Playing with fire

September 4, 2022
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At a time Nigerians thought our university teachers would have been strike-weary, the National Executive Council of their umbrella union, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), rose from its meeting on Monday, last week, with the bad news that they were rolling over the strike that they commenced on February 14. Thus, we have on our hands university lecturers and a Federal Government that are behaving like the proverbial hunter’s dog that is destined to get lost, and would therefore not heed the hunter’s whistle.

That the strike has lingered this long is indication that the two ‘elephants’ that are grandstanding on the matter have lost a sense of history. Otherwise, they would have known that there would be consequences for this kind of stalemate, especially where youths are concerned. If both parties must be told in unequivocal terms, we are all sitting on a keg of gunpowder. This is neither a prayer nor a wish. It is the natural sequence of the kind of treatment this country is meting out to its youths. It is sad that people who had it all rosy in their own time; people who went to university virtually for free, enjoyed scholarship awards and bursaries, in some cases simultaneously, are the same people who are now toying with the future of our indigent youths.

Many of today’s undergraduates only know the meaning of scholarship through the dictionary. Many do not know the colour of bursary. Yet, they cannot be left to, at least enjoy a predictable academic calendar. Four-year academic programmes can last as long as seven years, thus wasting the precious time of these youths who, in any case, are not even assured of good jobs after the long suffering in school.

It is pertinent to restate that before this latest strike that started in February, university gates had been shut for about nine months, from March to December 2020, due to the same ASUU strike.

The lecturers said they are unhappy with the state of our universities. They are also displeased with the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) payment platform of the Federal Government, preferring instead, their own University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS). They also say the government must pay them for the period they have been on strike whereas the government invoked the ‘no pay, no work’ rule.

True, ASUU’s observation about the state of our universities is unassailable. Many of the public universities, including the ones owned by the Federal Government, are only living on past glory. Facilities, where they are still there at all, are outdated. Not much of research is going on anywhere, etc. Unfortunately, rather than address the inadequacies, the elite prefer to send their children to schools abroad. Many believe, and rightly so, that this is the reason they can hardly be bothered about ASUU strike. As if it is not insensitive enough to keep university students at home perpetually, the elite crown the insensitivity by splashing the pictures of their own children who are graduating from various institutions abroad in the media in the most offensive manner. If the governments of countries where these schools are established abroad care less as our ASUU and the government, would such schools be available for our elite to send their children to and graduate without disruptions to their academic calendars?

I find it incomprehensible that we are having another protracted strike in the universities this soon in spite of our experience with the 2020 ASUU strike. Political elites that were taught something and had learnt something during the October 2020 #EndSARS protest would never have allowed a repeat of the idleness that fuelled that experience. What happened then was just that anger against police brutality was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. The underlying factor was the hardship in the country at the time. There were no jobs; no light, no security, no direction, nothing. The country was just like a rudderless ship. Not much has changed since then. As a matter of fact, things are worse today than they were in 2020.

Students of history would agree with what I have always said; that the possibility of any government surviving such protest twice is remote. Whenever I remember that episode, I shiver. The sea of human heads that looked like flies on television and in the newspapers, breaking into warehouses and other places with the ultimate aim of looting or looking for something to eat! It is baffling that our politicians could have such short memory. This is much more so that some of them caught in the midst of protesters knelt down to beg them, in some cases calling them ‘my children’.

But we would be deceiving ourselves if we think incessant shutdown of our universities affects all parts of the country equally. I have said it several times when writing about this matter that if any part of the country could pretend not to know that our universities are on long, disruptive strike whenever ASUU strikes, it should not be the south west. Education has been the industry in this part of the country since the Late Chief Obafemi Awolowo opened our eyes to its benefits. Indeed, parents in the region would not mind selling their clothes in order to send their children to school. I usually cite the extracts from the Acknowledgement column in the project of one of my seniors in the university, one Perrow (I have forgotten his real name), who praised his parents “for gladly embracing poverty” to gift him western education. Pray, is poverty pepper soup? So, we can only imagine what such parents went through for their son to be educated. This is not a universal experience in Nigeria.

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So, if anyone should be interested in uninterrupted quality academic sessions in our universities, it is the governors of the south west. If it means establishing their own universities and expanding and funding them properly to groom students for leadership roles, they should do it. Please don’t tell me that we already have these. The fact is;  most of the state government-owned universities in the country are glorified secondary schools. Many were established, not necessarily for quality scholarship but as profit ventures. That is why you see students taking lectures outside far outstripping those in lecture halls. They end up churning out half-baked graduates who cannot stand on their own whenever they are eventually unleashed on the society.

The most painful part of it is that there is nothing basically wrong with the character of Nigerian students. The problem is their environment. There are testimonies all over the world of Nigerian students excelling in schools abroad. Of course, why won’t they excel? Why would students who left a country without purposeful leadership not excel when they get to sane societies where taps run, there is uninterrupted power supply, where you can reasonably manage your time, whether on the road or wherever!

One is saying all of these so that those who have ears and use them to hear can hear, and hear good; be they in government or the ivory towers. We see what this country has been facing for over a decade as a result of the deprivation of the children of the poor in the north of education and economic opportunities. We see how, not only the political and religious leadership there, but even the rest of us, can no longer sleep with our two eyes closed just because of this inhuman neglect in the name of culture. Who does not know that culture is dynamic and that any culture that is repugnant to change can only end up being dysfunctional? It is people benefitting from retrogressive cultural practices that would want such culture to exist perpetually, especially in a place where literacy level is low and the capacity of the masses to interrogate such cultural activities is limited.

One needs to imagine the havoc that people who are well read can wreak if the foot soldiers of terrorists and bandits who are stark illiterates can give the nation the much trouble that we are having. Deprivation is sans borders; it does not know creed or colour. Our elite must be careful never to allow a situation where the deprived in the north and the south, in spite of their obvious differences, would have cause to team up against their perceived oppressors. Many of us may not live to tell the story.

Let no one go away with the impression that I am anti-ASUU. I have said it several times that in matters like this, my heart would always go with the downtrodden and not the government. In spite of the much touted anti-corruption war of the government, individuals are still able to steal public funds in billions. Whereas government keeps telling you it has no money, about 400,000 barrels of our crude oil is being stolen daily, translating to about $40million loss to the country per day, and government has not been able to catch just one of the big thieves responsible for such hemorrhage. All it keeps telling us is what we know: that highly-placed Nigerians are behind crude theft. Why should such people remain anonymous? And the government says it is fighting corruption?

Moreover, I would be the last person to advocate, as some people are won’t to do, that academics who are envious of what politicians get (legally and often, illegally) should join politics because it is the country that would be the ultimate loser when we begin to see politics as industry. Industry producing what? Bad governance, by and large? In which other part of the world do we have politicians controlling the levers of public funds the way it is in Nigeria?

What I am saying is that by the time what is looming in the sky eventually drops, it would respect no one, ASUU inclusive. There will be collateral damages. Many of those caught up in the #EndSARS protests were innocent Nigerians who were only going in search of what to eat.

The fact is; things did not break down in our universities in one day. It was a gradual process. Perhaps the rot would not have been this endemic if we have had some structure in place to address the general apathy that led to what has now become a malignant tumour on our university campuses, thus making strike a last resort by lecturers.

But the truth of the matter for now is that the much-touted 2009 agreement government had with ASUU may no longer be feasible in view of current economic realities. This is despite frivolities that politicians have been glamourising, like the N100m for presidential nomination form, etc. But then, ASUU and our universities must gain reasonably from the recent struggles because they must not struggle in vain.

But the union must be guided by the fact that the rot that accumulated in decades cannot disappear overnight.

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