By Dare Babarinsa
There is no doubt that the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has become the most popular, even notorious, trade union in Nigeria. Its power is far-reaching and its influence is unquantifiable.
The ASUU strike of many months now has rendered many young Nigerians helpless. Some weeks ago, some young people in Ile-Ife, home of the historic Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), protested, asking that ASUU and the Federal Government should agree to end the strike.
The protest was dramatic, but then, it had no impact. I don’t know what can have an impact on the ongoing ASUU strike.
The ASUU has shown great capacity to close down almost all government-owned universities.
Between 1999 and now, the union has succeeded in going on strike for more than six years cumulatively. There is no other union with this kind of achievement in the public space. I will not try to go into why ASUU is on strike this time around. I would only say it has had a devastating impact on the lives of young Nigerians and their families.
For the past six months, the youth have been facing uncertainties because of the ongoing strike. When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. Now the grass is crying.
Few weeks ago, a young undergraduate was kidnapped from her place of work as a temporary staff of a hotel in Ogbomosho, Oyo State. She was kidnapped by her employer, the owner of the hotel, who was planning to relocate home permanently from the United States. But the young lady was at work because she did not want to stay home idle during the ASUU strike and felt she needed to take the opportunity to earn some money. The kidnappers killed her. Who knows how many young people, who otherwise would have been engaged in useful academic endeavours, have fallen victims to this national distraction?
Yet, ASUU is not an ordinary trade union. It is the union for Nigerian academics, whose thoughts and intellectual attainments ought to direct our country. It is a pity that those in authority now see ASUU as just another union. It is a pity too that ASUU sees itself as just another union, ready to flex muscle whenever it considers it necessary to do so.
When Aare Afe Babalola was the Pro-Chancellor of the University of Lagos (UNILAG), one of his greatest achievements was his ability to shield the university from ASUU strikes.
Why have ASUU strikes become so contentious? First is the impression that ASUU has no alternative but to go on strike. While ASUU has made tremendous achievements and has contributed greatly to the growth of tertiary education in Nigeria, it’s festival of strikes has overshadowed its achievements in other areas. It is believed that the highly successful and impactful Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) was a by-product of ASUU’s struggle with the Federal Government. I still don’t understand why this powerful parastatal cannot intervene, in specific instances, in private universities.
It is ironic that the current regime of President Muhammadu Buhari, which has enjoyed relative peace with ASUU is now engaged in this protracted struggle in its last laps. Since President Buhari came to power in 2015, ASUU had been on strike for less than two years. Now, it appears the politicians are ignoring the union. Many of them, who are themselves products of Nigerian universities, are sending their children abroad for education. Those who are not among them are sending their children and wards to private universities.
The unintended effect is the decline and decline of public universities. I am sure this was not what the leadership of ASUU intended and desired. However, that is what is happening to us.
ASUU is not the first union for the Nigerian academic community; however, it has become the most combative. In 1974, academic staff of UNILAG threatened to go on strike when the Federal Military Government under General Yakubu Gowon said they should come under the new salary structure recommended by the Salary Review Committee headed by a veteran civil servant, Chief Jerome Udoji.
At that time, the Federal Government owned only two universities: UNILAG and the University of Ibadan. Despite the protest, the government had its way. That was the first successful assault on university autonomy.
When General Murtala Muhammed came to power after the overthrow of General Gowon in 1975, the new regime decided to seize all existing regional universities for the Federal Government. Therefore, a directive was issued to the new Military Governor of the Western State, Commodore Akintunde Aduwo, to hand over the University of Ife to the Federal Government. Aduwo hesitated, explaining why an institution that belonged to the West cannot just be handed over like that. Aduwo was fired and ordered to proceed to India for further studies.
Thus, regional universities like the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (owned by the government of the defunct Eastern Region), Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), and Zaria, owned by the defunct Northern Region, as well as Ife, were all seized by the Federal Government.
To emphasise that they were now Federal institutions, the government of General Olusegun Obasanjo appointed new vice-chancellors for these universities and moved around the old chancellors. Thus Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who had been the chancellor of Ife, was moved to ABU. Later, Professor Ladipo Akinkugbe, the first Vice-Chancellor (VC) of the University of Ilorin, became the VC of ABU. Professor Cyril Agodi Onwumechili also became the VC of Ife. New universities were created by decree and we live with the consequences, thereafter.
In reaction to all these fast-paced events, the academic community created the ASUU in 1978 to essentially fight for the protection of university autonomy from the reckless and invidious interventions of external forces, especially soldiers and politicians.
For me, that is the kernel of the matter. The university community needs to reclaim its old autonomy from a federalise ASUU. Why should a disagreement between the staff of the University of Ilorin, owned by the Federal Government, cause headaches for the authorities of the Ekiti State University (EKSU), Ado-Ekiti, owned by the Ekiti State Government? Why should the staff of the Delta State University (DELSU), Abraka, owned by the Delta State Government, earn the same salary scale as those of the newly established University of Medical Sciences, Ila-Orangun, owned by the Federal Government?
Universities are supposed to be under the control of Governing Councils. Each public university is set up by an Act of Parliament to ensure that they are an autonomous entity that has the power to hire and fire and direct the general direction of its activities. If the truth must be told, the universities have become victims of our unitary federal structure. It is time the ASUU leadership go back to the drawing board to help our country reclaim lost grounds, including the universally cherished university autonomy.
The regular festival of strikes is a call to action by interested groups, especially the National Assembly. There is a need to look at the internal working of our universities to arrest the drift and dissipations that have become common. In 1986, the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), embarked on a nationwide strike. Professor Kayode Osuntokun of the University of Ibadan criticised his colleagues, saying that according to the Hippocratic Oath subscribed to by doctors at induction, doctors are not supposed to abandon their patients. He said there must be an alternative to strikes. I agree with him.
I think his advice is still relevant in 2022. ASUU, as a community of intellectuals, must give us an alternative to strikes. That is the only way to reclaim the future for our children.
The Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu, said last week that striking lecturers would not be paid for the period they were absent from the classrooms. That is the provision of the law, he says. The Federal Government and ASUU also need to reach an agreement on this so that we can reclaim lost grounds. There must be an alternative to the intransigence of both parties.
• Babarinsa is a newspaper columnist and public affairs analyst.