The Chairman of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, University of Lagos chapter, Dr. Oghenekaro Ogbinaka, speaks on the 14-week-old strike by lecturers in public universities, in this interview with CHARLES ABAH
Fourteen weeks into the strike, the end is still not in sight. What is ASUU’s next line of action considering the plight of students?
Even if the strike that started on July 1 has lasted all the only one week, it would still have been very damaging. In other climes, nobody would expect all the public universities to be shut for over 100 days. Yet we all are carrying on as if all is well.
Our policy makers’ perception of education is faulty. The governments, across all levels of governance, have a faulty philosophy of education. They think that educating Nigerians is a gift. They believe that proper funding of education is wasteful and a private “family matter.” Hence, you may even hear those who ought to be well-informed wanting to know why government should be spending so much on education. They want every public institution and schools privatised.
They forget that even the colonial government gave the mission schools grants in aid; thus recognising the central role of government in the provision of good and affordable schools.
The point being made is that the premise at which the government is operating at the educational platform is wrong. The government should set out to satisfy the education system and not ASUU. Central to the restoration of normalcy in our universities is the question of funding and ASUU is saying what has been offered so far, since the strike began, is just a laughable amount that cannot be taken seriously. The question is: would ASUU embark on strike because of N130bn? No! Given the current hardliner’s position of the FG, ASUU is simply saying we cannot continue on the old template, so the strike continues.
We also appreciate the fact that there are some genuine interventions by well-meaning Nigerians to bring both parties to the table for discussion. Ultimately, both ASUU and the FG will meet to discuss and move forward. We cannot lock up our universities permanently and think both parties can move about comfortably. This is not acceptable.
We understand that the FG has started the no- work-no-pay policy. How far will this affect the struggle? Do you foresee a situation where your colleagues will be coerced into submission by this policy?
The no-work-no-pay policy is a familiar measure. It has never worked with ASUU. We have seen cases where our colleagues were victimised and even sacked as the administration of the University of Ilorin did in the past. Our union could adopt the “No pay, no work” policy too. Invariably, this current strike will not be suspended until we are paid even when all the contentious issues have been resolved. Personally, I think we should operate from higher moral grounds given the justified cause we are pursuing. Really, it is a policy of the FG born out of its inability to address minor human problems. The policy cannot force our members back to work. We were well convinced on our line of action. We were in no illusion as to what actions or inactions the FG, state and even some university administrations would do. But once you have a well-mobilised union membership that are trustful of their leaders and believe in the cause they are championing, there will be the will, way and courage to push. This policy is familiar. It is an old route. We know how to navigate it even with closed eyes.
The trust of the agitation borders on funding and the FG says it does not have enough to satisfy all your demands. What do you suggest on how funds could be raised to run the sector?
The minister of finance should be bothered about capital flight by way of Nigerians studying abroad. The country is losing much in terms of people going to seek “good health.” We are losing in terms of huge importation of rice and other products we have at our back yard. Recall the oil theft cartel. Recall Nigerians establishing universities in neighbouring African countries. Where are such done in this world? Where is the patriotism here? These people ironically are also not only the friends of our government; a few of them are in government. You withhold salaries of lecturers, yet students are home and the system is paralysed. Yet you are compelled to pay the non-academic staff that are not on strike; a wage bill that is even higher than what lecturers are paid. So government is paying for a non-functional system so long as the strike lasts. This is why we cannot but appeal to the government to resolve all the matters quickly and in a way we can guarantee lasting and sustainable industrial harmony in our universities.
As one has argued elsewhere, the FG cannot really sustain the argument of no funds for education. It is all about government’s priority. ASUU has never left the issue of funding entirely in the hands of government. It is erroneous for anybody to think so. There is a full chapter in the agreement that talks about sources of funding as well as cost-saving measures that the universities should adopt. For example, TetFund is a product of ASUU’s agreement. Again, the Nigerian Universities Pension Commission is expected to carry out minimal interventions by way of investing in our universities. There are other aspects. For example, ASUU has put a case for the government to patronise the universities in areas of consultancy and research; and to encourage private firms to do the same. This is not to say the government should be encouraged to abandon its driving role in education. The government must make adequate budgetary provisions for education. Education is the key to a nation’s development.
