Between The University Dons and President Yar’dua. By Austyn Ogannah

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I have followed the current industrial action embarked by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and wonder when the union and government will work out an agreeable resolution, so poor Nigerian students can return to their classrooms. I just sympathize with these students. I recall my experience at the hands of ASUU and the government in the early 90's. I had just finished my secondary education and had passed JAMB exams (The Joint Admission And Matriculation Board), but couldn't start classes at the University of Benin because ASUU had embarked on a strike, to press for their welfare and better funding for higher education in the country. That strike lasted for a whole year, which meant languishing at home for one year.

From my First year in Uniben as it's popularly called, to my eventual graduation, there were several industrial actions called by either ASUU or their non academic counterparts, The Non Academic Staff of Universities (NASU). It used to be very frustrating for us then because we could hardly focus on studies nor plan our holiday, It wasn't funny at all. We constantly cursed ASUU and the government.

ASUU was formed in 1978 from the ashes of the then Nigerian Association of University Teachers which was founded in 1965 by the lecturers of the Universities of Nigeria, Ibadan, Lagos, Obafemi Awolowo and Ahmadu Bello University. NAUT as it was called then was an elitist association and totally non partisan. The association was mainly concerned about the welfare of its lecturers and the standard of higher education in the country. However, ASUU became partisan sometime around 1986 after the radical wing of the union took control of the executive arm at the congress in Ile Ife, Oyo State. The union has since then been at loggerheads with various administrations over the systemic decay of the country's education system. The union's clash with the evil regime of Babangida over the implementation of Structural Adjustment Program (SAP), was it's first major foray into Nigerian political affairs.

The current strike I gather is to force the government to sign and implement the contents of the agreement it reached with it during it's last round of negotiations. The agreement includes autonomy for Nigerian Universities, better funding and improved conditions of service for the dons. Since the agreement was reached, this administration has predictably refused to implement it for whatever reasons. As a writer i am compelled to be neutral and objective, but having been through the University system in Nigeria, I am compelled to side ASUU in their struggle for a complete reform and overhaul of the nation's education system. The decay and in some cases total lack of basic infrastructure in our universities is stunning. Go to our universities and see the state of the libraries, hostels, classrooms and health centers. The complaints are endless, it takes one year and in some cases forever to get your academic transcript from the university you studied in. How on earth past governments let schools deteriorate to these levels still shocks me? Is it because their kids all school abroad, paid for by monies they have stolen from us? Is this fair on a nation?What happened to integrity and common decency to fellow humankind?

The United Nations and UNESCO conventions which Nigeria is a signatory to, mandates member nations to channel at least 26% of their resources to education, but the government has not exceeded 10% in its votes for education so far. What about lecturers pay? Lecturers during the regime of General Gowon, were one of the highest paid public servants in the land. In-fact, only the Chief Justice earned more than a university professor. The picture is completely different today, politicians earn by far more the dons do today. I read a comment credited to an obviously ignorant Niger State Governor, Babangida Muazu who claimed that Nigerian lecturers were better paid compared to their counterparts in other African countries. He went further to say that only South African lecturers earn better. I did some research and found that even Kenyan lecturers earn better than their Nigerian colleagues. An Assistant lecturer in Kenya gets a basic pay of about $975 and senior lecturer $1114, as against N82,000 ($550) for an assistant lecturer and 91,000 ($606) for a senior Nigerian lecturer. So will you blame the dons for demanding more money? When their appalling salaries and working conditions over the years has created a brain drain in the university system.

The attitude of the federal government towards education is pitiable. Why is the government treating education like an orphan? They expend billions of Naira celebrating "government weddings and anniversaries," our federal legislatures share millions of Naira amongst themselves disguised as allowances, and now I gather they are spending more billions hosting the FIFA tournament. Is education no longer the bane of a nation's success? This administration needs to change course and get it's priorities right, if it is serious about changing the fortunes of the nation. I urge the Yar'dua government to declare a state of emergency in the education sector. All stake holders must sit down and find a workable blueprint so that we can improve education and stop giving ASUU and other unions a reason to disrupt our students future. A stitch on time they say, saves nine.

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