By ADEBAYO OBAJEMU
The protracted strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, which has entered it 16th week, is one two many but Nigerian students are now averse to accept and allow it to continue any longer, as they are taking their future into their own hands, which has taken the form of waves of protests across the country.
From Benin, Jos, Calabar, Lagos and others, university students are expressing restlessness and greater degree of anger over the lingering face-off between ASUU and the federal government. This anger boils over in social media, but for the past weeks, it has taken the form of peaceful protests across campus vicinities and blocking of highways.
Just last Tuesday, students of the University of Ilorin, Kwara State, staged a peaceful protest to register their displeasure over the prolonged strike action by ASUU in Nigeria’s public universities. The students vowed to scuttle the coming congresses of the parties possibly in Abuja.
Reacting to the 12 weeks extension of the strike action by ASUU, the students in their large numbers vowed to carry their protest to the Government House, the state House of Assembly, roads linking the Ilorin International Airport, Federal Secretariat, Police Headquarters and the Department of State Services office among others if the meeting between the Federal Government and ASUU fails to resolve the crisis in the next few days.
They lamented their continued stay at home due to the lingering strike action and called on the government to listen to and meet ASUU’s demands to enable them to return to class and complete their academic programmes.
The students declared that they will have nothing to do with the 2023 general elections if the strike action was not called off.
To ensure a peaceful protest by the students and prevent it from being hijacked by hoodlums, DSS operatives, police personnel and Man ‘O’ War, manned strategic locations around the institution’s main campus to provide security.
President of the Students’ Union Government, Comrade Taofik Waliu, said the protest was staged to create awareness among stakeholders and public members over their sadness on the ASUU strike, adding “we are tired.”
“We want to graduate. The government should listen to ASUU’s demands. We don’t plan to move around town today. We hope that soon ASUU strike will be a thing of the past whereby hanging students can graduate and 300 level students can move up and so on.
“However, if nothing fruitful comes out after the FG/ASUU meeting this week, we will move en mass continuously with other students of 10 educational institutions in the state to occupy and block the roads to various places in the state capital to register our displeasure over the lingering ASUU strike,” he warned.
In his own speech, the Chairman of the National Association of Nigeria Students, NANS, Comrade Salman Yusuf Yisa, appealed to state governors to intervene because the issue was beyond the Federal Government. Because of the incessant strikes, many parents now enroll their children/wards in private universities. Indeed, many people believe that if this strike is allowed to linger much further it may lead to the death of public universities, as people lose total confidence in it and perhaps, shift to private universities.
Currently, Nigeria has 100 public and 30 private universities. A strike by lecturers has paralysed public institutions for the past three months, while teaching at private universities has continued. As a result, there has been a rush by parents with financial muscle to register their children in private universities, whose proprietors are smiling all the way to the bank.
According to Dr. Tunde Fatunde, other factors that have tilted the balance in favour of private universities include: weakening of the local currency, the Naira, against the American dollar, increasing the costs of studying abroad; visa restrictions on Nigerian students by Western countries; and instability in the Middle East and the Russian campaign in Ukraine, preventing students from studying there in Islamic universities.
However, students in the applied sciences – especially medicine, dentistry and engineering – have to wait for public universities to reopen, because these capital-intensive courses are not offered in private institutions. While public universities have remained closed at the start of the academic year, private institutions have opened their doors and have reported many more students – including refugees from the public sector.
According to BusinessHallmark’s findings, many parents have gone to the office of the Joint Examination Matriculation Board in the federal capital Abuja, to change the admission status of their children from public to private universities.
“The current industrial strike in public universities has thrown up a major contradiction in Nigeria’s political landscape,” said a leader of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, who did not want to be named so as not to jeopardise ongoing pay negotiations.
Most of the children of the Nigerian elite were in private universities. “Thus they are not bothered if public universities are shut down. It is clear that the proprietors of these private universities made up their mind not to allow academic staff to join unions. What a pity!”
According to reliable sources, the income of parents determines the choice of private university, as does location and religious affiliation. Some of the universities are fashioned after well-known tertiary institutions in Western Europe and the Middle East.
They are well oiled by private funds, well equipped and their Nigerian and foreign staff are well salaried, thanks to hefty fees paid by parents who are members of the well-remunerated political class. The students are primarily children of top military officers, top civil servants, traditional rulers, private sector executives and some lecturers from public universities.
Among these private institutions – to name but a few – are the American University of Nigeria, or AUN, in Yola in north-eastern Nigeria, founded by former vice-president Abubakar Atiku; Bells University of Technology in Ota in Ogun State, funded by former president Olusegun Obasanjo; Baze University in Abuja, founded by senator Datti Baba-Ahmed; Veritas University, Abuja, founded by the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria; Covenant University, founded by the Winners church; Babcock university owned by the Seventh Day Adventist, and Nigerian Turkish Nile University, which is owned by Turkish and Nigerian private investors.
