ASUU strike suspension and the overdue 2009 agreement renegotiation

Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige exchanges handshake with ASUU President, Biodun Ogunyemi (Right) shortly after both parties signed the Memorandum of Agreement that heralded the suspension of the ASUU Strike on Thursday, 7th February, 2019 in Abuja

By Abdelghaffar Amoka

The academic job was one of the best jobs in Nigeria until late 60s when the successive military governments began to destroy it. As if it has not suffered deprivation enough, the civilian governments that followed closely equally left Nigerian universities to continued on the path of inadequacy and lack of attention till date.

Not long ago, I saw a trending picture that compared salaries of different sectors in the 60s and I could not believe that Professors in the universities were the second highest paid public servants after the Chief Justice of Nigeria.

At independence in October 1960, University employees occupied a relatively high position when compared to their counterparts in other offices in the state civil service.

As of 1965, the university professor was the second-highest-paid public servant, after the Chief Justice of the Federation.

From an article by A. Sabo et al. published in SSRG International Journal of Economics and Management Studies, 2019 and titled Academic Staff Salaries, and Academic Union Struggles: Historical Evidence from Nigeria, the Chief Justice of the Federation was on an annual salary of £3,600 while a Professor earned £3,000.

Not only were the university lecturers paid better than their civil service counterparts, there were other benefits such as housing, allowances, social status, and working conditions that were very attractive. Adequate funding of universities, attending overseas conferences every three years, etc.

However, the emergence of the military into Nigerian politics in 1966 brought a gradual shift in the hitherto systems of reward in various occupational groups around the country. That mark the beginning of the growing disparity in the salary of workers in different sectors. And unfortunately the beginning of the reversal of the fortunes of academics.

By 1966, despite salary reviews that were skewed positively towards the military, the annual salary of the university professor remained £3,000.

This figure was still higher than a Federal Ministers salary of £2,700 and a top civil servant of the rank of Permanent Secretary who was paid between £2,500 and £2,940. During this time, the salary of an assistant lecturer was £950, while his peers in the federal civil service (i.e. those with similar academic qualifications) were offered £720.

But when the military took over, the condition of service of University Lecturers began to depreciate. University education seize to be too important to the military regime as priority. The Lecturers now have to start fighting for themselves and the system.

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Francis Egbokhare gave a good review of ASUU struggles in a book titled; The idea of an African university: the Nigerian experience published in 2007.
From the stagnation of the salaries of university lecturers and the continuous depreciation in value, there was a request from ASUU for a pay rise in 1972 that the government rejected.

Thereafter a strike was declared in 1973 to force the pay rise. The strike ended abruptly when the government of General Yakubu Gowon threatened to evict the academics from university quarters.

Another strike was declared in 1988 over conditions of service which equally failed. ASUU was proscribed and members were intimidated and terrorized by the government.

With ASUU proscribed, the university lost its voice. As at that this time, a university professor was earning less than $100 per month. The professor that used to earn next to the Chief Justice of the Federation then, started earning much less than a director in the civil service.

In the 80s, the middle class that the academics belong to was wiped out and university Lecturer now falls into the lower class. The private sectors became more attractive and several academics left the university for the private sector and other government agencies that were paying better.

In 1990, ASUU was de-proscribed and within these period of proscription, the degradation in the university was already very visible. The academic standard had fallen.

There was the marginalization of the intellectual class and the growing irrelevance of the educated elite. ASUU again rallied more attention to the state of the universities and submitted a set of demands for negotiation. The union made efforts but was ignored for 2 years.

Then another strike was declared in 1992. ASUU was proscribed again and members traumatised. For the first time, the weapon of hunger was deployed by the government through the stoppage of their salaries to break the members – a measure that failed.

The failure forced the government to negotiate with ASUU after 3 months. This led to a new package of the condition of service, an arrangement on funding, and university autonomy.

There was again a strike action in 1993 and 1994 for 4 months and 6 months respectively to defend sections of the 1992 agreement. I was already in the university then and I lost 1 year due to the 1992 to 1994 strike actions.

