Between ASUU and Mammy-Market Scholars
Dr. Aliyu Tilde
May 30, 2003
I was a lecturer for nearly a decade, up to 1992. Now I am a student again, waiting to graduate this year. Next year, I will hopefully be a parent to one of the students in our universities. So from all angles I am a stakeholder in the ongoing face-off between the Federal Government and Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).
Without any hesitation, today, I intend to give Obasanjo and his government a lethal blow in support of my former colleagues who I believe have been undergoing difficult times for over five months now. After this while, the government has not responded to any of their demands and our commentators have virtually turned the union into a punching bag, leaving the main culprit – the federal government – to go Scot-free. A very worrying part of the crisis is that Obasanjo, the most prolific scholar of Mammy-Market Literature and now again the ‘President, no thanks to 4-19, is being more vulgar in language than any other commentator on the matter.
What is the crime of ASUU? The association simply wants the federal government to implement an agreement it freely reached with the union in June 2001. The most important article of that agreement is the issue of funding our universities. The lecturers are advocating for compliance, over a period of say three years, with a standard of 26% of our federal and state budgets to be used in the entire education sector. With their share from the allocation the universities – not the lecturers – can embark on updating their libraries and equipping their laboratories, building new hostels and conducting research, thereby gradually bringing life back to our universities. They are also protesting the commercialisation of the universities, deceptively called “autonomy”, that will make university education inaccessible to the children of common Nigerians. And in Nigeria 99.9% of the population are commoners.
In addition, my former colleagues are demanding the reinstatement of 60, yes 60, staff of University of Ilorin, 44 of whom are lecturers whose appointments were terminated for participating in nationwide strike, a termination that a government visitation panel described “unjust”. Of course, the list is not complete without some minor requests like review of their salaries, loans and allowances, as any other union would demand in a mismanaged economy decimated by a sky-hitting inflation.
The response of Obasanjo and his government, as usual, is to renege on every article of that agreement. The government now capitulates that it has many sectors to deal with. So 26% of its expenditure is too much for education alone. It also has things like sports and foreign trips to fund. Agreed that the universities need funds, the government argues, the best way to get such funds is to commercialise the universities. On the dismissed lecturers, Obasanjo is asking them to count themselves lucky. He would have meted a greater punishment on them if it were not for their respectable position as university teachers, he said. To crown his belligerence, even at the height of his last campaign, Obasanjo dismissed having anything to negotiate with the lecturers on.
Public commentators have joined their Commander-in-Chief in singing the anti-aluta ‘anthem’. Some are even using the same pedestrian parlance, calling the striking lecturers “irresponsible” for demanding 26% of our budget. Is it too much to spend 26% of your income on the education of your children? Almost every commentator is asking ASUU to call off the strike, unconditionally. None is applying any heat on the government to get it do something tangible on its part. The devil is ASUU. Simple.
The truth is that recent successive governments have been as slow as the dinosaur in responding to the poor condition of learning in our universities. Very little has improved since the Attahiru Jega-led strike in 1992. Successive governments have only responded by reviewing the personal benefits of the lecturers while leaving the remaining demands to wane with time. While we crucify ASUU for a five months strike, we have left the government to go away acquitted from a charge of over a decade-long literal ‘murder’ of learning in our institutions and forsaking the future of our children.
Perhaps some statistics will help to give the reader a better picture of the condition of our universities. Not a single additional room in the name of hostel has been built in Ahmadu Bello University since the last hall – Suleiman Hall – was completed in 1976. That is 27 years! Yet the population of students in that university is now over 30,000, seven times more than what it was in 1976. The last hostels constructed at Usmanu Danfodio University and University of Jos were in the early 80s. At the students’ village of UNIJOS, I have seen a kitchen – yes kitchen – area of a former dining hall partitioned as female students’ hostel at N10,000 per bed-space! It is still so. In Nigerian universities, more than 95% of journal subscriptions have not been renewed since 1983. Twenty years! No new science equipment has been bought for laboratories apart from those available, again, twenty years ago. Now over 95% of them are either stolen or unserviceable. I know a department that could boast of hundreds of microscopes in 1982 but today has only one left! Not a single litre or gram of reagent is available. That is the condition of the universities.
Why do we then blame the lecturers for turning out half-baked graduates under such situations? In fact, if it were not for the competition for survival between WAEC and NECO that has depreciated the standard of our GCE, over 90% of the students wouldn’t have qualified for admission into the universities. How could our lecturers produce a fine fabric of silk from raffia?
