For one and a half years the academic calendar of federal universities nationwide was not disrupted until last week when the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) struck. In this interview, ASUU President, Dr. Nasir Fagge, says strike has always been the union’s last option, adding that strikes have helped Nigerian universities.
Last Monday Nigerians seemed taken aback by the decision of ASUU to embark on an indefinite strike. Did you explore all forms of negotiation and dialogue before embarking on the strike?
Dr. Nasir Fagge: Strike has always been an option of last resort for the union, there was never a time we decided upfront to go on strike. We must have exhausted all other avenues at addressing the problem until it becomes clear to us that these other avenues are not yielding the required dividends and that is only when we embark on an action. For this one we have been having dialogue with government for more than one and a half years. If you recall the last time ASUU was on strike was on December 4, 2011, which was suspended on February 12, 2012 because we signed an MOU with government and we were convinced then that government meant well and it was keen on implementing the provisions of the MOU. Sadly one and a half years later, we are still virtually where we were.
This is because out of the provisions of the MOU which are nine of them, only two were implemented by government and that is the review of the retirement age of academics on the professorial cadre from 65 to 70 years and re-instatement of governing councils of the universities, which were summarily dismissed then by government.
The other issues that have to do mostly with funding were neglected by government. We have been having meetings with government; I would say that throughout one and a half years, we have had almost close to 50 meetings with government at several levels. In fact, meetings with the Secretary to the Government of the Federation are almost 20. We have also been going to the National Assembly to interact with the Senate and House Committees on Education. We have been lobbying to ensure we avert this crisis, but it became clear to us that the dialogue is between the deaf and the dumb and under such a circumstance we do not have an option than to withdraw our services.
Concerning the provisions of your agreement with government, people insinuate you are only seeking the welfare and interest of your members and not pursuing the overall interest of the education sector?
If that were the case we would have been on strike a very long time ago. The first thing that government always does after we sign an agreement is to implement the salary component, so if it were just for the benefits of our members we would never go on strike, but like I keep telling people, our calling is not like that of ordinary workers. There are Nigerians who collect pay and sit down and don’t do anything, is the country expecting us to be like those Nigerians? If we do, what is going to happen to human resource development in the country? If we do that, what is going to happen to the developmental aspirations of this country? The blame has always been pushed on ASUU that we are producing half baked graduates who cannot fit into the labour market, we don’t want that. We want a situation where anybody who graduates from our universities would come out fully grounded as an intellectual who can contribute to nation building. Granted that there are other components of the conditions of service that have not been met, but we are convinced that paying of salaries is not enough. If you pay me N1 million per month and I go into my research lab I cannot conduct research because there are no research facilities there. If I go to my classroom I cannot teach my students new knowledge then I cannot be happy...
But isn’t the strike itself killing the system in a way?
What is the alternative? If we fold our arms, the system would die anyway. So, it is better to do something. I want to assure you that it is even because we have been going on strike intermittently that we have a system in the country.
What is the point of all your strikes if at the end you would withdraw it without the government meeting your aspirations?
It is because we are also human beings, we are sensitive. Due to appeals nationwide, the National Assembly, people who really cares about this country keep on putting pressure on you saying ‘suspend, we would address the problem’. The hope is that once we suspend we would commence addressing the problem and unfortunately you give time. You do not see anything happening and are back to the trenches, which has always been the scenario. I am not happy about it; like I keep telling people, all of us you see in the system are also parents. I have three children in the university, we have spouses who are also students and in fact some of our members are still students. So in reality we suspend because of majority of Nigerians...
Aren’t there appeals now?
The appeals are coming in and we would consider what are the developments vis-à-vis the appeals. Yes it is good to appeal to ASUU, but you should also appeal to government to do what is right. If government brings a convincing proposal that this time we are ready to address the problem, there is nothing wrong with placing it before our members and allowing them to take an appropriate decision.
What areas of your demands are negotiable and which are non-negotiable?
We negotiated for three years, from November 2006 to October 2009 and at that point we had demands. What we are talking about now is issues that have been addressed through collective bargaining process, these are issues that are accepted by both sides of government and ASUU. At this point we are not talking about demands as even the MOU is not a negotiation of the 2009 agreement but just fashioning out ways to implement the provisions of the 2009 agreement. So at this point, we are not talking about demands. We have proposals by governments itself, accepted by ASUU on how government is going to implement the provisions of the 2009 agreement.
So, at this point we would not be talking about negotiation; if government wants to, we can commence the process of re-negotiating the 2009 agreement and that was even due in June 2012, about a year now. So you see where the crisis of confidence steps in, you expect that within three years, the provisions of an agreement would be fully implemented and then you would commence a round of re-negotiation to look at what you have been able to achieve with implementations of those provisions and then you chart a new course. What we are saying is that four years after, we have not substantially implemented the 2009 agreement talk less of commencing the process of its review. That is why our members nationwide are not convinced that government is serious about education.
It is said that if government applies the principle of ‘no work no pay’ you would not strike as often?
