ASUU, Nigerian ‘civilian’ governments and the ‘jackboot mentality’

Adamu Adamu, Nigeria's Minister of Education

By Andrew Erakhrumen

Human beings are rational beings. They can also be irrational, or made to be, to the extent of bringing out the beast in them, for diverse reasons. This capacity for rationality is not an instantaneously acquired human attribute because man’s or woman’s physical, mental and spiritual developmental (or is it evolutional?) traits has come a long way with a lot of natural and unnatural influences on these and other aspects of human traits since he/she first emerged (or created) on the surface of planet earth.

Possession of this and other attributes is the major reason why sane human beings, when compared to beasts, most times, have individual and collective convictions empowering their behaviours and actions. It has been discovered over time that these beliefs may be individually and/or collectively maintained, reviewed or changed – willingly or otherwise – as circumstances may demand. Owing to this seemingly inimitable quality of the Homo sapiens, as the scientists have named the modern human beings, it is necessary that he (please, allow the use of this masculine pronoun for both male and female from now onwards in this article) be celebrated by all.

Celebrating this great biological species should be the minimum for him, as he has successfully moved mankind, centuries ago, into caves from the naked exposure to, and being at the mercy of, vagaries of nature and eventually with tenacity and time, into constructed fortified air-conditioned abodes today. This biological species continuously hold the world spellbound by acquiring, against all odds, the knowledge and ability to apply the force of nature to his advantage. Among many other achievements, he has not only constructed some facilities, and improved upon them, for navigating on water from one end of the world to the other but has also been able to put “artificial birds” in the air conveying his fellow beings including other things across the globe. He has also been able to discover the existence, study and explore the galaxy with so much detail to his advantage. He has been able to launch unmanned “artificial birds” and other flying objects, that his ancestors in the wild could not have imagined possible, into space. He has found his way from planet earth – where he emanated from – to some other parts of the solar system. What a great being man is!

Applying these knowledge and skills (what you may call science and technology), he has, knowingly or unknowingly, made his fellow men to be unable to help it but stand in awe of him. We need not go into his several ingenuities and exploits over generations. In many of his achievements, he has largely applied his acquired knowledge in conquering, restraining and dominating/controlling natural forces including the usage of other resources (animate and inanimate) in achieving his goals, as already stated.

However, what we have not stated or talked about here is the fact that irrespective of these achievements, there is still one being he has not been able to “completely” conquer and dominate in perpetuity. That being is man. This man’s quest to conquer and dominate his fellow man is generational and not limited to location and race. Here, we are not talking about man conquering himself so that he can become a better person as suggested by some great philosophers. Man was told to conquer himself in order to discover and control himself.

We are actually talking about man’s insatiable quest for dominance over his fellow men. This led him in the past and up till today to wage wars, not for self defence, but for other motives bothering on ego and covetousness sometimes leading to annihilation of groups of people.

This way, millions were killed and others enslaved with greatness conferred on some men. This was how Alexander III of Macedon (356 BC – 323 BC) became “Alexander the Great”. Might was right and has always been, even to this day. Yes, even today! This is because if you observe closely, you will realise that this instinct is deeply ingrained in man not minding his deceit of denying it.

We have a bit of it in us all! That is why, most times, the relationship between the “big man” and the “small man” (or “small boy”), the older and the younger, the senior and the junior, the privileged and those without privileges, is more that of an oppressor and the oppressed when the former (as controlled by the instinct) decides to wield unnecessary authority over the latter. Those who got the short end of the stick, in these relationships also aspire to transmute themselves into the other state, to also oppress.

The oppressors are everywhere. You will find them even where you least expected. He is not the type that guides and gives positive leadership to those coming behind. He wakes up every morning and stands alone in front of a mirror, then genuflects, in reverence, to the same “man in the mirror” engaging in self deception bothering on vain ego, unfounded self eulogy and undeserved self worshipping. Again, there is a bit of these in all of us!

