Court of Nigeria, on the suspension of ASUU strike, there have been series of futile meetings/negotiations between ASUU and the ministry of education; the minister of education, Adamu Adamu; and the minister of labour and employment, Chris Ngige, who later borrowed a cue from Order 3, rule 6 of the TDA – Trade Dispute Act, cap T8. LFN 2004; to bundle ASUU into the Web of Industrial Court. The court has at its disposal, the instrument of Section 18(1) E of the TDA, to subdue every strike action. That is, . . . “employees cannot be on strike when their matter is before the Industrial Court”.

One then begins to wonder how a group of administrative inept who pervaded Buhari’s regime could cunningly dig up legal weapons against an association that has been beaten, defrauded and gang-raped time and time again, on the basis that it (ASUU) was trying to defend ‘education’ – the only value that is left of the carcass of the Nigerian state.

As it stand now, “there is no single agreement, written or verbal, between ASUU and the government before the last strike was called off” . . . (Prof. Emmanuel Osodeke, Monday 22 nd of Aug, 2022). Invariably, it was an act of display of good faith and sympathy for the teeming students of public universities that propelled ASUU to have acted honourably.

On Oct 5, 2022, the Federal Government had went ahead to announce the birth of two new academic unions – NAMDA (National Association of Medical and Dental Academics), and CONUA (Congress Of Nigerian University Academics). Edmund Burke, in 1756, said “only those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”. This type of shenanigans of infiltrating and dividing ASUU has been done in the past by Babangida and Abacha, yet, it failed woefully.

A historiography of ASUU’s struggle

Apart from the resistance by ASUU on the erosion of the disciplinary powers of the school governing councils, early days of ASUU’s emergence was quite less-tumultuous. For the sake students of politics, history enthusiasts and the new reactionary set of youths that are craving political change in the recent times, I think it is imperative that we throw more light on why ASUU usually embark on strike action in order to drive home their demands.

A better way to accurately capture the beginning of the serial impasse between ASUU and the federal government could be traced to 1981, when ASUU tabled before the Shagari’s government, what they called “the five disturbing issues”: (i) university funding, (ii) proper salary, (iii) autonomy, (iv) academic freedom and (v) the issue of brain drain. Mr. Shehu Shagari, the then president, responded by taking away the accreditation of university courses from seasoned professionals and gave the role to NUC – Nigerian University Commission. Another veritable issue was the ASUU’s national conference of 1984, and subsequently, its paper titled “How to Save Nigeria”. The same Muhammadu Buhari was the Head of federal military government in 1984, when an unreasonable and economically retarding policy was in place, then, called “austerity measure”.

A gradual disengagement of the state from certain essential services was the dynamo that triggered ASUU to write out solutions to the government-invented problems which later caused chaos in all aspects of national lives for Nigerians. Buhari was dethroned by Babangida, through a palace coup on Aug 27, 1985, and the new regime inherited an economic upheaval which made the government to opt for privatization policy.

ASUU kicked against privatization and instead, propagated solutions on economic planning, development, industrialization, agriculture, debt servicing, labour laws and taxation. Against ASUU’s erudition and the hue and cries of the general public concerning the IMF loan, Babangida, went ahead to impose SAP – Structural Adjustment Programme, on Nigerians in 1986. The policy brought an unprecedented hardship on the general populace. The negative economic effects became obviously telling on the government as well, because, the Elongated University Salary Scale (EUSS) of ASUU could not be implemented. As a result of SAP, intellectuals started jetting out of the country (brain drain). Many people lost their jobs. Naira was agonizingly devalued. Inflation rose astronomically and life became unbearable for the majority, most especially, salary earners.

ASUU went on strike in protest against the policy and the military government banned ASUU as an association on Aug 7, 1988. The then education minister Prof. Jubril Aminu, following the instructions of his pay masters, ordered the arrest of Dr. Attahiru Jega, and Dr. Festus Iyayi, both of them being the then present and past presidents of ASUU. In fact, their international passports were taken from them while they remained in detention. The strike broke down due to military highhandedness, but ASUU members continued to meet under the aegis of ULA (University Lecturers Association), in order to speak out on the dangers of Nigeria’s downward economic trend.

By 1990 ASUU got back its status as a legally recognized association. The lecturers requested audience with the government. The first negotiation under Senas Ukpanah, broke down on the 30th of May 1991. The second negotiation was unilaterally dictated by the military government. The same government failed to honour its own words. ASUU replied with a strike action. Consequently ASUU was banned for the second time by IBB on Aug 23, 1992.

Every concerned Nigerian was on ASUU’s side once again because the arbitrary method of the military schemers was quite glaring. Public shame prompted IBB to pocket his pride and eventually sought negotiation with the same ASUU that had been outlawed. That very point/meeting was the genesis of ASUU’s monumental request, from the government, of a time-tabled, revitalization/developmental fund. In those days, though, lecturers suffered a great deal, but education as a project won the battle. The power of collective bargaining spoke volume. Most importantly, the entire civilian populace became socially cognizant of the fact that, democracy is still achievable despite the indomitable posture of the military institution then.

