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By Emma Maduabuchi / Sunday
Traders, civil servants, commuters and all manner of people, who were at the Bridge-head Onitsha, Anambra State, about 11 a.m., on Friday, October 18, saw a spectacle. It was the sudden appearance of a cluster of youths, bearing placards, expressing anger and singing solidarity songs. They went on to barricade the bridge, causing heavy traffic logjam – a disruption that caused a long line that stretched far into Onitsha and Asaba, Delta State capital.
The spectacle of more than 600 demonstrating students lasted up to three hours. In the final analysis, the students were demonstrating against the strike embarked upon by Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), which has entered its fourth month. Demonstrating under the aegis of National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), they called for an end to the strike, speaking of how painful it had been staying at home and doing nothing when they should be in school studying.
Asked why they chose to barricade the bridge thereby making things difficult for road-users, they said they wanted Nigerians to have a taste of the pains they felt. Others claimed they had become utterly dissatisfied with the situation and ASUU’s handling of it.
The students were not the only ones dissatisfied with the situation. Sunday Independent findings revealed that other groups, persons, rights activists, as well as professional bodies have, at different times and at different fora, expressed dissatisfaction with the continuing strike.
For instance, on Tuesday, October 22, four days after the students’ protest at Onitsha bridge-head, some women were in Abuja, the country’s capital, demonstrating against the situation. Under the auspices of National Council of Women Societies (NCWS) in Nigeria, said to be an umbrella organisation for all women associations in the country, the women staged a peaceful protest march in Abuja, which started from their headquarters in Garki.
According to one of their spokespersons, the women did the protest march to push for a quick end to the four-month-old nation-wide strike. As they demonstrated, they bore placards of different colours and sizes, and with different messages. Like the students, lecturers were their target, as they called on ASUU to yield some grounds to government so as to resume work. They argued that lecturers should be able to do that much for the interest of the students and the country’s educational system.
National president of the NCWS, Nkechi Mba, who led the march, told her members and other women groups represented that they were out on a peaceful march, to press home their earlier plea to ASUU members whom she described as their “husbands and brothers” to “consider and accept the concession the Federal Government has made so far, and go back to work while negotiation continues”.
Earlier, even before the students’ protest at Onitsha, another group of women had demonstrated at the National Assembly, on Monday, October 14. The protest was held under the banner of National Market Women Association of Nigeria (NMWAN). They demonstrated before the headquarters of the Ministry of Education, and then office of the Head of Service of the country, before emerging at the National Assembly complex. The women numbering up to 200 were about the first group to call on ASUU to call off the strike. Their leader, Felicia Sani, said they were tired of seeing their children at home.
“We want our children back in school,” she said.
Another dissatisfied group, Unity Project of Nigeria, joined the fray, saying that ASUU and Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) have been engaging in clandestine meetings with leading opposition groups in the country to frustrate the efforts of government to suspend the strike.
As the strike continues, a barrage of criticisms, attacks and blames have been trailing it. Interestingly, most of the blames have been against ASUU.
Sunday Independent investigation revealed that a lot of Nigerians have used the opportunity of the strike to criticise Nigerian lecturers. Some criticise them for having used incessant strikes in the past to selfishly garner better packages for themselves better than all other working groups in the country, and at the detriment of the growth of the country’s education sector.
Those who held this view sought to be told one singular achievement or battle the lecturers have won for the education sector with all the strikes they had embarked on in the past. Lecturers were accused of always taking their feet off the throttle of their strikes each time their selfish demands were met by government. ASUU members were equally accused of running private businesses which they go into full time each time strikes were declared, and as such, the longer the strikes the better for them.
There were others that accuse the lecturers of not doing much to help students and improve learning by writing and updating research books; instead, what they do has been to produce handouts and sell to students, and only those who purchased the handouts would be made to pass the courses. There were also those who accuse lecturers of such vices as taking advantage of young girls, wanting to sleep with them before they could pass the courses.