Where we differ from one another is the possession of the ability, and the different levels at which we are able, to purge ourselves of it. Sincere purging of oneself of this psyche may amount to satisfying the moral standard set by one’s society or religion. However, in the pursuit of this agenda of man dominating man, there is no consideration of “real” morality. Morals are subjective here, what matters is the Machiavellian’s “end that justifies the means”. It has always been so. This partly explains why a group of men could see others as sub-humans that should be subjugated, enslaved and turned into beasts of burden. This kind of discussion almost always evokes emotion concerning the trans-Atlantic slavery activities.

Do we, as a people, really have any good reason(s) to explain away the intra-African slavery, which we hardly talk about, existing centuries before Africans had contact with the Europeans? Yes, slavery might have been a means of production – a means of generating and accumulating wealth – that later lost relevance in Europe and the Americas but it will be an incomplete narrative to limit this African experience to the activities of those Caucasians concerning this phenomenon.

We will be untruthful to ourselves not to state that, apart from the fact that fertile grounds then (and now) existed for the phenomenon, there were (black) African collaborators that helped in achieving this human disaster that took place for more than 400 years! To stretch this a bit further, the established concept of neo-colonialism of Africa through the well entrenched imperialism is not independent of our people, most especially those (Africans) that have been propped up by the same imperialists to become African leaders. As already stated earlier, using other words, we were oppressing ourselves before the “white men” came to Africa to do their business of slave trading and later, colonialism.

The oppressive tendencies persisted in Africans even after independence. It must be clearly stated, at this point, that we are not here to argue morals but to state issues as they are for inference. Our people, of course, already had the propensity, through groupings, to oppress each other long before colonialism but also eventually inherited the legacy of oppression left behind by the colonialists and instead of dismantling it, they went ahead to retain, strengthen and entrench it.

Our case in Nigeria got worsened when some young men in military uniform, in their 20’s and 30’s (in collaboration with some civilians), decided on January 15, 1966 to foray into politics by taking over government through a military coup d’état. Barely six months later on July 29, 1966 another group of young military officers, on a “revenge mission”, staged another successful military take-over of government.

These military intrusions plus other botched putsches lasted until May 29, 1999 with a brief interregnum of a civilian administration between October 1, 1979 and December 31, 1983. These military administrations centralised power and spewed out decrees – sometimes retroactively – as they deemed fit. Their instructions were to be taken without questions or criticisms.

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During those military regimes, the peoples’ psyche became militarised and more oppressive. It happened that some of those with dissenting or critical voices against obnoxious government policies were either “carried along” or intimidated and ultimately dealt with brutally when they refused to “play ball”. Orders were from above based on the command system operational in military settings.

The scenario just painted was the political setting we found ourselves in, just before the advent of Nigeria’s current fourth republican government in May, 1999. Just to serve as a reminder, without mentioning names, some of those young military officers who were referred to earlier are now septuagenarians and octogenarians still participating actively in today’s politics.

The essence of the above historical expedition (without claiming to be a historian), using the words of Anthony Akinwale, a Catholic priest, is that “history is the memory of a people ……. so a people without a memory cannot function effectively. A nation without consciousness of its history is left to drift”. This realisation explains our bafflement when history, as a subject, was said to have been removed, unbelievably, at a point in the recent past, from secondary school curriculum in Nigeria.

The style of governance adopted by the successive “civilian” administrations since 1999, in Nigeria, can be described by their indescribable methods of running “democratic” governments.

They can be likened to a caricature depicting a man putting on a soldier’s beret, “agbada or babaringa”, trouser and a pair of well laced military (jack) boots. As this writer opined in another intervention, the governments in power since 1999, are perfectly cloned versions of their military predecessors, only that they are now claiming to be in civilian garb! They were installed and empowered by a “federal” constitution written and decreed into existence by those same putschists mainly to cover their (putschists’) tracks.

This takes us to what we are trying to portray by the word jackboot. This word, according to Cambridge online dictionary, means a long boot that covers the leg up to the knee, especially as worn by the Nazis. So, to be jackbooted, according to the same dictionary, means wearing jackboots by soldiers or police who are thought of as violent or cruel. It logically follows (with the Nazis in mind) that “jackboot governments” are dictatorial and highhanded types.

Owing to our people’s behaviour when in government, (we are talking of “civilians” here), it is evident that they are still “donning the toga” left behind by the military. They have demonstrated this by their unwillingness to listen to patriotic objective and alternative views and their pathological hatred for intellectuals especially academics that do not kowtow to the establishment.

