Why President Jonathan Must End ASUU Strike

Ebongabasi Ekpe-Juda  |

IT IS no news that since July 1, 2013, public universities in Nigeria have been paralyzed by the ongoing strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU. It is not news either that the government has, howbeit, responded inconsequentially in an attempt to pacify the lecturers so that they can return to the classroom.  What, however, is news is that the government’s response is unable to remedy the situation.  Consequently, our children are still at home, not because we cannot pay their fees, but because the doors of the universities are locked against them as a result of the strike. By this, one fact is ignored which is that, we and our children constitute the body of voters, who by the grace of God, will determine who occupies any elective office in 2015 if there is a free and fair electoral process in the land.

I am not a praise singer, but I want to place on record that President Jonathan is a responsible man.  He aptly demonstrated this, by his reaction to the Channels’ TV news on what had become of the Nigeria Police Collage, Ikeja. I want to believe that if he also watches a documentary on the deplorable situation in our universities, he will not only intervene, but will certainly shed tears. He needs to be shown the situation under which our students study today in our universities. I once visited a hostel in the University of Calabar where my children are currently studying. What I saw there moved me to decide to rent a room for them outside the campus. I was a student in a Nigerian university, when, probably, President Jonathan was also a student in another Nigerian University. I still remember with nostalgia what the situation was then. That he responded to the Channels’ TV news, I also believe that he would certainly be moved by the most deplorable environment in the universities and, to some extent, inhuman condition in which our children are accommodated and taught. During that visit to the University of Calabar, I went in search of a friend, who was said to be having a meeting in the Chemistry laboratory, and what my eyes saw of the supposedly chemistry lab was disgusting and appalling. That made me to conclude that we are producing and parading theoretical scientists.

It was the same case with our airports, until very recently. The travelling public is appreciative of the development in the aviation sector, and we believe that the President can do the same or even more with the educational sector, particularly the university system which is the epitome of our educational system. Would it be bad if we give to our children what we got from this country? I doubt that with the  mindset of the members of the University Needs Assessment Implementation Committee, UNAIC, as pointed out by the ASUU, the dream of providing a conducive learning environment in the universities might be just a mirage or, at best, a forlorn hope.

The problem that President Jonathan is facing in his determined effort to transform the nation’s infrastructure is what most leaders face. Corrupt officials appointed to handle the problems hijack every opportunity to line their pockets. It is not different from that set up to dialogue with the ASUU. I am pretty sure that what is presented to him by the committee he set up with a good intention, is projecting the negative side of the ASUU demands.  I want the President to recall what used to happen when we were students in secondary schools and even in primary schools. The deceit that was always presented to visiting leaders to cover the true situation is still very much prevalent today. It was and still is the practice today that when a leader in government is to undertake an official visit to a place or an institution, the roads are hurriedly repaired and lined with whitewashed stones while the students are made to line the roads. This hypocrisy conceals the actual decay in the place or institution. Therefore, I would humbly ask the President to secretly visit the hostels, the labs, libraries and lecture halls in any of the old federal universities in order to see for himself the extent of the rot, the decay and putrefaction that is typical of our universities, just like he did in the case of the police college. Although I don’t want to mention the accommodation situation for the staff including those for the professors, but let me tell a story once told me by a lady, a consultant pathologist, who deserted the University of Abuja to pick up a job with a federal government establishment. She told me how she tripped while giving a lecture to the medical students because the platform in the lecture hall was so bad that the heels of her shoes were piercing holes as she walked on it. At one point, one of her heels was almost going in. “I never could imagine that the situation would be this appalling, awful, abysmal and horrendous but the signs began to manifest way back in the late 1980s when, in 1986 as a post graduate student in the University of Ibadan, the most recent journal was two years old,” she recalled.

This sordid picture may never be presented to the President by the committee or other officials. But since the President is very close to Governor Godswill Akpabio, he should ask him what the situation was with the internal road network of the University of Uyo before he decided to intervene, even though the university is a federal establishment. The President can then extrapolate the general rot in the university system from that. I am pretty sure that even the University Needs Assessment Implementation Committee has not done a proper assessment in order to give the President a proper picture of the deplorable and shocking state of the universities. When sycophants are given an opportunity to serve, they never report or disclose the actual situation of things for fear of indicting the authorities. Unfortunately, the sycophants are the ones who are responsible for the President’s many battles currently on the political turf.

The President should understand that there will be no solution to the ASUU/Federal Government face-off if those who go to the negotiating table do so with an arrogant posture. The utterance of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, coordinating minister for the economy and minister of finance, to say the least, was arrogant and inflammatory. I feel she did not represent the federal government well on this score. No one goes to a negotiating table with a position of “it is this or nothing,” otherwise you create a “Cash 22” situation. Putting a ceiling on what the federal government can do even before the commencement of the meeting was tantamount to telling them to go and die. Has the minister truly evaluated the demands of ASUU to see if it is irresponsible?

