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Between ASUU, Southeast Governors and Common sense

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The strike embarked by the Southeast section of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) since July 2, 2010, has generated headlines. At issue are grievances by the lecturers in the state universities in the zone that the Southeast governments have failed to honour the October 2, 2010 pact between ASUU and the Federal Government, which ended a prolonged nationwide strike that the union commenced on June 22, 2009. The institutions affected by the current strike in the Southeast include the Abia State University, ABSU, Evan Enwerem University (EEU), Anambra State University (ANSU), Ebonyi State University (EBSU) and Enugu State University (ESUT).

  Both sides have their own arguments. Governor Peter of Anambra State was for instance quoted by the Vanguard (online) of November 7, 2003, as saying that the agreement between the Federal Government and the ASUU, is not binding on private and state universities. He was also reported as claiming that as a responsible government, states in the zone will not promise what they cannot afford to pay and that the lecturers had insisted on continuing with the strike, even after they were offered a 50 percent salary increase.   ASUU, on its own, claims that the Southeast state governments are simply nonchalant towards education, and are more interested in the politics of self-succession and second term than the decay in the state universities. The lecturers further contend that the state governors do not mind having these universities closed forever because their children and wards do not study there.

  The face-off between ASUU and the Southeast governors raise quite a number of issues:

  One, both the southeast Governors and the lecturers appear more interested in grand-standing than in resolving the issue. While the state governors have a good case that they should not be blackmailed into promising what they cannot legitimately afford to pay, the moral ground on which this argument is predicated seems shaky. If actually the Governors meant well, what was the point of insisting at the October 17, 2010 meeting between the two parties that the negotiation must be conducted in Igbo language? Exactly what point did the Governors want to make? The insistence that the conduct of the negotiation must be in Igbo language, when proficiency in the language was not part of the conditions for employing the lecturers, raised legitimate concerns about a possible hidden agenda by the Governors.

  The grand-standing by academics is also unhelpful.   Accusing the Governors of being only interested in self-succession and second term is playing to the gallery, which could only make the resolution of the issue more difficult.

  Two, the strike by the Southeast ASUU raises a fundamental question of whether lecturers in universities in the country really should be enjoying the same salaries and welfare benefits. It certainly is not the practice across the world for lecturers to have unified salary structure - whether they are working for big or smaller, federal or state universities.   Similarly it does not make sense that Governors should be enjoying the same salary and emoluments despite their widely different revenue bases, revenue generating capacity and level of socio-economic development.

  Three, the strike reflects very poorly on both the lecturers and the Governors - with both parties increasingly seen as mean and uncaring.   It is particularly surprising that the Southeast Governors appear to have forgotten so soon how the closure of schools in Anambra state for nearly one year by the Mbadinuju administration -helped to account for the infamy that is today associated with Mbadinuju's   name in the state. Just as there is apparent insincerity by the Governors in this negotiation, the persistent and knee jerk recourse to strike by the lecturers makes them part of the problems of our higher education.

  Four, the analyses of the problems of the education sector, including the conditions of service of academics by ASUU, sometimes seem to forget, or deliberately ignore the fact that many of the identified problems are merely symptoms of an underdeveloped economy, and not problems that are unique to the education sector. It is for instance not only University lecturers that are underpaid and work in adverse conditions - virtually all workers in the public sector such as the police, the army, primary and secondary school teachers and doctors - face similar challenges. Therefore focusing exclusively on the problems in the education sector in isolation of the general challenges in the other sectors of the economy will only give a distorted picture of reality. Take for instance the 2006 agreement between the federal government and ASUU, which required that 26 percent of annual budget (UNESCO's recommendation) be devoted to the education sector. How realistic is this in the face of competing demands for the country's dwindling revenue? It is instructive to note that the highest allocation to the education sector in modern times was the 11 percent allocated to it under General Abdulsalami Alhaji Abubakar's regime (June 9, 1998 - May 29, 1999). This is however not to suggest that the current paltry allocations that hardly exceed an average of 2.5 percent is acceptable.

  Five, rewards and obligations should go together. Just as the lecturers make legitimate demands on the government as their employers, the governments - federal and state- should concomitantly not be shy to insist that the lecturers should fulfil the obligations of their employment. There is for instance a need for the government to articulate the minimum obligations expected of the lecturers, including demonstrable teaching or research abilities and avoiding actions that could lead to disruptions of the school calendar. It may be wise for lecturers in each university to be balloted before a strike action such that if a minimum number of votes were not secured, the strike would be deemed illegal. The government should also take a firmer look at some of the contradictions within the ivory tower itself including corruption, sexual harassment and moonlighting. There is sometimes a suspicion that strikes serve the interest of the lecturers better because it not only affords them the luxury of receiving full pay for doing nothing, but also gives them more time to attend to their moonlighting ventures. We must also face the fact that many lecturers in our universities are barely literate or have become what political scientist Ali Mazrui would call 'ex intellectuals' (intellectuals, who have lost their ability to handle abstract ideas as a result of non-refurbishment of acquired skills).

In summary what is needed in this face-off is for common sense to prevail. Any resolution must not just be about meeting lecturers' demands but also the demands of the states as their employers, including sanctions for illegal disruption of the school calendar, sexual harassment, and soliciting or accepting bribes from students.

  The author Jideofor Adibe, can be reached at: