Abeni Aso-Oke

ASUU’s Warning: University System Craves for Tinubu’s Listening Ears. By Prof. MK Othman

ASUU’s Warning: University System Craves for Tinubu’s Listening Ears

Abeni Aso-Oke

Abeni Aso-Oke

What is the cost of time to have an audience with the nation’s president? A story was told of a wealthy business tycoon who had one thousand US dollars fall from his hand; he would instead leave the money as his effort and time to pick it up were more valuable than the money worth. This might be true for business people whose seconds and minutes are inputs of their business transactions directly proportional to the profit-making and turnovers. However, democratically elected leaders are servants to the people with the opportunity to engrave their names for posterity goldenly. So, their time may be monetarily unquantifiable as issues attracting their attention are ranked based on the best service to citizens. On this basis, the solution to the ongoing decadence of the public universities is President Tinubu’s lending of his listening ears to the cries of the university workers, particularly the Academic Union of the Universities (ASUU). The legal judgment passed by the National Industrial Court of Nigeria (NICN) in 2022 was an implausible solution to the FGN-ASUU imbroglio, as the judge requested an out-of-court of court settlement before passing his judgment. The judgment has worsened the situation, boxing the university lecturers to a corner without respite, thereby hardening them and placing them between the devil and the deep blue sea; fight hard to triumph and be a system savior, or fight hard to lose and be a martyr or accept defeat, do nothing and die with the system as a coward.

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The university system in Nigeria is on the verge of a catastrophic collapse, and the consequences could be devastating. We cannot afford to endure the recurring cycle of incessant industrial actions witnessed in 2020 and 2022. The government must act with utmost urgency to prevent the system from plunging into utter chaos. While President Tinubu may have noble intentions for the university system, the bureaucratic process is impeding tangible changes.
The déjà vu ritual of ASUU’s preparation for another round of struggle began last week with a two-week notice to the government to address a 9-item demand for arresting the agitation and restiveness in the university system. ASUU must have learned lessons from the previous struggle and must analyze and weigh the options to succeed in future struggles. I hope President Tinubu will address the issues before the end of the 2-week ultimatum. What are the issues?
We may recall the issues involved in the dispute were clear and straightforward; in 2009, FGN willingly signed and sealed an agreement with ASUU. The 2009 agreement was reinforced by the Memorandum of Understanding and Memorandum of Action signed by both parties in 2013 and 2020, respectively. Since then, FGN has set up two negotiation committees at different times. The first committee was Prof. Munzali, an erudite professor, gentleman, and educationist. The committee painstakingly negotiated with ASUU for several uninterrupted months. It turned in a comprehensive report, which contained all-inclusive recommendations to finally and permanently resolve challenges in the university system sustainably. Instead of accepting the report for implementation, FGN set up a new negotiation committee under the late Prof Brigg, Emeritus Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, without regard for Munzali’s report.
ASUU hesitated to meet Brigg’s committee but prevailed by the voice of reasoning. Brigg’s committee did an excellent job and turned in a beautiful report. However, the hawks in FGN were not interested in the amicable resolution. While further consultations were going on, the former labor minister, Dr. Chris Ngige, created a more unreconcilable situation and anxiety. Ultimately, FGN jettisoned both reports with their recommendations, leading to a stalemate, and the government dragged ASUU to court, which passed judgment in favor of the government. Feeling victorious, two years after the court judgment, the government has not called ASUU to discuss the issues further. Adding salt to injury, the government dissolved university governing councils of all Federal Universities in June 2023 without due process. Eleven months after arbitrary dissolution, FGN reconstituted the councils last week by appointing five names to each university council. Why was the dissolution in the first place? The government can only appoint five persons to the 16-man university council as the other members are elected from the university Congregation, Senate, and Convocation or ex-officio members due to their offices. Why breach the provision of the University Act by dissolving the councils and taking eleven months of head-hunting to replace five members?
Furthermore, the government sustained the use of IPPIS, a salary payment platform that usurps the power of the university councils. Office of the Accountant General of the Federation (OAGF) continues to operate IPPIS in paying the university staff haphazardly despite the Federal Executive Council (FEC) pronouncement to exempt university workers. What is happening that OAGF is dragging its feet in implementing the FEC decision? Still, the academic allowances earned have been unpaid to workers for several years. The high tax regime, inflation, and Naira devaluation have made the current take-home pay of a professor at a Nigerian university at bar about $400 per month, a scandalously under-valuing scholarship and ridiculing the university system. This is the best way to erode the quality of Nigeria’s university education.
As mentioned in this column, ASUU is demanding a change from rots to prosperity, from decay to progress, the kind of progress the country needs to become a great nation and a well-deserved position we all crave. If we fail to meet ASUU’s demands to stop the rots in the university system, the country may be doomed sooner or later. University education, the bedrock supporting pillars of societal development, is the brooding house for tomorrow’s leaders. It is the epicenter of integrating hypothesis and empirical concepts, the meeting point of theory and practical reality, and a home for creativity and innovations. Therefore, all deserving citizens should have access to university education for the nation’s progress.
President Tinubu’s government must take decisive action beyond legal judgment and a bureaucratic approach to the FGN-ASUU logjam for a final resolution. President Tinubu, you are not unaware of the issues involved in the FGN-ASUU dispute. During your electioneering campaign, you promised to end the perennial ASUU strike for the betterment of the university system. Now is the time to fulfill that promise by engaging ASUU leadership for a genuine and lasting reconciliation.
President Tinubu, Vice President Kashim, Minister of Education, Professor Mamman, and several members of the President’s cabinet are all products of the university system and do not need my tutoring on the direct correlation between quality university education and societal developments. Nigeria has been a breeding ground for excellent academics and professionals across America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia courtesy of the perseverance, commitment, and dedication of ASUU members. Their commitment to quality education is borne out of nationalism and patriotism. I am therefore appealing to President Tinubu to give a direct audience to ASUU leadership for the amicable resolution of the university crisis. May God guide the parties to an amicable settlement of all contending issues for the benefit of Nigeria and humanity, amen.

Abeni Aso-Oke
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