On the part of government, it was seen as prosecuting a plot to destroy the public university system, so that the private universities owned by many of its functionaries would thrive. Also, government and its functionaries were accused of having destroyed the credibility of public office by consistently signing agreements and consistently reneging on them.
Govt, ASUU and supporters
It actually started with President Goodluck Jonathan who, during his press briefing, accused the body of lecturers of politicising the strike.
The President’s accusations have been followed up by some student groups, women groups, and others. Addressing a press conference in Abuja last Monday, the founder and leader of Unity Project of Nigeria, Igwekala Ugomaduefule, alleged that ASUU and NLC might have been offered financial gratifications.
While expressing concern over the prolonged strike, he said the continued hard-line position of the ASUU leadership, despite appreciable commitments and overtures made by the Federal Government to resolve the issue, should be blamed on the NLC. According to him, the labour body was trying to escalate the strike by threatening to call out its affiliates on a nationwide strike.
In Adamawa State, the management of the state’s university in Mubi, seeing ASUU as culpable in the prolongation of the strike, threatened that it would no longer pay salaries of striking lecturers at the university.
Ugomaduefule went on to also blame some opposition political parties as contributing to the lingering strike.
“Information on ground indicates that the Nigerian political opposition, a known desperate, power-mongering philistine and undemocratic movement, have since hijacked the ASUU movement and now the NLC leadership,” he said.
To drive his point home, he alleged that there was a meeting between the NLC leadership and one of the arrowheads of the opposition in the country.
To be sure, NLC has once or twice broached the idea of joining the strike on compassionate ground. The latest was last Wednesday, October 23, when its president, Abdulwahed Omar, declared that the labour body may declare a solidarity strike with ASUU.
Even before NLC gave the warning, a group of three trade unions had taken a decision to expand the strike. The three trade unions were Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT), National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) and National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE).
However, All Progressives Congress (APC), a major opposition party in the country, and ASUU have long reacted to the accusation. While APC described that allegation as utterly baseless, ASUU said it was rather the government that politicised the matter.
APC said the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)-led Federal Government should blame its incompetence and inability to end the crisis brought on the education sector by the ASUU rather than chasing shadows or blaming the opposition.
ASUU leader, Nasir Fagge, disagreed with the President on politicisation of the strike: “President Goodluck Jonathan said the strike is being politicized; but the truth is that it is government that is playing politics with our demands. It is as if every problem in this country is now being politicised. I want to ask one basic question: Is it political to ask government to be responsible enough to implement an agreement it willingly entered into?”
In a statement issued on Monday by its University of Ibadan chapter chairman, Segun Ajiboye, titled ‘Nigeria at 53: No Message of Hope for Nigerians Yet’, in response to the President’s claims, ASUU said it was regrettable that the President could be blaming the union on the strike. It maintained that rather than the President providing practical solutions to problems in the country, he chose to “pass the buck”.
“ASUU strike has been politicised. The question is, by whom? It is evident that rather than ASUU, the President and his team are the ones politicising education and playing with the future of the teeming youths of this country,” it said.
The body of lecturers then urged Nigerians to prevail on “this government to consider the poor and children of the poor by giving the needed and necessary attention to public education in Nigeria”.
He went on to say: “It is unfortunate for the President, who passed through a Nigerian university, to treat the sector with such hatred and disfavor. It is clear that Mr. President was just rehearsing the positions of his aides on the strike,” he said.
He added that Nigerians were disappointed with the President’s responses during the media chat on the eve of the 53rd Independence anniversary of the country. Added to that, the lecturers’ union noted that Jonathan could not be quoted on any of the issues raised during the interview and that critical issue such as Boko Haram insurgency, lingering ASUU strike, were “all treated with mere disdain by the President”.
ASUU members of the Nnamdi Azikiwe University (NAU), Awka, branch, numbering over 150, Monday, besieged the popular Aroma Junction in Awka, Anambra State, to hold a rally aimed at enlightening Nigerians on the reasons for their strike.
