ASUU strike and crisis in Nigeria’s educational system, By Hassan Taiwo Soweto

Chief Gani Fawehinmi had always been connected to the struggle to save public education from collapse. As far back as 1974, he published a book titled, “The People’s Right to Free Education” and embarked on advocacy and campaign for the provision of free education at all levels. Infact when he died on 5 September 2009, ASUU was in the middle of an indefinite national strike – the strike that led to the signing of the now famous 2009 FGN/ASUU agreement which unfortunately is still a subject of debate and controversy due to the refusal of successive capitalist regimes to genuinely implement the agreement 13 years after. The strike lasted from June 22, 2009 to October 23, 2009.

I remember the words of Professor Ukachukwu Awuzie, the President of ASUU as at then, at a press conference announcing the suspension of the strike. He demanded that the government should increase the budgetary allocation to education sector from 13% in 2009 to 18% in 2010. According to the report of the press conference by the Vanguard newspaper of 24 October 2009, Awuzie noted that the (2009) FGN/ASUU agreement prescribed the widely believed UNESCO minimum of 26 per cent of the annual budget to education, by both federal and state governments. Specifically it states; “being mindful of the processes for the meeting of this goal of 26 per cent annual budgetary allocation to education as enunciated in the UNESCO benchmark, the Federal Government shall endeavor to progressively increase its budgetary allocation to the education sector in accordance with its vision 20-20-20 programme”. 13 years after, not only is Nigeria far from meeting the reported UNESCO benchmark of 26 percent, budgetary allocation to education has dropped from 13 percent to 5.39 per cent in the 2022 budget!

At that time in 2009, I was a young radical student activist from the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) Ile Ife. The 4-month ASUU strike of the year marked the beginning of my generation’s radical intervention on the national stage. Just like now, the leadership of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) opposed the ASUU strike and took a pro-government stance. My generation had to challenge this and through the platform of the Education Rights Campaign (ERC), we embarked on independent mass activities including peaceful protests and demonstrations to support the demands over which ASUU went on strike and charged the Federal Government to listen to ASUU and meet the demands so the campuses could be reopened. I remember that Gani Fawehinmi’s funeral activities became a rallying point for our mobilization during the 2009 ASUU strike. Particularly at his burial activities in Lagos and Ondo states, mass of students and activists from different parts of the country came together and marched with banner and placards in solidarity with the ASUU strike. That was how intrinsically connected was Chief Gani Fawehinmi to the struggle to save public education. There are many more examples.

For instance, the duo of comrade Lanre Arogundade and the General Secretary of the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM), late comrade Segun Sango, in their tribute to Chief Gani Fawehinmi during his 70th birthday celebration in the year 2008 listed his other self-sacrificing actions in solidarity with the struggles in the education sector. This includes: facing the bayonets and providing free legal services for leaders and members of the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS) during the anti-education-commercialization Ali-Must-Go struggle in 1978; heading (of) an Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) administrative probe panel over the police killing of four students of the University of Ife in 1981”, etc.

Why have I told the story above? It is essentially to answer the layer of pro-government attack dogs that have been unleashed by the Buhari capitalist government in the past weeks to deride and calumniate the struggle of ASUU as a necessary preparation for a ruthless attack against the union. It is also, and this perhaps is the most important reason, to demonstrate that ASUU’s struggle is essentially a struggle imposed on the union by the oppressive and exploitative character of Nigeria’s neo-colonial capitalist political economy and the insistence of the country’s backward-looking, corrupt, rentier, and prebendal ruling elite aided by imperialism to hands off everything and turn public education over to profit-seeking private sector players. The aim of Nigeria’s capitalist ruling elite and imperialism is to make public education, especially public University education, the preserve of the few rich. In a country that already suffers educational inequality, the implication of this agenda, if it succeeds, is that a huge layer of Nigeria’s youth will become further dispossessed and incapable of changing their condition as they will be without the necessary skills and certification required to compete in the new world situation. This of course will have an opposite effect of increasing the ranks of the destitute and frustrated thereby increasing the pool of social discontent from which extremist groups like Boko Haram, ISWAP and Ansaru recruits as well as further entrenching the already growing violent youth cult groups and gangs in many communities across the country.

