This is a difficult conversation for me given my history of active engagement in ASUU, especially during its formative years. My comments might be dismissed as the words of an ASUU renegade. To attempt to prevent this type of response, let me start with my CV. As a young lecturer in Ahmadu Bello University in 1980, I was already in the progressive caucus when Biodun Jeyifo, (BJ everybody calls him), and Uzodinma Nwala, newly elected pioneer President and Secretary of ASUU, stormed our Samaru campus to bring the good news. The transformation has occurred they proclaimed, by the law of 1978, the Nigerian Association of University Teachers, then existing in the five pioneer universities was dead and from its grave has emerged the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), a trade union. We were in exquisite excitement as BJ explained to us that intellectuals can now join the working class struggle as trade unionists and bring our intellectual support to the larger struggle to improve the educational system, but even more important, make our contribution to creating a progressive Nigeria.
I was in the team that dashed off to the Department of Electrical Engineering to inform Buba Bajoga, the last head of the association that a new regime has arrived. We organised elections and George Kwanashie and Raufu Mustapha emerged as the first leadership of ASUU in ABU, the bedrock of campus radicalism in Nigeria. We immediately engaged in organising the first ASUU strike and in 1982, I spent months in the Ibadan headquarters providing support for the ASUU negotiating team. In 1983, I became the secretary of ASUU in ABU with Yahaya Abdullahi as Chairman and the struggle continued. That was the year I defended my masters thesis. My examiner, the late Claude Ake commended me on a good thesis but told me off for spending five years writing a mere masters thesis. I was upset with him and mumbled that I had been spending all my time with the ASUU struggle and had little time for the thesis and as a comrade; he should understand the urgency of the ASUU struggle. He offered me an advice, get your PhD he told me, and you will be surprised that the struggle will still be there waiting, and you will be better equipped for it.
My Head of Department, Ibrahim Gambari, looked at me and smiled. Shortly thereafter, Gambari called me and gave me a scholarship letter to pack my bags and go to France for postgraduate studies. I told him bluntly that I was not going because the ASUU struggle had reached a critical stage and ABU was its cerebral base so I had to stay and continue my coordination role. Secretly in my mind, I was afraid of going to France because Mrs Waldron, my French teacher in Barewa College had sent me out of her class on the basis that I was incapable of learning French. God bless Gambari, he just told me I must go or he will sack me, I succumbed to the threat. The Caucus was of course very upset with me for jumping ship at a time in which we believed we were successfully cornering President Shagari to grant all our demands and finally create a university system with full autonomy and sufficient resources. My response was that the reason we operated in a caucus was not to depend on an individual.
I went to France, successfully learnt French and started the postgraduate programme but came back two years later to find out we were exactly where we were before my departure. A year later, I went back to France to finish the doctoral programme and returned to find the ASUU struggles was still where I had left it. The lesson for me is that our history teaches us that there is no formula for a final resolution of the ASUU struggle.
Through the 1990s, I continued with the ASUU struggles but with a more realistic vision that we need to have a more incremental approach to the struggle until I was forced out of the university system. Subsequently, as Country Director of Global Rights, an organisation engaged in facilitating legislative advocacy, I contacted the ASUU caucus both during the three-month old 2001 and six-months old 2003 ASUU strike that they should focus on the National Assembly and lobby them for sufficient funding rather than focus on President Obasanjo. They dismissed me as a renegade trying to dissipate their energies. We will force Obasanjo to deliver and eventually, the deal was signed, AND OF COURSE NOT IMPLEMENTED. We are still there today.
ASUU is strong. It has the capacity to carry out long strikes, keep students at home and get them to pressurise their parents to pressurise the President to sign a deal. Presidents through the ages have all been forced to sign, but signing is the simple issue, implementation has always been the bane of policies in Nigeria. ASUU is weak because its too focused on grandiose victory that often yields little in real results. The fact of the matter is that the Nigerian Government is irresponsible and never fully implements deals it signs. The struggle for a responsive and accountable government is a much larger one and goes far beyond the ASUU struggle. ASUU must go into introspection and learn what every trade unionist knows, gains in the struggle are never total, they are always incremental.
The key question in the faceoff is finance and financial matters are addressed in budgets. The President proposes budget estimates but our Constitution gives power to the National Assembly to make the budget. Let’s reflect on Nigeria’s budgets. Budgets are laws, which our Constitution says must be fully implemented by all governmental agencies. We know however that since 1999, no budget of any government ministry, department or agency (MDA) has ever been fully implemented. The Federal Universities are government agencies and their expectations that the agreement they have, which is not even a law, must be fully implemented, is correct in principle but does not reflect current practices. It is despicable that Government signs without any intention of full implementation but we need to start asking ourselves whether strikes will change the course of Government business.
In 2004, President Obasanjo introduced a new fiscal policy based on what is called the “oil price rule”. Each year, the government sets a pre-determined price for petroleum at a level that would be certainly lower than the market price. The government then saves the difference between the pre-determined price and the actual price to build foreign reserves and create confidence in the economy. Based on this criterion of fiscal prudence, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) authorised its Policy Support Instrument (PSI) for Nigeria in October 2005. The agreement with the IMF on fiscal policy was done surreptitiously and Parliament was not consulted. The Obasanjo regime therefore made commitments on significant cuts to public expenditure without the accord of the Nigerian people. This treacherous act of the regime in cutting funds for social expenditure is celebrated in many IMF and World Bank reports.
It is the on-going policy that no appropriation shall be fully disbursed and implemented. President Goodluck Jonathan brought back a certain Ngozi Okonjo Iweala to continue this policy. The fact of the matter is that the macro-economic policy framework of the Presidency is to continue to curb investment in the social sector, in particular, on education and health. Progressives must engage this struggle with zeal and on a wider front but its resolution cannot be the basis of re-opening our universities.
The prognosis of the ASUU struggle is clear, Government will eventually be forced to commit to full implementation, ASUU will go back to work and receive arrears for the months of work not done and Government will once again renege at the level of full implementation. It will take ASUU two more years of massive mobilisation to get lecturers back on strike and the cycle continues. ASUU must start a conversation about a profound change in tactics. More minimalist and attainable targets must be set and advocacy must be broadened to address the National Assembly and other institutions. My ASUU comrades, the struggle is our life but this does not mean that we cannot get real. Did BJ not tell us in 1980 that there are two struggles, one for the university system and another for a progressive Nigeria?
This article was first published in the Daily Trust on October 13, 2013. We are publishing it again because of its relevance to the current ASUU strike. The second part of the article will be published on the inside pages on Thursday. We are doing so to generate debate on the matter and more opinions on the subject are welcome. As usual send to firstname.lastname@example.org