My younger friend and former colleague, Kabiru Danladi Lawanti, who is now a lecturer at Department of Mass Communication, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, posted a very interesting message on his Facebook timeline on December 24, 2020. Part of the message read: “People have been asking me a lot of questions on the meaning of the ‘Conditional suspension of strike’ by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). Actually, it is a choice between the devil and deep blue sea. Left to us, the strike should have continued until at least they release our withheld salaries. The level of thievery and misappropriation going on in this Buhari administration is better imagined. I never heard anywhere in our short history where a government can divert people’s salaries, but that is what these people did.”
This was the kind of explanations from many ASUU members following the suspension of the nine months strike by ASUU a day earlier, on December 23, 2020. Since March 23, 2020, all public universities in the country have been shut down by this strike.
Many members of ASUU have been very aggressive in rationalising both the strike and the agreement reached, which include payment of all their salaries during the period of the strike. One or some of them argued that they have earned it because they are public intellectuals, which means their services are not limited to the classroom. Somehow, this kind of claim unavoidably beg the questions, how many publications have ASUU members produced in the last nine months? Could many of the abusive (sorry polemic) social media posts against the Buhari administration and APC be some of those publications? May be with the strike now over, the Nigerian academic community will be full of debates about new insights provided by the new publications that will soon be made available to many, if not all our universities and bookshops produced by selfless Nigerian scholars who had to sacrifice everything, especially classrooms and their students.
It was the English Economist, Kate Raworth, who in her book: “Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist,” argued that “rational economic man (and of course woman) stands at the heart of mainstream economic theory but the history of where he (or she) came from has been airbrushed from the textbooks. His (or her) portrait is painted in words and equations, not in pictures. If it were to be drawn, however, he (or she) would look like (someone) standing alone, money in hand, calculator in hand, and ego in heart.” There can hardly be any better description of the rational economic logic of individual ASUU members other that Raworth airbrushed portraits of individual Nigerian academics, “money in hand, calculator in hand, and ego in heart.”
It is possible that many of us are critical of ASUU out of envy given that we may all be Raworth airbrushed portraits of individuals, “money in hand, calculator in hand, and ego in heart” in different ways, which is captured by Kabiru’s submission about “level of thievery and misappropriation going on in this Buhari administration” and given that I am a member of the APC and employee of governor’s elected on the platform of the party, I will certainly qualify to be one of the thieves in Buhari’s government either by commission or omission. No need therefore to go in search of any evidence of how the Buhari administration diverted salaries. I should know how many workers are affected and for how long a period?
What this simply means is that the best way to deal with the problem of misappropriation in the country is for all Nigerians to participate in the stealing going on. And once you succeed, in whatever way possible, just like ASUU is “succeeding”, all you need to do is to point accusing finger at Buhari administration to justify or rationalise your victory, even if in the end it turns out to be pyrrhic. I may be wrong, but one is left with hardly any better explanation.
Many respected Nigerian academics have publicly celebrated the point that ASUU has never lost any struggle against Nigerian government, whether military or civilian. These are being said without any remorse or acknowledgement of the damage ASUU strikes has done to Nigerian education system. That we are even thinking that closure of universities and our schools can produce any form of victory with reference to any form of outcome demonstrate our nasty state of mind, which brings us closer to the Hobbesian reality that civilisation would have long resolved. How can anyone with a child whose dream and aspiration should include being educated, celebrate in any form the closure of schools? What difference is such a logic from the Boko Haram objective of abolishing western education?
It is very sad that it is common knowledge now that in the last twenty-one years, ASUU was on strike for a record period of more than four years. Worse still is the fact that we have people who claimed to be public intellectuals that present such a reprehensible scorecard and by any standard a scandalous credential as achievement is sickening. At this rate, we may as well accept that Boko Haram terrorists are also public intellectuals. In any event, who is a public intellectual? Aren’t Boko Haram terrorists engaged in critical thinking, research and reflections? If their mission is to abolish western education, how farther away from that mission is the activity of any group that cause closure of our universities for nine months in one academic calendar? If our universities are closed for nine months, what does that mean to the remainder of the education system? Assuming that secondary students are able to pass their exams, will they gain admission into universities? Where will the space come from when existing students have not graduated?
