ASUU and the limits of messianic complex
Today, the foremost attributes of government-owned Nigerian universities are poor quality graduates, crumbling infrastructure, and incessant strikes by university workers’ unions, especially the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). Due to its privileged pedestal, ASUU sees the problem of the Nigerian university system clearer and, expectedly, differently.
That is why, today, the only subsisting goal of the union is to fight for the preservation of public university education – a barely standing ladder to upward social mobility with many rungs already removed, and to protect it from the predatory fangs of mindless capitalism that has crept into the country’s governance thinking.
Inevitably, the frequent fights always set ASUU against the looters-in-power who care less what becomes of the universities; millions of young Nigerians whose lives hang in the balance each time ASUU declares a strike; and every well-meaning individual who cares about
Evidently, ASUU regards the goal of its many strike actions as superior to the troubles they cause individuals and groups, including its members. In a stance that is apparently inspired by the messianic complex, ASUU considers its prescriptions the only panacea to the problem of public university education, and its means, the strike, irreproachable. While I do not attempt to devalue strike, the holy grail of the union’s struggle, I remind the union of intellectuals that the messianic complex, like the hubris of a tragic hero, does lead to nowhere other than death, physical or symbolic.
Nothing signifies the imminent end of ASUU better than the union’s worth in the estimation of a clan of the poor for whom it fights to keep university education accessible to all. Although the numerical strength of this clan is unknown, its ability for wild positions and illogical reasoning is unparalleled, especially in online fora. They are those undisturbed that a large portion of our crude oil is stolen daily, and unperturbed that over four trillion Naira is earmarked for oil subsidy amidst towering external debts. Without any ripple, they mindlessly sacrifice their beef for bones and their eggs for eggshells in defense of a government whose policies sink them deeper into poverty. It would shock ASUU if government today resolves to convert some first-generation federal universities to ranches to appease some entitled bloodthirsty criminal herders, from Twitter to Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram the gibberish they utter in defense of government would drown every voice of reason. General election is more than a year away and many of these people, for whom ASUU is headed to the cross, are all over the Internet tearing apart one another in the service of the same politicians who have looted in advance the future of generations yet unborn. They once threatened to deploy raw violence against university lecturers if ASUU refused to call off the strike. As long as ASUU appears to prefer this kind of people to its members, its future remains uncertain.
The next threat to the continued existence of ASUU is right within its household. Welfare, which ASUU considers secondary to its messianic mission, is now central to the many concerns of the muted ASUU members, those whose views do not find expression in local congress resolutions. What happens to the welfare of university lecturers in the next few years will determine the life expectancy of the union.
Although people rate them above their means, an average university lecturer survives on loans from multiple cooperative societies and banks. Despite that they live in this financial indignity, they have to procure their work tools themselves. Like the past ones, the current strike action does not promise anything better, even if the government grants all the demands of ASUU as contained in the now inflation-affected and time-overtaken re-negotiated 2009 agreement. That is why it is doubtful that affected members would continue to abide by the Oath of Poverty which the union took on their behalf. Members of ASUU have always endured abuses, smear campaigns, starvation, delayed promotion, and missed opportunities that come with the strike. However, it now appears that lecturers have become weary of the hopelessness that results from every episode of ASUU strike. ASUU needs to realize that its financial strength depends on its captive membership system and from-the-source check-off dues. If the union pushes its members to the wall, their mass withdrawal of membership would mean the union seeking alternative means to execute its impotent strike actions.
Meanwhile, ASUU prides itself on being the only surviving opposition party in Nigeria, but little does it realize that it is in that pride that its impending fall daily festers like an untreated wound. If ASUU is a true opposition, its ability for proposing limitless alternatives to the status quo within and outside the university system should be a testimonial. Sadly, the opposite of this is the case with the union’s insistence on government acceptance of its University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS).
If UTAS threatens the government-tolerated stealing from the national treasury, that to which IPPIS has succumbed, could not have ASUU reverted to its initial request that IPPIS be made to accommodate the peculiarities of the university teaching job, an alternative which would expose to the world the mischief that the current government is? Rather, ASUU remains fixated on the politics of UTAS, while it crashes under what should ordinarily be the responsibilities of several departments and ministries of government such as EFCC, ICPC, and the Offices of the Accountant and Auditor Generals of the Federation. From the vantage position of the national opposition party, ASUU could see only what is wrong with but not in the university system. That is why the union roars against the Federal Government’s improprieties but hardly squeaks at those of university administrations. Except for ASUU urgently rediscovers its local relevance, it will become irrecoverably lost in the labyrinth of national struggle.
To retard its flight to infamy, ASUU needs to take three basic steps. One, the union should accord some legitimacy to the goals of other stakeholders in the university system, even if it considers them illegitimate. The corporate sector wants functional university graduates, tooled ready for the 21st-century business environment. Government wants an increased number of public universities, even if brick and mortar is all there is to them. Parents and guardians want hurriedly baked graduates who race against the calendar year to the jobless market. Students, many of them, now want to get the certificate out of the way, so that they can begin a journey to self-discovery and relevance, which, oftentimes, takes them beyond the shores of their academic disciplines. If ASUU acknowledges and respects these goals, it will embark on fewer strikes and win more allies for its struggle.
Two, ASUU should re-establish its voice in the polity, outside of its struggle with the Federal Government. If ASUU has any coherent ideology that can save the education system and the entire country, it should constantly push the same into the public, political, and policy agenda. ASUU should be at the front of the intellectual revolution, which Nigeria needs urgently for value system re-invention. If ASUU, as a union, does this, which some of its members have been doing for decades, it will have a good chance to redeem its image. Not only that, it will legitimately cede the fight for the preservation of public university education to the people, the original owners of the fight.
Three, ASUU should redefine its goal as a labour union. Its primary business and priority should be the welfare of its members. Every other goal it has should be a means to achieve that primary end. ASUU needs to realize that an army of hungry lecturers is not useful for leading an intellectual revolution, which society expects ASUU to lead. As long as its ideology appears favourable to keeping university lecturers in poverty, ASUU itself will remain an ineffectual union. I should also remind the union that it cannot secure dignifying working conditions for lecturers without rediscovering its local relevance. ASUU has to resurrect from university politics and pursue the interest of its members sincerely and unapologetically. These little efforts can rescue ASUU from the messianic complex that is currently leading it to its death, and set it back on the path of honour where it originally belongs.
Oladapo wrote from the University of Ibadan.