Those in government today are products of the soiled systemic dynamics, which builds strong men but not strong institutions, rooted in our current warped value system. They shamefully break the country’s laws with reckless abandon and expect the other mere mortals to obey laws. It could be said that people in government in Nigeria currently appear to believe that they are the only ones having the solutions to our country’s developmental and other challenges, and so, paraphrasing the words of Anthony Akinwale, they engage in monologues and in absurdity of listening to themselves with rapt attention. With this kind of attitude, how can people with alternative views effectively communicate with them without been labelled as enemies or members of the other political parties?

In order to define our scope of interaction, let us limit it to the current industrial dispute between Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN). It is no longer news that ASUU and its members have resumed a suspended total, comprehensive and indefinite strike on the 23rd of March, 2020, at the end of a two-week warning strike. There would not have been any need to bother ourselves with the well known reasons for the strike but for the continuous propaganda and actions of FGN and its agents aimed at deflecting attentions from the real issues that led to the strike. For the sake of clarity, the reasons for the strike include the 2009 FGN-ASUU Agreement, the 2012 and 2013 Memorandum of Understanding, and the 2017 and 2019 Memorandum of Action.

Specifically, ASUU wants government to take care of funding of the revitalisation of public universities, payment of outstanding balance of arrears of earned academic allowances (EAA), and salary shortfall at the Federal University of Technology, Akure. Other issues include under-funding and proliferation of state universities, payment of EAA to loyal ASUU members in the University of Ilorin, visitation panels to federal universities, renegotiation of the 2009 Agreement and the confusion called Integrated Payroll Personnel Information System (IPPIS).

The IPPIS was brought up, by FGN and its agents, as an ingenious diversionary strategy to distract ASUU from pursuing the realisation of the union’s demands highlighted above. It was also carefully brought up, this time, to disrupt the mutually agreed timeline for fulfilling aspects of 2019 Memorandum of Action.

The government claimed that in order to checkmate payroll fraud, university workers must enrol on IPPIS payment platform designed by agents of imperialism. This is the same IPPIS that was rejected in the past by ASUU with informed arguments bothering on it not having the capability to take care of our universities’ peculiarities in the present form and its infringement on principle of university autonomy as enshrined in section 2AA of the Universities Miscellaneous Provisions (Amendment) Act 2003 (also known as Universities Autonomy Act No.1, 2007).

Members of ASUU collectively heeded the union’s advice and took its instruction not to make themselves and their particulars available for enrolment onto IPPIS platform. Consequently, from February 2020, salaries of ASUU members that did not enrol onto the IPPIS platform were withheld by FGN through its office of the Accountant-General of the Federation (AGF).

The withholding of salaries was done by FGN during the outbreak of a deadly coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic ravaging the world and leading to lockdown and compulsory stay-at-home in many countries including Nigeria. We did ask then: What kind of government will withhold the salaries of its workers during such a virulent pandemic?

However, the President of the country later gave instructions for the withheld salaries to be unconditionally released. At this point, instead of obeying his boss, the AGF, in line with the “jackboot mentality” earlier highlighted, decided to create his own terms of paying the salaries at his own time. This is not only considered disrespectful to the President but also a pointer to the likely fact that, concerning Nigerian academics, the AGF may have an axe to grind. Or how else do we look at this behaviour of a civil servant who decided, not to carry out legal instructions of his boss, the President of a country, more than a month after? Or do we say he has the backing of his boss concerning what we may perceive as “insolence”? We may never know! But what we know, based on recent happenings, is that AGF has been trying to bully academics with his office. Thus, such a person may need to make known his grievances.

We, in the universities, should have seen the “handwriting on the wall” when the current AGF decided to “dilly-dally” in 2019 during the process of releasing the token 25billion out of 1.1trillion Naira to be injected into the federal universities. The process of releasing this pittance (based on the usual principle of tokenism by our governments) to the concerned universities took almost an eternity owing to “jackboot mentality” efficiently deployed at the office of AGF to the extent that ASUU leaders were almost believed, (of course, wrongly), by some members of the union, to be complicit in the delay.

