ASUU: Tough Questions for a Man of Steel
*(This is the second report on the interview conducted with Professor Abiodun Ogunyemi on April 25, 2021). For its entire recording, see Facebook: https://fb.watch/55x9BZoe7s/
Nothing puts a man at a quandary with the people of any society than occupying a public position responsible for determining the people’s political, social, economic, and cultural trajectory in life. When people occupy such positions, they will attract other comments, reactions, and criticisms from cynics and genuine opinions about their comments. This is so for many administrators because they occupy a very sensitive position that is a key factor in shaping other people’s lives. In this case, the occupant of the highest political office in the academic labor organization of Nigeria, the Academic Staff Union of Universities, is naturally placed to attract both criticism and admiration, depending on what they have managed to implement to better the lives of the teachers, enhance accelerating success for the students, and offer collaborative support for the government of the day. People tend to care less about the inherent challenges and trepidations associated with being in political offices; what matters to most people is the presentation of results, from which many of them benefit directly. ASUU and its leadership have been in trouble with the public recently. The reasons are not disconnected from the deliberations they make with the government and the difficult choices they had to make at other times.
In the very recent interview session with the present ASUU President, Professor Biodun Ogunyemi, many clouded and masked issues were uncovered. Of course, many of these discoveries are not hidden from public knowledge, but most of them are ambiguous so much that they have a hazy understanding of them. Despite the limitation of their knowledge, the formulation of opinions flows unhindered. For example, when Daniel Eworo, a representative of the student body in Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria, got the opportunity to ask the leader of the union questions that bother around the welfare and academic conditions of the students generally, hard facts were presented by Prof. Ogunyemi so that the public has sufficient information that would facilitate opinion formation. Eworo asked very innocently why ASUU has unrepentantly failed to show love and compassion to the Nigerian students in the Union’s quest to pressure the Nigerian government to accede to their requests, and if resolving to industrial actions (strikes) is the most honorable thing to do in the 21st century, given the trend of global educational trajectory.
This question would later be asked in different dimensions by other selected interlocutors who engaged Prof. Ogunyemi, and his toughness was brought to the fore. To begin, especially in response to the student’s question, the professor explained that ASUU was established in the first place to cater to the academic welfare of students. Doing this meant to appropriate philosophies that are evaluated to give maximum impact, embark on strategies that would facilitate results, and adopt systems that would drive a desirable outcome. Subsequent upon this understanding, it is indicting to ascribe obstinacy to the Union when it challenges the federal government to meet their demands without contextualizing the politicization of the students and staff’s affairs treated as a “game” by the political class. When one analyzes the backdoor political theatrics that the Union has put up with behind the scene, it is clear that the political stalwarts do not have the interest of the masses at heart. A government that is dominated by individuals who benefited from the effectiveness of the university institutions that catered to the students, to the point of providing food for them in the 1970s, is not worth winning public sympathy when they are not doing enough to continue the trend.
The professor hinted to the audience about the cardinality of quality delivery of services to move academics forward. To achieve this, certain factors are meant to be made available. Their availability is the non-negotiable price needed to be paid to enhance the quality delivery of services pointed out above. University workers, the teaching staff most pointedly, need to have a meaningful life made possible from international standards’ availability. If they cannot achieve this level of treatment, it is unethical to treat them as disposable ingredients because they are not, in the true sense. However, most disdainfully, this is what Nigerian university lecturers are exposed or reduced to from about three or more decades ago. Apart from the comparatively poor salary allocated to the producers of knowledge in the Nigerian tertiary institutions, work conditions have been made to consolidate the government’s lack of commitment to the revolutionization of Nigerian education.
Meanwhile, education forms the spine of every country, and the absence of a good one signals the deceleration of development across every stratum. In the fast-changing environment, facilities are unarguably important in the process of transferring knowledge. When they are not available, the lecturers’ efforts become insignificant, no matter how detailed they are.
