ASUU and a minister’s cynical call
The Minister of State for Education, Mr. Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba’s recent advice to members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) who have been on strike to consider farming as an alternative profession should be seen for what it is: a reproach on the foundation of tertiary education and their teachers in the country. The minister on a television station had curiously stated that if members of ASUU were not satisfied with government’s position on the contentious issue of migrating them to the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System (IPPIS), they should consider farming as an alternative profession. We are aware of a belated denial and subtle modification of his view the other day but that was not enough to change the substance and import of the minister’s insult.
On the surface, the minister’s call would seem a patriotic call, given successive governments’ repeated calls on citizens to embrace agriculture as a way out of the lingering food security crisis in Nigeria. But on a closer scrutiny, the call is a cynical sneer on a serious issue affecting a critical sector of the polity: Education and the future of the teeming youth population. It is a classic case of the fallacy of begging the issue. How will lecturers going to the farms resolve the issues of strategic intervention and reform needed urgently in the education sector, which the minister is primarily appointed to address? Of course, many Nigerian professionals have by choice embraced farming at varying levels. What is more, the constitution permits all public officers who so wish to engage in farming. But will a wholesale shift to the farms by lecturers not interfere with their primary duty of teaching, research and community service?
Expectedly, ASUU reacted to the ministers’ call and described it as a “reflection of his shallow understanding of the academic profession and low premium that the government places on education.” Prof. Ayo Akinwole, who spoke on behalf of ASUU, said the scarcity of farmers is a reflection of the failure of the government he is part of to make farming secured for legitimate farmers. He accused the government of consistently reducing budgetary allocation and funding to education since assumption of office. A former member of the Senate aptly tweeted his reaction by noting that, “while many of our farmers are in the hands of kidnappers, the minister who resides in Abuja wants ASUU members to head to the farms.”
Beyond the call and the repartee, there are salient lessons to learn. The academic union as a collection of intellectuals should as a matter of urgency rejig its strategy for fighting their legitimate rights aside from constantly resorting to the strike option. Although the strike option is understood against government’s failure to respond to ASUU’s call for dialogue at critical times, the option no longer resonates with the vast majority of stakeholders in the Nigerian project who look forward to other strategies from the ivory tower. Continued use of the strike option may subject the union to snide comments from other stakeholders. The students and their parents who bear the brunt would not certainly applaud the incessant strike. The greater lesson is for public officers who have been saddled with the responsibility of piloting the affairs of the nation. They need to carry out their duties with the gravitas demanded by their positions. They must resist the temptation to give in to base instincts or to view opposition to their positions as always actuated by malice. After all, all Nigerians are, theoretically, equal stakeholders in the Nigerian project. The public officer is just lucky to be in the forefront of implementing the goals of the society.
In conflict resolution and transformation literature, there is the “do-no harm” principle which derives from the Hippocratic Oath taken by new medical personnel. This is relevant to public discourse where your intervention must not be done in a way that may escalate the crisis you are trying to resolve. This can be done through temperate use of language, respect for the position of your opponent even if you do not agree with it and other contextual sensitivities. The Guardian believes that public officers will do better if they adhere to this principle in their public interventions.
In the main, the call to embrace agriculture has become a very important pathway for the revitalisation of the Nigerian economy but mobilising for that goal requires that government should provide the enabling environment to encourage and energise all relevant sectors. It is not a subject that can be treated in a cavalier manner as the minister has done. By some extant rule, agriculture is one of the activities that civil servants can legitimately engage in aside from their lawful duties in the office. So, in the real sense, the minister is not saying anything new but the context and circumstances did not warrant it at that moment. He had an urgent matter of national importance to tackle but he chose to trivialise his assignment. That is the trouble with his construct, in this regard.
Most important, we call on government and ASUU to resolve urgently and sincerely the points at issue for the greater good of all stakeholders in the education sector and indeed in public interest.
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