It would appear to you that it is supremely contradictory for a country which claims to be fighting an Islamist insurgency based on a backward notion that “Western education is haram” to adopt policy choices that further deny those willing to get educated an opportunity to do so right? For instance, if the current trajectory of government underfunding of public education continues over the next decade, Boko haram may have no need to fire a single shot before its main objective of ridding society of the “influences of Western education” is essentially achieved not just in the North East but across Nigeria. We would then have millions of young people whose tools for engaging and navigating the world would be mainly the teachings and dictates of religious bigots, and other criminal influences. Already today based on their experiences and frustrations, millions of young people even in the so-called well-to-do Southern parts of Nigeria now say “school na scam”. Please comrades and friends, how far is that from Boko Haram’s declaration that “Western education is haram”? Shekau would be smiling wherever he is, whether in heaven or hell, at how much the Buhari capitalist government through its ruinous policies of education underfunding, commercialization, and privatization has helped him achieve the establishment of his reactionary worldview.

So essentially, the battle that ASUU has taken up is an important battle. It is a battle whose resonance goes beyond the educational sector. It is a struggle to redefine the character of the Nigerian state and its attitude towards its responsibilities with regard to provision of public education and the welfare of the people. Anyone not supporting this struggle is a class enemy of the Nigerian people, the Nigerian youth and the Nigerian student. And I must add, you cannot oppose or calumniate ASUU struggle and claim to be a true disciple of Gani Fawehinmi or a lover of his ideals. Gani stood and fought for public education. He supported, directly and indirectly, all the essential struggles of students and educational workers from the 70s up to the mid-2000s when he breathed his last. So instead of dwelling on the shenanigans of the Minister of state for Labour and Employment, Festus Keyamo, who usually claims to be a disciple of Gani Fawehinmi, I would prefer to go to other important things while noting in passing that characters like Festus Keyamo are usually motivated by their bellies. It is their fate as petty bourgeois liberals devoid of any enduring principle, ideal or worldview.

However, it is hard for me to ignore the view of a former spokesman to President Musa Yar ‘Adua, Olusegun Adeniyi, not for any other reason but for the fact that in the cacophony of voices ranged against ASUU, his stands out in all its superficiality and insincerity. In his serialised opinion pieces on the ASUU strike in Thisday newspaper titled “The Case Against ASUU”, Olusegun Adeniyi calumniated ASUU for insisting on government funding public universities instead of allowing for increase in tuition fee. According to him, “it is unfortunate that intellectuals whose primary job is to produce thinkers for the society cannot even offer decent ideas on how to resolve their own crisis”. According to him, ASUU is an enemy of its members because if the union had allowed the government to commercialise public universities, perhaps Professors would be able to earn 3.6 million naira or more. According to him, “the reality of our situation is that we can no longer afford tuition-free university education because the challenge goes beyond payment of salaries”.

But in the same breadth, Segun Adeniyi went ahead to say “As someone from a poor background who may not have had a university education if it were not tuition-free, I admit this is not an easy conversation for me. But times have changed. Our population and the number of students (at all levels) has exploded amid dwindling resources. Therefore, to resolve the perpetual financial crisis in the university system so that we can attract quality academic staff, provide necessary teaching aids, and ensure conducive learning environment for students, we must examine alternative sources of funding. That is the only way our graduates can compete globally in the knowledge world. But even when many students may not be able to pay a commensurate school fee, the universities need not be shut against them”.

When an idea is essentially faulty, it revels in contradictions. In one instance, Segun Adeniyi wants public universities to be commercialized. Then when he remembered he was more likely to have become a palm wine tapper in his village instead of the ace journalist and presidential spokesperson he eventually became if he had not had the benefit of free and subsidised public education while growing up, he suddenly became an advocate of not shutting university education against indigent students. To give off the impression that he knows what he is saying, he goes off to list a number of policies that could be carried out to ensure that indigent students are not shut out in a commercialised and privatised educational system. This includes: “loans scheme, work-study programmes, scholarship schemes, bursaries, grants”. Unfortunately, the only idea worthy of examination in all he has listed is the loan scheme as every other educational support schemes like bursaries, scholarships etc. already exist and have failed miserably to ensure equitable access to University education by all.

