ASUU has become part of the problem rather than the solution. ASUU and the Federal Government have tried the same solution for 42 years and we are still where we were then today. ASUU always insists it has to be its way, and successive governments have usually reached agreements with the Union, following prolonged strikes, while monies are eventually paid and agreements signed.
The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) on Wednesday, December 23 announced that it has conditionally suspended the national strike action it commenced in March. It has been a long nine months, beating all previous strike records of six and seven months held by ASUU. Let us agree to call the just ended strike, the ASUU Coronavirus Strike or the ASUU COVID-19 Strike. It tallies well with the global realities of a year long pandemic for which 2020 would always be associated and it would probably qualify as ASUU’s contribution to the science of the virus. However, it has also come in good time as a Yuletide gift to Nigerian students, specifically, and the nation at large. I have patiently waited for this day when either the strike would be called off or “suspended” or when the Federal Government would wield a big axe in the interest of Nigeria’s university education. It seems that ASUU won and the nation lost. To placate ASUU and arrive at this agreement, the government provided N65 billion. I found it intriguing yet bewildering to read that the release of the fund was accompanied by two proposals, according to the Labour minister, Chris Ngige; (1.) a N25 billion revitalisation fund and N40 billion earned allowances for all the unions in Nigerian universities; (2.) revitalisation funds of N30 billion and earned allowances of N35 billion. I wonder which of the two options was ASUU’s preference and which would be implemented. I intend to present some positive contributions of ASUU to tertiary education in Nigeria; touch on when ASUU started getting it wrong, explain how and why they lost public support; and conclude by making some proposals on next steps and how to democratise unions like ASUU.
I seek to present a narrative that would solve the recurring but undesirable problems that ASUU has become for Nigeria higher education and society. Permit me to digress. When it comes to proverbs, there is a serious competition between the Yoruba and Igbo languages. Often proverbs from these two rich languages are difficult to translate without losing the depth and richness of their meaning. Again, if you are a lover of proverbs, as I am, you will find several overlaps and similarities in Igbo and Yoruba proverbs. ASUU has become like a spoiled child, loved and pampered by many until, like the late Diego Armando Maradona, the child is overdoing things and outplaying himself. The Yoruba will say, “omo yi ma pa mi” (this child don’t kill me) but when the spoilt child gets over himself/herself, the saying changes to, “omo yi ma pa ara e” (this child don’t kill yourself). But then I digress!
ASUU, as we know it today, was formed only in 1978. It is a professional trade union and thus lists nine objectives in its constitution of 1978, as amended in 1984. These objectives reveal both professional goals as an industrial union and some aspects of economic and political goals. The activities and struggles of ASUU since 1978 clearly attest to its determination to be successful on all fronts. For its confrontations and what government often considers its political stands, ASUU has been banned by government twice in the past – on August 7, 1988 (until 1990) and on August 23, 1992 (this did not last long as an agreement was reached with the government just under two weeks). PREMIUM TIMES has chronicled a Timeline: How Nigerian university teachers, ASUU, embarked on strike for over three years since 1999. These strikes often lasted between one week and seven months. It has happened almost every year that some have labelled it an annual “celebration”. If you add the just ending nine months of strike, it would be over four years of strike action by ASUU since 1999. That alone should be worrisome to anyone desirous of credible higher education in Nigeria. Across the board, therefore, every stakeholder should find it concerning that there have to be so many strikes to resolve a lingering and recurring problem. This approach is unprecedented, both in style and length, globally.
