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Why academics strike

The story of Nigerian universities in the 1990s is the story of a permanent crisis. The Academic Staff Union of Universities, with about 10,000 members committed to a struggle to restore a lifeline to the universities, is once more involved in a face-off with the government. It is the third in the past three years, creating a legacy of frequent closures and paralysis.

The current strike began in August last year in protest, among other issues, at the lack of genuine government commitment to stemming dwindling university fortunes since the mid-1980s. It was precisely for that reason that the union went on a prolonged strike between May and September 1992, culminating in a federal government/ASUU agreement that broadly covered funding, university autonomy and the conditions of service of academics. The union resumed the strike in 1993 when the government attempted to back out of the agreement. The spate of industrial strikes by academics, other trade unions of non-academics and the numerous student protests (frequently turning violent) have their roots in government indifference to university funding. In a political environment dominated largely by military dictators, the universities have been perceived as centres of opposition rather than research and innovation.

Gross underfunding has brought untold "shock" to the university system. Inadequate physical facilities bring out in full relief the sorry state of affairs at the universities. The phenomenal growth in student enrolment has led to stifling and often unhealthy congestion in lecture halls and hostels. Epidemics have even claimed some lives among students. Libraries are poorly stocked while current journals in the disciplines are simply not available. Laboratories are plagued by the same disease. Consequently, all courses, especially professional ones such as medicine, pharmacy and engineering, are severely affected. The overall decline in quality has also had repercussions abroad as overseas universities are reluctant to accept graduates of the late 1980s and 1990s for postgraduate courses.

Decline in the morale of faculty members has had an even more deleterious impact on the system's health. Ravaging inflation has reduced the wages of university teachers to next-to-nothing. For example, at the present exchange rate, the monthly salary of a professor is worth $70 (Pounds 45), as against $1,400 in 1992. Several academics have consequently abandoned the universities in favour of jobs in the private sector and overseas. This brain drain, which climaxed in the early 1990s, has sounded a death knell for the universities.

What is worse is that the authoritarian tendency of the polity is being replicated in university governance. Vice chancellors, appointed on the whim of the Visitor, usually the military head of state, hardly abide by university rules. Lecturers and students are dismissed or rusticated without recourse to the laws. In the past, the closure and re-opening of universities has been known to be dictated by military governors, illustrating the complete erosion of the autonomy universities once enjoyed. Union attempts to redress these anomalies through a strike in 1988 led the government to proscribe the union, a restriction which applied until 1990.

The 1992 strike ultimately gave room for hope when major concessions were wrestled from government. Some democracy was introduced in university governance with internal organs henceforth to determine the appointment of vice chancellors. This has since been consummated in Decree 11 of 1993.

Finally, there was an upward review of salaries and allowances of university workers who nonetheless remained the poorest paid in Africa. So far, little progress has been made on the agreement to set up a stabilisation fund.

Most academics considered the September 1992 agreement to be the beginning of a process arresting the decay in universities.

It was hoped that further consolidation and gains would be achieved by 1995 when the agreement was due for review. However, it soon became clear that government was neither ready nor willing to abide by the terms of the agreement once the strike was over. In the area of funding, government has consistently failed to live up to the provisions. For example, whereas the agreement stipulated that the stabilisation fund should be built up to the agreed fund value of 1.5 billion naira (Pounds 44 million) by 1994 in three equal instalments, as of date only 0.1 billion naira has been provided by government. Several other aspects of the 1992 agreement -- in the areas of funding and conditions of service -- remain unimplemented.

The union suspects a government lack of commitment to honour an agreement freely entered into. In fact, the 1993 face-off between the union and government hinged on the government's attempt to argue that the agreement was not binding. It took several months of strike action to force government to accept that the agreement was indeed binding.

Not surprisingly, some observers have drawn parallels between the government's non-commitment and its trail of broken promises on the political scene, including the annulment of the 1993 presidential elections. This parallel has forced many observers and the ASUU to wonder if any meaningful environment for a stable university system could exist under the type of dictatorial regimes that have characterised the Nigerian political scene for so many years. It was inevitable, therefore, that the union of the intelligentsia would broaden its industrial relations activities to include a certain measure of political content.

It was against this background that the union embarked on a programme to impress on government that turmoil would again return if it did not improve relations with the union. After letters and calls on government to commence talks without success, the union called its members on strike last August 22.

The union demands included: the removal of the vice chancellor of the University of Abuja who has recklessly sacked academics and has no respect for the laws establishing the same university; the reconstitution of the governing council of the Federal University of Technology, Minna, and the commencement of the process of appointing a substantive vice chancellor; government fulfilment of its obligation to the universities with respect to the stabilisation fund as provided for in the September 2, 1992, agreement; the need for the federal government to get state governments to incorporate the relevant aspects of the 1992 agreement and Decree 11 of 1992 into the laws establishing state universities; and the immediate restoration of a democratic mode of governance as the festering political crisis has brought untold economic hardships to all.

Rather than engaging in genuine dialogue to discuss and resolve these capital issues, the government has joined some other mischievous Nigerians in describing our strike as "ill-motivated and political in nature". Faced with such intransigence and insensitivity, universities seem condemned to more excruciating hard times. We hope that, after this wasted generation, future ones will be luckier in restoring to Nigerian universities their lost glory and international respect.

Victor Aire is head of the department of languages and linguistics at the University of Jos, Nigeria, and head of its ASUU branch.

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