By Lasisi Olagunju
(Published in the Mataz Arising on Monday, 29 August, 2022)
Mother Teresa, the Albanian-Indian Roman Catholic nun who died a saint, left more than her graceful actions. She strung together unusual letters and left immortal words. In moments of anger, I always remember her counsel: “Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” For unkind words, the same happens – they rarely ever get forgotten. The president of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Emmanuel Osodeke, Thursday last week used the word ‘quack’ to describe state universities that do not agree with his union, its leadership and its ways. I heard him live and gasped. It was an activist’s version of the president of Nigeria saying a vital part of his country was “a dot in a circle.” You remember that leak? My dictionary defines ‘quack’ as a fraudulent or ignorant pretender to a particular skill. “A person who pretends, professionally or publicly, to skill, knowledge or qualifications he or she does not possess; a charlatan.” As an adjective, it describes someone “who complicates everyone’s problems.” So, how does that word collocate with ‘university’ in the context of a strike?
You have heard of the Renaissance of the 14th century, the transition from darkness to light; a period of rebirth in science, arts and culture. You’ve also read of the Reformation of the 16th century. Its political, intellectual and cultural upheavals strengthened the universities and cleaned the gutters of politics and freedom in Europe. This age we live in in Nigeria is the opposite of those eras – it is anti-intellectual, anti-learning, anti-culture. Education here and now is proclaimed as a scam. You have a horde of online and offline minions who belch “to hell with certificates and degrees.” That is why you’ve ended up with election candidates who inspire in 2022 what the Renaissance overthrew 700 years ago. You have one candidate whose two university degrees (as claimed in 1999) have shrunk to one in 2022. You have another with a Masters without a first degree. You have another with a terminal degree. You have hundreds who claim attendance at universities but contest elections with primary school certification. You have them all assisting the incumbent to pick his teeth while our youths waste away as universities remain shut for a whole academic session. It is the reason we must save our universities and ASUU from the toxins of arrogant anger.
Someone warned that you should never let bad moods choose words for you. It was a very unnecessary self-directed shot fired by Osodeke. The ASUU president was asked to comment on the trouble in the house of his union. Some state universities are not part of his strike – or have pulled out. Then, like Sango the unruly god of thunder released fire, mouth and nostrils: “When you are providing data, look at the background. Kwara State University is not a member of ASUU, Osun State University was suspended for its behaviour, you can check. LASU, you mentioned. We are in court with LASU because they sacked all our executives five years ago, so they are not part of this struggle; and Ekiti State University’s government has the right to say we have reopened, just as it has happened in Gombe State University, Yobe and Kaduna State University. So, don’t cite those examples as they are irrelevant. Talk about the issue; is the University of Ibadan on strike? Is the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) on strike? Is Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) on strike? Is Bayero University, Kano (BUK) on strike? Is the University of Maiduguri on strike and the University of Lagos? Let’s talk about important universities, not those quacks.” That last sentence ‘killed’ his leadership.
An uproar followed that incautious, poisonous fart. Victims of ASUU’s ill-words reacted. They demanded a retraction and an apology from the advocate of good governance who leads a union of idealists. There is a word called ‘remorse’; its synonyms include: compunction, contrition, penitence, and repentance; the simplest is regret. The ASUU president does not sound like he has ever come across any of those words; he attacked his own people and is carrying on as if he has finally snatched victory from the jaws of Buhari’s lion. “Sometimes, the mistake is not the problem; the lack of remorse is the real mistake.” That is from Michael Bassey Johnson, author of ‘The Book of Maxims, Poems and Anecdotes.’ The ASUU president used a bad word for his own people. Let us assume that the odious fart escaped from his anus in a moment of anger. But, shouldn’t he say sorry now that the fouled air is suffocating his union and all it stands for? He has insulted a vital part of his constituency; he has de-marketed them in a most unfair, cavalier manner. A leader should take responsibility for his actions – good, bad, deliberate or unintentional. The ASUU president did not. The man, instead, made a U-turn and did what Jews did, slaying a scapegoat to wash away his shitty sins: “There is nothing like that. It is a lie. I have told myself that I will not talk to the press again because they always misrepresent things. I have found out that the Nigerian press is specialized in manipulating interviews, reporting what someone did not say just to create confusion in the system. They won’t report things the way it is.” This ASUU president’s misdirected attack on the media is a mortal sin against his union’s historical, critical partner in all its struggles. There are consequences for unprovoked aggression. The disgraceful attempt by this ASUU man to blame the press for what he clearly said is a subversion of truth and decency. I watched the television interview live; millions of others did. The video is everywhere floating online. In your culture, what is that name you call the one who denies the truth?
The cracks in the wall of ASUU widen. Osodeke’s indiscretion has worsened it. Ugly lizards and slithering snakes are keying in their hideous bodies and intentions into the crevices. He should be prepared to explain soon how the demands that have shut the universities for almost a year would benefit state universities. Students and lecturers of state universities will ask what share they have in the house of ASUU and its protracted divorce from work. The president of ASUU is Emmanuel; he should have no problem understanding those who asked the question about their portion in David and their “inheritance in the son of Jesse.” This one should not end in “To your tents…” Osodeke should be preparing his answers to save the union. ASUU deserves to live; it is the very last bastion of resistance to the evil of Nigeria and its ways.