The Sept 3rd, 1992 Agreement was not honoured by the Abacha’s government when he came to power, partly because ASUU identified with majority of Nigerians who asked for the de-annulment of June 12, 1993 presidential election. Even, when ASUU’s request was streamlined to merely professional issues, Abacha still refused to reckon. Salaries were stopped. Vice Chancellors were financially induced to set up classes just in order to paint a wrong picture of ASUU. The six months strike was unilaterally ended by ASUU in response to the yearnings of the public.

Abacha’s education minister, Dr. Ibrahim .T. Linan, stirred up another negotiation table under Prof. Umaru Shahu, taking into account, the ‘peculiarities for setting up negotiation’, propounded through Sam Cookey’s commission. The federal military government handcuffed ASUU with the introduction of fees in our public schools, but ASUU rejected the idea. What later followed was a grand victimization of ASUU’s national executive committee members all over the country.

Almost all the ASUU leaders were removed from their positions by the NUC without trial. They all remained out of the system until, chief Olaiya Oni, the education minister under Gen. Abdulsalam, facilitated their reinstatement; along with those that were dismissed in 1996, through the application of Decree 17, of 1984. The minister was able to do this by obeying an Enugu High Court order that had been pronounced on the matter years before.

Gen. Abdulsalam did not tinker with ASUU nor fiddle with any of the pre-existing agreements. It would have been quite desultory if he did. This is because of the planned transient nature of his regime.

Obasanjo came to power in May 1999, as a civilian government with high hope on peoples’ minds that our education would be saved from the miasma of political despair. Chief P.C Asiodu enthusiastically chaired a committee that was set up by the government in order to deliberate on those issues listed in ASUU’s previous agreement. Dr. Assisi Asobie, ASUU’s president, laid bare everything at the meeting on Oct 26th, 1999. The government team went incommunicado, and did not return to the negotiation table until Aug 28th, 2000, when Baba Ayo Adebanjo, was commissioned by the government to finalize with ASUU on those issues that ought to have been settled.

The negotiators in this case concluded on 26% budgetary allocation for the education sector; basic salary; academic allowances; education tax fund; university funding; autonomy; and legal issues concerning NUC, JAMB and school governing councils. Obasanjo’s education minister, Dr Babalola Aborisade, tampered with the documents and eventually signed an adulterated version of the agreement on June 30, 2001. Any ASUU's reaction because the government’s representatives signed a doctored agreement would have amounted to a tale of ASUU’s leadership being labelled a skiver.

Under a considerable amount of time, the same government reneged on the same dubious agreement. The very treacherous disposition of the government led to another ASUU strike in 2003. An Industrial Arbitration Panel (IAP), ordered that the strike action be stopped. ASUU obeyed, but president Obasanjo had a clandestine intention of imposing on the university system, what he called NUSIP – Nigerian University System Innovation Project. This is an idea doled out to him by the IMF. Obasanjo kept nursing the idea for two reasons. One, he had too much pride in him. Two, he lacks the capacity to think beyond how his predecessors had handled ASUU’s case.

With NUSIP wanting in the wing, Obasanjo aimed at breaking the central force of ASUU’s collective bargaining power. In the same vein, he mooted the introduction of fees into public higher institutions. He then signed into law in 2003, the University Miscellaneous Bill. He met with University VCs in Dec of the same year and ordered them to start charging fees at their various schools. All the shortcuts taken by Obasanjo only exacerbated the problems. One of the reasons being that, Obasanjo offended the spirit of industrial democracy by disobeying the Aug 2005, Ilorin High Court who ordered the reinstatement of the 49 Uni Ilorin lecturers that were summarily dismissed in 2001.

Being a purveyor of macabre, Obasanjo appreciated every move that can prolong the disagreement between ASUU and the federal government. Hence, the smokescreen not to have any agreement signed becomes thicker. Less than a year before Obasanjo left office, precisely on Dec 14, 2006, his education minister, Dr . Oby Ezekwesili brought up ASUU/FGN negotiation committee under Pa Gamaliel Onosande. ASUU was led by its president, Dr. Abdulahi Sule-Kano. ASUU tendered a proposal clearly stating ‘what ought to be from the 2001 agreement stand point’. The government team left and returned to the discussion table forty days after. By Jan 11, 2008, when ASUU realized the “Ilorin 49” would not be reintegrated into the university system, they boycotted and did not return nor entertain any form of government’s misadventure until Aug 25, 2008.

After a whole lot of back and forth, ASUU and the government’s team finally agreed on some issues in 2009. The details was the harbinger of what is generally referred to the “2009 ASUU/FGN Agreement”. We may need to pick some salient issues from the agreement for proper analysis. By so doing, we shall arrive at a clearer understanding of why ASUU kept insisting that the federal government of Nigeria must honour their own words.

The 2009 ASUU/FGN Agreement.

The agreement is a 51-paged, six chapters, detailed, unambiguous and self-explanatory matters that would have seamlessly transformed the university system in Nigeria if applied. The circumference around which the agreement was built involved four main criteria. One, condition of service. Two, university funding. Three, university autonomy and academic freedom. Four, other matters relating to the advancement of the higher education system in Nigeria.

