ALMOST five months into the strike by university lecturers, there is little hope in sight that studies will resume as the Federal Government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) sing discordant tunes. A pronouncement by the Labour and Productivity Minister, Chris Ngige, that the strike would soon be called off following negotiations, was promptly countered by the union, while other reports claimed that the main sticking point now centres on the electronic payment platform that would be appropriate for academics. The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), and his ministers should do everything possible to ensure that federal universities reopen without further delay.
That the strike has lingered for so long, resulting in the loss of a semester and possibly an entire academic year, demonstrates the cavalier attitude of the Buhari regime towards education. This is patently unfair to the students and their parents and guardians. That a government, in this modern age, could allow its universities to remain shut, paralysing academic activities for so long, is manifestly indefensible. The Federal Government should purge itself of its callous indifference and return to the negotiation table with renewed vigour to end the strike immediately at whatever the cost.
The ASUU strike arises primarily from the failure of successive governments to honour agreements. Henceforth, the government must show fidelity to its agreements with ASUU and other unions. Government is a continuity, and agreements sealed by previous administrations are binding on its successors; at best, they can only be renegotiated. The FG-ASUU agreement/Memorandum of Understanding has gone beyond that. After so many strikes, pacts, and defaults since it was first signed in 2009 and renegotiated in 2013, implementation is the only viable option today.
As the government mismanages the dispute, the entire public tertiary education system is on the verge of collapse, with other major academic unions across the public tertiary education system also staging strikes and making threatening demands. After its 21-day ultimatum elapsed with no concrete action from the government, the Colleges of Education Academic Staff Union days ago began a fresh four-week nationwide strike, while the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics only recently suspended its two-week strike. Though it said the government had met four of its nine demands, ASUP’s executives have scheduled a meeting in Dutse, Jigawa State, next week to decide whether to resume their strike. Non-academic staff unions are also flexing their muscles.
The Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, and Ngige have serially demonstrated their incompetence; Buhari should drop them. Ngige is abrasive, while Adamu, like Buhari, is aloof and detached from the ugly reality and damaging impact of a collapsing national tertiary education sector. Both men are round pegs in square holes, unsuitable for the challenges thrown up.
Criticised for so long, ASUU has now won support for its cause from students, parents/guardians, and the public. Its position has merit. The revitalisation of the universities and improved welfare for lecturers are legitimate and should be treated as such. But the reluctance to source the funds to pay the promised revitalisation fund of N200 billion per annum is wrong. The consequence is evident in the poorly equipped laboratories, dilapidated lecture halls lacking teaching aids and ramshackle hostels — mostly having no usable toilet facilities and functional bathrooms and often forcing students in school hostels to bathe outside. Had government been faithful to this pact, the burden would have long since been discharged.
The government should avail itself of the NEEDS Assessment in the Nigerian Education Sector report that formed the basis for the 2009 agreement to confront the level of decadence.
To meet the annual N200 billion pledge, there should be special legislative budgetary appropriation incorporated into the annual national budgets. It is a matter of priority: the government and the National Assembly regularly rush finance bills through for security spending. The controversial service-wide vote provision specifically for “unforeseen situations” that was averaging N500 billion each year poses no problem for them to authorise either. About N758 billion was budgeted for this in 2021 and a humongous N2.4 trillion in 2022. Part of this should be channelled to the education sector to salvage it.
Education is key to development, science and technology. The World Bank says, “Tertiary education is instrumental in fostering growth, reducing poverty, and boosting shared prosperity. A highly skilled workforce, with lifelong access to a solid post-secondary education, is a prerequisite for innovation and growth.” Education is the bedrock of success in today’s knowledge-driven global economy; therefore, everything should be done to revive it.
Similarly, ASUU’s demand for the earned allowances of its members is legitimate. Its insistence on using the University Transparency and Accountability Solution pay platform, and its identification of flaws and subsequent rejection of the government’s Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System, initially dismissed by many, including by this newspaper, has been found to have merit.
Cumulatively, since 1999, the public university system has lost about 1,400 days, or about three years and eight months, due to strikes. This corresponds roughly to the four-year duration of most undergraduate courses. This puts students in public universities at a disadvantage through no fault of theirs, while their mates in private universities complete their programmes on schedule. It is the children of average Nigerians and the underprivileged, who are unable to afford the fees in private universities that bear the brunt of these frequent strikes. All stakeholders should therefore unite to influence the immediate resumption of academic activities.
Nigerians should overcome their culture of silence and complacency. They should employ all available legal and peaceful means to demand accountability and good governance from public office holders and draw the attention to the government’s many egregious failings, including in the education sector.
The task of salvaging the public tertiary education sector is not for ASUU, ASUP or COEASU alone, the central labour unions should weigh in dispassionately. Beyond ASUU’s demand, there is an urgent need for increased funding for education by all tiers of government.