Although most universities around the world have a history of strikes, the situation in Nigeria can at best be described as unusual. For about 11 weeks now, a militant strike has been going on in some Nigerian universities organised by the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, which is in a stand-off with the government over what they describe as broken promises.
The incessant strike, which started in early July is badly affecting university education across Nigeria. This has been going on for so long that droves of frustrated academic staff just jump ship and look for jobs abroad. Rich people who want to give their children the best education they can afford simply send them to foreign universities. For the poor, they can only watch helplessly as their off-springs spend years trying to get a first degree that should normally not take more than three years.
Many people lay the blame squarely on the culture of corruption in the country.
Up to the early 80’s, Nigeria had some of the best groomed intellectuals and some of their universities like Nsukka and Obafemi Awolowo Universities were world renowned.
In a presentation titled, “The Brain Drain Phenomenon in Nigeria and the Struggles by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) to Redress it,” university lecturer Nuhu Yaqub said Nigerian universities; “had good, qualified and, to a certain extent, have adequate academic staff. The working conditions were also good and motivating enough…In addition, funding was very reasonable. Consequently, many budding academic, whether trained in Nigerian or in the overseas universities, were motivated to look for and take up academic career in Nigeria, regardless of what could have been on offer to them upon the conclusion of their studies. The totality of the Nigerian university system was recognised for this feat and was equally well respected…”
That was years ago and the situation now is so different; hundreds of university lecturers just leave. There is now need to achieve the standards of the past.
ASUU prides itself as the body that is at the forefront of the battle to salvage and redress the ever diminishing quality of the Nigerian university education.
ASUU evolved from the ashes of the National Association of University Teachers (NAUT), formed in 1965 as a trade union platform to advance the collective interests of university teachers in the country.
NAUT was not only adjudged the most passive trade union in Nigeria but equally an elitist trade union without any sign of militancy, the reason being that staff salaries were never delayed and teachers at the time were among the highest paid in the country.
It is on record that only the Chief Justice of the Federation, who was on an annual salary of £2,600, earned more than a university professor. Not only were university lecturers better than their civil service counterparts, fringe benefits such as housing, allowances, and working conditions were very attractive, making academics the envy of civil servants. Also, there was adequate funding of universities while lecturers had the opportunity to attend overseas conferences every three years.
As a result of these benefits, coupled with intimidation from the then military rulers, NAUT became a lame duck. The union attempted to strike in 1973 over wage increases but due to its docility and elitist nature, it was silenced by threats from the Gowon administration that they would be sacked if they went on strike.
ASUU was created in 1978 as a more radical, militant and working class-based organisation to replace NAUT. Today, ASUU barks and also bites.
The present impasse between ASUU and the government is mainly because ASUU wants to restore the Nigerian university days that Nuhu described in his presentation.
ASUU also wants university autonomy, more funding from government to universities, academic freedom, and more humane working conditions. University lecturers see their salaries as humiliating compared to those of others elsewhere in Africa. They accuse government of failing to implement an agreement reached with ASUU members. They no longer have a common front because according to them, the government now plays divide and rule politics on campuses.
President Goodluck Jonathan argues that the government does not have enough funds to meet the demands of the union now. The Minister of Finance, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, recently stated that the country was broke and could not afford all that ASUU was requesting at once, calling on them to be patient.
The president even believes most of the strikes today are politically motivated.
The history of ASUU strikes which dates back to 1999 shows that the current strike is the 11th, with the major strikes of 1999, 2003, 2009, and 2010 lasting as long as between four and six months.
Idle and bored students of public universities and tertiary institutions in Nigeria are currently forced to stay at home for almost three months now. The various students’ unions were split recently over the strike, with some taking to the streets calling on ASUU to call off the action else they would shut down private universities. Others stood behind the striking lecturers.
In fact, the perennial disputes between lecturers and the government over the last 14 years are said to have swallowed almost three years of academic studies, enough to produce a fresh generation of university graduates.
The intermittent strikes are now affecting the quality of degrees issued in Nigerian universities. They are also not helping the fact that thousands of youths who should be getting a university education can also not get jobs.