All manners of delay tactics and official bottleneck were applied, by the office of AGF, in an attempt to slow down or probably truncate the release of the said token amount. One may be forced, again, to ask the AGF if he has anything against the universities, particularly the academics, as his unnecessary officiousness in handling issues relating to universities has gone beyond the ordinary. Or is it the case of that same age-old insatiable quest of man trying to dominate his fellow man? If so, he may need to ponder on these words by Ayn Rand (1905–1982): “A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not the desire to beat others”

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This attitude of arrogating non-existent powers to oneself, to satisfy vain ego, attained its crescendo when the AGF issued a memo to the vice-chancellors of federal universities sometime in 2019. In the memo, dated 2nd of December, 2019, it was categorically stated that vice-chancellors (of federal universities) who were yet to enrol on IPPIS were advised to do so on or before 6th of December, 2019, stressing that failure to do so would attract appropriate sanctions.

Can you imagine what these civil servants in the ministry have turned these vice-chancellors (professors) and the members of governing councils into? Sometimes you hear stories of mere clerks in the ministry of education or that of finance disrespectfully summoning vice chancellors to Abuja! Does it mean that it takes only someone with scholarship to appreciate scholars? Some of us are still wondering. We really deeply feel for members of university management teams who have been considered incompetent, by government and its agents, in managing ordinary payroll of their member of staff. They have also been accused, by FGN, of involving in payroll fraud. It is still unclear how true this allegation is.

Nevertheless, we are not here to agree/disagree on issues bothering on payroll fraud in universities since FGN possess a monopolistic control of all its investigative agencies that can tackle this problem, if it exists. These allegations should be taken away from the realm of speculations to that of evidence based reality. Nobody should encourage corruption – anywhere – but government should clearly act within the ambit of the law in bringing those involved, if any, to book. That has always been the position of ASUU.

Moving forward, irrespective of ASUU’s rejection of IPPIS and the make-believe that the “all powerful” IPPIS payment platform requires biometrics and other personal information from a potential enrollee to be registered on the platform, it was surprising that some ASUU members, that did not enrol on IPPIS, were paid incredibly varying amounts that can best be described as anything but salary. How they got enrolled onto the IPPIS platform without their physical presence and/or consent is currently shrouded in mystery. This is the same well packaged “almighty” IPPIS that we were vigorously told requires potential enrollee’s biometrics before been captured. We ask: How sure is the AGF that “ghost workers” were not paid this way?

Instead of owning up to this monumental fraud (or goof) and retrace his steps, the AGF, as usual, quickly went to press with scandalously petty propaganda against ASUU as if this union is the only one complaining about the fraudulence and errors in IPPIS, a scam-ridden payment platform. Some items on the list of AGF’s cheap blackmail are the ones concerning the alleged involvement of ASUU in payroll fraud, ghost workers and tax evasion.

These, especially allegation of tax evasion, should interest all well meaning Nigerians because, if true, this contravenes the Personal Income Tax (Amendment) Act 2011. We are actually talking of tax that is deducted at source! Although, it must be stated here that leaders in different branches of the union have done a good job in enlightening the public even as we know that there are some who are not educable. Or should we say that “some dey follow follow, dem close dem sense” “dem close sense biri-biri”, as Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (1938–1997) puts it in one of his songs? Among those that have “close dem sense biri-biri” are those we encounter on social media everyday arguing blindly and parroting half-witted remarks such as: a lecturer works and earn salaries in many universities, lecturers are rapists, lecturers collect bribes and other gratifications from students, among other unsavoury comments.

There is no need to join issues with these people, most of whom are very much likely to be morally bankrupt and in order to gain undue advantage, involved in some acts – yesterday – they are condemning today. Of course, we will never encourage sleaze in our universities but some of these people would have helped if they had acted yesterday to concretise the position of Chinua Achebe (1930–2013) that “one of the truest tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised”.