The agreement clinically takes care of how university lecturers would be let off the ‘hook of redtapism’ that characterizes salary payment of civil servants. University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS), was espoused, by the negotiators, as the mechanism through which brain drain could be seriously curtailed. All the relevant laws that encumbered university autonomy and academic freedom was expressly set out to be repealed or redefined.

Above all, the idea of a revitalization fund was explicitly stated. This, being the need to “remedy the deficiencies” that are inherent in the university system. For instance, between 2009 and 2019, a sum of #4.5 trillion naira shall be injected into federal universities at three intervals. The amount required by state owned universities was also spelt out, and even, broken down piece by piece to the level of per student basis. E.g a student at a state owned university shall require a sum of #3,680,000 between the periods of 2009 and 2011.

In order to making “Nigeria a knowledge-based society that will be able to compete and survive in the 21 st century”, according to the agreement, the entire education sector requires massive funding at all levels. Hence, the resolve of the progenitors of the agreement to recommend 26% annual budgetary allocation to education as extrapolated in the UNESCO benchmark for ‘normal countries’.The 26% in Nigeria’s case shall be shared 50/50 between the university system and other levels of education; with the hope that the 2010 budget shall feature such development.

It is quite inconceivable that, not even at least, one of the presidents of Nigeria’s democratic era would deem it appropriate to consider working out something meaningful with ASUU’s perennial requests. Rather, what we keep experiencing is the fabrication of schemes, tactics and laws that would gag up, weaken and eventually destabilize ASUU. If the financial resource needed to fund education is too much, how come the federal government of Nigeria could afford #6.5 trillion as petroleum subsidy for the year 2023 alone?.

What then could be done by the government of Nigeria in order to address ASUU’s demand? Government officials do not see any feasibility in devoting certain amount of money to ASUU’s cause. Well, probably because there won't be any kickbacks; and prebendalism is not allowed when ASUU acts. If that is the case, why can’t government give the university administrators, as a body, certain inexhaustible material resources which could be employed for the purpose of meeting their financial obligations.

Possible Solution to ASUU’s demands.

In my own view, if we give ASUU’ some oil wells, with some reasonable amount of money as start-up capital, the question of ‘funding of university education’ will be resolved once and for all.

There are a total of 159 oil fields and 1,481 wells in Nigeria today (Dept. Of Petroleum Resources, 2022). The new PIA – Petroleum Industry Act, still vests in the president of Nigeria, the power to grant ownership of oil blocs according to his discretion. No one should tell me ASUU cannot judiciously fund universities with oil money directly under its care. This is a country where private individuals are in control of oil wells instead of state governments. The Nigerian type of federalism is the only type of its kind in the whole world. Our peculiarities are simply unique to us alone.

Over the years, many political solutions have been mooted on ASUU's issue. Sincerely, none of these would-be-solutions can single-handedly take care of the important problem of ‘funding’ if the stream(s) of financial resources to manage higher education cannot flow unhindered. Behavioural solutions to other cogent questions of university autonomy and academic freedom will naturally happen as by-products of the financial autonomy that would ensue when ASUU gets to work and produce the wealth needed to facilitate itself.

This is what I term ‘Higher Education Management Enterprises of Nigeria’ (HEMEN). ASUU has more than enough human resource that can optimize the use of the oil wells to create a financial pool of wealth. This pool of wealth could be ploughed back into green energy production, agriculture and manufacturing. All that is needed is the will, commitment and sincerity of purpose that could be teleguided via robust accountability measures.

Each university in Nigeria has a vast expanse of lands; both arable and virgin lands. We have mass market. What and where to produce is not the issue. How to produce is the question. For instance, a 15-year template of ‘oil-farming-manufacturing’ plan could be drawn up by ASUU. Having started with petroleum produce and oil, a larger percentage of revenue from oil business for the first five years should be channeled into agriculture. The first five years return from agriculture, and the preceding five years profit from oil venture can be put together for the establishment of factories for manufacturing locally consumables.

All of these may look complex and time consuming, but it is doable. This option, no matter how stressful, is far better than when ASUU waits for: handouts from government’s budgetary allocation, bail-out funds or collection of fees from the students of the same impoverished schools. In fact, reliance on any of the aforementioned means of revenue is tantamount to when someone stands inside a bucket while the same person is trying to lift up the same bucket by the handle.

If the HEMEN project becomes a success our story as a country can change within 20 years. So many jobs will be created for all classes of workers. Our education will become affordable; and even, have value more than before. Our lectures will have bragging rights; even, beyond our borders. Universities in Nigeria will attract foreign students, hence, more foreign exchange. Crime rate will reduce because youths will either acquire education or seek employment with the school-managed business outfits. Poverty will reduce substantially. Government will earn more taxes. More people will become socially aware of their economic personality and dignity of labour shall return.

As a matter of fact, our university lecturers are being underemployed, unappreciated and less revered. These people produced some of the mighty brains in the diaspora today. These learned fellows know so much about entrepreneurship, costing, business administration, petrochemical engineering and the international meliu. Let the government give them oil wells; give them start-up capital; don’t interfere, and watch in amazement how education will change Nigeria for good in the next 20 years.