The Academic Staff Union of Universities, (ASUU)-Federal Government stalemate remains the biggest story in town in Nigeria today considering the number of persons affected – students and their parents, the academia in its local and global expressions as well as Nigeria’s global image. While there are nearly two dozen countries that are doing without standing armies and are not relying on any defence pacts, there are hardly any countries that do not have national or public universities and do not have a special arrangement to compensate that. It is because without universities, a country is a non-starter in any serious sense. Where does it get the high level manpower to underpin its economy – the doctors, the engineers, the accountants, the geographers and even the military commanders and other members of the national security complex if not from the universities? This background throws up the question why the Nigerian power elite might leave the Nigerian university system wobbling for 25 years, 1992 to date.
Professor Attahiru Jega whose tenure as National President of ASUU in the early 1990s said sometime ago that the problem is not lack of money but the priority of the elite in power. Since no one has challenged him, why might the priority be so? Starting its coverage of the unfolding ASUU -FG crisis yesterday, (see “Academics and the Government Square up in Nigeria Again, Endangers ASUU’s World Ranking Aspirational Claims”), Intervention found four main reasons why the crisis has been off and on for 25 years. Briefly, it revolves around successive government’s fear of the penalties for infractions on IMF Policy Support Instrument (PSI) by which the international financial institution regulates the Nigerian economy in accordance with the interests it works for; the the absence of a national investor class that will keep every government on its toes against standards falling in the universities upon whose products their industries rely to remain market vibrant; the lack of consciousness of majority of parents about the imperative for quality university education as the only guarantee for the future of their children rather the money they are stealing and seeking security in and, finally, the influence of certain individuals in every particular administration. It is the combination of these four key factors that endanger ASUU’s aspirational direction for world class universities which the above cited report used the 2018 QS University Ranking to exemplify. But even the four issues do not, in themselves, tell us the dynamism of the confrontation between ASUU and the FG on these key issues. It is the dynamism that forms the subject of this story below.
ASUU, the counter-hegemonic player in this protracted game started out with a holistic canvass of its struggle. Its demands may have the Naira and Kobo components but it is erected on the role of intellectuals as vanguard for the eradication of hunger, poverty, illiteracy, tribalism, economic and social backwardness, a role it sees as resting on the creation of world class universities. Much of these words are ASUU’s. For those who have no reservations with the QS world University Ranking, Intervention used it in the above referenced story to give an idea of world class universities. That is assumed to correspond to ASUU’s aspirational claims given its worry about the no-show of Nigerian universities on much of the rankings. Specifically, ASUU talks of world class universities in terms of well funded ones, with advanced, adequate teaching and research facilities and comparative remuneration to retain Nigerian academics.
In built in this has been a manifesto for clash with successive Nigerian leaders, military or civilian, elected or selected. Apart from the military oriented reading of demands originating from such a radical nationalist frame as challenge to authority, they have all been fearful of the domino effect of ‘submitting’ to ASUU. This, as Intervention pieced together, is what those generally referred to as “Charlie-Charlie gate keepers and self-satiated technocrats” have been promoting, including the idea of destroying ASUU. Destroying ASUU has, however, not been possible just as neither the granting of its demands has been possible. And this has gone on for 25 years since the Babangida regime when ASUU got the government to sign the first agreement. It has meant unspeakable suffering for many as in wherever elephants fight. Yet, it is understood this problem can be solved within a week.
One key reason why it can be solved within a week but has taken so long is the clash at the development strategy site. In their interaction, ASUU warns the government impliedly that Nigeria can never develop by going the way of the Envelope Budgeting it is stuck. Among other things, even the budget cycle and the project cycle in the Envelope Budget are ill at ease with each other. They contradict each other, making a mess of development. And monetarism is what the Nigerian government takes as a development strategy but as far as ASUU is concerned, monetarism cannot solve the problems of a developing country. From this moment, ASUU has marked in the eyes of the powerful local and international interests profiting from the status quo. Some members of the elite know this and they are very angry but in the interest of their own advantages in the system, they have to keep quiet. When they have opportunity to vent out anger, they do as in the debate against sale of national assets in the National Assembly in late 2016.
