Dropping the chalk, dropping the stethoscope
The second week of August and the first week of September were not good weeks for the Buhari administration, for Nigerian undergraduates in public universities, and the Nigerian people – with two strikes by two big unions and a dangerous security situation in the South East. While students stayed idle at home, worried because of the additional chaos and truncation in their lives, poor patients in federal public hospitals across the nation felt the bite of the strike by medical doctors. These days, owing to a distorted academic calendar most students spend one additional year (or more) at home after graduation before embarking on the mandatory national service. It is a period of limbo, a year that cannot count in building one’s curriculum vitae. It adds to the frustration of the average youth in the country.
It is no longer news that members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), and the Nigerian Association of Registered Doctors (NARD), dropped their chalk (or felt pen) and stethoscope respectively. Ironically, the issues raised by the unions were sadly familiar. There was a sense of déjà vu for some of us who had watched and participated in the system for some decades now. For the academics the issues had to do with the Federal Government honouring past agreements on funding the universities and guaranteeing a healthy pension scheme. The doctors also complained that simple agreements that would enhance health service delivery were never kept by government.
The strikes showed our poor capacity as a nation to hold or sustain continuity in the reins of leadership in our polity. It is also indicative of apathy to issues that concern the generality of the people. It is on record that the unions had been writing letters, holding meetings with government officials since the last strike. ASUU called out a one-week warning strike in all public universities in November last year to draw the attention of government and the public to the burning issues. The union was virtually ignored. Once the strike was declared, ASUU officials were invited to ‘marathon meetings’ to convince the leaders that the strike should be called off. Government gave two weeks to implement some of the demands. Indeed, government officials openly admitted that they had failed to do the proper thing! As we write government has made some offers, yet to be fully accepted by the union. The question is this: why were these steps not taken before the strike started?
A sweet dimension to the doctors’ strike was the fact that the current Minister of Health, Professor Isaac Adewole was president of NARD when the union embarked on a nationwide strike in 1985. The Head of State at the time was General Muhammadu Buhari! For his role as arrow head of the strike Adewole lost his job at the time. Some 35 years later the NARD president has become head of the Ministry of Health charged with the responsibility of turning things around. Sadly issues of three decades ago remain unresolved. What does this say about our institutions, our governance model and our national objectives?
Our hospitals are in bad enough shape, calling for a revolution in services. Most lack the necessary equipment or infrastructure. The private hospitals that lay some claim to good services are very expensive, out of the reach of the middle class. In some places where there is expertise the attitude to work is poor. Nurses can do havoc just as doctors who are seriously distracted can prescribe drugs just to gain some benefits. That our President stayed in a London hospital for nearly three months was a vote of no confidence on our health sector. The instructive thing is that our current President has, or should have enough motivation and reason to drive a restoration of things in the health sector. It will be legacy; it will be a testament for generations to come. It will also save us the embarrassment of having the health status reports of our national leader in the hands of foreign governments while we grope in the dark at home!
Universities are expected to be the centre of research that could change the nation’s history. By producing graduates from all disciplines, steeped in the local challenges these graduates are expected to go out there and influence or change thinking. However, with the infrastructure deficit in the universities this mission has been near impossible. When some people query ASUU for incessant strikes they are asked: what steps should we take? Most insiders are weary of strikes. They would rather not have them. But what should they do when they find out that that is the only way to attract government’s attention?
Of course we understand what Fela called ‘Government magic.’ It is possible that the government officials whose duty it is to nip things in the bud have been quietly pushing things within government circles. If the President or the kitchen cabinet does not think that the matter is urgent the minister would be pushing against a brick wall until a strike is called out. As a loyal appointee the official may not be able to say to the public that ‘the powers-that-be’ are responsible for the breakdown!
It is possible to run the universities without strikes if the will is present. The results of negotiations since 1992 and other modifications are sufficient to guide and conscientious government on the path to smooth uninterrupted academic sessions for 10 years. To achieve this ASUU leadership should be carried along at all times. They are in a better position to brief government on existing conditions and what should be done annually to avoid a breakdown of relations in the university system. Their call that 26 per cent of the national budget be dedicated to education is the way to go. It is true that this cannot be achieved in one fell swoop; but a gradual upping of the budget from the paltry 6 per cent to 7 per cent in the next decade would have a multiplier effect on the education sector. It was through ASUU initiative that TERTFUND was created; its impact on university education has been great.
As at press time, the medical doctors had called off their strike after intense negotiations and concessions. The chalk is still hanging in the air in the universities, with the fate of thousands of youths hanging in the balance. ASUU has conditionally suspended its strike. But the total picture in the country, if you add the tension and conflict in the South east and the threat of military occupation of the South West, was a narrative of ‘dropping the chalk, dropping the stethoscope, picking up the gun’ – a nation in crisis of self-definition and determination!
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