Like my friend and Comrade, Chido Unomah, would probably deduce, “we are all Boko Haram”, we can go ahead to make all the deductions, the result is clear gradual closure of western education in Nigeria. However selfish we want to be even as airbrushed portraits of individuals thinking only about our material gains, we must try to reawaken our patriotic sense of duty as products of education system that was never interrupted for one day in our formative stages. May be the story is different for younger Nigerians, but every Nigerian that went to school between 1960s and 80s would attest to the fact that there was hardly any strike at all levels of Nigerian education system, even for one day. This is not because everything was working. In fact, between 1981 and 1983, in the case of primary school teachers, there were periods of non-payment of salaries running into months. Most of the academic disruptions in our universities and tertiary levels around this period were as a result of students’ protests largely demanding for better welfare conditions for students.
No need to go into long excursion of records and dynamics of academic disruptions due to students’ protests in Nigeria. The dynamics and relationship of those protests with challenges of developing Nigerian educational system is a different matter entirely. One can however say, without fear of any contradiction that protests, and strikes were the last resort. This is hardly the case in the present reality facing us as a nation. It is almost impossible to cite any country in the world with a pathetic record of strike in universities for nine months in one academic calendar. As Nigerians, we should be ashamed and traumatised. We must all be worried, concerned and committed to resolving this problem permanently.
This is where if we have public intellectuals at all in Nigeria, we must mobilise them to come up with proposals. Often, part of our failing is to attempt to make proposals based on assessments of who is right and who is wrong. At this point, it is important for everyone to take responsibility. Nobody is right and everyone is wrong. Neither ASUU nor FG is right. Both ASUU and FG are wrong. The best way to demonstrate this is with reference to the agreement that ASUU members are celebrating. Part of it include the release of N40 billion Earned Academic Allowances and another N30 billion revitalisation fund. There are other unresolved issues, which include the demand for the replacement of the Integrated Payroll and Personal Information System (IPPIS) with University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) and implementation of the FG-ASUU agreement of 2009 bordering on university autonomy and funding.
The more one look at all these, the more one is reminded about conditions of indeterminateness in the theory of collective bargaining, which, was presented by the late English Economist, W. H. Hutt in the book The Theory of Collective Bargaining, to create a situation where “sharing of gross returns of industry between capital and labour would be in perpetual flux and never have time to settle into a state of stable equilibrium. .. there will in general be large margin of uncertainty as to the division of the returns, and that the precise place at which the line is drawn will to a very considerable extent be determined by circumstances which may fairly be called fortuitous, and may be greatly influenced by a bargain between the employer and the employed. In such a case it was quite possible that a strike would be successful.
It is clear that with reference to ASUU – FG agreement, Nigerian public university education, and by extension, the whole education system is in a state of “perpetual flux”. There will never be a ‘stable equilibrium’ and circumstances of negotiating challenges may continue to be ‘fortuitous’, with the possibility that anyone capable of muscling out the other party will succeed. It is no longer about the development of the Nigerian child. Both legal and theoretical evaluation of ASUU demands and the agreements reached would confirm that many of the issues demanded by ASUU and subsequently produced some agreements are outside employment contracts, which should have served as the jurisdictional scope for any collective bargaining negotiation. Perhaps, the point is, since as politicians we are all thieves, theoretical and legal frameworks therefore must not be any reference. This may as well explain why for instance, in all the negotiations going on, the question of where or how the resources will be produced or created is hardly a reference point. The assumptions and conclusions are that government has all the money and the problem is that it is simply being stolen by politicians.
This is the dominant public blackmail going on in the country. Unfortunately, with poorly skilled negotiators on the part of government, there is very poor response to this public blackmail, if any at all. For instance, how much is our Federal Government budget allocated to the educational sector? What is the specific allocation for Federal Universities? How much of it is being stollen by politicians? What are the details in the demands of ASUU being proposed to block the stealing, which will make more resources available? Will the N70 billion provided in ASUU-FG agreement in respect of Earned Academic Allowances and revitalisation funds come from these liberated resources? May be UTAS as an alternative to IPPIS is designed for that.
It is very difficult to come to terms with the dynamic playing out between ASUU and Federal Government without recognising that it is no longer collective bargaining in the classical sense of labour relation. It is simply power play, which will sadly have no end. May be this is also a confirmation that in the end, however it is considered, collective bargaining is power negotiations in terms of resource distribution between labour and capital. This may push us into all the academic and ideological debates around wage determination and roles of unions in the struggles for justice in the workplace. Such a debate can only hold our university education captive and permanently in state of endless power struggles between ASUU and Nigerian government.
Once this is the case, one can predict that ASUU members are incentivised to continue their claimed struggle for both earned and unearned salaries, with due respect to our postmodernist “public intellectuals”. The component referred to as so-called revitalisation fund, coming from the N30 billion, may hardly be a priority. As a result, once there is a meeting in February or March 2021 to review implementation of the agreement, Nigerians may likely start hearing allegations of non-implementation that may be followed with fresh rounds of ultimatum.