Private universities market themselves as assisting students to create networks of international friends who will be useful to them in future jobs in a globalised world. The most popular private universities are in the capital Abuja.
According to our findings, most members of the establishment in northern Nigeria are no longer willing to send their children to study in Western Europe, because of visa restrictions that have followed the suspected involvement of some Nigerian students abroad in terrorism.
Images of violence and destruction in the Middle East – especially in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Sudan – have also persuaded Islamic parents to send their children to private Muslim universities in Nigeria.
Universities in the Middle East were once the preferred destinations for Nigerian students studying Arabic and Islam. This is no more the case. Most have recorded soaring enrolments of new students. But they do have challenges. For example, the American University of Nigeria is in a region that experiences occasional attacks by Boko Haram, the Muslim fundamentalist group fighting for the imposition of sharia law in northern Nigeria.
While many of rich parents are willing to send their children to private universities, students who had been admitted to study medicine, dentistry and pharmacy have mostly decided to wait until public universities open.
Private universities do not currently have the infrastructure or manpower to offer these courses.
“I have been given admission to a public university,” said Adesina Omotayo, who has been admitted to read medicine. “I will wait until the strike is over. Government should make more concessions so that university teachers can go back to the campuses. I am tired of staying at home.”
It has become a norm that a student going to study a four years course, for example, in a Nigerian university, knows that he would have to spend four years plus X, where X is a variable determined by the total length of ASUU strike within the stipulated period.
According to verifiable reports, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has spent a cumulative period of 49 months and two weeks boycotting the classrooms between 1999 till date. That is to say, a total of four years and two weeks was lost to industrial dispute between the lecturers and their employers, the federal government of Nigeria, in a short span of twenty-two years.
In the last five years alone, excluding the current year (2022), ASUU spent a total of 395 days, more than a full calendar year, on strike. This represents one out of every four days in a period of 1,825 days. A number of interventions have been made by well-meaning, eminent Nigerians, to find a lasting panacea to the recurrent blackout in the university system, to no avail.
Various high-powered negotiation teams from the federal government, headed by eggheads like the renowned boardroom guru, Gamaliel Onosode, and legal luminary, Wale Babalakin, have negotiated and re-negotiated different agreements and memoranda of understanding with ASUU, all of which are gathering dust in some bookshelves right now.
The reason is that a comprehensive welfare package for university lecturers that exists only in theory cannot solve the problem on ground. The workability of the mouthwatering packages is where the challenge lies.
Many Nigerians have urged the federal government to conclude negotiation with ASUU, to no avail.
Only recently, the Director General, Michael Imoudu National Institute of Labour Studies, MINILS, IssaAremu, decried the protracted industrial unrest by members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, lamenting that since Nigeria returned to democratic rule in 1999, ASUU had gone on strikes for 50 months, (almost five years).
Aremu, who expressed sadness that the current ASUU had shut public universities for over three months, urged the leadership of the union and the federal government to return to genuine “social dialogue” to resolve all outstanding issues in the university system.
He contended that ASUU/ Federal Government dispute was surmountable, calling for an immediate convocation of an expanded meeting within the context of the statutory National Labour Advisory Council, NLAC, to resume social dialogue on all issues in dispute.
“The strikes by lecturers that lasted 18 months under former President Obasanjo truncated the legitimate aspirations of students in public universities to complete their studies in record time.”
A non-profit making orgainsation, One Love Foundation, OLF, Friday, blasted some serving Ministers over purchase of N100 million presidential forms at the expense of protracted strike embarked upon by the Academic Union of Universities, ASUU, and students suffering the brunt. Speaking recently, the Founder and President, OLF, Chief Patrick Eholor, over the ASUU strike, expressed dismay with what Eholor described as sheer neglect by the government of public universities in Nigeria.
He said: “I am deeply concerned that even the ministers negotiating with ASUU purchased the N100million APC presidential nomination form when our students are still at home. It is sad.
“For the overriding interest of our nation, but more particularly for the huge number of students, parents, academic and non- teaching staff in all federal and state-owned universities across the country who have been affected directly by this avoidable strike.
“Our youths in public universities are losing their most active and creative years due to no fault of theirs, while their parents are undergoing a painful agony of witnessing their children and resources waste away under their very noses.
“I can tell you that a full academic calendar is about to be lost as a result of the failure of government to settle with ASUU”, Dr. Olufemi Omoyele director of Entrepreneurship at Redeemers University told Business Hallmark.