Now let us briefly examine this so-called loan scheme in order to have an understanding of how it works and if it works. A number of countries like Canada, USA, United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, New Zealand, etc all have student loans schemes. For instance in the United States, “there are two types of student loans: federal loans sponsored by the federal government and private student loans, which broadly includes state-affiliated non-profits and institutional loans provided by schools. The overwhelming majority of student loans are federal loans. Federal loans can be “subsidized” or “unsubsidized.” Interest does not accrue on subsidized loans while the students are in school. Student loans may be offered as part of a total financial aid package that may also include grants, scholarships, and/or work study opportunities. Whereas interest for most business investments is tax deductible, student loan interest is generally not deductible. Critics contend that tax disadvantages to investments in education contribute to a shortage of educated labor, inefficiency, and slower economic growth. Prior to 2010, federal loans were also divided into direct loans (which are originated and funded by the federal government) and guaranteed loans, originated and held by private lenders but guaranteed by the government. The guaranteed lending program was eliminated in 2010 because of a widespread perception that the government guarantees boosted lending companies’ profits but did not benefit students by reducing student loan cost.”[1]

One of the consequences of the student loan scheme in the USA for instance is the growth of for-profit Universities which charge fees that average Americans cannot afford. With the average annual tuition cost for a four-year in-state public university averaging $26,590 for the 2019–2020 academic year, many students are forced to take out student loans to bridge the gap between grants and their annual tuition costs.[2] Another consequence is the rise in student loan debt with many paying students’ loans far into their adult life thus deepening poverty among working class and middle class families. Former President Obama did not finish paying his student loan until he became the US president. At the moment, approximately 43m Americans owe $1.6tn in federal government-backed student loans, plus there is an additional $140bn held in private student loans. Let me give an example for context. An American citizen, Liz Sampson owed $58,217 for her undergraduate degree in health services administration at D’Youville University in Buffalo, New York. She juggled four jobs and lived pay cheque to pay cheque for three years after college to pay off her loans. Despite the burden of her debt, she said she does not support student loan forgiveness. She says and I quote “It still does not solve the root cause of the problem, which is college is unaffordable”.

So what all of these mean is that the student loan scheme does not work. It makes education more expensive, turn education into a business while trapping people in debilitating debt for the profit of loan corporations. But remember we are talking about the failure of the student loan scheme in an advanced capitalist economy, how do you think it would fare in a neo-colonial capitalist economy like Nigeria which is not producing any real good-paying jobs that can support decent living? In Nigeria today, university graduates stay at home for an average of five years before finding any job and usually these are low-paying jobs with terrible condition of service. How would indebted students pay back and how long would it take them? My position is that students loan scheme will be even a far bigger disaster in Nigeria than it has been in other parts of the world. It will lead to generational indebtedness and misery for young people who will be trapped in a debt burden owed to glorified loan sharks.

Therefore, ASUU is right not to agree with the Federal Government to commercialize public Universities by increasing tuition. ASUU’s position is based on the idea that Nigeria’s wealth if judiciously managed is adequate to ensure a better life for all. I completely stand with ASUU on this. The truth is that despite the prevailing economic crisis and dwindling revenue, Nigeria is still rich enough to fund public education and basic amenities. What needs to be done is to redirect government priorities from funding the profligacy of the ruling elite into investing our collective wealth in the welfare of the people. Despite the so-called economic crisis, ministers of the Buhari government including Keyamo’s boss, Labour Minister Chris Ngige, coughed out N100 million apiece for the presidential primary of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC). Where did they get this money? There is money to fund education and other basic needs. The only problem is capitalism – a socio economic system based on the brutal exploitation of the working class for the benefit of the rich. That is why an essential part of our struggle is not only to fight against this or that anti-people policies, for which we can win some concessions, but to also advance the struggle up to the point of the working class taking political power and establishing a Socialist Nigeria under which Nigeria’s economy will be nationalized under public democratic control and management and the needs of the vast majority not the greed of a few will be the basis of governance and economy.