To consolidate the question that emphasized the plight of the students whenever ASUU engages the federal government is seeking the actualization of their agenda, an argument was raised on how, subject to the Union’s almost unending brawls with the government, the body has been achieving or achieved its political mandate or professional objectives. Here, the audience was treated to the excellence of Professor Ogunyemi’s intellect and a sense of grasp of the topic. He responded that the pillar of the Nigerian (and global) education system is founded on a tripod of research, teaching, and liberating, and reiterated that there is no contention that the Union has achieved success judging by its performance and contributions to issues of national significance from its inception to the present. He recalled that research could not be overemphasized in the development of a quality social and academic environment. The production of sound minds in the corridor of political offices is determined by the level of quality academic researchers and intellectuals in the teaching sector. When there is no research, it becomes a disgusting challenge for the people and administrators to move forward collectively because the lack of research would have discouraged scientific innovations and inventions.
It was equally stressed that teaching is important when education is the topic. Teaching is more basic than any other thing in imparting knowledge because it provides an avenue for the instructor to drive education into the students through their interaction and any other preferred and available means. It cannot be fair on the part of anyone who says that teachers in Nigerian tertiary institutions have not been carrying out their duties in imparting knowledge to Nigerian students. While it can be argued that the level of research among Nigerian scholars is impressive, there is room for considerable improvements. The majority is also committed to teaching their students in a way that fulfills their statutory responsibilities.
To ASUU, the hydra-headed albatross of the country’s educational system has been the absence of goodwill of the government, which can be transformed into measurable actions and has been a grave impediment to collective growth. Apart from the lip services they pay to the Nigerian education system, the government representatives are unconcerned about the funding of cutting-edge research that would facilitate the immediate acceleration of the academic standards. They show in the financial attention that they accord to related educational issues. The last leg of the academic structure, which is being a liberating force, becomes weak because the conditions to do this are not encouraged in the country.
The follow-up question that one would ask the academic union body if truly they have been up and doing concerning their statutory objectives as highlighted by the President is why some parents now prefer to enroll their wards in private schools, a decision they came to after seeing that very little or no difference exists between public and private tertiary institutions in term of fees and also in understanding that longer years are spent in public universities as opposed to the private ones.
As if the question hit the most sensitive part of Prof. Ogunyemi’s mind, his reactions were expository. It appeared he wanted to clear some misconceptions that people have generated against the Union because of their lack of access to internal affairs. He began by enlisting the intentions of the political elites whose jaundiced perception of ASUU has affected their relationship with the Union and negatively affected the operationality of the same body. In retrospect, the head of the Union lamented that there was a time the country’s President declared his annoyance with the body because he thought that ASUU is a clog in the wheel of Nigeria’s progress as they deliberately stand at variance with governments even if the need was unnecessary. To the Nigerian government, the Union has overrated itself concerning the thoughts of moving the country forward.
Professor Biodun Ogunyemi reported that the problem facing the country’s educational system does not arise because of its ideological trappings but as a result of the thinking of the political elites against it. He maintained that if the country’s President boasted of undermining the Union’s capacity by facilitating the rapid creation of private universities, which he believed would substitute the public ones, the problem does not lie in establishing individual-owned universities. Instead, it spurned from the assumption that the eclipse of public universities would provide a lasting solution to the myriad of challenges facing the country’s educational system. Apart from the obvious impossibility of his proposition, which is the obliteration of public universities in favor of aristocratic establishments, the glaring issue, the drastic progression of corruption resulting from such engagement that eludes the President constituted a worry in Prof. Ogunyemi’s heart. He lamented that by the nature of private universities, exorbitant charges are levied on the students. Given the susceptibility of the Nigerian bureaucracy to corruption, they would find means of funding their wards through the accumulation of public resources for their parochial objectives. Perhaps, corruption and its practices will take a geometric dimension if this succeeds.
As if the propensity for corruption was not enough, the rising poverty level of Nigerian parents is a clear indication that the obliteration of public universities would work negatively against a large demographic in getting an education in the country. This is because the maintenance of the private institutions would be too costly than what Nigerians can afford. We do not need to stick our necks to have access to the practical description of the statistics provided about the poverty index of Nigerian as we have neighbors who could not afford three square meals, employees who trek to work because they cannot afford taxi service, students who engage in extracurricular activities to augment their not-too-strong financial status. As comic relief, the Professor implied that if private tertiary institutions survived as projected by these political elites, it would be evidence that the economic conditions of many Nigerians have drastically improved. However, this is not the case because, from all indications, the opposite is what obtains in the country. If the elites have decided to fizzle public schools out, they must think everyone does not engage thoughts critically before making them a general idea.