What does the minister make out of the recent revelation of Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, who said recently that there are about 71,000 Nigerian students in Ghanaian universities paying over one billion dollars annually as tuition fees and that the amount generated by Ghanaian institutions is more than the N121 billion which is the annual budget of all federal universities in Nigeria? Why is this so? The simple reason is that Ghanaian universities have better facilities provided by the government and that have stabilized its educational sector which now attracts not only students but also some of our best lecturers. Till date, the students are still provided with beds, bed sheets, toilet papers and bathing soap. The hostels are periodically maintained and swept daily while the toilets are washed every day. It is these facilities that are taken into account in the evaluation of the soundness of the universities. These facilities also attract students from other foreign countries and consequently bring in hard currencies to the educational sector. This was the situation in Nigeria when we were undergraduates. We had many foreign students in our universities then. But today, it is the reverse. There are lots of Nigerian students studying in Cyprus, Malaysia and other smaller countries that are not even as richly endowed as Nigeria. These students take away to foreign countries our much – needed foreign exchange which, in turn, exerts much pressure on our local currency. Ironically, instead of our educational system generating foreign currencies, it is aiding in capital flight.

Apart from capital flight, ASUU has pointed out a built-in fraud in the allocation for the construction of hostels in the universities.  According to it, a 2,500 bed space hostel is to be constructed at the cost of one billion naira, whereas with one billion, two hundred million naira, a 3,000 bed space hostel can be constructed.  Said ASUU in its statement: “We are worried that instead of allocating one point two billion naira each to construct a 3,000 bed space hostel to the 10 Category 1 universities, one billion naira for a 2,500 bed space hostel to the 16 Category 2 universities, five hundred million naira to construct a 1,250 bed space hostel in the 12 Category 3 universities and two hundred and fifty million naira each to construct a 625 bed space hostel in the 13 Category 4 universities, the secretariat has changed that to constructing a 1,400 bed space hostel in 25 universities at the cost of two billion naira each. We see no rationale in this. Expending fifty billion naira to construct 35,000 bed space hostels across 25 universities will be ridiculously scandalous since the same amount can be used to construct 125,000 bed space hostels across 51 universities”.

ASUU further enthused: “The standard cost of building a bed space ranges from two hundred thousand naira to a maximum of four hundred thousand naira”. This, it maintained, “is even more worrisome given the tangential suggestions made by the chairman that only monies for refurbishment will be sent to universities, while the rest will be handled centrally”. Can the President investigate this and other similar anomalies to see if it is true? If it is true, those involved should not only be seen as corrupt but should be vitrified. Why should we spend one billion naira to build a two thousand five hundred bed space hostel, when in actual fact, one point two billion naira can build a three thousand bed space hostel? Would they do that in their private business?  Can that be considered as a sound business decision? By this, an additional two hundred million naira can provide a further five hundred bed space. Who is benefiting from the committee’s position-the nation or the members? Even if we do not aggregate these, simple arithmetic shows that we benefit more from spending one point two billion naira to get a three thousand bed space hostel than what they are trying to put up. This is why they want the president to see ASUU as evil while they are the saints.

The union has also condemned the exclusion of 22 universities from the allocation for the refurbishment of laboratories and libraries and three universities from the allocation for the refurbishment of lecture theatres and lecture rooms. According to the ASUU, 24 universities are denied allocation for the construction of libraries and laboratories, while two are denied allocation for the construction of new lecture theatres and lecture rooms. Again, 26 universities are denied allocation for the construction of hostels. Is this position of ASUU irresponsible and induced by the opposition?

In the light of this situation, I see an opportunity for the President to write his name in gold so that posterity will continue to remember him. It will not be a sign of weakness or cowardice if the President decides to shove aside the committee, and takes over the reconstruction of our universities as a personal project. He promised before God and men when he said at a church service that the government was working hard to meet ASUU’s demands for the crisis to be resolved. Can I add that it should be soon too. God is watching and the people too are watching while history is waiting to judge. I like to give the President a godly and pastoral counsel by saying that your lieutenants are not helping you. They are giving you a false and forlorn hope of a quick resolution of the crises. Their counsel is “Ahithophelic”. They are compounding all your battles and what you need to do is to take a personal interest in the entire crisis. Stopping the salaries of the lecturers will be counterproductive. This is the eighteenth week since the strike started. Consider this as an opportunity for you to leave the most enduring legacy on the sands of time. The people are seeing what your government is spending in the power sector and what the result has been, on the National Assembly and in the maintenance of a fleet of presidential jets. It is in this regard that people are saying that you are unaware of the fact that no country develops without a sound educational system. The only way you can show you understand this, is for you to resolve this strike without further delay. Take a military approach by shoving aside politics for once to attend to the needs of the university system yourself. ASUU’s demands are not unrealistic as some of your lieutenants want you to believe. Your swift action will further show that education is, in fact, one of the key components of your transformation agenda. Universities provide manpower for other levels of education, and every year teachers, as well as other civil servants, are retiring and it is from the universities that we get people to replace them.

We do not need the kind of appeal that Labaran Maku, minister of information, made. That appeal should, in fact, go to the government. When Maku said that parents and children should bear with them, what does he expect them to do and for how long? What understanding does he want us to show that we have not shown already? Our children have been home for eighteen weeks now while we wait for the government to do something, or what else is he appealing for? The ministers and governors pretend not to know the untoward effect that perennial strikes have on the public school system, and on the image of the nation. Mr. President, what we need in the words of Dmitry Ivanovich (1840-1868) is a new man who has a passion for work for the benefit of the society; whose private benefit coincides with the benefit of the society and who harmonizes feelings and reason. The new man works without exploiting others and does not consider work to be a necessary evil. You can see that the members of the University Needs Assessment Implementation Committee do not fit into this model.

Ebongabasi Ekpe-Juda is a Medical Sociologist and Security Consultant.

Email: helpinghandsworldwide@yahoo.com

 

— Oct. 21, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT

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