TALES OF WOES TRAIL END OF SOUTH-EAST ASUU STRIKE AS LECTURERS, STUDENTS RESUME CLASSES
For six months, state-owned universities in South-Eastern Nigeria were shut. Reason: members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) in the states were demanding that the state governments implement the 2009 agreement reached by the Federal Government with the union. Federal universities, they had argued, had implemented the agreement while some states had done the same, but not so in the South-East.
Therefore, on July 22, last year, ASUU in the South-East decided to leave the classrooms until that agreement was implemented by the governments in the region. When the strike started, many in the region had thought that it would end in a few weeks' time, but this was not to be. Thus, students of the various institutions, like their teachers, waited in vain for the strike to be called off.
Enugu State Commissioner for Education, Dr. Festus Uzor, who was on the government negotiating side in Enugu State, blamed the entire drama surrounding the strike and its lengthy period on the fact that the ASUU President, Prof Ukachukwu Awuzie, is from the South-east zone.
He pointed out that while the strike in the South-East lasted, other state universities in other regions were in session, making him to insist that the ASUU president coming from the zone contributed largely to the long period of the strike. He expressed concern that even the richest states in the country such as Lagos and Rivers were not implementing the Federal Government agreement and yet there was no strike in their states.
'It was unfortunate, but that doesn't mean they cannot ask for their rights. When the strike started the governors of the South-east called the lecturers to a meeting at the Nike Lake Resort in Enugu, but they staged a walkout; after that we went down to our various states. 'Yet, the ASUU members refused to come to meet with the state government because government wanted to place the cards on the table. In the last week of December last year they, however, showed signs of readiness to talk and that's why we are back,' he said.
After the Nike Lake Resort meeting, the governments in the region appointed a committee headed by the Anglican Bishop of Enugu, Emmanuel Chukwuma whose committee had a hectic time trying to broker a truce between the ASUU and the governments.
But in December and early January, there were signs that ASUU and the state governments have agreed to sheathe their swords. However, as the universities in the South-east opened their gates again after the forced holiday, it was discovered that the strike had taken big tolls on the institutions, government, ASUU, students, and by extension parents and guardians. Daily Sun in this special report visited the five states in the region to feel the pulse of the students and ASUU members and it was all tales of woes.
In Anambra State University (ANSU), where the strike was suspended after the signing of an agreement between the governing council of the university and ASUU on January 15, 2011, the story is one filled with mixed feelings.
Before the strike was called off in the institution, the Vice Chancellor, Prof Chukwunenye Anene was relieved of his position and the Provost of the College of Education, Nsugbe, Prof Fidelis Okafor brought in to replace him.
Then, Governor Peter Obi had threatened to sack all the lecturers and replace them with teachers from the Diaspora, saying that he was owing them like some of his colleagues and would pay what he could afford. While the strike lasted, Daily Sun investigations revealed that no fewer than 10 students and a lecturer lost their lives, the majority of them in auto crashes with one of the students said to have been killed in an armed robbery operation which he participated in.
Thus as much as normal academic activities have resumed in the institution, the returning students are not happy as much have been lost that could not be redeemed, particularly on the part of students who ought to have been called up for the National Youth Service Corps and the Law School.
The effect on students
For Onyeka Kelechi, a final year Political Science student of the Igbariam campus of the university, the period was traumatic as he could neither read nor do any other thing meaningful.
His words: 'Obviously, I was sitting down in the house waiting patiently because I do not have anything to engage on. It was all about travelling, visiting friends, I visited some places, my relations and stayed some weeks with them and came back.
'It brought psychological trauma to the students, especially myself and I can't read, when you wake up in the morning, you don't have programmes pertaining to academics and it was a psychological setback which has a negative impact academically. This is a society and if students are outside the school, they are amenable to vices. They are exposed to social vices and can engage in activities that are detrimental to the society.' For Stephanie Nubia, a third year Igbo Linguistics student of the same campus, the strike brought her academic depression. But the award-winning student writer and author of Apple of Discord, who is a final year Political Science student at Igbariam, McDonald Ezenwaka, said the strike 'spurred me to face a lot of challenges; the most important is that I used the period to finish my third novel.'
Chidinma Orji, a fourth year Industrial Physics student at the Uli Campus of the university says she could not achieve her academic target for the year due to the strike. 'I spent the six months with my parents in my village in Amawbia. It wasn't funny, but disgusting because throughout that period I felt abandoned by my school authority.
'It really affected me in the sense that there was immense failure to achieve my academic ambition last year. It also brought hatred and disgust to me from other people. However, my parents tried to keep me out of some vices by engaging me in computer training,' she said.
According to the Student Union Government (SUG) President, Comrade Paul Okafor, 'the effect of the strike on the students is first and foremost, the failure of final year students to sign up for the NYSC first batch and the Law students to join their colleagues at the Law School. Personally, I spent the strike period in agony. Throughout the six months, I was in school and on the road, dialoguing, pleading and meeting with government, lecturers, governing council, stakeholders, elders of the state and the clergy. I was also busy ensuring that the media helped us to let the public know our predicament. I worked hard to ensure that there was peace as students wanted to riot at a point when they could no longer bear the pains of the long strike.'
