ASUU strike and the gloomy future of education in Nigeria

A militant strike has been going on of the University academic staff in Nigeria. Significantly this time they have linked up with the non-academic staff. The education system in Nigeria is in a dismal state, with the best academics leaving in droves for the advanced capitalist west. This very fact is a condemnation of the corrupt Nigerian ruling elite.

“Up to the early eighties (of the 20th century), the Nigerian universities were repositories of everything that could be considered excellent in the academia: they 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 recognized for this feat and was equally well respected...” (The Brain Drain phenomenon in Nigeria and the struggles by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) to redress it, By Nuhu Yaqub)

ASUU strike and the gloomy future of education in NigeriaThe above quotation gave a graphic illustration of the condition of Nigerian Universities at their early stage. Over time, this impressive description has been wholly destroyed. At the forefront of the battle to savage and redress the ever diminishing quality of Nigerian University education is the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). The evolution of ASUU as a truly fighting organ actually followed the successive stages of this destruction of education.

The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) evolved from the ashes of the National Association of University Teachers (NAUT). NAUT was formed in 1965 as a trade union platform, according to Jega (ibid.:7), to advance the collective interests of the university teachers. It was then adjudged the most passive trade union in Nigeria at that time. It was an elitist trade union without any sign of militancy. The first president of NAUT led the union for 11 years unchallenged. Members of the union were never concerned about the running of the union because there was no reason to do so. Salaries were never delayed and were among the highest paid:

“Only the Chief Justice of the Federation on an annual salary of 3,600.00 British Pounds per annum earned more than a university professor. Not only were university lecturers better than their civil service counterparts, fringe benefits such as housing, allowances, social status and working conditions were very attractive, making academics the envy of civil servants. Adequate funding of universities, attending overseas conferences every three years, and such other fringe benefits were the order of the day. The prevailing economic situation in Nigeria was such that the annual salary of a lecturer was sufficient to buy a car and so the liquidation of a car loan in five years was not a strain.” (National Universities Commission, September 1994:3)

This exalted position of ASUU was already getting seriously challenged by 1973 as a result of excessive inflation that almost made rubbish of the salary of Nigerian workers generally. The first strike of NAUT was in 1973 over wage increases. Being a very docile and elitist union, a mere threat from the then Gowon government, was all that was needed to defeat the strike. The government threatened to sack all NAUT members and eject them from their quarters, overnight. A decision was reached by the union executives and the strike was immediately called off and not much was heard of the organization from that time until in 1978 when ASUU was formed.

ASUU emerged on the scene from the outset as a fighting organization, a more militant and working class based organization. A significant turning point was reached at the 7th Delegates’ Congress of the Union at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, in April 1986. According to Jega (passim) “ideological differences” were reduced to those who wanted the “bread and butter” issues of pure trade unionism and those who wanted ASUU to remain the “people’s tribune,” in order “to remain socially relevant.” This division, as already mentioned, came to the open at the Ile Ife Delegates’ Conference. At this Conference, ASUU’s future development was set. A more radical wing of the union had the day and dealt a devastating blow to the more docile and lame-duck wing of the union. From then till now, ASUU has been in the forefront of rescuing the Nigerian University Education from this fast paced degradation.

Why the ongoing strike?

ASUU strike and the gloomy future of education in NigeriaThough, ASUU has put up a list of issues in contention instigating the present strike, vis-à-vis, Autonomy, more funding from government to the university, academic freedom and more humane working conditions; these can all be summarized as “Bringing Nigerian University Education to its lost glory”. It is a struggle to stem the collapse of the Nigerian educational system.

Nigeria is a signatory to the United Nations and UNESCO conventions that request member nations to commit each year at least 26 percent of their resources to education. But the government’s vote for the educational sector has ranged between 7-10 percent, suffice it to say, the present government allocated a meager 7% to education. As the table below shows, Nigerian Academic staff earned the least in Africa in 1997.

Table 1: Academic Staff Salaries in Selected African Countries

Countries

Academic Salaries per Annum (US$)

Lecturer

Senior Lecturer

Professor

South Africa

15,000

30,000

55,000

Zimbabwe

12,000

24,000

48,000

Ethiopia

3,600

4,800

6,000

Kenya

3,600

4,500

5,400

Ghana

1,800

3,000

4,800

Nigeria

222

360

439,2

(Source: ASUU National Secretarial Publication, 1997)

The first consequence of this is the overwhelming sweep of the brain drain from Nigerian Universities. According Emeagwali in one of his interviews:

“In the United States, sixty-four percent of foreign-born Nigerians aged 25 and older have at least a bachelor’s degree. Forty-three (43) percent of foreign-born Africans living in the United States have at least a bachelor’s degree. Nigerians and Africans are the most educated ethnic groups in the United States.”

Estimates by the UN Economic Commission for Africa and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) show that 27,000 African professionals left the continent from 1960 to 1974. The figure rose to 40,000 from 1975 to 1984. Again, this rose to 60,000 from 1985 to 1989. And since 1990, it is estimated that at least 20,000 professionals leave the continent annually. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that over 300,000 professionals reside outside Africa, and 30,000 of them have doctorate degrees… (Figures are cited in Obasi, 2006:5). And most strikingly is the fact that one in every seven of these professionals is Nigerian.

Consequently, the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, that used to be one of the best Universities in the developing countries, has now become one of the worst even in Sub-Saharan Africa. After a prolonged and highly determined struggle, an agreement was reached in 2001 between the Federal Government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). Among other things: autonomy was to be granted to Nigerian Universities to appoint their Vice Chancellors, recruit and sack their own staff etc, a 109% percent increase in salary was also agreed on, but characteristic of the Nigerian government, this agreement was never implemented up till now. All attempts to force the government to implement this agreement have not yielded any significant success, thus necessitating the ongoing strike.

Why has the struggle taken up to close to a decade without success?

It is highly unfortunate that all this while, ASUU has been playing into the hand of the Nigerian government which has been employing the divide and rule tactic against the various unions within the universities. ASUU had been erroneously waging its struggle all alone. It thought it could go all alone without the support of the other unions within the Universities. It has for long underplayed the fact that United they stand while Divided they will inevitably fall. Interestingly enough, this erroneous position has been addressed and corrected.

For the first time, after a very long period, ASUU and other Non-Academic staff union in the Universities held many joint meetings and rallies and this was even the case in OAU Ile-Ife, where all the Unions within the campus jointly issued a communiqué after very militant and highly successful joint meetings of all unions on the campus. This is the road that must be followed and is the surest way of winning a big victory over the dark forces of reaction.

What needs to be done?

It is important to note that the struggle of ASUU and other University Unions to save Nigerian University Education can never be won unless it is tied with the struggle to save public education as a whole in Nigeria. Saving public education is a mirage, unless it is tied to saving the whole of Nigeria’s dilapidated social infrastructure. The whole social fabric of Nigeria is in total crisis and in disarray. It is an absolutely impossible task to rescue only education while other social components are totally destroyed. In spite of this, as a starter, we support the on-going strike action by all the workers in the universities in Nigeria and demand that the government should immediately accede to their demands.

Can we trust the present crop of ruling class politicians to fix Nigeria? Absolutely not! For close to five decades they have been running Nigeria agog. We have had decades of failure, corruption, ineptitude, incompetence and gross mismanagement. Only a government of the working class with a socialist programme can save Nigeria. Therefore, the struggle to save Nigerian University education is inevitably a struggle to overthrow the present government and install a socialist government of the working class.