Record keepers say public universities have, since 1999, been shut down 16 times for a period totalling 62 months (more than five years) and still counting. That sounds like a death knell for an education system that has been ailing for at least four decades. Having witnessed the collapse of education at the primary and secondary levels, why do we pretend that the tertiary level still exists?
Like a patient in intensive care, education has had the members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, as doctors and nurses attending to it. This week, they have removed the oxygen mask. A declaration from the undertaker, the Federal Government of Nigeria, and its agents is being awaited.
For the university teachers, it has been a long struggle. ASUU signed an agreement with the government in 2009. Unfortunately, it was in the same year that a sect known as Boko Haram [“Western education is forbidden”] emerged from the shadows to wage a war on education. And the government seems to have been listening to Boko Haram rather than to ASUU, hence it has refused to fulfil its own part of the agreement. Boko Haram has won; ASUU has lost the fight.
Today I won’t dwell on arguments for or against ASUU and the government. I have written scores of articles on the education system. Two years ago, I published a book to draw everyone’s attention to the unsustainability of the current education system, the impossibility of ASUU getting its demands, and a workable solution to the education mess in the 21st century. The book, which has received acceptance from readers of every hue, is Jobseeker to Entrepreneur: How Career-focused Education Can Multiply Businesses and Inspire Leaders. Our political leaders and education planners might choose to skirt round the subject, but I have little doubt we would eventually come back to the beginning: a new education system that is sustainable and useful. Any venture founded on fraud is bound to collapse, no matter how long it takes; so has it been with a flawed education system.
I’m a major victim of perennial ASUU strikes. Because I can’t afford to send my children abroad – as ministers, lawmakers, governors, presidents and their collaborators have – three of them have been trapped in federal universities. Each has lost two years already. And ASUU has now drawn a battle line by making its latest strike indefinite. A greater problem for me now is not that they’re at home; it is their threat to not return to school.
“We are all victims,” says ASUU in its press release of August 29 signed by its president Professor Emmanuel Osodeke, even as it pleads for “understanding, solidarity and sacrifices of all to ensure that every qualified Nigerian youth who cannot afford the cost of private university education or foreign studies has unhindered access to quality university education”. The strike, it adds, is meant to save public universities from a government that “never believed in saving public universities from the misfortunes that have befallen Nigeria’s public primary and secondary schools” and to “prevent members of the Nigerian ruling class and their foreign collaborators from further destroying whatever is left of our public universities”.
I sympathise with the dons. Their adversaries believe they could be starved to submission. That’s why they’ve ignored them and denied them salaries for seven months now. And, truly, most of the professors are in distress. Some have put up their cars for sale; some have exhausted their borrowing capacity; some can’t pay the fees of their own children in private universities or abroad; and some can’t buy the drugs they use to manage their ailments. For persevering for seven months and still refusing to kowtow to the threats of Boko Haram sympathisers, the teachers in the federal universities deserve kudos.
We expect that the government will try to reopen the universities and perhaps proscribe ASUU next week. Vice-chancellors, all of whom are swimming in money from all sources, may be asked to advertise the jobs of the striking teachers. But they won’t succeed. If ASUU members have endured hunger and humiliation for seven months, they won’t die in one more year. We parents are ready to contribute funds for their upkeep until this government leaves by May 2023.
We’ve seen how the hypocrites have run Nigeria aground in just a few years. Before power was thrust on them – they were never prepared for governance but for war anyway – they sided with ASUU. The current education minister, Adamu Adamu, wrote several pieces condemning the Jonathan administration for reneging on the 2009 agreement.
The then opposition and now ruling APC had in its communique of December 5, 2013, commented on a previous ASUU strike: “The current impasse has paralysed tertiary education nationwide, compromised security by creating idle youth, potentially foreclosing prospects for a bright future.
“This is not the time for threats but partnerships and compromise because the youths are our best resources for tomorrow.
“As a political party, as parents and guardians, our heart goes out to millions of our youths who have been deprived their right to education for over half of an academic session through no fault of theirs.”
Could any party or government be more insincere?
To avoid the collateral damage these buccaneers in power may cause, ASUU should maintain dignified silence. Just leave the campuses for them. Students won’t return once they realize that their lecturers won’t be in classrooms. Even if the VCs advertise vacancies, no truly qualified candidate will respond to them. And if the university authorities dare to give some jobseekers employment letters, that would mean double trouble for a government that has refused to pay ASUU members for the period they have been on strike.
“No work, no pay” is trash talk by those bent on abolishing Western education and replacing it with their own brand of education. Workers in four moribund refineries earn four times more than professors, yet they do no work. Senators and other “lawmakers” earn in one month what professors earn in two or three years by just shouting “Aye” and “Nay” once a month. If those who don’t work in Nigeria were to be denied their pay, the wage bill of every state and the federal government would drop by 90%.
We hear that some APC governors seek to intervene in the FG-ASUU faceoff. Of course, it’s an election year and they understand the implications of electioneering at this time. The party that came to power seven years ago on the wings of certain policies has become a huge disappointment. It knows it has little chance at the polls coming in five months, what with a new electoral law that is sure to curtail rigging. What would the campaigners say to the electorate this time? Just as their fear of an uprising has made them delay removal of “petrol subsidy”, the fear of students and parents stoning them on campaign grounds is making the governors seek to intervene. Their intervention might mean paying the backlog of salaries owed ASUU or at least a half of them. The teachers should use their sixth sense – and use a long spoon – while eating with politicians.
Every voter but Boko Haram and its adherents will be remembering ASUU and a destroyed education system on their way to the polling booth in February. Who knows, the general election may be postponed or cancelled outright. Having manifested all indices of a failed state, Nigeria seems to be living on borrowed time. Boko Haram may still have one last joker up its sleeves.
*Nwamu, a serial entrepreneur, writes from Abuja.
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