This is the question very few people can answer as things are today in Nigeria. The universities have been under lock and key for the past nine months. It is not clear if this is not the longest since 1993 when the culture of prolonged face off between academics and the Federal Government took roots. Certainly, there was a 6-months long strike action in 2002/2003. Very soon, someone is bound to come up with the label for a country which can afford to have the universities shut for a stretch of nine months when there is no national emergency.
While it is true that the Covid-19 pandemic has been part of the reasons for shutting the universities, it is also true that quite a number of infant private universities never lost a week to the same pandemic in the same country. The nine-month shut down from which the university system in Nigeria might be coming out now would, therefore, appear to most discerning observers to be one of the major symptoms of the social stalemate in Nigeria, far beyond Covid-19.
Sources close to ASUU speak of deep animus against the Federal Government within the union because of the punitive streak they perceive in the FG’s tactics in responding to the strike as long as it lasted. Other critical observers think the government would still not have made any concessions if the strike had not been seen as a major precipitant of the #EndSARS revolt and the decentering signal embodied in the revolt. Even as no one would most likely articulate such feelings openly, they are part of the current mood and it is captured in expressions such as “You know this government has really tried to punish Nigerian academics and above all, most people don’t trust the government”. Above all, the Government was seen playing games with splitting the union, creating room for a fake counter called the Congress of University Academics, (CONUA).
It doesn’t mean that the Academic Staff Union of Universities, (ASUU) is guided by such sentiments but it means that “The national leadership will need to collate and process the positions of all the branches and take an informed decision”. Breakdown of trust can be costly for conflict parties and for a society. In this context, only God may know how soon the gates would be thrown open for normal academic activities to begin again. It could be a few more days just as it could be early next year, especially if those who think of a clean start after the Christmas/New Year festivities have their way.
One intriguing question this particular strike has raised once again is the permanent oppositional relationship between the academics and the Federal Government, be it civilian or military. In its current form, the use of the strike option was inaugurated under a military regime. That was during the Babangida administration in 1993. It has continued ever since then in all the past two decades of largely civilianized militicians.
It is always ASUU versus the FG even when the substantive issue is the degeneration of the national university system and about which the FG, academics, parents, employers of labour and others should all be equally concerned. Why is it NEVER the case that the FG and ASUU are clashing over each’s own framework for managing the universities? It is the differentials in the frameworks that should have determined which side is contextually right or wrong. Is it the case that if ASUU were not coming up with any demands, the FG would be comfortable with the universities in the form they exist today?
Everyone, including the FG which is still the single most important owner of the most strategic universities agree that the universities as they exist today are a joke. Why does it require academics going on strike before major interventions are carried out, from funding to academic content intervention? Is it possible that the tin gods in the IMF and the World Bank have so successfully eaten the souls of the gentlemen administering the country that whoever enters there acquires a new consciousness in these matters? ASUU and the FG’s respective frameworks for managing the universities should have been the battlespace. The Federal Government’s frameworks for managing the universities should be where it manifests its idea of where Nigeria should be going, through education that is organised and liberatory in content rather than what is going on now in the wake of the overwhelming but costly capitulation to forces of neoliberal darkness. It is a tragedy because the Government that doesn’t see the imperative of shielding the university system from budgetary shocks should not express surprise in harvesting a sea of hoodlums.
It is as simple as that: if education is too costly, try ignorance. Student union leaders of the glorious days of NANS would chuckle today reflecting on the long internal clarifications that preceded every single student protest in those days. And such protests never degenerated into violence unless and until the government brought police into it. Today, where it is not Boko Haram, it is one cultic group or another. And the entire society is imploding. Oh yes, if education is too costly, try ignorance. A columnist recently called Nigerian universities centres for the reproduction of illiteracy. Few would argue against that even as Vice-Chancellors and their contractors keep deceiving the society with colorful but empty academic rituals such as convocations.
But, is funding the only problem and would the current cash throw-in get the universities out of the woods? ASUU has fought brilliant wars and its sacrifices should not be taken for granted at all. All honest respondents within the system would concede to this much. But it would even seem that poor funding is not as much a problem as the anti-intellectual orientation that has seized the university system. And the outdated nature of course content. It is possible that this is not the case in the hard sciences. It is, however, the case in the social sciences where a lot of stuff are still being taught, much of them imposed by the National Universities Commission, (NUC) in the name of benchmark courses. There can be no justifications for any benchmark courses at the current level of development of knowledge and its production.
Like Nigeria itself, it would probably take a revolution to get the universities out of certain practices that have simply become obsolete. The NUC appear quite aware of some of these, setting up one committee or the other in its attempts to reform but it seems also to be too much in love with the ancien regime as to be inherently constrained.
There lies the danger on the stress on N65 billion in the popular media as the amount the FG has made available to ASUU. Even if they treble that amount, it would seem the problem of quality university would still not have been touched. The earlier this becomes the highlight of ASUU politics, the better.
The paradox in all these is how the Nigerian university system could be in its current paralysis even with the concentration of globally competitive materials within the same system. This is not to talk of an even greater concentration of retired but mobilisable hands that can assist in a rapid clean-up and restoration. How is it the case that, in spite of such a rich reserve of willing and capable resource base, the system is still dying by the hour? Is it possible that some powerful forces have also seized the university system and pocketed it as part of the goal of unmaking Nigeria?