Government has been doing that through the National Universities Commission, which comes to announce ‘no work no pay’ and we say ‘no pay no work’. Countries that really care about socio-economic development would never allow a worker to be on strike for more than one week without addressing the problem. If we are sensitive in this country, I assure you, we cannot allow workers to spend two months, three months on strike, but it is simply because we are not sensitive. It may be because most of the policy makers have taken their children out of the country, getting them educated in places like Ghana. Why do you have to send your child to Ghana if your universities are working in Nigeria? What does Ghana have that we do not have in this country? In fact, Ghanaians look up to us for ideas. It is simply because their government is serious about education, that is why the few universities they have are well organised and they deliver. But here in Nigeria we keep creating universities we have not really planned for, we are not funding properly and we expect them to deliver, it cannot happen. University is very serious business that cannot be politicised. If you create a university in your backyard and you do not fund it properly, it would just be a waste of effort.
Since the strike, have you met with government?
The meeting we were supposed to have at the National Assembly on Tuesday did not hold, because it was delayed and we had a meeting which we could not reschedule again after 3pm. The meeting has been rescheduled to Monday.
One of the allegations against ASUU is that the lecturers they do not attend lectures, that they are intellectually lazy. What are you doing to address problems like that?
People also have misunderstanding of the university system. The university system has its inbuilt checks and balances. If somebody does not attend lectures, he can be passed through disciplinary committees and an appropriate action can be taken against him. So, it is not correct to say that people are doing what is wrong, but what is the system doing to check people that are doing what is wrong? The problem is that we have allowed the system to rot to an extent that even the checks and balances are not allowed to work. At the level of ASUU we set up what we call ASUU ethics committee and we have been asking our students to go and complain. If he is found guilty the union would take punitive measures on him. We cannot condone indiscipline in our system, so if we are asking government to do what is right and we allow things to be happening internally that is wrong and it means we are also failing.
The problem we have been having over the years is that we do not get students to come and tell us what our members are doing that are wrong, but the most important issue is that the system has been so politicized; maybe because government decided overnight to change the status of vice chancellors to political office holders and what you find now is that the person who comes in is looking at ways of ensuring that he maximises benefit for himself. If he notices that the people in the system are people who would continuously challenge him to do what is right, he would make sure that gradually, those people are eased out and he usher in cronies that would take over and do what he wants them to do. Most of the time, you find that the people appointed do not merit the position and once you allow that, they would do the bidding of the vice chancellor and if there are complaints, he would look the other way. We have also been talking about it in the system, but I want to assure you that the union has taken a decision to convene a national summit on education, maybe once this struggle is over, we would also look at ethical issues affecting university education.
Most education ministers were once your members. Why do you find it difficult to engage them?
Well you see, the ministers in most cases with the exception of a few who are able to assert themselves, are simply mirrors that the commander in chief would look at and see himself. It is a reality. If you allow people to bring their initiatives into the system, you are likely to see changes, but if you appoint people to just come in and do your bidding, I assure you, you are not going to see any change. It seems to me that is what is happening in this country, because you see ministers who would come in, try their best but then they cannot move. In our own case, our country has been taken over by the Britain woods institution, IMF and World Bank. If you go to any key ministry, you would see their agents running our economy and we are forced to operate what they call the envelope system, which means that no matter what a sector of the economy needs to turn around, you cannot put in more resources than what is predetermined by IMF and World Bank.
The economies that know better focus their attention on human capital development. China is an example. I keep mentioning China because even recently our President has gone there to sign about 12 MoUs there. Why are we doing that? It is simply because China decided they want sound empirical knowledge for their people and so it is easy for most companies to be migrating to China, because there is cheap labour, highly developed labour and as such cost of production would be minimal.
Do you see any correlation between the establishment of private universities and what you consider as government’s poor attitude to education?
A number of our colleagues noticed that by giving licenses to private universities initially; the thinking was that they would pose competition to public universities and then public universities would sit up, but that is not what is happening now, because the private universities are only feeding from the public universities.
If you go to any private university, you would see that these are people who were developed by the public universities that have now been poached by the private universities. You find a situation where a lecturer in a public university, because we have not been able to produce the manpower is forced to teach in about three or four private universities. I wonder how such person would be able to deliver. The problem is that the initial conception of the private universities is not even being met, because instead of posing challenges to public universities they are simply ‘parasiting’ on the resources that are meant to serve public universities. The initial thinking was that if we privatise, we are likely to see everybody moving to private universities but that is not what is happening. Most of the people who now seek for admission into private universities are people who cannot get admitted in the public universities because the condition in the private universities is not better.
So have you foreclosed dialogue with government?
What ASUU is saying is that there was an agreement in 2009, we have fashioned out how best to implement the provisions of that agreement in 2012 and government clearly is not interested in respecting the provisions of the modus for implementing the provisions of the 2009 agreement. If you are talking about negotiation, you commence negotiation at a point when you are convinced that it is time to review what you have agreed earlier and both ASUU and government at this point have some things to do in terms of the implementation of the 2009 agreement before we re-commence a re-negotiation. What ASUU is saying is that we have been dialoguing but it has not yielded any fruits. If government is serious, they already have an MoU on how to implement the 2009 agreement. Let us see them taking the issues and implementing them. Once they do that, that crisis of confidence would be gradually removed from our members. Dialogue yes but we cannot renegotiate the 2009 agreement because the process of review has not commenced.