Baring last minute trade off, Nigeria may experience a lock down tomorrow additional to several flash points across the country. The Federal Government and the leading central labour organisation – the Nigeria Labour Congress, (NLC) – are talking. Depending on the outcome, a nationwide strike could follow in response to Federal Government back out from a negotiated minimum wage in favour of the lower amount the governors have proposed. Labour ideologues are saying that opting for a different amount undermines the principle of tripartite negotiation. In other words, considered provocative is the Governors’ Forum proposing a completely different minimum wage after the negotiating process in which it was represented had arrived at a consensus figure of 30, 000 Nigerian Naira.
If the rhetoric of labour leaders are anything to go by, then labour would have shut down the country by midnight Monday. Shut down has been the definitive pattern in industrial relations since the introduction of Structural Adjustment Programme in 1986. It became more regular since 1999 with regular hike in fuel pump price.
This time, it would be over a national minimum wage. This lock down would be different from previous ones as it would be coinciding with another one. The Academic Staff Union of Universities, (ASUU) is already a day deep into a nationwide strike no one knows when it would be over. Previous similar strikes have lasted upwards of six months. Although there are now more private universities than federal/state government universities, the federal or public universities are, individually and collectively, more established and are the pacesetters. When the academic staff in those universities are on strike, the university system is basically paralysed because there are university wide practices that do not accept the public-private distinction. In this case, ASUU is talking about progressive decline in the percentage of the government’s budget to education. As usual, this strike is total and indefinite, to use ASUU’s vocabulary.
The strike brings back the same old questions. Some of such questions are whether ASUU could not imagine any other strategy of engagement and whether injection of funding responds in any way to the problems of the university system which some assessors list to include the impacts of militarism, occultism, false globalisers, buccaneers and fundamentalists. For this set of critics, what they regard as the crisis in the university system cannot be resolved where the party in power lacks a holistic framework that takes on board these different sources of the coordinated attack on the sector in Nigeria. “There has been a collapse of the university as a site for knowledge transmission across Nigeria”, said an observer to Intervention.
Instructively, this assessment agrees with the position of Prof Anthony Onwuka, the Minister of State for Education who was so exasperated as to argue earlier this year that the university system has failed Nigeria, asking the Committee of Vice-Chancellors to examine whether the answer does not lie in extending the duration of the undergraduate programme. His critics wondered if doing so has solved the crisis of quality among law graduates where a similar option was implemented about two decades ago.
As things stand now, only a last minute concession stands between the next few days being harrowing for the majority who live from hand to mouth and must go out everyday if the family are to eat. It is one of the dilemmas of a nationwide strike in a Nigeria type situation. Only such a strike action gets any concessions for the workers even as it entails challenges for the urban poor.
Though originating from different demands, the ASUU and the NLC strikes speaks to the imperative for a battle tested ‘Historic Bloc’ that can discipline state power as far as popular interest is concerned in Nigeria. Hitherto, popular forces in Nigeria have always put so much trust in the nobility of political leaders to think in terms of the public good. The view that such optimism is misplaced appear to have sunk by now.