NIGERIA’s tertiary educational institutions have become the scene of incessant and grueling strikes by the various unions in the institutions over the past forty years. Of all the strikes that have taken place, those of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) have grown from a sporadic action to a constant rhythmic phenomenon. According to statistics from a union faction, the ASUU started strikes for about 1,417 days between 1999 and 2022. A fact that has emerged from this trend is that ASUU has embarked on a strike under every government in power, both during military and civilian eras. If this is the case, it can further be inferred that if the strike of the ASUU continues to date, it means that the demands and strategies of the ASUU require a critical assessment without completely dismissing the government from passivity and bad reactions.

Forgetting that ASUU has had problems with every successive Nigerian government, ASUU chairman, Professor Emmanuel Sodeke, in an interaction with the press ordered ASUU members to vote the APC out in the 2023 general election, believing the new government will accede to the demands of the union. But the question is, which new government of which leading political party? Is it the PDP-led government that had previously ruled and whose presidential candidate, Abubakar Atiku, has fraudulently promised to transfer powers to states, including in the field of education? Or Peter Obi who was evasive when asked what he had in store for solving the perpetual ASUU strike? What this foreshadows is that ASUU has reached a point where it must face the reality of its predicament, rethink its demands, purge its strategies and language of engagement, possibly as arbitrarily described below:

First, it is high time that ASUU review and categorize its demands, along with the strategies to pursue them. As I had written in previous interventions, the union should focus much more on the well-being of its members or their working conditions, while leaving the issue of, for example, the revitalization of the institutions largely to university administrators. On welfare issues, ASUU can rightly settle a trade dispute and strike sparingly and for a short period in the national interest. Even the issue of introducing the IPPS should have been brought before the boards and administrators of the universities. With regard to the payment of sabbaticals, adjunct lecturers, visiting lecturers and other ad hoc personnel are the responsibility of the university authorities and not of the union.

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There has also been a lot of talk in the public domain about university funding in Nigeria. While it is generally agreed that the current level of funding is far from what it should be, the ASUU should face the reality that our funding model for universities is not aligned with international best practices in which the universities are almost themselves. -financing for the payment of staff salaries and the implementation of capital projects. Even in developed climates, government support is usually not only infinitesimally small, but usually research-oriented and must be taken into account. The truth is that given the dynamism of the global economy, Nigeria’s public universities cannot survive on the baby bottle financing system. True university autonomy consists in academic, administrative and financial independence. The culmination of the silent robbery happening in our tertiary institutions today is so great because the government is still leading the way in their funding. If ASUU is advocating that Nigerian academics should be treated as their peers abroad, ASUU should ipso facto be open to international best practices for staff, which include in part appointing teaching staff to adjunct, contract , tenure and permanent basis, with a reward system based on research output and productivity as opposed to our current model that rewards the lazy and the productive equally. This also applies to the issue of no work, no pay that has worked elsewhere.

Whenever a Nigerian government applies this rule, it is often rejected by unions, not just ASUU, as they believe that the government is often the cause of every strike. The question is: which union will ever sue itself? What union will ever admit that it has exaggerated strike action? But the truth is that the promotion of the rule of law and the task of building strong institutions rests on both the government and the governed. Getting paid without work should definitely leave a moral dent in the consciences of the beneficiaries. This line of thought I will connect with the issue of nationalizing the ASUU strike when Nigeria has a federal system of government and the owners of federal and state universities are different. You find this very strange and contradictory, as most ASUU members are also critical of the stifling centralized federalism we are pursuing. In a situation where owners are different, ASUU should have allowed creative federalism by allowing each branch of state to incorporate its employer according to their idiosyncrasies rather than imposing uniformity in demands and actions.

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The consequences of this are in general: state universities that are doing reasonably well, wrongly go into a national strike. Second, states that can run their universities better than the federal government are rarely allowed to distinguish themselves. If a state university has no issues with its owners over which it could settle a commercial dispute, why would its national agency drag it into a national strike and still get paid? ASUU in its tactics also usually denigrates the Nigerian university system as the worst in the world, even to the global audience. Certainly, our university system needs surgery and cleaning. But don’t we think it’s quite right for the national image and international polish to wash our dirty laundry in public? Isn’t a degree of patriotism required? Can’t we be critical without being self-contemptuous? Agree, there are things we must do well, but we must not be aware that it is the same system that we condemn to heaven that produces the doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers, computer programmers, architects and other professionals we exporting to Africa under the technical assistance program and those who voluntarily migrate to other parts of the world and do well. In addition, the ASUU complains of excessive workload due to excessive admission of students to courses. The question is, whose fault is this?

Indeed, the answer must be found within the university system which cannot hold its own and sidetracks the synergy between the National Universities Commission and the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board. ASUU also needs to take a second look at its demand that state governments be legally bound to stop establishing more universities. First, access to university education in a huge population can only be addressed by establishing more universities. If we suspend the creation of more universities now, when will we know it’s the right time to expand? I think it’s better that we tolerate the current expansion and let it generate its own antithesis and then synthesis. Third, ASUU will deal a deadly blow to the practice of federalism and the Constitution of Nigeria by insisting that the federal government must legislate on an issue that is on the contemporaneous list on which both can legislate constitutionally. All in all, it is very clear that the Nigerian university system needs glasnost and perestroika – open reform conference and restructuring – which can divert us from the current archaic model of running our university system and put us on the level of a modern model or international best practices. This undoubtedly requires the cooperation of all stakeholders, enormous sacrifice, strong political will and speaking the truth and standing for the truth across party lines. Only by doing this can we let the ASUU strike rest in peace.

  • dr. Adebisi writes from Joseph Ayo Babalola University, Ikeji-Arakeji, Osun State.
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