So in essence I call on Nigerian students, workers, and all right-thinking people to continue to support ASUU’s struggle and the overall struggle for adequate funding and democratic management of quality public education at all levels. I would also like to use this occasion to call on the Nigeria Labour Congress to make good its threat to escalate its intervention to a general strike should the irresponsible Buhari government refuse to meet the demands of ASUU after the July 26 and 27 protests of the NLC. Therefore, I reiterate the call of the ERC and Joint Action Front (JAF) on both the NLC and TUC to declare a 48-hour general strike and mass protest as the next stage in the struggle in order to force the hand of the government and get universities reopened.

I also urge ASUU to consider organizing more public mass activities to build support. This should include public townhalls, leafletting and other creative and effective means to get its message out and counter the false propaganda of the Federal Government. ASUU must recognise that without building critical mass support from Nigerian students, parents, and the mass of the working people, it would be difficult for an indefinite strike by a union to succeed in defeating the Federal Government which has powers of coercion and suppression. Therefore the union’s activities and strategy must be tailored towards building this mass support while ensuring that its tactics correlate appropriately to the balance of force at all times.

After all is said and done, the struggle to save public education is not a sprint but a marathon. It is intrinsically linked with the struggle to defeat neo-colonial capitalism which is the major reason Nigeria’s corrupt ruling elite are so useless and irresponsible. No other person than late Chief Gani Fawehinmi recognized this when he formed the National Conscience Party (NCP) as an independent political party of the working class and poor masses. It should be recalled that the NCP “came into being as a result of the monumental act of betrayal exhibited by all the main stream capitalist politicians including its so-called progressive fraction which later metamorphosed into AD, particularly in the wake of the annulment of the 12 June, 1993 presidential election won by Chief MKO Abiola. The unprincipled collaboration of all layers of the main capitalist politicians in the said annulment and their subsequent peaceful acquiesce to continuation of military rule made most radical sections of the struggling masses and youths to embrace the idea of creating a new pro-masses party as articulated by Chief Gani Fawehinmi. While all layers of the capitalist politicians chose to obey the dictate of the then military junta’s ban on political parties and activities, the pioneer NCP members defied all threats to their lives to launch NCP on 1 October, 1994. And for this courageous act, many of its founding members in many states, including Gani, its pioneer chairman suffered arrests, physical assaults, prolonged detentions under the military junta[3]”.

In 2003, the NCP with a ten care programme which promised the “abolition of poverty” participated in the general elections. “Looking back and despite and in spite of time and financial constraints, the NCP ran a glorious campaign and equally got promising results where it was organized and active. Despite the massive frauds and manipulations, which characterized the 2003 general elections, the party’s presidential candidate in the person of Gani came fifth while in Lagos State, the party’s governorship candidate came third. In fact, many change-seekers used to urge NCP activists to persevere, as they believed the party was a party of the future”[4]. Mr. Kunle Sanyaolu, a Senior Editorial staffer of The Guardian and political analyst, in The Guardian publication of July 23, 2006, page 55, wrote an article titled “Political Parties As Hope 2007”. The write-up which was meant to be a political appraisal of the current state of the parties in general has this to say on NCP: “In the prelude to the 2003 election, the party that impressed me most is the National Conscience Party (NCP). It not only presented a manifesto that addressed the crux of the country’s current problems, the party attached to its programme a measurable plan of action verifiable by interested persons”[5]

Unfortunately, all these opportunities were eventually lost. However, as we mark the 13th anniversary of Chief Gani Fawehinmi’s death today, I urge us to make a renewed commitment to embark on a new attempt to form and build a mass workers and poor people’s political party armed with Socialist programmes to sweep away the capitalist gangsters, take political power and establish a revolutionary government of workers and poor people to salvage Nigeria. This is the only way to complete Chief Gani Fawehinmi’s immortal work.  There is an urgency in the situation as every socio-economic indices point to the fact that the crisis in Nigeria has matured to a boiling point and an implosion impends. If the working people are able to take power in Nigeria, there is no doubt that this will act as a spring-board for the liberation of Cameroon, Niger, Benin, and the entire Africa as a first step in the struggle of the working class to take their destinies into their own hands.

I have no doubt that we can do this if we set our mind to it.

Thank you very much for listening

SOURCE: PREMIUM TIME

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