Last week, following a breakdown in its negotiations with the Nigerian Federal Government, the Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities (ASUU), the umbrella body of faculty across the country’s public universities, embarked on a four-week “comprehensive and total strike.” ASUU had pleaded its case with various pressure groups and interested parties in the education sector before deciding that the most effective way to get the government’s attention was to go on yet another strike.
The Nigerian public has reacted with understandable resignation. The latest strike is the union’s second in two years; the last strike in 2020 lasted nine months, effectively obliterating a whole academic calendar year. Data compiled by a local newspaper show that between 1999 and 2020, “ASUU went on strike for a total of 1,450 days.” Going back to the late 1980s, there has rarely been a year that an academic session in Nigeria was not punctuated by one form of ASUU industrial action or the other. Local chapters regularly down tools over university-specific grievances.
Not only are most Nigerians fed up with the union’s seemingly unquenchable appetite for strikes, they are baffled that, after all these years, both ASUU and the federal government cannot come to a lasting agreement on the key issues affecting tertiary education in Nigeria.
From ASUU’s standpoint, there is no question as to where the finger of accusation—and the ire of an exasperated public—should be directed. The union is adamant that strikes would be avoided if the federal government held up its side of the bargain, not least a long overdue implementation of the terms of a 2009 agreement on conditions of service and funding of the universities. ASUU wants the system “revitalized” through massive funding and continues to stress the importance of “genuine university autonomy and academic freedom.”
Most Nigerians agree with ASUU and view the federal government as merely playing patsy with the union, a reflection—it is widely held—of its fundamental lack of interest in public education. At a measly 5.6 percent, the budget for education in 2021 is the lowest in a decade. The UNESCO recommendation, based on an agreement by member states, is fifteen to twenty percent of public expenditure.
The government has not helped matters with its dithering, regularly giving its assent to an agreement with ASUU one minute, only to disown the same agreement the next. In truth, the government tends not to react unless it is backed into a corner by public outcry over yet another strike, thus giving teeth to the notion that a threat to down tools or an actual strike is the only language it understands.
ASUU’s situation is by no means unique. For instance, in the last few years, resident doctors in the country have gone on strike multiple times in a bid to compel the federal government to honor its agreement with its own union, the Nigerian Association of Resident Doctors (NARD). The United States, the United Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia are the leading destinations of Nigerian healthcare professionals who feel that their expertise is not valued.
In fine, trust is in short supply between ASUU and the federal government, as epitomized by lingering disagreement over what, under normal circumstances, would be a trivial matter: how to pay the teachers’ salaries. While the government argues that the payment platform designed by its own contractors will enhance transparency by effectively eliminating “ghost workers” from the payroll and curbing the practice whereby professors teach and receive salaries in various universities simultaneously, ASUU insists that something more nefarious is at work, and that the government rejected the payment platform developed by its members because it was “developed by Nigerians.”
Ghost workers retain a spectral presence on Nigeria’s federal and state civil service payrolls. A 2016 government audit discovered that 7.6 percent of government employees either did not exist at all or received “multiple salaries under different names.”
While more meetings are scheduled for this week to find some common ground between ASUU and the federal government, it is fair to say Nigerians are not holding their breath. In the view of many experts, the situation in the education sector is well-nigh unredeemable, and will require more than a few meetings—even between well-meaning parties—to fix it. They see three problems at least.
The first is the physical state of most public universities, some of which are so radically degraded that it is difficult to imagine that the government alone can come up with enough money for their rehabilitation. Originally established in 2003 (and reinvented in 2011) to arrest the rot in the system, the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) has been bogged down in accusations of fraud, favoritism, and mismanagement.
Second, in recent times, an increasing number of parents have treated public universities as a last option, a recourse for when other options have failed. The very few who can afford it dispatch their wards to colleges and universities in the West. Those not as well-heeled choose the private universities, a good number of which are owned by leading Pentecostal and mainline churches. Here, indifferent quality is more than made up for by assurance that the academic session will not be crippled by strikes.
Desperate for personal fulfillment and professional mobility, many young people are also taking their fate in their own hands. According to UNESCO, there are currently more than 70,000 Nigerian students studying outside the country, the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada respectively being the leading destinations. Over the past decade, the number of Nigerians studying in the US has gone up by 93 percent. Currently, Nigeria is the country with the most pending asylum claims in Canada. Nigerian youths are increasingly pursuing graduate programs in countries that would have been unimaginable two decades ago. An estimated 5,600 Nigerian students are currently caught in the Russia-Ukraine war.
As the numbers of those seeking opportunities abroad continue to rise, it will most likely perpetuate a socially insidious class divide between those trained in the best universities around the world with access to scholarships, research grants and modern equipment, and others back home who must make do with overstretched facilities and ill-motivated teachers.
A third problem is that, due to a combination of the foregoing, the Nigerian professoriate has become a shadow of its former self. As I suggest in my forthcoming book, the prestige once enjoyed by the professoriate has been appropriated by the pastorate. Many academics take on demeaning extracurricular tasks to complement their meager pay. The monthly salary of a full professor is currently less than one thousand dollars.
The universities are not solely to blame. The problems of the tertiary sector are mostly a holdover from the lower tiers of the system, where evidence of neglect and financial starvation is even more stark.
Policy initiatives such as the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program which targets “curriculum co-development, research collaboration and graduate student teaching and mentoring” in selected African countries, including Nigeria, are desirable, but it will take a lot more to cleanse the Augean Stables that is the Nigerian education sector.