Since February 2022, Nigeria has had the dubious blessing of maintaining universities without students. What are the issues involved in the ASUU vs Federal Government bout? I asked a friend, a young member of ASUU who agonises as the union loses the sympathy of critical segments of the Nigerian society. The issues, he told me, are basically: “A renegotiation of the 2009 agreement which affects matters such as salaries and wages which have been the same since then even as we’ve had two new national minimum wage reviews. Yar’Adua promised us it would be reviewed in 2012, then again in 2015, but 13 years down the line, we still earn the same wage. Buhari started renegotiation in 2017, with Wale Babalakin as committee chair. Babalakin resigned after being humiliated as pro-Chancellor of UNILAG. After the strike of 2020, the Federal Government replaced him with Prof Munzali Jubril. Agreement was reached in May 2021. All relevant agencies of government participated. The Federal Government refused to sign the agreement. When this strike started in February, our initial demand was for the Federal Government to sign that agreement. They came back after several weeks to say that they could not sign that agreement, and we should start the negotiations all over again. After a few weeks of objection, ASUU agreed. That birthed the third committee led by Professor Nimi Briggs. He has also submitted his report. We have seen enough signs that the Federal Government does not want to sign this as well.
“There’s the recurring issue of revitalisation funds. Under Jonathan, a study commissioned by the Federal Government said our universities needed an immediate infusion of N1.3 trillion to come to the minimum standard. Jonathan said he saw the needs, but didn’t have the money. ASUU suggested the intervention should be made in tranches of N200 billion a year, for six years, and N100 billion for the seventh year. Jonathan said that was more than fair. In 2014, he released the first tranche, which was for 2013. He didn’t pay for 2014 intervention year before leaving. Buhari came in and said the country was broke. Between 2015 and 2022, Buhari hasn’t completed the release of the 2014 tranche. I think he’s paid around N85 billion or less in three installments. So, we have outstanding interventions for 2015-2022, not factoring in the rising inflation and currency devaluation that has made the amounts far lesser in value than they were in 2014.
“ASUU wants out of IPPIS. It is fraudulent and inefficient. Now the Federal Government has admitted much after subjecting it to stress tests. UTAS, produced by ASUU free of charge, scored 99.3, according to the National Information Technology Development Agency. It will ensure transparency in our universities, without eroding autonomy. The Federal Government will still have control, through the National Universities Commission, not the office of the Accountant-General. ASUU wants a review of the modalities for setting up public universities, especially by states. The idea these days is to set up a university as a constituency project, and then wait for ASUU strike to bring the funds for infrastructural development. Any state that cannot put in place guaranteed funding for a given period of time should not set it up. Payment of earned academic allowances, with arrears of about six years, is still outstanding. (There is the) release of visitation panel reports to federal universities. ASUU had to force the Federal Government to conduct the visitations in 2020. They usually don’t like doing it because it exposes the mismanagement of universities by the vice chancellors and the councils appointed on the basis of patronage. Now that they’ve done it, they don’t want to release the report.”
In those three paragraphs, my ASUU friend from LASU has said what his president could not say without pulling down the roof. True, ASUU has a case.
But a resolution of all those issues won’t mean there will not be varsity shutdowns after this season. There will be. And that is because the cancer eating the universities is just a symptom of the larger Nigerian conundrum. Unless we resolve Nigeria’s structural problems, nothing will work. The skyscraper of crises will keep reaching out to the heavens. We must save the universities and save ourselves from Nigeria’s bad ways. Besides, the government that we have is a very unusual one. It is never afraid to misbehave knowing that it has the anointing to serially commit blue murder and get away with it. It has that record. It is committed to nothing that is not about power and money. The universities can remain closed till the next century; the regime lives by this saying of the street: ‘What concerns me in the death and burial of Adele’s mother? Let Adele himself die, who cares?’ Already, we are reading about “cynically fabricated falsehood against critical parties” in the Federal Government/ASUU renegotiating committee. A statement signed by the government’s own team with that title ‘showed face’ in the media a few days ago. It points fingers at elements in the government as conspiring against their own resolution plan.
Unfortunately, the divisive rhetoric of the ASUU president has helped to strengthen the hand of the enemy. If the man of anger does not know, with his own mouth, he has rechristened his own union as one of quacks. There are elements who think Osodeke’s outburst was a Freudian slip about his colleagues and our universities – without exception. There are people who think lecturers become professors and get themselves rocking chairs. They say lecturers get paid for lazing about, teaching nothing, researching nothing. If you called your dinnerware a potty, the world would deem it fit only for disgusting shit. The incontinent men of this government will soon hold a festival of insults for recalcitrant universities and their lecturers. Their ass will serve poo to varsity workers and their mouths of hunger. We, their friends, will be helpless when that starts happening. The government has got that franchise of abuse from the president of ASUU who looked straight and pronounced his own home as full of charlatans.
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