Oh NO! Not again ASUU
The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) is back in the trenches. The issues are basically the same. The union is seeking the full implementation of an agreement between it and the Federal Government. I do not wish to go into the details of that understanding, but to say here that I am alarmed by the inability of ASUU to meet its purpose all the time and its readiness to pull the same way against government in this unending tug of war to save tertiary education in Nigeria.
I can define ASUU as a body of university teachers, but sincerely, I do not know how to define government to establish a clear difference between the former and the latter in the inter-relationships that produce the governmental order. The understanding that government is personified in one person or interest which takes all the decisions for public good and responsibility for good or bad decision is very misleading.
It is beginning to sound as if since 1999 when this democracy began, ASUU has not had even one man or woman in government that it could talk to regarding its issues. Yet, I can say for sure that only ASUU members have been in the management of the education bureaucracy, especially the ministry of education at both federal and state levels in the last 17 years. ASUU has also had a fair slice of federal ministers and commissioners outside the education ministry.
The height of it was when two men from the academia got to the peak of the political leadership as presidents. I am talking of the Late Umaru Musa Yara’Adua and Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, both of whom had taught at tertiary institutions before going into politics and by reason of which they could be termed ASUU members. What then was so lacking in ASUU that it could not work through its members at the highest level of government to get things done? I am trying here to redefine government in the context of the endless agitations by ASUU and say that the union has been a significant part of government and if nothing has changed about its demands, it could very well mean that there is no central vision that binds the union together, such that its members in government would not be compelled to act in ways to solve the problems plaguing the university system.
In specific terms, out of the 20 persons that have superintended over the federal ministry of education as ministers since 1999, about 10 came straight from the academia. They are Prof. Tunde Adeniran, Prof. Babalola Borishade, Prof. FNC Osuji, Prof Chinwe Obaji, Dr. Oby Ezekwesili, Igwe Aja Nwachukwu, Jerry Agada, Dr. Sam Egwu, and Prof. Ruqqayat. Outside the education ministry, we have had a lot of ASUU members operating at different levels of responsibility in government. These were Prof Jubril Aminu, Prof. Jerry Gana, Prof. ABC Nwosu, Prof. Turner Isoun, Prof Eyitayo Lambo and Prof. Adenike Grange.
There were also Professors Babatunde Osotimehin, Dora Akunyili, Charles Soludo, Ahmed Abdullahi, Muhammed Abubukar, Bath Nnaji, Chinedu Nebo and Onyebuchi Chukwu. Even the man, who as ASUU president between 1990 and 1994 injected ASUU with a lot of principled obstinacy, Prof. Attahiru Jega, switched role in 2010 and became eminent in the leadership landscape as chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). His predecessor in office, Prof. Maurice Iwu was also an ASUU member.
Clearly, the union’s infiltration of government over the years is massive enough to rewrite the ugly narrative of tertiary education in Nigeria. If this has not happened, it can only mean that ASUU has been chasing a grand vision without a workable strategy. Put differently, what ASUU is saying with its persistent resort to the strike option and its almost criminal inability to think outside the box, is that its members are as evil and visionless as the government it is purporting to battle.
ASUU has had about 12 presidents between 1978 when it was formed till date. Almost all, including its current president, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi have taken the union through strike actions to press for the same set of demands which summarised, come to: better welfare for teachers and, physically, as well as socially conducive environment on the campuses to enhance learning. We are therefore saying that the tribe of persons, which should show the way forward at crossroads has itself been stuck in a crossroad for almost 40 years, doing the same thing, the same way and expecting different results.
It is not for nothing that the universities are called Ivory Towers. As ivory towers (elephant tusk), universities are precious locations where all solutions within human understanding can be sourced. In real terms, whatever transcends understanding in the Ivory Towers is in every respect transcendental and can only be referred to God for determination. For scholars to persistently throw back problems at society and then turn around to issue ultimatums on when solutions should manifest is a clear misunderstanding of role.
In all, there is absence of intellectual rigour on the campuses. Within the ASUU leadership since the inception of the union, there has been a tendency towards populism. Successive leaders have come to adopt call-to-strike, especially after the highly successful edition by Prof. Jega in 1990, as the shortest route to fame. Each president is cajoled by lure of instant fame to organise his own strike over the same issues and in that painful fixation, the capacity to reason outside the box is impaired.
ASUU members have a way of drawing a parallel from the neighbouring Republic of Ghana, where they argue universities were shut for two years to force the authorities into massive investment and lift tertiary education in that country from the doldrums. They often say this with some gusto and sound as if university teachers had had to stay off the classrooms for two years in pursuit of specific goals in all African countries where the state of tertiary education is clearly better.
Of the 141 existing universities in the country, 40 each are owned by the federal and state governments and 61 privately owned. Going by the unchanging position of ASUU on the matter of funding, it means conditions across board in the private universities where there appears to be absolute industrial tranquillity are better than the public universities. I will not make value statements here, but to simply say that there is something bigger than funding and infrastructure that gives a university its name and aura. This is, the liberty to remain intellectually uncontrollable, almost licentious, and interrogate every concept, including even the existence of God to push the frontiers of knowledge.
This ingredient, which is far more abundant in public universities, is applied almost always in the wrong way. It is invoked to create criticism about the existing order without a corresponding solution package. In the end, what we have in the universities is not scholarship or scholarly rivalry but ceaseless contestations, where the wrong things like ethnicity and cronyism are emphasized. In such atmospheres, innovative thinkers would be constrained to frame-up options other than strike that ASUU could apply to engage the authorities and achieve results regarding better funding of tertiary education.
Dons in Nigeria don’t brainstorm for solutions to societal problems. Instead, they are deep in intrigues for personal benefits; to politically re-align their ingenuity for government appointments. And in their desperation, just anything, including being a PA to a council chairman is good to take. I still remember one Professor and dean of the engineering faculty in the late 90s at the University of Benin, who wanted to pull together a conference of professors to brainstorm on all the issues confronting university education in Nigeria. His premise was same as mine, which is that university teachers should be providers of answers not street protesters.
But nothing happened in the end and nothing has changed since then. The lecturers are still in the streets protesting. The vision of a virile university system where solutions will be hammered out to advance Nigeria in all areas of life is possible if teachers can do more of self-examination than self-glorification. In fact, the current recession is a test case. Instead of agonising, the dons should organise and show the way out through innovative thinking.