The Academic Staff Union of Universities, (ASUU), has suspended its nine month long strike action over degeneration of public universities in Nigeria. But it has only suspended the strike action rather than calling it off. No word has a static meaning but the word ‘suspension’ in this context has: it is ASUU’s own way of saying it is ready to resume a strike action at any moment should the conditions warrant doing so. So, why might ASUU or any union have to acquire and deploy the capacity for preemption?
The standard argument is that, unlike in other climes where a signal to strike will be taken seriously as an unaffordable break in the chain of normalcy, government in Nigeria is run by people who have developed crocodile skin to early warning. And if government, precisely the Federal Government, has learnt to shake-off early warning as irritation, then any serious contender on the field must learn the capacity to paralyse the system as the only way to get the government to learn how to be sensitive to popular pressure.
That seems a beautiful balancer when seen from the point of view of strategy in the context of the environment called Nigeria. The problem though is that ASUU is losing nearly all the constituencies – students, parents, some academics and sundry stakeholders. That is if ASUU has ever needed their support. In truth, ASUU has achieved whatever it has in spite of popular support.
Instead, it has been aided by two key factors. One is the type of government or persons who have headed the Federal Government of Nigeria. With the exception of the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, they all imagine ASUU as an irritable union to be tolerated while working on crushing it. Only Umaru Yar’Adua tried to understand ASUU as an actor but he was unable to make much progress before God called him. Senator Pius Anyim went very far in that positive direction before the foreign gods that control Nigerian affairs summoned him to his ‘senses’. He disciplined himself immediately and reversed almost everything he could have now been claiming historical credit as Secretary to the Government of the Federation under Dr Goodluck Jonathan.
The Buhari regime has been no less a powerful mobiliser of ASUU into anger. Right now, a very embarrassing video is still circulating in which Buhari is telling an interviewer how absurd it was for the Goodluck Jonathan regime to afford spending N7b on a National Conference at a time ASUU had been on strike for months looking for much less amount.
ASUU’s second strength is the economistic component it has cleverly learnt to build into its demands. This works well to keep the hopelessly non-ideological elements in the union from bolting out. In this particular strike that has just been suspended, the economistic component was a big issue at stake because everyone within academia in public universities was at risk of losing amount of money they could not afford from the salary to the strange package called IPPIS.
It is part of the tragedy of Nigeria that ASUU is not appreciated by a nation that is in need of an ASUU, within the industry and even politically. ASUU is a national front. Nobody has seen manifestations of ethnicity or religion in its politics yet. It is about the only entity in Nigeria that does not achieve its aims or objectives through sycophancy or what Achebe calls the culture of ‘ceremonial capitulation’ in his novel, Anthills of the Savannah. Three, ASUU is also the only other actor that can absorb punitive lashes without succumbing. It is thus the only signifier of modernity in Nigeria in terms of being the only body of workers that insists on negotiation of the contract between labour and capital.
For these and other unseen signals it embody, ASUU ought to be appreciated by a basically comatose society such as Nigeria. Why this is not the case should be a subject of sociological investigation, particularly the aspect whereby ASUU is hated because it keeps students away from the campuses. What could it be that would make parents in Nigeria so keen on students being on the campuses when the body of intellectual workers superintending that process is saying that the campuses are too toxic and unhealthy for the students?
Having said all these for the ASUU cause, may we also include the question of why ASUU might have had almost nothing to say on the dismal state of social theory across Nigerian universities today? It is doubtful if university education in Nigeria will dramatically become adequate today even if you throw in the entire national budget without a serious shake-up of the content, especially the realm of social theory. The issue of currency of content is squarely an ASUU problem. What students are taught is strictly what a university teacher deliver. And these university teachers are all ASUU members. ASUU has to find a way of dealing with its identity as a union of professionals and as a trade union. Having won the war against the government, it must now turn on itself and reflexively so.
It has tried by asserting Revitalisation but the effort on content updating must go beyond Revitalisation. If Nigeria had always had governments that knows what the universities can offer the nation, the content issue would have become embarrassing for ASUU since. So also if Nigerian parents were scrutinizing what their children are taught. If ASUU has the capacity to shut down the system for a year as it has nearly done, why is it not part of its demands that the courses must be restructured because most of them as they are or as they are taught now have no meaning for anybody, be it the students, employers of labour and the nation.
The idea that much will be okay if the universities get more money from the government such that, there would be journals in the libraries is no longer adequate. Journals have no meaning in themselves. Students have to have the conceptual and theoretical wherewithal to penetrate and make sense of the journals. Right now, the theoretical and conceptual menu across the system is a stuffing and starving menu. This is the reason many of the older scholars have lost interest in much of what goes on in public universities even as the private ones are unable to flourish without the public ones.
There are students in Nigeria today who have had to bear the brunt of the cycle of strike in academia since 1993 when the current strike strategy was born in Nigeria. They have remained in silent solidarity with ASUU mainly for the reasons already itemised. Apart from the risk of the implosion of such a constituency, what could be the moral or logic of supporting ASUU if the ASUU signifier cannot accommodate the subject matter of content of what people go to the universities for in its struggle? Why does anybody need to go to the university only to be taught what the rest of the world has moved away from since the 1970s? Is ASUU going to say it doesn’t know about this? Or, is it expecting the guys at NUC to go on strike in pursuit of this?
It is beginning to look like these are the sort of questions that will decide the fate of the next ASUU strike. Too much black boxes might no longer help anybody, including ASUU.