ASUU goes on nevertheless to say that whatever development strategy they want to go along with, they should shield the university system from budgetary volatility. ASUU’s argument is that the rot in the system is such that the government cannot address the ASUU demands via the budget line. In any case, the IMF controls the budget. So, it asks the government to take the universities off the budget line by bringing money from outside the budget. And that doing so breaks no law in Nigeria. ASUU named some government companies that can bring out the money involved without any serious constrainst. Among these were JAMB which is said to have a lot of money; NCC; ptdf; NNPC; the CBN which is said to have the capacity to fund the entire ASUU demand.
In 2011, ASUU further argued that the goverment had, in any case, spent an estimated sum of Three Trillion on bailout. If the government could bail out mostly private interests, why should it not fund public universities adequately? Thirdly, argued ASUU, if government revitalises the universities properly, it would attract foreign students thereby making universities revenue earners because Nigerian universities have been very inviting for Americans, Europeans, fellow Africans and even Asians for whom the English Language used to be a roadblock.
Apparently impressed by these lines of argument, government initially said universities would even get more than it had asked for. It never happened. Other players keeping an eye on monetary policies for the IMF got to work to the point that even the officer who had initially assured of higher remittances backtracked. In the end, the IMF/World Bank said something to the effect that Nigerian universities could not absorb the 100billion the government planned to push over to ASUU as a first step.Such an amount, it said, would cause inflation in the economy. Subsequently, the MOU signed in February 2011 after a strike over the 2009 Agreement was not implemented. Instead, the government took to Afghanistanism – the diversionary tactic of subsuming a flaming issue under a distant one. They took the MOU to the Nigerian Governors Forum where some governors were even asking why the universities could not raise money by hiking fees.
But the strategy worked. A permanent stalemate had been achieved. ASUU could go on strike a million times, it never gets the demand. Instead, one diversion or another would be used to contain it. As time went on, ASUU also came to grips with two developments. One of it is the reported steady degeneration of people in government as far as addressing problems in their proper context is concerned. Instead, it is said there is a growing tendency to be seen to be a loyalist, to go to the president or so to say that one knows who is causing problems and to recommend dealing with such people. That is what failed in the case of Umaru Yar’Adua when the governor he gave the assignment of bringing ASUU to him in 2009 started playing poker with the assignment. Unknown to the governor, an elder had spoken to the then president and suggested to him to see the ASUU people directly. That was how Umaru Yar’Adua angrily took away the assignment from the governor and gave to a family member.
The second and closely related issue is the end of the previous situation whereby there were certain people in government who once approached, things began to happen. In recent years, one was a retired General and philanthropist while there was an ambassador who later became a Foreign Affairs Minister. It is suggested such people who may not be radical but can comprehend the responsibility of government in crucial areas are getting scarce.
The long and short of it is that the elephant in the room is the IMF and the global interests it stands for in Nigeria. And the way this elephant operates in the educational sector is also the way it operates in all other sectors. It is nothing sinister. For the IMF and its local agents, it is a question of the correct business model. It would argue that for Nigeria to develop, it must adopt neoliberal policies. As the enforcer, it has instruments for checking how well Nigeria implements the neoliberal doctrine. But that is one side of the deal.
On the other hand is the national elite. If they reach a consensus and say they do not agree, they can send IMF packing or reject certain portions. Even the NPN did so in 1983. What appears to be happening is that the political parties are too poorly organised that it is not the party but the Ministry of Finance, CBN and the Presidency that takes the decision on such a crucial national security issue. Reference has been made to the NPN Caucus meeting in 1981 which rejected devaluation. According to the late Uba Ahmed who wrote of the said meeting in his Thesis, nobody slept at that meeting, from Adisa Akinloye, the party Chairman to President Shehu Shagari and everybody else. By early morning, they reached the decision that they could not devalue. There were no members of this caucus that could be called radicals. They were simply informed and patriotic.
Today, no one hears when a party caucus met to consider Nigeria’s relationship with the IMF and how it plays out. Yet, life and death decesions are involved for a basically agrarian economy to which much of IMF conditionalities can only be suicidal. President Buhari’s coming has not changed this in spite of his own earlier stand off with the IMF. Perhaps the times have changed. Now, Buhari is face to face with ASUU again. Is 2017 going to be what it was between ASUU and the FG under Buhari in 1984? We shall see from an embellished negotiation that Dr Chris Ngige, the labour minister, has quickly put together even when ASUU and the FG Negotiation had been going on under Senior Wale Babalakin. Why did that collapse in the first case?