When the strike by Academic Staff of Universities (ASUU) started in February and Minister of Labour, Dr. Chris Ngige became the face of government negotiators, we often wondered why the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu whose Ministry ostensibly should oversee tertiary education was permanently missing in action. Word filtered in later that he was ill and was away to Germany to look after his health, the usual pastime of the typical Nigerian big man who catches a bad cold. Later, we heard he was back on his seat after a long absence from town. Ngige’s off-the-mark remarks and cavalierly manner of presenting issues often made one wonder whether he had a sense of history in handling the unions, whether he was always high on something, and whether we should ever take him seriously. At a point, he became the issue, being openly combative and letting us know that his kids were schooling in the University of Lagos! From all indications, Ngige is not the only problem. The Minister has shown himself to be a cog in the progress of the university system, which is a nightmarish tragedy. Besides, there appears to be a gang-up against ASUU by some powerful forces in government, judging by the document released by the respectable and respected Professor Nimi Briggs Committee.
Why, for example, was the life broadcast that the Nimi Committee recommended a 180% salary increase for lecturers and a meagre 10% for non-academic staff? Mischief was and is afoot. Reports have also filtered in indicating that there is disarray among the government ministries and parastatals over the matter. In all of this, Emperor First Citizen, the Absentee Landlord carries on with imperial haughtiness and aloofness! The house is caving in, yet someone is fiddling with the strings of ethnicity! When therefore President Buhari ordered Ngige to take a back seat on negotiations, we thought a Daniel had come to judgment through the coming of Adamu Adamu, the Minister who we are told has the President’s ears right inside his wardrobe and could reach him at any time and narrowly missed being Chief of Staff. Alas, our hope was misplaced. Talks have broken down, with the taciturn and ‘powerful’ minister telling ASUU that all government can offer is 30k and 60k additions to the monthly emoluments of the striking lecturers.
Anyone who knows ASUU should know that the strike has only just started. Okot p’Bitek the Ugandan poet once wrote about using the excuse of his rotten teeth to keep his mouth shut decently. With Adamu Adamu and his inciting and insensitive statements, unbecoming of State official, there is no hope for the ASUU strike to come to an end soon! This is a tragedy. Perhaps our faith in him was based on an essay which he wrote as a true patriot in November 2013 titled ‘Why is ASUU always on strike’. Mallam Adamu argued that ASUU strikes were to compel government to invest massively in education. He said among other things: ‘In what must be seen by some as a joke, especially in view of its attitude to education, Nigeria has been saying it wants to be among the world’s top 20 economies by 2020…while Nigerians are always very good at mimicking global discourse as if they were the ones who invented it…their government has in fact been busy laying solid foundations for an ignorance economy! Adamu Adamu, O Adamu Adamu, why have you allowed the taste of power alter the sound thinking you had in 2013? What has changed between the profound, intellectual, vibrant Citizen Adamu Adamu and the ice-cream licking Minister Adamu Adamu in less than a decade?
The Honourable Minister seems to have anger management problems. He once walked out on representatives of Nigerian students when they made statements that he considered rude. His recent outburst against ASUU, threatening to teach the union a lesson is another example of poor control over emotions. It is not amusing. One of the demands of public office is the capacity to keep one’s emotions in check. Adamu Adamu has failed in this regard. It is the same students he once imperially snubbed that he now invites to take ASUU to court! O judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts and men have lost their reason! From the immortal Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 2! The issues at stake are clear. I need not repeat them here. The most immediate one is the renegotiation of an agreement which the federal government signed in 2009 with ASUU. This time, after a self-imposed ten-year moratorium on calls for an improved salary, ASUU added a salary increase for its members. ASUU had been so egalitarian and almost naïve in its view of the society we live in when they believed that they should focus on development issues in the university system.
By the time ASUU woke up, the bus had left the station. With a very poor salary for its members, ASUU called out everyone to fight for more money in their pockets. The support was massive. So, if government thinks it can break ASUU on this when even military governments failed, then somebody needs to visit the psychiatrists in Yaba for help! By ordering ASUU to call off the strike and stating clearly that there will be no pay for the last six months, the Minister is treading an old futile path. If push comes to shove, ASUU will forfeit the salary arrears, but the students will also forfeit the session. In other words, since lecturers will not be paid for the period, their services will be fast-forwarded to the new take off date. The students will suffer. As a university professor, I feel the pain of being shut out of the classroom for months just as I believe the students feel traumatized. It is a case of truncated lives and dreams in a country that has dimmed hopes for a better future for its youths. These young men and women whose lives are halted for six long months have not committed any offence. They have become victims of government’s insensitivity and recklessness. I also feel the pain of being paid a miserable salary at the peak of an academic career while empty-headed members of the political class go home every month with salaries that make one permanently angry.
The truth is that any government which allows a strike to linger for one month has no real regard or respect for that sector of social services. This is the truth. It does not really bother government that universities are shut down for six months or one year. There are no direct consequences on the government. Else, the APC would bury its head in shame and hard put to present a candidate for the forthcoming elections. But in the real Nigeria, accountability is not a factor. Some professors will still be invited to conduct elections on behalf of the insensitive emperors who hold the power reins in Abuja. If any ASUU member volunteers to supervise elections in 2023, we shall curse them with the withered breasts of our maternal ancestors! What manner of Minister is Adamu Adamu? What manner of government do we have? What manner of President is General Muhammadu Buhari? The answer is blowing in the wind. ASUU will outlive all of them. Proscription if it comes will only be stop gap. The national bubble which ASUU represents will always bounce to the surface. Education, tertiary education especially should not be toyed with. I conclude this essay with a quote from the Adamu Adamu essay: ‘The nation owes a debt of gratitude to ASUU, and the strike should not be called off until the government accepts to do- and does – what is required. This is why ASUU is always on strike.”
• Hope Eghagha is a professor in English at the University of Lagos where he teaches Literature. He is a playwright, a columnist with and Visiting Member of the Editorial Board of The Guardian, Lagos.