Actually the condition has pricked the conscience of all patriotic Nigerians, not only ASUU’s. Nine years ago an eminent former Vice Chancellors, Professor Ishaya Audu, delivered a lecture on The National Moral Crisis: The Role of Education at Arewa House, saying:
“Collapse of standards at the university level has not only national but international, short and long-term implications. A so-called ‘Honours Graduate’ in science in Nigeria today may not have seen, let alone performed, basic standard scientific experiments. He may not compare favourably with even a secondary school graduate in a developed country. He certainly has not read the latest scientific textbooks in his subject since they are not available in the library not to talk of current scientific journals. How could Nigeria then compete in the modern scientific world? Is it any wonder that our country is literally ‘developing backwards’? …Where university lecture theatres were built to accommodate 350 students some social science classes now average one thousand students attending lectures at a time, hence more than half of the students stay outside trying to catch the voice of the distraught and overstretched lecturer. How could such a ‘graduate’ stand his ground in the international arena as a supposed diplomat? Need one say more!”
Yes Prof., when you are dealing with Mammy-Market scholars. Nine years after his speech nothing has happened. Certainly Professor Audu is not one of those Obasanjo could describe as “irresponsible”, “skirt-chasers”, or “handout sellers”. The problem is not the lecturers but a ‘democratic’ government that has failed, worse than the military regimes before it, to respond to the demands of its people. In the past four years the country has consistently earned annually more foreign exchange than any previous government in Nigeria. With a slight sense of responsibility, part of that money would have been used to purchase equipment, journals and textbooks for our institutions as well as finance conference trips and study and sabbatical leave of many lecturers. Locally, more hostels, laboratories and lecture theatres would have been built to cater for the ever-increasing intake, with better supply of electricity and water. Instead, throughout his first tenure, Obasanjo has disappointed us with series of multi-billion Naira corruption scandals, making mother earth to rank our country its second most corrupt son.
With over 70% of Nigerians earning less than a dollar per day, how does the government expect the Nigerian public to fund education? How could the country with one of the lowest per capita income in the world expect to produce scholars like Professors Ishaya Audu, Iya Abubakar, Wole Soyinka, Akingkube and Jibril Aminu by commercialising university education? Let us remember that state governments still give only N7,000.00 ($50) as annual scholarship award for their students. Education would then become available only to children of corrupt ex-generals, government bureaucrats and petty-bourgeoisie, who after all, lack the motivation and endurance to sit down and learn.
The answer to the present crisis in our education sector is one: let us look at Obasanjo straight in the eyes and say: “Hey, our money is not for maintaining fleet of cars for every minister, adviser, permanent secretary and director in addition to the billions spent on their accommodation. Neither is it for purchasing an extra-presidential jet, or spending endless nights on overseas visit, or for constructing a sixty-five billion Naira stadium, or for rigging elections. It is for building our society in which education is foremost. Therefore, what is your commitment to improving the condition of learning in our schools?” Surprisingly, I do not think Obasanjo has promised anybody anything in this regard before his 4-19 re-election.
Without such commitment I wonder what will the lecturers return to their duty for. Should they resume lecturing over 1000 students in theatres meant to cater for only 350, or teaching without recent textbooks or up-to-date journals, or continue producing science graduates and medical doctors without any single laboratory experiment – not even a glance through a microscope or working on any cadaver?
Well since everybody is asking the lecturers to return and find alternative means of resolving the impasse, I have a suggestion for them. Let them say, “Okay, Okay. Let the universities open again but no more “half-baked graduates.” We vow never again to graduate any student who cannot ‘stand his ground in international arena’. No science student will graduate until he completes all prescribed practical lessons, the lack of facilities not withstanding. It is none of our business. No student will pass any course in the university without writing his assignments using the latest literature in the subject. Let the students remain where they are for decades. Should any of them complain, we would refer him to the university management for explanation.”
Finally, the National Universities Commission (NUC) would within few months visit the Villa and tell Obasanjo, “Look, university is not Mammy-Market. We need enough theatres and hostels, equipped laboratories, well-stocked libraries, and so on. You either provide funds for these or we will be forced to close the universities indefinitely.” At the end some leftovers from the national booty will start trickling down to the universities. Only on this condition should ASUU call off its strike. And nobody who has been to a university will blame the dons for applying the principle of total quality control.
Meanwhile, I believe that ASUU by going on strike without pay for five months has expressed enough concern for the future of our children. However, they are getting nothing in return more than insults delivered in the pedestrian vocabulary of Mammy-Market scholarship.
In spite of what the critics of our lecturers say, I am bent on sending my daughter only to a Nigerian university. But as she leaves for the first time I will have a word of wisdom for her: “Daughter, once on campus, a skirt must not be your best dress.”