Let us not be distracted! For the sake of clarification and putting the records straight, we will briefly engage in well intentioned repetitions. In doing this, quotations will be lifted, almost verbatim, from one of the recent press releases by ASUU University of Benin (UNIBEN) Branch. We need not waste time on the absurd and illogical accusations, by government and its agents, that ASUU (with none of its members working in bursary), is involved in payroll fraud and ghost workers syndrome. Let us use our limited and precious time to peruse the quotations from the earlier promised press release below. The opening remarks buttressed our previous engagement in this article. Please, read:

We are constrained, once more, to react to the attempt at validating the unending stream of abuses of the laws of the Nigerian Federation, the blatant display of sheer ineptitude and unscrupulous officiousness, and exercise of impunity by the Office of the Accountant-General of the Federation”.

In correcting the AGF’s untruthfulness and misinformation, to the public, concerning ASUU members’ involvement in tax evasion (in his dreams), the press release explains unequivocally that:

The reckless resort to blackmail and deliberate misinformation (in stating that the unions in the tertiary [educational] institutions have requested to “formalize tax evasion through IPPIS” and other further claim that their request is an “unpatriotic request to violate extant laws on tax”) by office of AGF is most unethical and irresponsible of an office from which Nigerians expect the highest sense of decency, probity and sincerity…….With the complete rejection of IPPIS based on well-informed argument by ASUU and the added reports of salary payments to retired, dead and non-existent workers, irregular payments of monthly salaries, salary under/over-payments, etc, it is inconceivable that ASUU will ever contemplate “formalizing” anything through IPPIS…….This [is] a feeble attempt [at smearing] ASUU in defence of the violation, with reckless abandon, of the statutes of the [country]. Furthermore, the claim that the [FGN] has paid several billions of PAYE tax is spurious; as the tax payable by university employees is determined by the respective states in which those universities are located, and not by the employee

As it stands today, and as had already been lucidly argued severally by ASUU, the IPPIS payroll management system cannot work efficiently in the Nigerian university system. We cannot overemphasise this fact as numerous proofs abound already! For instance, the fallouts from the forceful application of IPPIS in paying university workers are visible to the blind and audible to the deaf (apologies to our fellow citizens who may be challenged in these ways). There are series of complaints and lamentations by those members of staff in federal universities encouraged by their unions, to enrol on IPPIS. We need not dwell on the multifarious challenges that these enrollees have encountered and the pains they have had to bear. They are just seeing (or are they about to see?), in unimaginable proportions, what ASUU saw long ago that necessitated its (ASUU’s) rejection of IPPIS. The enrollees’ experiences appeared to be so terrible that their unions are already threatening “fire and brimstone”. They are not alone as some academics that deliberately flouted the well informed directives of ASUU, not to enrol on IPPIS platform, and those that got payments through IPPIS without presenting themselves for enrolment are also having tale of woe to tell.

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What we are trying to bring out here is that many (not all) of those that are in government today and bureaucrats in the core civil service do not really have the required “civil” mentality to carry out their functions especially when there is the need for intellectual engagements and/or when they perceive that their “authority” is being questioned. They resort to intimidation, coercion, and in instances, outright brutality. We have observed that the only approach understood by governments and their agents, (perhaps because of their level of intellectualism), in engaging ASUU is the use of force as against that of logic and superior arguments. We experience this not only from government and its officials but also in our individual private dealings. It will no more be a civil engagement once logic and superior arguments are jettisoned for the use of force by a party when the other party comes to the negotiating table without violent intent; certainly, this is the “jackboot mentality” we have been talking about before now. This disposition towards academics is not unexpected because of the kind of experience we, as a people, have had to acquire in the last half a century or so.

Fortunately, within the disorderly milieu ASUU finds itself, it has been able to continuously organise itself to engage logically and in civil manner expected of scholars. This might account for the reason why its members are erroneously seen as arrogant and pushy. There may be some glimpses of challenges that are effectively dealt with internally but these have not distracted the union from its core ideals. The union has really come a long way. One of the major component of September, 1992 ASUU/FGN agreement, and the subsequent ones preceding 2019 Memorandum of Action, itself inclusive, is the right of university workers to collective bargaining. Therefore, some of us are always flabbergasted when those who are expected to know come out publicly to say that employees are not entitled to have inputs into how he is to be paid his wages by his employers. So if your employer is in a yacht, enjoying himself in the middle of nowhere, on water, instructs you to come for your wages by swimming unaided across crocodile infested water because you do not have a right to dictate how you are paid, we want to believe it will be a palatable experience.