Interestingly, in all the accusations against it, ASUU has remained unmoved, preferring to see it as part of government’s plan to discredit it. In a recent message to its membership on its website, Fagge declared: “What government has so far been doing is no more than a repeat performance of a one-act play: all the deceptions, propaganda, lies, mischief and such other shenanigans were tried by previous governments, including military, but our resolve to save the university system and our country remained.”
Four days from today, the ongoing strike will be four months old. The total and indefinite strike that has completely shut down the entire university system in the country was declared on Monday, July 1, by Fagge.
In making the declaration, he had claimed that Federal Government reneged on its 2009 agreement with ASUU.
“We are embarking on indefinite strike nationwide because the Federal Government reneged in the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed with ASUU in 2009 to pay lecturers their earned allowance,” he said.
He added that government refused honouring the agreements despite all the support, patience and goodwill the lecturers’ body had shown since then.
The ASUU leader made the declaration at University of Lagos (UNILAG), which was a decision the National Executive Council (NEC) of the body reached during the meeting it held at Olabisi Onabanjo University (OOU), Ago Iwoye, Ogun State. He had declared, among other things, that they were “embarking on indefinite strike nationwide because the Federal Government reneged on the MoU signed with ASUU in 2009 to pay lecturers their allowance.”
In a later declaration, Fagge accused government of not telling Nigerians the truth: “Our demands are genuine, and it is based on the mutual agreement entered into in 2009 by government and ASUU. We urge the government to be responsible to that agreement. It is important to state clearly that we are a union of intellectuals, and we cannot accept a situation where the tail will wag the dog. Whatever we do is for the betterment of the Nigerian university system.”
Some Nigerians have attempted an analysis of the whole issue. Chijioke Odom, a lawyer and media manager, said the time has come when the Nigerian President, members of his government and generality of Nigerians must come to terms with reality as regards the ASUU strike.
“Imputations, allegations and insinuations of the politicisation of the strike have no basis with what is on ground now. ASUU is on a just course to totally review the totally destroyed tertiary education system of the country and restore it to its lost glory.”
He said that in the last 14 years, ASUU had cumulatively been on strike for more than three years, that if what they had been striking for were addressed, the country’s education sector would not be in the mess it is today.
He then warned: “If ASUU yields to the sentiment overflowing from very sensitive quarters in this country, we had better said goodbye to tertiary education forever,” he added.
Even at that, and despite apprehension of parents and guardians, as well as students of the shut institutions, Minister of Education, Nyesom Wike, did not help matters with his utterance on Tuesday, October 22, when he declared: “The Federal Government is very concerned about the state of public tertiary institutions in the country. The Federal Government is really worried about the ongoing strike of ASUU and the strike would be resolved in a few months.” Senate president, David Mark, while trying to get his colleagues to intervene in the strike berated Wike for making such a needless statement.
Fisayo Soyombo, a public affairs analyst, found fault with both the government and ASUU. “The reality is that what is ongoing is a feud between two groups of people – one dominated by a greedy lot feigning sanctimony and posturing as genuine advocates of education revamp; the other by a grossly irresponsible clique of people whose only business in governance is siphoning public funds,” he said.
Executive director of Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), Ibuchukwu Ezike, on his part, pitched his tent with ASUU. “If there is any industrial dispute that is justified in this world,” he said, “it is this one declared by ASUU.”
On allegations that government is on a mission to destroy public tertiary institutions, Albert Oikhelome, a lecturer with UNILAG, said it would be a great mistake.
“Perhaps the revolution Nigerians have been asking for would start from there,” he said.
For Fagge, “We will continue to carry the banner of this struggle to its logical conclusion. I urge all our members to maintain the spirit of camaraderie and remain firmly resolute in ensuring that our patriotic struggle succeeds. United we bargain, divided we beg!”