ASUU strikes have become something of a right, a presumptuous rite, a routine blight. Some may say it is a pageant, a half- pageant, or even no pageant at all. A runway sans runaway model. It often has a beginning, but then we never witness a middle but always never an end. If no pageant at all, it is an elaborate non-starter, a sort of Beckettian no-man’s-land. A promise as an end. A dress rehearsal replacing the main thing. A hundred meters race where the umpire exhausts the gun on false starts.
So, the pageant is only a sort deception, like the yarn of the witch of Endor where the whole apparition is an imitation parade.
Here we are again in a rut. The federal government says it has conceded all it can, and the ASUU folks are merely intransigent. ASUU flays minister of education Adamu Adamu for bad faith, and even adds that they never had a meeting with him. Adamusays they have agreed on everything but backlog of salaries. ASUU chief, Professor Emmanuel Osodeke, went as far as turning it into a partisan Golgotha, a lobbing of bombs by calling for Nigerians to vote out the APC, as though the same ASUU had not met deadlocks after deadlocks with virtually every government since I was just beginning my secondary school in Ughelli in 1973.
Yet we cannot tell this story without accepting that the education system has not much jewel to give, and that our governments, including the Buhari administration, have not privileged the enthronement of the mind.
The ASUU strike, for this essayist, should not have happened. It should not plod along like a weary reptile with bellyache, if the government had leveraged the power and resources of state to degrade the allure of strikes from impasse to passe. It does not mean funds alone, but generating its fund of goodwill, connections and muscular clout to reconcile compassion to duty.
In the end, when anything fails, it is government that fails. We cannot escape that. It is the job of government to bring it to an end. Charles De Gaulle returned to France for the first time as the Second World War was ending. He had fled in a heroic flight at the nascent turmoil of the war when the army elite betrayed the country. Now, he knew his country wanted something new. The Nazis had crumbled, so had the Vichy regime. His country gasped for new leadership. At a rally he quipped, “Nothing is missing but the state.” This essayist would not go that far in the ASUU imbroglio, but something is missing in the state. I would not go as far as to quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet to say “something is rotten in the state…” But there is a rut to stop.
The government needs to understand it is bearing a burden it does not need. It needs to set itself free and rid itself of the Sisyphean rock of power it is carrying up the hill. It does not need to hold the universities in its grasp. As Professor JideOsuntokun has asserted in an insightful column in The Nation, the universities already have autonomy. The law has given them power to break out of the cage. The government denies it. ASUU is lying to itself. It is witchcraft. ASUU should exorcise its witch of Endor, and act like Macbeth to Banquo’s ghost and scream, “Avaunt and quit my sight. Let the earth hide thee. Thy bone is marrowless and thy blood is cold.”
As Professor Tukur S’aad, a former Vice chancellor at Minna, explained in various notes and his interview at TVC Breakfast show, the universities are kidding themselves thinking el doradolies in the bosom of Aso Rock. He executed his liberty when he was VC and his school flourished.
The government can only give so much. The VCs are members of ASUU, and the majority of the council members are ASUU members. They are charged to run their institutions. They should strategise on how to source funding. They, as Professor Saad did during his time, can look at student fees, corporate partnership, crowd funding, grants, scholarship, et al. What stops them from charging fees, and turning the universities into de facto agencies like NIMASA or JAMB. What stops them from making enough money to pay N4 million monthly to its choice academics when they make the money? As a university teacher in the US, I never taught a class that could not pay for itself. If the numbers were too small, the course would cancel. Lagos did not know how to make money until someone said it could. Others now are learning. Some screamed it was wrong to bond with Bonds in government until somebody put in N3 billion and harvested N17 billion for Lagos. We should not act coy at opportunities, like the fishermen who waited for Jesus to point to the boon of fishes shimmering at the other side of the river.
There are two wrong presumptions. One, that university education must be free first. It can in Nigeria, but the universities should not wait for a decadent political elite to do that. Two, that they must rely on government to get their money, and, if not, there would be trouble in the land.
That was what many thought during the coal miners’ strike that paralysed Great Britain until Margaret Thatcher broke their backs and turned a shareholder logic into a vogue. She became one of the longest reigning prime ministers in history, in spite of her excesses. We must understand one thing: university education is not cheap.
It is not for nothing that the top 100 universities of the world are predominantly in the United States and Britain. The schools get little from the state. We have many resources, including within the universities themselves. The councils are not marketing enough because they feel they have no right to do so. The federal government should not exercise martial rights in a democracy. Prof. Osuntokun says ASUU should try their autonomy in court. I say, they should exercise the courage of their privilege, and advance the course of their advantage by exercising their autonomy, not in strikes but by striking out on their own. They don’t need the court. The have the power. Let us see if the government can stop them. You have the right not to use your right. But that attitude is impotence. Prof Saad asserts rightly that it is the councils that run the universities, not the state. Let the state miss so that you don’t miss it.
The reason ASUU always looks to the centre is their socialist, Marxist mindset. They see the state as the end-all of all things. It is time they liberated themselves. This is not a communist heaven. They are too aluta to alert themselves to new vistas of hope. If they charge fees, it does not have to come like bullies but by conscious engagement with students, ASUU and parents, and laying bare the projects and challenges and charting the path forward. The indigent students may get special attention if they are exceptional. All of this can work with a template. They should wean themselves like a child. This is a feeding bottle ASUU, scrambling and drooling for the nanny to stop shaking the bottle but hand it down.
It was not so years ago when I was a student. We had bursaries and lapped ice cream on Sundays. We only had five universities. Today we have many without a development plan.
The ASUU folks ought to look inward. They also should get past their obsessions with idealism. I have drawn attention to their pharisaic posturing as a group that calls for a federal system while they run a unitary union choking state universities, compelling all chapters to bow to the centre. It is cracking gradually. They enforce checkoff remittance in an imbalance of 60 per cent to the centre and 40 to the local chapters. Yet they cry that Abuja is a vampiric centre of the nation’s financial bloodstream. Soviet Russia is dead. Cuba is on life support. Gaddafi went the way of public lynching. It is time to rethink.
The ASUU-FG story is like Prospero, Ariel and Caliban in Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest. The oppressor and oppressed are in bondage and both need to declare their independence. The oppressed, when free, still embraces the master. It is called the Caliban complex. After his plot to kill his master Prospero fails, Caliban says, “How fine my master is.”
It is time ASUU personalised what Rousseau says of the masses, “force them to be free.”
Or else, the students will suffer under the duelling elephants. Reflecting on the superpower grudge of his day, Lee Kuan Yew said: “When two elephants make love, the grass suffers.” ASUU needs neither war nor love, but imagination. As Poet Shelley wrote, “We need the power to imagine what we know.”