There is a massive positive side to the foregoing discussion. We all have views about the current state of Nigerian universities – the good, the bad and the ugly. It is inconceivable that universities in Nigeria would be in their current states (no matter how negative anyone may perceive it to be currently) without all the ASUU struggles and strikes. But for the persistent challenge of government by ASUU, many Nigerian universities would probably be comatose by now. If not closed, they will be in the state of public primary and secondary schools. Today, the majority of Nigerians, especially in the big cities, rely on private education. Hitherto this was for primary and secondary education, but recently many are also turning to private university education. This is largely true across board, including with relatively low skilled and low-income earners. The outcomes of every single ASUU struggle has always gone beyond redeeming universities, as all tertiary education institutions ultimately benefited. I spent 11 of my formative years as an academic in ASUU struggles. I know what ASUU stands for, I recognise it and have always commended that struggle. I am sorry that the ship has sailed. It did not just sail, but that happened several years ago. ASUU has increasingly positioned itself as the problem, not the solution, with its predictable monolithic approach to resolving issues.
Established by an Act of Parliament in 2011, the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) is charged with the responsibility for imposing, managing and disbursing education tax to public tertiary institutions. TETFund repealled and replaced the Education Tax Act Cap. E4 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004 and Education Tax Fund (Amendment) Act No. 17, 2003. The vision and mission (goals) are laudable. It is all, thanks to ASUU and its years of struggle. TETFund’s grants come from the two per cent education tax paid from the assessable profit of companies registered in Nigeria. The Federal Inland Revenue Services (FIRS) assesses and collects the tax on behalf of the Fund. Arising from TETFund in tertiary institutions are rehabilitated laboratories, several new buildings, improved infrastructure, and positive response to staffing issues, especially around research funding, international collaborations and conference attendance, among others. I will argue that the biggest achievement of ASUU till date is the establishment of TETFund by the government. It emerged from creative thinking.
By far the biggest beneficiary of ASUU strikes are university workers (academic and non-academic) who without the struggles would probably be some of the most poorly paid in the world today. Consistently, ASUU strikes meant the government had to do something and be seen as doing something. ASUU/government negotiations have consistently helped resolve tertiary education challenges and disputes over the years but such agreements reached have never been adhered to by the government beyond a short period and hence they have always ended up in another round of dispute.
…it is very important to democratise ASUU. As a union of elite members of society by virtue of their education, we can trust ASUU to be able to conduct credible elections within its membership. It is important that no future strikes of ASUU should take place without a poll of the members. That poll should be by individual secret ballot, not the show of hands in a rowdy congress held in a large hall…
Unlike many national unions in Nigeria, leadership changes and transition of power from one ASUU president to the other have always been smooth, peaceful, credible and well organised. They have, in some ways, been similar to the peaceful but unusual successions of the Olubadan of Ibadan, from one Oba to the other. In Ibadanland, an aspiring king joins the ladder at the bottom, waits in line and slowly progresses up the ladder, following the demise of others in line, in the well organised two-line hierarchy. Destiny and posterity would eventually determine if an aspirant makes it to the top as Olubadan or not. With ASUU, the aspiring individuals also join at the bottom of the ladder, learn the ropes, are tried and tested on the key prerequisite criteria of integrity and being left leaning. Some are lucky to make it to the top in the small cult-like and secretive process of the leadership succession. No aspiring academic can jump in and disrupt the peaceful progression of power and this process has worked very well for ASUU. Conversely, this process and procedure have been equally responsible for the seemingly incestuous leadership in ASUU. There is no room for radical change, indeed a strongly right-leaning ideological position would disqualify an aspirant. The faces of the ASUU presidents have also moved from the north, to east and west of the country, with some popular names, among others, including: Biodun Jeyifo, Attahiru Jega, Assisi Asobie, Abdullahi Sule-Kano, Nasir Fagge, Dipo Fasina, Festus Iyayi, Ukachukwu A. Awuzie, and presently Biodun Ogunyemi.
