By Francis Ewherido
Many hearts – parents, students and other concerned Nigerians – sank when the Academic Staff Union of Universities “after a heated meeting” of the national executive council of the ASUU, decided to extend the ongoing strike by the union. From extension, it has become an indefinite strike. Government has been talking, ASUU has also been talking, but none of them is making sense to parents, students and many Nigerians any more. Government says it can no longer fulfil the agreements it voluntarily went into. ASUU says government is a chronic breaker of agreements and it can no longer be trusted. Parents, students and embarrassed Nigerians just want the schools to resume lectures. You can say parents and students are selfish, but ASUU and government cannot be exonerated from selfishness and insensitivity.
Government officials fly their children abroad for university education, while ASUU members allow their beloved students (including their children) to rot at home. No party is making sense anymore. One student got admission at the age of 19. He thought he would graduate at 23 and complete his National Youth Service at 24 years. That would give him about a year to get a job, even if it looks unrealistic, before he is 25. Many big organisations do not employ fresh graduates above 25 years old. May be these corporate organisations need to review the age limit for employment of fresh graduates. It is not their fault that they are graduating age 26 and above. Only students in private universities in Nigeria or those who schooled abroad graduate below 25 these days. To graduate from a government-owned university before 25 years is becoming a rarity. What is their crime? Their parents are not rich enough to send them abroad or to private universities. Some students whose parents and sponsors lost their sources of livelihood because of the global downturn in the economy will now struggle to raise funds to enable them to graduate. Some students may have their have academic pursuits truncated.
Since this strike started I have always been on the side of ASUU. The government made commitments and it should fulfil them. They include the promise to a release of revitalization fund of 170b, to be included in 2023 budget, and the promise of earned allowance of 50b for all the university-based unions, also to be included in 2023 budget. The government should pay them. Where the government does not have all the money to fulfil its promises, it should approach ASUU with a humble and contrite heart. You cannot be a debtor and be grandstanding. Government should not behave like articulated vehicles on Nigerian roads. They bully other road users, even when they are in the wrong. Government insincerity with ending the ASUU crisis was badly exposed when the entire Abacha loot refund was devoted to funding physical infrastructure. Not a single penny for ASUU. We were taught in school that human development supersedes physical development; so what happened?
But I feel ASUU should go to the negotiating table with an open mind. On the issue of asking for payment for the period they were on strike, my position is that they should not treat it as an entitlement, but discuss and appeal to government. They knew about the no work, no pay policy before they went on strike. It cannot be not an entitlement, but ex gratia payment (payment made not as an entitlement, but out of grace) which government should oblige. Threatening that they will not do the academic work they would have done that period of strike if they are not paid is blackmail. They should negotiate it and not take unilateral decisions. ASUU should soften up not because it is the weaker party, but the more mature and empathetic party. In marriages, the advice is that it is not necessarily the spouse that is wrong that must be the one to initiate reconciliation; it is the more mature party who does. That is what ASUU should do. Show initiative not necessarily because all their demands have been met but out of maturity and empathy. Government is a continuum. ASUU should get the best it can from the ongoing negotiation and continue when a new government comes in. I read somewhere that ASUU wants all their demands met before calling off the strike. I do not believe that because negotiations demand “give and take” dispositions. Whatever they can get from this government, they should take and be patient till the next government comes in. By May 29, 2023, this government will leave office. ASUU should organise a forum where all the presidential candidates, or the top five candidates, will tell ASUU and Nigerians how each of them intends to end incessant ASUU strikes in universities and bring stability to the educational system. That will give Nigerians an idea of how they want to solve one of the problems besetting us. ASUU is not in a supreme battle with government to know who blinks first. ASUU should act fast. Some of the demands pre-date this government. By May 29, a new government will come in and the negotiations can continue.
ASUU is gradually losing the support of parents and students, especially. Some university branches of ASUU have pulled out of the strike and will resume or start resuming soon. More will follow in the coming days or weeks. Before you know it, ASUU will lose its leverage. This will erode ASUU’s powers in bargaining and negotiations in the future. Now that the water is still at the ankle level, ASUU must act first and be decisive before the water gets to the knees and ultimately the ASUU ship will sink.
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