According to news reports, the 13-hour marathon meeting was attended by a high-powered delegation that on the government’s side included the President Goodluck Jonathan, his deputy, Namadi Sambo; the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Anyim Pius Anyim; Chief of Staff to the President, Chief Mike Oghiadhome, Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and her counterpart in the Labour and Productivity Ministry, Chief Emeka Wogu. On the ASUU side were its President Dr Nasir Fagge, Deputy President, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, three past presidents of the union – Professors Festus Iyayi, Dipo Fashina and Abdullahi Sule-Kano, among others. Organized labour was represented by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) President, Bobbo Kaigama and other key officers from both the NLC and TUC
Before the meeting President Jonathan was reported to have lightened the mood by telling the ASUU President: “My President, all the problems will be over today. Our children must go back to school.” (The Sun, 6 November 2013). He also reportedly told the NLC President, Abdulwaheed Omar: “My President, with you here, we are covered. It is signed, sealed, and delivered” (Ibid). President Jonathan was said to have made a new offer to ASUU, which the negotiators said they would take back to their members.
Given the calibre of people that atten-ded the meeting, and the President demon-strating (or appearing to demonstrate) the importance of ending the strike immediately by personally leading the negotiations, people will be surprised if the strike is not called off soon. The presidency will be counting on public opinion turning sharply against the striking lecturers, if after personal assurances from the highest political office holder in the land, the striking lecturers remain recalcitrant. Such a stubbornness, which we pray will not happen, might legitimate the wielding of a bigger stick against the striking lecturers most of whom have not been paid their salaries for months.
The flip side to this however is that if the lecturers choose to return to the classroom as many of us hope they will, then the integrity of the President as a person will be on the line. The government is notorious for not keeping agreements–not just to ASUU but to companies and the citizens. While promises made by others on behalf of the government could be reneged on account that the negotiators ‘did not know their left from their right’ (as Senate President David would put it–a position I disagree with), the one led directly by the President puts both the government and the President as a person on the spotlight. This could turn out to be a strong reason for the ASUU members to call off the strike–even if they did not believe that any promise made would be fulfilled to the letter. My feeling is that ASUU will not want to be seen as disrespecting the office of the President – just as they will be counting on the fact that the President is putting both the integrity of his administration, and his, on personal integrity on the line in whatever deal he offered them.
If and when the strike is called off, the academic calendar will be rushed – as usually happens in such a situation. For some courses the lecturers will just show up in class once or twice and the students will be told the areas to concentrate on while preparing for the examination. In such a situation, the quality of the education offered -already at its nadir – will take a further nosedive while the attractiveness of private universities where at least uninterrupted academic calendar could be assured, even if the quality of education there does not match the astronomical fees most of them charge. True ASUU has been at the vanguard of the fight against the deplorable state of our universities. However its method of going about this–almost exclusively through strikes- paradoxically exacerbates the crisis in university education. This should be at least one major reason why the body should now look for options with less unintended adverse side effects. It behoves on ASUU, which arguably is made up of the most educated segment of the population, to think out of the box on ways of maintaining its vanguard role in the fight for the improvement of the conditions of university education without being seen as a major part of the problem. Though the government often behaves like a deaf man with selective memory, it may be time to re-think the predictable strategy of strikes, which has since become a tool of blackmail used by both ASUU and the government to paint each other black.
The ASUU strike also brings to fore our fire-brigade approach to problem solving. Why will the government wait for the strike, which started since July 1, to go on for so long before showing a serious resolve to end it? The impression is unfortunately created that unless you use the leverage you have to the maximum in this country, no one will listen to your grievances, hence the wealthy bribe, organized labour go on prolonged strike, students riot, workers drag their feet and engage in moonlighting while terrorist and insurgency groups strive to normalize impunity. If there is any lesson from the current ASUU strike and the President’s rather belated intervention, it is that the government unwittingly encourages disorder and impunity by ignoring grievances unless the affected group can demonstrate a certain capacity to hold everyone to ransom.
This means in essence that the state treats groups that are law abiding or which believe in channelling grievances through appropriate formal channels with levity or as ‘mugus’. Therefore if Nigeria today is one piece of chaos, in which life approximates the Hobbesian state of nature, it is only because the actions and inactions of the government encourage the citizens to be so. One may be tempted to ask: where is the country’s Industrial Arbitration Panel? Where are the relevant committees of the National Assembly? I disagree with the Senate President that those who negotiated with ASUU in 2009 did ‘not know their left from their right’ because even if their recommendations were based on ignorance, the government that accepted such recommendations actually would be guilty of greater ignorance.
There are, in my opinion, other critical problems of university education that are not captured in ASUU’s demands. Included in this is the length of time spent in pursuing an academic programme in the country which in some cases is nearly double the time spent to obtain such a programme in other countries? Why for instance will Nigerian undergraduates spend six years to read law, five years to read engineering and four years to read courses in the social sciences while their counterparts in say the UK will do a similar programme in three years? What is the sub-text here? That Nigerian students are not as intellectually endowed as their counterparts elsewhere? Agreed that the standard of education has fallen sharply, my personal opinion is that prolonging the time needed to obtain a degree for Nigerian students has nothing to do with addressing the problem of the falling standard of education. If anything, it compounds it as it embeds a self-fulfilling prophecy that subtly tells Nigerian undergraduates that they are slower learners and not as good as their counterparts in the UK and elsewhere.
As unfortunate as the ASUU strike has been, there are however certain unintended effects of the strike that hold good promise for the country. One of these is the inability of the government to break the strike by appealing to our traditional fault lines or by alleging that it was aimed at bringing down the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan. This will seem to suggest, in my opinion, that beyond the posturing and the shenanigans of the political elites, when the chips are down, the pockets will always trump geography and accidents of birth.