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When I was rounding off my BA studies in Fine and Applied Arts at University of Nigeria in 1992, my set was caught up in the web of the ASUU strike of the Babangida era which lasted for six months. Following my NYSC programme in Rivers State which ended in 1994, I was employed as Graduate Assistant in my alma mater. After about one year into my Graduate Assistantship, another ASUU strike occurred, this time in the bloom of the Abacha dictatorship. With the fire-eating Prof Umaru Gomwalk as Sole Administrator then at University of Nigeria, the strike situation was very tense at Nsukka, especially with the sacking of about 200 academic staff, including myself, in connection with the strike. Of course, many colleagues gave up and apologised to Gomwalk at various points in the struggle and were recalled. However, 11 of us, including the then ASUU President Professor Asisi Asobie, starved for 32 months, only to be recalled in December 1998 on the directives of General Abubakar, after a sudden death had snatched Abacha from the corridors of power.

Since 1998, there has been many more industrial actions by academic staff of Nigeria universities. A cursory or critical look at the strikes reveals that they are based on the same issues. Not only does this betray the insincerity and irresponsibility of successive governments, it is a source of worry for anyone who cares about the future of Nigeria as a developing nation. Generally, strikes by ASUU border on university funding, infrastructural development, so-called “earned allowance”, as well as issues of students welfare. In all this, little or no emphasis is placed on the poor remuneration of academics in Nigeria. While bread-and-butter politicians feed fat on the commonwealth, Nigerian academics on who may depend the nation’s development are washing face and hands with spittle. Nigerian academics are among the least paid in the world.

Even some of the other African countries we would ridicule are doing better. When I was a visiting scholar at University of Dar-es-Salaam two years ago, the Head of the Department of Creative Arts there told me that his responsibility allowance was 400 USD a month. At the time, I was also head of my department back home and the entertainment allowance was 300 naira per month. Responsibility allowance is one of the points of the ASUU strike, as it has never been well defined or paid adequately. In view of this, I am surprised that ASUU continues to downplay issues of its welfare while championing the cause of students and university administrations.

To this extent, one would expect that the union would enjoy the support of students, university administrators and the public, but this has not been the case. The fact that ASUU now fights for students also betrays the quality of students of the day – a generation that is arguably heir to corruption and violence, nurtured by the disturbing tendencies of a society which has become more apocalyptic than prophetic. Perhaps, the famous remark by Margaret Thatcher that “There is no such thing as society” should make us worry if indeed ours is a society, especially in Edmund Burke’s idea of society as partnership between the living, the dead and the unborn. A society should approximate a geography of hope, shaped by sound morals and robust education system, if we understand education to mean the transmission of traditions and the conversation between generations. As Jonathan Sacks says, education is, in addition to family, “the twin vehicles through which society passes on its accumulated wisdom to the next generation”. Unfortunately, this generation of Nigerian leaders do not value education. They glorify politics, corruption, and the new fangled “salvation-by-shopping”.

This is why the education budget in the country has continued to dwindle over the years. Rather than declare the education sector as a disaster area, government politicizes the issues. For instances, one had thought that part of the so-called Abacha loot would have been directed towards the education sector, rather the funds seem to have been deployed to other less pressing issues of national importance. Yet, a developing nation that neglects education neglects its future.

It is the dangerous neglect of education that logically sustains the poor fortunes of teachers and academics in these parts. Yet, in the words of Jonathan Sacks, “Teachers are the unsung heroes of our society, under-recognised, underpaid, and often desperately unsupported”, although they are “among a civilisations most precious assets”. We must begin to seek a re-moralised, re-humanised society that can “restore to education its true dignity as a citadel of cultural continuity, and to teachers the honour due to those who are the trustees of society’s bequest to is children.” The poor perception of teachers here is so ingrained. I was once marched out of a KLM flight in February 2010 on my way to Amsterdam by officials of the NDLEA on suspicions of drug trafficking. By the time they realized their mistake, the flight was already in the air. When I remonstrated forcefully, they mumbled that I was too well dressed to be a university teacher and that my name seemed complicated. The foolery cost them hotel accommodation, meals and fresh ticket to continue my trip the next day.

It should be noted, however, plight of academics is internal as they are external. From the vice chancellors down to the colleague next door, intellectual work has taken a back seat and social capital is out of the window. Politics, survival-of-the-fittest syndrome and the rat-race for promotion have taken the front seat. In some universities, the contentious IPPIS is not the only neo-colonial burden the staff have to bear; they also have to contend with the Westerncentric, neo-colonising Impact Factor systems that is used for assessment and promotion. Whether such systems have produced the best academics is yet to be seen; it only makes us to wonder how many Western academics have been judged or assessed at their home universities by the number of publications they have in Africa-based journals.

Obviously, the present ASUU strike is no different from others before it, in terms of the eagerness of certain academics, especially professors without the professorial spirit, are sabotaging the strike. Chief among these are those travelling in droves to Abuja to go and surrender to the IPPIS Office so they could continue to receive their meagre pittance. They are so supine and unprincipled that they cannot support their union to confront politicians that jeopardize their future and that of their children, even though they will always get the lion’s share of the strike dividends.

It is clear that this strike, like others, will be suspended sooner or later based on mutual compromise between ASUU and the government without achieving all its goals. Postponing dooms day does not solve practical problems. It is only the time-saver of a finger-pointing, judgmental, goal-post-shifting society. However, the pointers are clear: that as long as successive governments maintain the same disdain for education and teachers, the contending issues and the attendant strikes will degenerate into an endless spiral. I am afraid that the same issues that brought about the strike over which we were sacked in 1995 are still the same issues today. I wonder, without sounding apocalyptic, whether these issues and the associated agreements will ever be resolved in our life time.


––Dr Ikwuemesi is an Associate Professor of fine arts at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

Quote

I was once marched out of a KLM flight in February 2010 on my way to Amsterdam by officials of the NDLEA on suspicions of drug trafficking. When I remonstrated forcefully, they mumbled that I was too well dressed to be a university teacher

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