Elsewhere we have argued that ASUU has become part of the problem rather than the solution. ASUU and the Federal Government have tried the same solution for 42 years and we are still where we were then today. ASUU always insists it has to be its way, and successive governments have usually reached agreements with the Union, following prolonged strikes, while monies are eventually paid and agreements signed. Often under two years, the agreements are violated and the situation is back to status quo. Is it not time that we tried another solution? I want to propose a number of solutions, going forward, but back to my Igbo and Yoruba proverbs, the Igbo say: “Ogologo abughi na nwa m e tola” (Tallness is not a yardstick to define maturity) and the Yoruba similarly put it as: “Ogbon ko kan agba” (Wisdom is not restricted to the elderly). It is time to end the intransigence and open up the options in the overall interest of Nigerian tertiary education.
First, it is very important to democratise ASUU. As a union of elite members of society by virtue of their education, we can trust ASUU to be able to conduct credible elections within its membership. It is important that no future strikes of ASUU should take place without a poll of the members. That poll should be by individual secret ballot, not the show of hands in a rowdy congress held in a large hall, which only strike supporting members attend and opposing members are bullied by the noise of the more militant membership. Members should be able to vote confidentially and this can be easily organised electronically among the membership. Future strikes should proceed only when this has been carried by the majority of members. Section 31(6) of the Trade Unions Act (Amendment) Act, 2005 already provides as follows: “No person, trade union or employer shall take part in a strike or lockout or engage in any conduct in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute unless”…, and in subsection 6 (6e), it says (e) “In the case of an employee or a trade union, a ballot has been conducted in accordance with the rules and constitution of the trade union at which a simple majority of all registered members voted to go on strike”. For public transparency, ASUU needs to make this voting public knowledge, preceding any future strike.
Secondly, the current funding arrangement of tertiary education in Nigeria is not working. It is the responsibility of government, not ASUU, to make it work. It is best practice for government to consult widely about the options available to them. There must be options and these options need to be made public. ASUU is one of the stakeholders in tertiary education in Nigeria. They are neither the owners nor custodians of tertiary education. ASUU should stop behaving as if it has the ultimate responsibility for tertiary education in the country. That is not its call and it has to become realistic about this and stop stalling progress in alternative funding considerations. ASUU is still a registered trade union under Nigerian laws, until that changes it is imperative for ASUU to revert back to its core role of fighting for the welfare and interest of its members. How much does it cost to train a graduate in Nigeria? Who will pay for it and how? Since no one seems to know the cost of educating each student, by costing education, it would be clear how much the fund provider needs to provide – be it government or others. This would ensure better accountability. Isn’t this what private universities do to determine how much to charge? For several years, ASUU has blocked attempts to change education funding in Nigeria. What ASUU has not done is to propose an alternative that will work because clearly that is beyond its mandate. When ASUU opposed the government salary payment platform of IPPIS, it proposed the UTAS, which is currently undergoing integrity tests. Whether that will open a can of worms for the government in dealing with several other parastatals going forward is another matter altogether. Yet, if we know the cost of education and public universities begin to receive funds to cover the cost of educating each student, as it is if they were privately owned, that elusive university autonomy will be achieved more quickly. University management will become more responsible with spending and vice chancellors will have a clearer mandate and vision in operating within boundaries. Universities will become more competitive. If the private universities in Nigeria can put a cost to education, why can’t the public ones do the same?
Thirdly, there is need to create a jointly agreed ASUU/government standing committee whose task over a prescribed period of 12 months should be to harmonise all outstanding government/ASUU agreements and create a policy paper of an agreed compendium of what is outstanding, realistic, and contemporary, so there is a one-time solution that would eliminate any need for referral to the past. This newly agreed document should pass through appropriate government organs and be signed as a one-time final agreement. Government should demonstrate total commitment to this document by agreeing to a realistic and reasonably flexible timeframe for implementation. Depending on how this document is created, it should be enacted into law by an act of parliament, so that succeeding governments are bound by it.
In the overall interest of the Nigerian higher education system, the government should make this just ending strike the last one of this length and magnitude in its disruption of the operation of universities. There is need for a holistic solution, a broad approach and important changes in the Trade Union statutes. It is time to reform and democratic the unions.
