Proactively Preventing The Next ASUU Strike | Prof. Idowu Olayinka
Hi This is a season of political campaigns leading to general elections next year. It would be highly gratifying if political parties can include in their manifestos realistic strategies to put an end to strike by staff unions which have made our public Universities permanently unstable for far too long- Prof Idowu Olayinka ( Former Vice Chancellor of University of Ibadan)
In the early to middle 1990s the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) came up with some witty and ingenious car stickers in protest against the poor wages in the Nigerian University System. These included: ‘My boss is a comedian, the wage he pays is a joke’. And ‘My take home pay cannot take me home’.
As we speak at least one million Nigerian university students are stranded, no thanks to the closure of all the 49 Federal and most of the 57 State-owned Universities.
ASUU commenced a four-week rollover strike on 14th February 2022. At the end of the initial four weeks, the strike was extended for a further eight weeks.
That is a total of 12 weeks, which implies that almost the length of an entire academic semester is likely to be lost to the current strike. The other three Non-Academic staff unions have also declared their own strikes. In response the Government has gone ahead to implement the threat of it’s ‘no work, no pay’ to the striking university staff.
It is to be expected that in agreement with Newton’s Third Law of Motion, which states that action and reaction are equal and opposite the staff unions would also insist on ‘no pay, no work’, as a condition precedent before calling off their strike.
The central theme and major line of thought in this short piece is not so much about the highly disruptive, hurtful and painful on-going national strike but the fact that if the appropriate steps are not taken this may, unfortunately, not be the last protracted strike to be witnessed in the Nigerian University System.
This is buttressed by the fact that this is the 20th national strike that ASUU would be embarking on in the last 30 years; about five calendar years have been lost by the system in the process.
We have had 16 years of PDP and seven years of APC Federal Government during the period under reference, with four civilian Presidents (Olusegun Obasanjo, late Umaru Yar’Adua of blessed memory, Goodluck Jonathan and the incumbent Muhammadu Buhari).
Ironically the period from 1992 till 1999 when the country was still under the military regimes of Ibrahim Babangida, the short-lived late Ernst Sonekan (interim civilian administration), late Sanni Abacha and AbdulSalami Abubakar, respectively, was not any better either.
It’s the economy, stupid
“It’s the economy, stupid” is a phrase that was coined by James Carville in 1992. Carville was a strategist in Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign against incumbent George H. W. Bush.
His phrase was directed at the campaign’s workers and intended as one of the main messages for them to focus on. Truth of the matter is that most workers in Nigeria are greatly impoverished.
A rational human being would normally ask himself or herself whether his/her quality of life is better today than was the case five years ago.
A very senior colleague of mine from a Federal University in the Southeast geopolitical zone of the country was in Ibadan in early year 2001. That was during President Olusegun Obasanjo’s first tenure as a civilian President.
In the course of our discussion he told me that whatever anybody might say he would support and vote for President Obasanjo for a second term in 2003. I tried to probe further by asking him why he was so much in love with the President. His response was very quick in coming.
He told me that up until April of year 2000 his salary was so meagre that it was inevitable for him to dodge most family responsibilities that had financial implications and, as would be expected, his wife was almost always very angry with him.
No money no friend! Then all of a sudden, President Obasanjo increased the salary of all University workers by a whopping 150%! I could relate with this as I was earning about Thirty Two Thousand naira per month which President Obasanjo miraculously increased to about Eighty Thousand Naira effective May 2000. Many of our colleagues termed the Obasanjo windfall ‘Gbemu’, which loosely translates to a big bang.
About four years ago former President Olusegun Obasanjo was on a brief visit to the University and I had to see him briefly to pay homage. I asked him why he increased the pay of university workers in May 2000, about a year to his first term in office as a civilian President.
He told me that it was on account of his experience while serving a jail term in Yola Prison. That he found out what the Prison Warders, some of whom who had up to six children were earning peanuts which could not possibly support their families. Thank God he was able to improve the minimum wage when he had an opportunity to do so as our elected President.
I read online a post by my colleague, Ayuba Umar Muhammad PhD, of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, about comparison of the earnings of University lecturers over the last 13 years. The monthly salary of a Graduate Assistant (the lowest ranking academic in university) in 2009 was around ₦65,000 and this could buy about 14 bags of rice at ₦4,500 per bag.