Effect on ASUU
According to the chairman, ASUU ANSU, Dr. Jaja Nwanegbo, 'the strike has just made members to re-discover themselves and to understand the essence of unity in the union. It made the union as a body to be stronger. But he added that 'we've lost a lot of conferences, a lot of seminars and a lot of opportunities to contribute to academic progress. The university, Daily Sun gathered lost a lot of time, because under normal circumstances, six months is one academic session. Also ANSU allegedly lost many academic staff members during the strike. For example, in the Faculty of Agriculture which is the smallest faculty in the university, at the last count, about six academic staff have left, including their former Dean who was said to have gone back to Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka where he was lecturing before this time. The agreement which could have been signed six months ago to save the losses was, however, signed on January 15, 2011 by the Acting Vice Chancellor, Prof Okafor for management, Dr. Jaja Nwanegbo for ASUU and Prof. Elochukwu Amaucheazi for the governing council.
In the Ebonyi State University, though there was no recorded case of loss of lives, parents were agitated as the six months strike brought frustration among students with some of them engaging in menial activities to get themselves busy while others took to politics. However, the unionists amongst them, both the students and lecturers, were shuttling from one state to another to engage themselves in dialogue in frantic bid to finding a solution to the strike.
One of the union leaders, Daniel Onyekachi Okorie said: 'We were not attending lectures, we were engaged in union activities to see how the issue could be resolved during the period.' According to Nick Eke, ASUU secretary, EBSU, their experience during the strike was a nasty one. His words: 'Because teaching has been our routine work over the years and having incorporated and inculcated it into our live styles you then find it very, very difficult to stay idle for five to six months.' For John Ogbu, Speaker of House of Representatives of the Ebonyi State University, it was like hell during the strike.
'Talking about the psychological effects of the strike itself, it made you begin to wonder, asking yourself a second question, am I really a student? For instance, you have your contemporaries in other schools telling you how they are about graduating and asking you to attend their convocations. These are those ordinarily you ought to have graduated with and it just leaves you demoralized and you begin to ask yourself whether you are really achieving your goals.
'The economic effect cannot be overemphasized also, you are talking about your parents keeping you in school for that extra one year, you are talking about paying another house rent, you are talking about asking your parents to feed you, to cloth you for that period of one year. So, it goes a long way in affecting not only us personally, but those around us, those that can see us through school – our parents and guardians. As it stands, the market women we buy things from, the taxi drivers, everybody was feeling the effect because there were no students to patronize them, and there were no students to make the society glamorous like it used to be. So, during the strike it was a very horrible experience; it is something no student will pray it will happen again.'
Also, the President, Law Student Association, EBSU, Comrade Umazi Okechukwu, said that the adverse effect of the strike was in the loss of lives through road accidents, saying that those who died ordinarily should not have died if not for the strike-induced travelling.
His words: 'My parents felt it more; one is that they come in, they see me in the morning; see me in the afternoon and see me in the evening and you know youthful exuberance; they were not really comfortable and as soon as the strike was called off they heaved a sigh of relief.'
For Ike Sunday, a medical laboratory sciences student of EBSU, it was very hectic during the strike period. 'There was a time I was in my house and my father after looking at me said, 'my man, go and get your own house, leave my house for me.' So, he was trying to express some little misgivings, he was saying that I was not supposed to be in the house by then. That will tell you the level of idleness we were engaged in. We were doing nothing most of the time, you roam the streets when you don't have anything to help out in the house and Ebonyi State is not a place you can start a business, so we were doing nothing. We thank God and the parties for finally agreeing on terms and returning us back to school.'
Another union leader, Victor Nwoba said that he kept himself busy during the strike by engaging in sport activities while at the other times he read novels and newspapers which he said helped to sway his mind away from social vices the youths engage in.The agreement reached between the Ebonyi State government and ASUU was that in April 2011, the government will begin to implement the signed pact with ASUU, and if it fails to start the implementation, the union could go back to its industrial action.
Daily Sun investigation revealed that the six months strike was not pleasant for students and ASUU at the Evan Enwerem University. Many of the students who could not endure the trauma took to vices while some others took up menial jobs to keep body and soul together. The harsh effect of the strike did not spare the lecturers and other staff of the university as some of them turned their private cars into cabs in order to raise money for the upkeep of their families.
Joseph Ikechukwu Osuji, a third year student of Computer Science department said that the strike really dealt a devastating blow on his academic pursuit. 'Honestly, the strike dealt mercilessly on my academic programmes and right now I do not know where to begin again. I was at home throughout the period of the strike because my uncle who is taking care of me lives in Lagos. Idleness forced me to take a job in one of the cottage industries on Onitsha road, Owerri Industrial Layout. Although, I was able to make some money, I am still not happy because the strike will extend my stay in school'.
