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Opinions of Monday, 5 October 2020

Columnist: The Nation

ASUU: Between goals and strategies

Too many woods in the fire? Several battle fronts? Sufficient grounds for these struggles? Absolute Yes. Unfortunately, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) is not a political party that can compete for, seize and use political power for the re-distribution of societal resources. As a trade union that it is, its weapons of pressure, bargaining, negotiations and even strike are not enough to secure the type of redress it often seeks.

The Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) at a time was in the same quagmire ASUU is today, with its persistent demands for the revitalization of the health sector. More than 30 years in that struggle, the government-owned hospitals have remained or even worse than what at that time they called “consulting clinics”. They were in this struggle until nurses began to earn more than doctors and a pharmacist became the nation’s minister of health. As doctors, they quickly went through a brain re-set. Today 99 percent of doctors’ agitations are focused on their pay and allowances. (Refer to the latest strike in the FCT in the wake of the corona pandemic and government reaction to pay N5000 daily to workers in the frontline which is the equivalent of their monthly hazard allowance).

I still hold on to my firm traditional belief that ASUU needs a complete rejig by focusing on core welfare matters of lecturers. For example, let the union place a demand on the government for a minimum N300k for a Graduate Assistant, graduate it along the hierarchy to above N1million for a new professor, and jettison for a moment these recurrent excess luggage that have beclouded the struggle. The society will then know what the union is fighting for, and union members too will sacrifice anything and everything to achieve that as we did in the 90s, the glorious days of Professor Jega when we sacrificed for over six months to move an Assistant Lecturer pay from N528 to over N2000 a month, the struggle that birthed those unique non-taxable academic allowances now “consolidated” with a corresponding heavy tax burden. Surely we miss Jega.

Before the almighty TETFund, how were the various governments able to provide the great facilities of old in BUK, OAU, ABU, Unilag, UI, Unilorin (Better by far), just to mention but a few? Today what role can we reasonably ascribe the NUC or the Federal Ministry of Education in the infrastructural (and even academic) development of our universities? How were conferences and seminars financed before TETFund? Where are the Senate Research Grants of old? Or the Staff Development Awards for Postgraduate training? TETFund has simply rendered them redundant.

So how do we overcome the current infrastructural decay and institutional deficiency? It is a puzzle on political leadership far beyond the current efforts, energy and radicalism of ASUU. Crying out loud on one’s predicament is legitimate. Finding the right solution in this circumstance is a different ball game.

In the on-going agitation, ASUU’s position needs a strategic rethink and re-positioning. In a parasitic capitalist economy as ours, advocating a socialist model of education -where government must fund everything and anything; where students must not pay more than N90 for a bed space; or where universities are even afraid to charge their students for services rendered- is absurd and anachronistic.

Ironically, many of us in the forefront of the agitation against the ‘commercialization’ of university education paid, and are still paying exorbitant fees in private institutions, to finance our wards’ primary, secondary and university education. But while we insist that hostel accommodation must be free in public universities, students patronize Shylock outside the campuses, paying through their nose, with the attendant social and security risks. In some other instances, private hostels thrive on campuses under the Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement at very high commercial rates with parents and students struggling for the few available spaces.

To be sure, even in the glorious era of university education of the 1960s -80s, which many often refer to, regrettably, some parents could not afford to send their children to school. But the beauty then like the elders would tell us, was that many of the less privileged weathered the storm by the grace of scholarships and loans from organizations, communities and governments. This is an area I believe stakeholders in the education sector can focus more attention rather than the unrealistic clamour for a virtually free university education.

In the past, students were in the frontline of the battle for quality education, and so took on at will governments and university managements whenever lapses were discovered in the hostels, cafeteria, laboratories and classrooms. Today’s generation of students are hangers-on and campus agents to their “political leaders” leaving the agitations for quality education to ASUU, a body the students also deride and disparage at will.

Unfortunately, like in every Marxist analysis, the reactions of ASUU anytime any day are straitjacket and easily predictable: Threaten the government – start a warning strike – proceed on a full blown strike – negotiate with government – sign agreements or what Professor Ben Nwabueze, a former Minister of Education, called “gentleman’s agreements”(that the parties knew would never be honored because the agreements never had “the force of law”) – go back to work-get frustrated at work because nothing substantial came from the last strike-again warn government of another impending strike- and the cycle continues. The government is aware of this weakness and capitalizes on it at every strike that the students now categorize as our “annual rituals.”

But my elementary POS 101 class told me the superstructure is a function of the substructure. So expecting a socialist or what others call a social democratic educational system on a purely capitalist foundation, as ASUU has been advocating for decades, is a “wait for godot”; and no wonder the decay has not abated.

As a group of intellectuals, ASUU must also recognize that the low level of the nation’s political culture, especially the high rate of illiteracy, ignorance, poverty, underdevelopment and other primordial forces -tribe, religion etc.- besetting the polity (remember the ASUU 2019 pre-election strike and the forces that led to its suspension), will open up the union as it is currently happening to eventual possibilities of role misconception, misrepresentation, misunderstanding and antagonism of the populace, especially the same sector it is fighting to revitalize and “autonomize” (my word).

Someone jokingly asked me how ASUU could ever imagine that a government that did not honor an agreement it entered into in 2009 when there was peace and plenty to share would do so now with the current austere, budget-reduction, belt-tightening economic downturn and pandemic besetting the country.

The implication of this is that ASUU must re-strategize, change its tactics, develop new methodologies and limit the war for now to purely welfare issues, especially (1) its logical stance on the IPPIS and its alternative to government, the UTAS, and, (2) insisting on a new salary table for its members (the latter, even if not addressed now will be on the front burner).

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