Fast forward to 2022, the monthly salary of a professor (the highest ranking academic in university) is around ₦400, 000 which can only buy 13 bags of rice at ₦29,000 per bag.
In other words, the purchasing power of a Graduate Assistant in 2009 was far better then than the purchasing power of a Professor in 2022.
To bring the matter into context, someone employed as a Graduate Assistant in 2009 would at best be a Senior Lecturer in 2022 provided he/she has since acquired a Master and a terminal degree with substantial publications in peer-reviewed learned journals and attended relevant local and international conferences.
As economists are wont to advise us, ‘Price is a moving target’. It would be extremely difficult if not totally impossible to expect that the price of any good or service would remain stagnant over a period of 13 years in a situation where the annual rate of inflation is permanently in double digits.
We talk glibly about the Triple Helix Model which requires synergy between Government- Industry -Academia as a way of promoting sustainable economic development. On basis of cost-benefit analysis the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System (IPPIS) should be rested by Government and the egg heads in academia challenged to develop a home-grown solution, similar to the much vilified University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS).
If the number 1 civil servant in the country, the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation could assert the discovery of thousands of non-staff illegally enrolled on IPPIS then there’s fire on the mountain.
The late Professor Emeritus Oladipo Akinkugbe (1933-2020) once narrated a story to me of his experience while writing a reference letter on behalf of a former student of the College of Medicine University of Ibadan desirous of pursuing higher degree in the USA.
He wrote factually and glowingly about this Ibadan graduate but the Admissions Officer of the US university was alarmed and unimpressed as to why and how such a presumably brilliant student should have spent eight years for a six-year programme. He wrote to inquire from Professor Akinkugbe what was the correct situation of things.
Professor Akinkugbe had to explain that the delay was due to ASUU Strike. The Admissions Officer in turn quipped ‘What is ASUU Strike?’. People in other saner climes find it so difficult to comprehend why you have to close down your universities for months on end during peace time.
One thing occurred to me a few days ago as I was engaged in some discussion on the issue of strikes with a colleague who is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Science at the University of Ibadan. She is proud to be a product of our common alma mata where she obtained her first, second and terminal degrees.
I am in a position to confirm her competence. She came in as an undergraduate in 1992 and she lost about five years cumulatively in her academic pursuits to strikes during her BSc, MSc and PhD studentship. She herself participated in the 2020 strike as a Lecturer and she is equally participating in the current one.
Those who were undergraduate and Postgraduate students since the Nigerian University System became heavily invested with strikes are now members of the Faculty. The chicken has come home to roost. What goes round comes round.
Professor Matthew Umukoro of the University of Ibadan put this succinctly in his 2013 article where he stated as follows:
Incessant ASUU strikes result, in the long run, in poor educational quality, and consequent critical shortage of skilled manpower; disillusioned youths who lose interest in tertiary education and embrace wrong, materialistic values; poor political leadership, and the entrenchment of mediocrity at all levels of our national life; half-baked teachers who are re-cycled into the educational system with devastating consequences; general socio-political stagnation and international relegation in the comity of nations.
Quoting Oladipo Akinkugbe again in his seminal 50th Convocation Lecture, of the University of Ibadan in 1998 titled University of Ibadan at 50: Time for a paradigm shift.
Central to decay and desecration is funding and it does not need a gift of prophetic wisdom to surmise that unless this is addressed positively and aggressively there can be no turnaround in the status of Nigerian universities.
That was some 24 years ago but unfortunately nothing seems to have changed ever since. We can only ignore the advice of Professor Akinkugbe to our peril as a nation. Yet ending the cycle of strikes is a political decision by the Federal Government. We cannot be doing things the same way and expect a different result.
This is a season of political campaigns leading to general elections next year. It would be highly gratifying if political parties can include in their manifestos realistic strategies to put an end to strike by staff unions which have made our public Universities permanently unstable for far too long.
Which political party and candidates can realistically change the hitherto unimpressive narrative? This should be of concern to all patriots. The past is imperfect, the future uncertain.