If we cannot absolve the political elites from the greed that birthed their obsession to mop the public schools through the establishment of private ones, since not many civil servants, except they have stable sources of income outside their jobs, can afford the creation of private universities, what then can one say about ASUU’s perennial demands and zeal for financial accumulation over the years? In other words, does ASUU have a special interest other than the smooth educational process of the country? It is not unexpected that the Union’s president rejected the notion that they have ulterior motives in fighting the government whenever there is a need for it. What was, however, unexpected was the round of revelations he made in the process. This revelation does not include his argument that the allocated finances to universities are usually monitored by designated committees who conduct due diligence in the process of discharging their duties. The President reiterated how he goes on tour to supervise the progress of projects that have been given allocations by the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) to schools and institutions to ensure that these monies are not expended on frivolities.
However, the revelation is that the government seeks to control the schools, the tertiary institutions, for that matter, with enthusiasm. One of the obvious ways to see this is to interrogate the efforts of the federal government to introduce systems to curb what they perceive as corruption through the aegis of the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS). Apart from this action leading to the frustration of the known freedom that the education of developed and developing countries usually enjoy, it would also pounce on the autonomy of tertiary institutions. Meanwhile, all these would have been well desirable provided that the federal government can be trusted to carry out corruption-free and impunity-free exercises in the process. However, the federal government’s long history of corruption is not something the Union leadership is ignorant of has made them remain strong in opposing such brazen confrontation on the Nigerian educational system by the government that is supposed to protect it. It would have been a lot easier if the government had impressively managed and recorded success in different sectors in the last five decades. This knowledge makes it continually difficult to accede to the pressure of the government to accept IPPIS as they have introduced. To show that they do not have ulterior motives, ASUU introduced an alternative in University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS).
With the observation of the ongoing intellectual exchanges, a member of the audience asked how the Professor can rate the current Nigerian administration concerning its determination to upgrade its educational system through constant and consistent collaboration with the Union, yielding to their requests and recommendations. Being a man of a radical bent, the ASUU President again hit the nail on the head without mincing words. Responding to the question, he explained how the current administration is a continuation of the usual experience that Nigeria has had in its recent historical trajectory. He protested the absence of democratic thinking in the highest office in the country since the Fourth Republic, noting that the difficulty to transit from the hardhearted, iron-cast, and ironclad philosophy that characterizes military leadership to the more appealing and appeasing democratic philosophy has been a notorious bane to the growth or development of the country in all ramifications.
This is particularly evident because not less than two presidents, who have combinatorially spent 14 years out of the 21 years that they have experienced in the Fourth Republic, are military men who were reported to have changed their mindset about leadership. The President of ASUU insisted that the argument that people can conveniently switch from the philosophy used to mold them from their formative years lacks credibility. Once a person is constructed with a particular kind of philosophy, except the individual undergoes a series of mental and psychological de-radicalization, switching their ways is usually a difficult, if not impossible, task. This insistence has its foundation from the understanding that the first military-turned-democratic leader, the then General Olusegun Obasanjo, made some categorical statements that indicated his poorly informed understanding of how integral education is the advancement of a people or making of globally competing civilizations. Delegitimizing the Academic Staff Union of Universities by providing the atmospheric conditions that would immediately facilitate the promotion of private universities at the expense of the public ones because the President is at variance with the Union’s leadership reeks of empty grandstanding.
Anyone who understands the place of the labor union would not make such an unguided comment about a Union whose struggles have birthed important institutions that see to the upgrade of the country’s educational system, such as TETFUND and others. The fact that the current leader appears to be a chip off the old block consolidates what Professor Biodun Ogunyemi said about the minimality of efforts that have been made since 1999. He mentioned that the hangover effects of the military dictatorship have continued to affect these leaders’ decisions about education and dictated their insidious attitudes to the same institution. Because of this, there have been no notable changes in the country’s academic outlook, and as such, the consequences are seen in the snail pace mode at which the development of the country moves. These factors challenge the operationality of the Union, and one would understand why the leaders have to resort to the language that the government understands in their quest to ensure that the country does not recede entirely to the abyss of tragedy. The President’s comments are more of an inspiration to the government, for he argued that he has not come out to point accusing fingers at individuals. Still, he put the matter on a bare surface so that students would understand that ASUU has no interest in their program extension, and parents would also know that the Union is not deliberately increasing their woes. Correspondingly, government representatives would find reasons to empower the education sector the more by doing the needful.