We are currently in a country where the governments claim to have the mandate of the people, to be serving the people, but in reality they are more powerful that the citizens. To sustain this, a large proportion of the citizens’ population have been systematically dispossessed, impoverished and disabled by their governments. It appears that those in government and those in other camps aspiring for public offices prefer this status quo. Education, particularly public education, does not matter to them since their children/wards do not have anything to do with public education. Education, to them, should be commodified! Simple! This is why enlightenment of our people should be intensified to counter this narrative. We have said it before, that no geographical entity can develop above the level of its knowledge industry particularly where universal knowledge is generated and disseminated, and we will continue to say it. In just 300years from around 1606 when the first colony was established in the new world to the early 1900s, USA achieved more than what Europeans and Asians achieved in 2000 to 3000 years in terms of modern Industrial Revolution through education/training. Europeans and Asians neglected education/training for that long.

Part of what this piece is all about is to advise governments and their agents that the intellectuals, and in this case, the Nigerian academics, should not be seen, by them, as opponents or enemies. Collectively, academics are partners in progress with governments and the people in our journey towards development and true nationhood. Constructive criticisms and peaceful legal agitations for rights are vital ingredients in sustaining this necessary relationship. The “”jackboot mentality” which seems to have been firmly installed in our individual and collective psyche needs to be swiftly uninstalled. This kind of mentality in Nigeria is what makes most of those in transient power always behave like a bull in a china shop. We have used the AGF as an example in this interaction. However, there are others, like a federal minister who was purportedly quoted to have said that Nigerian researchers, instead of conducting research for the discovery of new drugs, medical equipment that will be used during the COVID-19 [pandemic], decided to stay at home playing ludo and draught games. This is another variant of “jackboot mentality”. Read from ASUU-UNIBEN:

…….it is important to briefly comment on the statement of the Minister of Labour and Employment…….We acknowledge that one of the cardinal duties of members of ASUU is research. The others are teaching and community service. The general public is aware of the contributions made by various Branches of the Union in the efforts [at] combating the coronavirus pandemic and curtail its spread across the [country]. Several Branches of the Union, despite the decision of the [office of] AGF to withhold their salaries and check-off dues since February 2020, produced and distributed large quantities of various items including hand sanitizers, hand-washing soap, buckets, face masks, information leaflets, etc, to support some State Governments and relevant agencies. The Union correspondingly received letters of appreciation and public commendation from many of the beneficiaries and the fact stated here can easily be verified”.

The willingness and preparedness of members of the Union to conduct researches for the discovery of drugs and medical equipment have also been demonstrated by the production of automated hand washing machines and respirators at the University of Benin, University of Lagos, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, University of Jos, amongst others. But just as the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the years of neglect and extent of decadence of our health sector where valuable and needed equipment are non-existent, it has also confirmed the ages of unheeded agitation by ASUU that the Government must adequately fund and revitalise our education sector. So please help us ask Senator Chris Ngige where the well-equipped laboratories for cutting-edge research are located in Nigerian public universities. How will the academics fund the researches? From the meagre monthly salaries that they have withheld or from grants that they have refused to provide?

In concluding this intervention, it will be important to, once more, remind those few – that have hijacked the Nigerian commonwealth – that what they have in their custody belong to Nigeria and Nigerians. This has always been ASUU’s position all along. In line with this firm belief, ASUU-UNIBEN states that: “…….for the sake of posterity and the future of our dear [country], we urge all true lovers of this country, all well-meaning Nigerians to join hands with ASUU to reclaim Nigeria from the grasp of self-centred, incompetent and dubious characters who have manoeuvred their way into public office”. The citizens of this country have the right to partake in deciding on the application of this commonwealth. The resources are to be used in developing education, health and other social and infrastructural amenities that will have direct positive impacts on the lives of the citizens. Therefore, to always engage the well meaning intelligentsia and intellectuals, especially ASUU, not with logic and superior arguments, but with propaganda, name-calling and group labelling is definitely unwise and unhelpful to any government asking to be taken seriously.

Dr Andrew Erakhrumen is of the Department of Forest Resources and Wildlife Management, University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria

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