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This destruction wouldn’t have been possible without the help of former academics and a Professor in person of Prof Ben Nwabueze who played his role as the Secretary to Education in 1993. The 1994 strike was about funding, autonomy, and democracy.

Then, you expected that the coming of democracy should ushered in a new era towards creating a knowledge-based economy instead of a military-based economy. But it did not work that way. This may be linked to the fact that the civilian president in 1999 was a former military head of state.

He could not see education differently from how how he saw it as military head of state.

They came in with the rejection of an agreement signed between ASUU and the Abdulsalam Abubakar’s administration in May 1999. Then, a strike was declared in August 1999 for the refusal of the government of Obasanjo to accept the agreement with Abdulsalam Abubakar’s administration.

After about 4 months of the strike, an agreement was then reached and signed with Obasanjo’s government in October 1999 – an agreement that was not different from the agreement with Abdulsalami Abubakar’s administration that was earlier rejected.

Chief Olusegun Obasanjo so disvalue the intellectual class that as the President of Nigeria, he described Nigerian university lecturers as “a bunch of lazy and ungrateful people” in 2001. Such a dishonorable statement from a President is unbelievable!

Attention to the university is possibly perceived by him as a privilege and not a responsibility.

Another strike was declared in 2003 and 2007 for the failure of Obasanjo administration to implement the agreement which covers poor university funding and disparity in salary and retirement age. I was a postgraduate student and lost 1 years again.

Then, we have the 2009 strike which led to the 2009 ASUU/FG agreement. In the agreement, ASUU proposed a salary package that they called “African Average”.

But the government barely managed to yield to about a 50% increase in salary in the 2009 agreements with the FGN as the government pleaded fiscal difficulties. This agreement was meant to be reviewed after 3 years and never done till now.

The University Professor that use to earn next to the Chief Justice of the Federation now earns a salary that is lower than what a Bachelor degree graduate earn at the NNPC, DPR, FIRS, CBN, etc.

All the strikes after 2009 have been based on the 2009 ASUU/FG agreement. The 2013 strike came with NEEDS Assessment of public universities and their revitalization.

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Public Universities were stagnated and the infrastructures depreciated since military rule, and all that the universities ever got since 70s till date were through ASUU strikes. The coming of civilian rule was a continuation of the onslaught on the education system.

They have now created a new class of “militarised” Nigerian civilians (Elitists) that got their kids educated abroad with pride as they starve our universities of the needed funds for their revitalization.

As it can be observed by graduates that passed through Nigerian universities, the expansions of universities infrastructure were stalled despite increasing number of students till 2009 when we began to have TETFund intervention, courtesy of ASUU struggle.

University education has not been on the priority of the successive governments and ASUU seems to be only stakeholder making the government to commit funds to the universities unwillingly.

This has made all the successive governments see ASUU as an “opposition party” till date that must be crushed to achieve their objectives.

They set out to destabilize universities deliberately by creating crises and sustaining them. Rather than be patriotic to solving the problems that is obvious to all, the government have always chosen the path of intimidation and cheap blackmail of ASUU.

It is obvious that funding education is never a priority for over 40 years and the public universities would have long gone if not for the struggles and sacrifices of the Lecturers.

Meanwhile, Federal government has made offers to ASUU and the committee for the renegotiation of the 2009 FG/ASUU Agreement reconstituted. This renegotiation has dragged for 8 years and nobody is sure when it will come to an end.

It is again one of the top demands from ASUU for the current strike action. It will continue to be a reason for strike if not addressed once and for all.

Does it make any economic sense to suspend the strike now without achieving the renegotiation, and call for another strike after a few months? It will be in the interest of the lecturers, students, and the university system to conclude the renegotiation of the 2009 agreement for implementation before the current strike is suspended.

Abdelghaffar Amoka Abdelmalik, PhD is of the Department of Physics, Ahmadu Bello University Zaria.

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