The Governor Gabriel Suswam-led committee said it had commenced the disbursement of N100bn to the universities. Why is ASUU not comfortable with the gestures of the committee?
Even if Governor Gabriel Suswam-led committee meant well, he was most uninformed on the issues involved. He thought it was all about award of contracts for hostels, etc. He ignored what was on ground and was carried away by a misplaced messianic hype. If only he appreciated that, there were the Needs Assessment Report recommendations for each terms of reference that were duly approved by the President. He ignored this document and wanted to allocate funds to universities and commence contract awards. This is simplistic. It is born out of not appreciating the issues involved. Now that the vice-chancellors are involved and under the watch of the Vice-President we are sure there will be better progress.
The uncomplimentary role of the Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission, Prof. Julius Okojie, did not help the Suswam Committee. Okojie has never been on the same page with ASUU as a body. He gives the impression that the union is all out to destroy, and is indeed destroying the system; whereas ASUU believes that the system is already destroyed and requires urgent resuscitation. If you go with the ES of NUC, there will be problems. This was what Suswam did.
NANS says it is no longer supporting ASUU in the strike. Is this not an indication that the union has lost one of its strong allies in this struggle?
The tragedy of this nation is that we killed leadership at the students’ level. The government penetrated the students’ body and destroyed it. We are aware that the President of NANS was rusticated about 10 years ago from the Ekiti State University. He appeared at the Obafemi Awolowo University where he got admitted for a diploma programme in Local Government Studies in order to qualify him to seek election as NANS President. Now we have a Diploma Student representing NCE, OND, HND, Bachelors students as their leader. The painful thing is that most students, even at OAU, Ife, do not know the President of NANS. It is doubtful if he has a regular matriculation number, knows his course adviser and fellow students. He runs NANS from the comfort of a hotel in Abuja. Our prayer is that the strike will be over, those parading themselves as NANS leaders will be back to school, and journalists will be able to locate them in their various hostels and classrooms if they are genuine students. We know our students and our students know us. These NANS people may be students but not Nigerian undergraduates.
Again, people usually bring in students’ plight each time ASUU is on strike. They keep quiet about the students’ plight while they are in the schools that lack basic learning facilities such as classrooms, laboratories, good security and libraries. They see nothing wrong with the plight of students who live in cramped rooms, inhuman hostels, learning under trees, etc. Outside strike action, these students are victims of a bad and inhuman system. This explains why our leaders send their wards abroad. Fortunately, unlike in the past that ASUU was easily blackmailed, especially with the “plight of the students” argument, the students themselves are the No 1 supporters of ASUU’s struggles today. They appreciate the fact that they may not benefit from the new hostels and facilities. However, they are excited with the gains of the bigger picture. If the condition of service of lecturers is enhanced, qualified students will want to take up lecturing jobs. We will also have foreigners in our faculties. All we are trying to do is to ensure that our children do not become victims of a terrible education system.
ASUU leadership is reportedly under security watch now. As an official of the union, how true is this? Have you had any encounter with security agents since the strike started?
It is a normal thing for government security details to be bothered about the on goings. A few may be overzealous. We meet with them regularly. But the interesting thing is that they are Nigerians. So, one should leave it like that. Their family members are affected by the bad education system. One should be stupid to think that government will not consider the security implications of the union’s action. The truth is that education made people like Awolowo popular. He built the then University of Ife and funded education massively. The same can be said of Nnamdi Azikwe and Ahmadu Bello. People loved them for what they did. Theirs was affordable, popular and mass education for all. This endeared them to the people.
ASUU leadership, in the course of providing counter arguments and rebuttals to the misinformation and propaganda by government agents, is mindful of the security implications of such reactions. We are avoiding a very thin line. This explains why we shield the students’ body from actively participating in the struggle. We can only appeal to government to listen and implement the agreement. Resorting to force and intimidation are no solutions. They will only exacerbate the bad situations. It is therefore strange when we read stories that call for the disbanding of a harmless trade union of intellectuals and privatisation of publicly-owned universities as solutions. At the end of the day both the government and the university system will come out better and stronger. ASUU will simply go back to the classroom, satisfied that our universities have become globally competitive.