Fourthly, the strike that is just ending afforded the present government an unusual opportunity to resolve or at least make some progress towards resolving the crisis of university education in Nigeria. It failed. It acted like a government with no serious agenda or long-term perspective or ideas to resolve the problems. It has hosted the longest strike of ASUU – nine months! It is enough time to think long and deep so that solutions being agreed to be implemented would be different and enduring. The universities could have been shut down for repositioning, serious and far-reaching actions should have been implemented. The interesting thing about Nigeria’s ongoing problems is that the most feasible answers are always already written in several extant reports by sundry bodies in the past, enquiries, committees and task forces. A thorough read by a panel of credible citizens, without resorting to new investigations, will bring out an implementable harmonised blueprint and a government white paper, as it is called. Is this still an option now?
Fifthly, I have always wondered why Nigerians laws are never obeyed by both citizens and governments. Section 42(1)(a) of the Trade Dispute Act vol. 15 Cap. T8 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004 stipulates that: “notwithstanding anything contained in the Act or any other law, where any worker takes part in a strike, he shall not be entitled to any wages or other remuneration for the period of the strike, and such period shall not count for the purpose of reckoning the period of employment and all rights dependent on continuity of employment shall be prejudicially affected accordingly”. The main reason strikes are not prolonged in many Western countries is the existence of similar laws like this one, which Nigeria probably copied but which have been continuously and flagrantly ignored. Strikes would typically last for a few days or often up to a week. This is expensive for members as salary is actually withheld and lost, and this is the understanding and expectation of all. In Nigeria that law is decorative, not worth the paper on which it is written. Over the last couple of weeks, Nigerian social media space has been awash with the video of a particular female striking lecturer frying “garri” to make ends meet in the absence of her salary. Many others have been engaged in several other income yielding chores apparently. Now most ASUU members have been paid backlog salaries for a job they never did and for which the law says they should not be paid, with the complicity of ASUU and government. Have ASUU members been on strike or have they not? If they have actually not worked for nine months, are they ethically and morally entitled to being paid? Should ASUU not consider other ways of becoming successful in their agitations?
Finally, there are enough academic resources on ASUU’s struggles and strikes, including full empirical scholarly studies that can be used as a sound basis for a PhD work. I look forward to reading a PhD thesis on ASUU and would love to supervise one! Did ASUU get it wrong at any point along the struggle? Did ASUU lose public sympathy and support at any point? ASUU’s refusal to introspect, to rejuvenate, to change tactics, and to be more inclusive is a major impediment to the Union’s long-term survival. The song goes something like this is Yoruba: “wo eyin re wo, bo l’omo ogun, bo l’omo ogun, wo eyin re wo” (look behind you and constantly check if you still have fighters). ASUU has to be better than this. I have argued previously that the emergence of the Congress of University Academics (CONUA) as an evolving academic staff union is proof of a need for a change of tactics and a more common-sense approach to engaging successive governments that have failed the nation.
In the overall interest of the Nigerian higher education system, the government should make this just ending strike the last one of this length and magnitude in its disruption of the operation of universities. There is need for a holistic solution, a broad approach and important changes in the Trade Union statutes. It is time to reform and democratic the unions. Today it is ASUU, tomorrow it will be another big union. Strikes are great and effective in forcing the hands of employers and governments but unless where the striking unions are replacing government (as in a revolt), it is the responsibility of government to provide policy direction and implementations. In the larger part of the last nine months, this government abdicated its responsibilities to the universities and the Nigerian people. The strike being suspended presently is too little, too late.
It is clear to everyone that the present funding arrangement of the tertiary education system is not working. It is a well-known fact that if you keep using the same strategy, as is the case presently, you should not expect a different result, unless you change strategy. Nothing has changed, so nothing will change. Stakeholders of the universities would have to develop a collaborative will and determination to do things differently. ASUU should also become more collaborative with other unions and other stakeholders, including students and parents.
Gbolahan Gbadamosi can be reached through email@example.com