How can Nigeria get out of this sad state of ‘perpetual flux’? However, one considers it, something must give, if the challenges facing our public university system are to be resolved. Unless both ASUU and FG are able to produce a clearly outlined sources of mobilising the funds to implement the provisions of the December 23, 2020 agreement, it is safer to assume that the agreement is already in breach. With reference to funding, there are issues that are beyond ASUU and therefore any agreement with ASUU may likely be a source of dispute with other sections of the university community and educational sector, including students. Already, from the agreement with ASUU, this is implied given that part of the N40 billion disbursed for earned academic allowances is to be shared with non-academic staff. After exhausting the N40 billion, what next? Should we assume that it will be the end of allowances in Nigerian public universities? Certainly not. If there are new earned academic allowances, how will the resources be generated?
Any proposal one make now around introduction of fees to be paid by students, may trigger another round of protests and strikes, which may receive the active support of ASUU members. This is even as we all acknowledge that revenue from oil is on the decline. How can we as a nation meet all our expenditure requirement for Nigerian tertiary education, especially in terms of guaranteeing international standards? This is not a question that can be easily answered with reference to cheap political arguments or expression of ideological preferences. It has to come out of a clearly defined shared vision, which every Nigerian should be committed to. As part of such a vision, the question of how resources are to be generated should not be a matter for speculations. It has to be integral part of our responsibilities both as citizens and government to make effective and adequate provision to generate and make resources available for all the funding requirement of our education sector. A major propelling factor therefore should be the development of every Nigerian child and guaranteeing that such a child is provided with all the opportunities to access education up to university level.
What is it that should be done in order to achieve such a vision? This is where we must get our government to urgently come up with a new framework of negotiating these issues outside the scope of labour relations. This may perhaps require that, as the governing party, APC would need to expedite the process of “diversifying the economy and expanding our tax base to increase non-oil revenues, and prioritising public spending away from bureaucracy towards investment in infrastructure and improved frontline services” as provided in the APC manifesto. Often, when it comes to assessment of public expenditure on bureaucracy, the conservative approach imposed on governments largely by monetarist arguments of World Bank and IMF is narrow and hardly go beyond the issue of reduced public spending on salaries, which always lead to retrenchments of public sector workers. We must appeal to all Nigerians to have a broader perspective of ensuring that, in fact, what is required is the expansion of service requirement, which may necessarily require recruitment of more personnel. This is in addition to meeting all international labour standards, that should actually translate to more pay for workers in the educational sector.
Many, who simply want to reduce these issues to opinions and commentary, may hardly recognise that this is not a matter that any government can resolve by fiat. It is also not a matter that any group can sustainably achieve, no matter how aggressive and resolute the group may be. We can criminalise every politician and every public official, it will not change the painful fact that, left to the current framework around which ASUU and FG are negotiating, we are only working for the destruction of our education system. To change this will require a new holistic approach, which should be based on a sectoral strategy coordinated directly by the Presidency (not ministerial level). This largely because ministerial level negotiations will assume that there is already a national vision. In which case, all the challenges are about implementation.
There may be some indications of vision. Whether it is a nationally shared vision based on which every stakeholder will accept, is matter that should be resolved with all the urgency required. This is what negotiating our vision in for instance education sector for the next 10 years should be about. What kind of education system do we want to have as a nation? Can we with all our experiences be able to declare that in the 10 ten years we want a crisis-free and uninterrupted public education from primary to university levels? What will it cost to have that? How are we going to raise the resources to achieve it? Can all unions in the education sector, including ASUU and National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) commit themselves to such a vision?
How can government begin to initiate such a process? This is where, as a party, we need to do everything possible to activate and speed up implementation of proposals in our manifesto bordering on Building a Modern Infrastructure, which commits our government to:
· Restore the production of national development plans to promote investment in key national and state infrastructure project.
· Establish a new position within the Presidency who will be mandated to coordinate all government actions aimed at achieving the national development objectives.
More than anything, the nation needs this in at least our education sector and by extension, given that our political vision as a party is expected to be social democratic, we should also prioritise the health sector too. Issues of education and health are irreducible minimum, which as a nation we must all work to succeed. These are not sectors that can be downgraded into some convenient analysis of citizens vs government debate. Any suggested consideration of any failure simply just condemned the nation and our children into aliening with the criminal logic of Boko Haram, which is more or less about bringing whatever is called civilisation, including public education to a terminal end.
. Lukman is the Director General of the Progressive Governors Forum of the All Progressives Congress.
Note: This position does not represent the view of any APC Governor or the Progressive Governors Forum.