Also speaking, Miss Oluchi Alozie, a second year student of Linguistics of the university said that 'the strike was an ill-wind that did not blow anybody any good.' She, however, said that she used the period to undergo a four-month computer training at Aba, Abia State.
However, the President of ASUU, Prof Ukachukwu Awuzie said that somebody at any point in time has to make sacrifices, saying that the strike was part of the sacrifices they are expected to make. Although he acknowledged the hardship brought about by the long strike, he noted that at the end the overall benefits will outweigh the inconveniences. He lambasted the Igbo, saying that they are docile people even in the face of issues that concern them directly. He noted that there was no move made by the people to express their anger during the strike period, wondering why the people of the South-east geo-political zone could not protest against those toying with the future of their children.
As part of the agreement to resolve the impasse, Prof. Awuzie disclosed that the Imo State government has sent an executive bill to the House of Assembly for consideration for the official deduction of certain amount from the local council monthly allocations to fund the university. According to him, the state government is expected to start payment of arrears owed the lecturers by the end of January.
At the Enugu State University of Science and Technology (ESUT), one of the students, Uche Ngene revealed that one of their students died in an auto crash, adding that 'another died during child birth and one of my friends in the Engineering department was killed during this period. So, I lost my friends during this strike, I lost my joy and, of course, we lost an academic session.'
Ngene from Anambra State who is a Mass Communication student at ESUT said; 'it has not been easy; all our aspirations in life have taken a six month delay; we are far behind other schools now, so it's really frustrating, it's not something anyone would pray to experience again.'
However, Ngene said he was not idle as he used his computer knowledge to assist his mother in her office. 'I was also among the people that organized the ICAN conference that held in Abuja last September at Sheraton Hotels; I went for the interview, just to keep myself busy.'
He blamed the strike for the increase in social vices that bedeviled the zone in recent times, saying 'that was why there were incessant robbery, kidnapping everywhere; if students were in school I bet you it won't be like that much.
Also Nnenna Okwor, a fifth year Chemical Engineering student said: 'It is somehow when you are supposed to have graduated and you are coming back to school; we are supposed to have graduated last year, but I am still here planning to write my degree; so it's not funny at all.'
She also pointed out that the strike has taken higher tolls on the final year students.
'For us final year students, we have a lot to do; project is one, which is a very big work; I am also a Chemical Engineering student; so, I am doing my design work which is another big work. So, during the strike I tried to occupy myself, but it is not like doing it in school because in school you can meet your lecturers, they will help and advise you where you are going wrong.'
For the President General, Department of Banking and Finance, ESUT, Innocent Ukpabi, the strike has done a lot of damages to the students.
'The strike was very terrible; you can imagine a student losing a whole academic session. We started this strike on 22nd July 2010 and we resumed on January 24, 2011 which is about six months; it was a very terrible experience. It must be said that the way we treat education in the South-east is not encouraging because students in other geo-political zones did not go through what we have suffered these six months. They were able to reach certain level of understanding in other parts of the country.' Ukpabi said he had nothing doing during the six months face-off between the ASUU and the government. 'I was just whiling away time hoping for the strike to be called off, but unfortunately it was prolonged for such a long time. I will not blame any of the parties for the strike, the only blame that should go to both parties is for failing to reach an agreement that would have ended the strike long before now.'
A Senior lecturer at the department of Metrological and Materials Engineering, ESUT, Mr Christopher Mba, noted that 'the students have suffered, a good number that were supposed to go on youth service could not go; academically they are behind, yet they are to compete with students of other universities whether federal or state in the job market; I think the students have suffered immensely. The lecturers, of course, wouldn't be happy not doing their job even if they are paid after all. No one rejoices over being paid for a job not well done; so it hasn't been easy. We have been going hungry and trying just to survive but I thank God that eventually we have come to start all over again. We are believing that everything will stabilize; and if everything stabilizes, with the determination the lecturers have to really help in the system, I hope they will do everything possible to brush up the students to meet up to the expected standard. So, I think everything will return to normal from now.'
An undergraduate of the Abia State University, Chidi Okwuonu said that he spent the strike period with his parents. 'Sometimes staying with them becomes boring and I would go out to spend one or two days with friends in town', Okwuonu said.
He said that he prayed that the government should do everything within its power to reopen the schools for the sake of the future generations of this country and also to lessen corruptions and misconduct in the country. Speaking to Daily Sun, Dr Emmanuel Osodeke, an ASUU leader from Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, said that they reopened because the government had partially come up to meet with their demands.
Osodeke who was not specific on the agreement was of the opinion that they should take the offer made instead of continuously staying away from school as whatever they did not do would always be there for them to do.
'Now that the schools have opened, the works that have not been done for the past six months would be embarked upon to be completed. And that means that both students and lecturers should be up and doing. Lecturers would not be allowed to go on leave because there is work to be done and such work should not be swept under the carpet,' he said.