“When Will I Graduate?!”, Nigerian Students Cry Amidst ASUU Strike

“When Will I Graduate?!”, Nigerian Students Cry Amidst ASUU Strike


Note: Article was originally published on May 14, 2022

Fed up, brazenly angry, indifferent, frustrated, confounded. All these, and more, describe the feelings of Nigerian students in light of the 3-month extension of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) strike. ASUU first declared a warning strike of four weeks on February 14 and then another 4-week strike on March 15 before it finally resorted to the strike extension.

“I haven’t actually found a coping mechanism yet, I really just exist and try not to focus on it . Now to how I’d cope now, I really don’t know . Just trying to maintain a sane mental environment for myself”, said Ayanfe Sogelola, a 400-level—supposed to be 500-level—student of Civil Engineering at the University of Ilorin.

Just like Ayanfe, many other students are devastated and just trying their best to soldier on through yet another delay to their lives. Some have taken a more radical approach, taking to the streets to protest the incessant closure of their institutions due to ASUU strikes. They have decided that this time, they will not be ignored by the government—which is now seemingly more concerned with preparation for the 2023 elections than the welfare of their citizens.

The current strike is as a result of the Federal Government’s failure to honour the May 2021 drafted renegotiation of the 2009 ASUU-FG agreement. According to ASUU, they only came to the decision after they had exhausted all efforts to cordially settle the matter with the Nigerian Federal Government (FG). ASUU’s demands include the disbursement of a revitalisation fund for public universities, earned academic allowances and promotion arrears, as well as the ditching of the Integrated Personnel Payroll Information System (IPPIS) in favour of the University Transparency Accountability Solution (UTAS).

Apparently, President Muhammadu Buhari called for a three-man committee—including his Chief of Staff, the Minister of Education, and the Minister of Labour and Employment – to resolve the crisis in February. However, ASUU claimed that the committee had not held a single meeting since it was put together.

This changed on Thursday, May 12 when a meeting was finally held between ASUU, the President’s Chief of Staff, Prof. Ibrahim Gambari, and the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige. However, the following day, ASUU maintained that they were not calling off the strike. The meeting followed an appeal made by President Buhari in a Banquet Hall earlier on Thursday. 

ASUU’s Plight: Victim or Perpetrator?

Frustrated by the government’s blatant refusal to cooperate, the ASUU President, Prof. Emmanuel Osodeke cited the Federal Government’s quick response to the Airline Operators of Nigeria’s (AON) threat to stop flights due to fuel price hikes. According to him, they were only quick to resolve the matter because they would be affected by it. Majority of people in government allegedly have their children in universities abroad, making them immune to the strikes.

A lecturer at University of Ibadan—who wishes to remain anonymous and so will be referred to as “Dr X”—echoes much of ASUU’s stance on the matter. She believes it (the strike) is the only language they understand as they do not respond to negotiation or dialogue. “It’s not only ASUU; it’s a systemic problem we see happening in other sectors”.

Dr X also stated how her views on ASUU strikes changed after she joined academia. Before becoming a lecturer, she blamed ASUU because she too was a victim of strikes, however, she later discovered that many times, ASUU would reach out to the government and get ignored. “The government is so selfish. They don’t have plans for the citizens. They don’t care about the welfare of anybody. They don’t value education”, she angrily expressed about the government’s flippant attitude to the persistent closure of schools.

Likewise, many students seem to understand ASUU’s plight. “I blame the Federal Government because they are the selfish representatives that are embezzling all the funds meant to be used to develop all the economic sectors. They are the ones who literally have the power and funds to settle our nation’s education problems but instead, they choose to listen to their greed and keep and share all the allocated funds amongst themselves”, said Ayanfe Sogelola.

Titiladun Ala, a 400-level student of Psychology of University of Ibadan, shared similar sentiments. “Nothing is free/cheap. If it is, it’s because someone has paid the price. I can’t really blame ASUU, these are real people that have families and needs to be taken care of. Why do they have to keep running costs without gains? I blame the FG for everything cos this isn’t even the only sector that is being owed. We can’t even expect any improvement in federal unis if we can’t even sort out current bills. Development where? Progress who?”

“The FG is very useless for this, that they can see students outside school for this long and not even feel moved in the slightest. How callous can a person even get?”, said Moyosore Onipede, a 200-level student of Communication and Language Arts at University of Ibadan.

Several government officials have been able to gather funds to the tune of billions of naira to purchase 100 million Naira presidential forms, all while the strike is ongoing. This includes the Minister of Education, Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba, a member of President Buhari’s aforementioned committee. Some students and concerned citizens posit that perhaps, the Minister has been too occupied with campaigning for presidency to actually attend to matters of his ministry, of which the ASUU strike issue should take precedence. Minister Ngige had also declared his intention to run for presidency but dropped out on Friday, May 13.

However, some other students seem to place some of the blame on ASUU too. “ASUU knows that Nigeria is already terrible, so the least they can do is help us but they’re asking for billions. How is Federal Government going to give them that kind of money? It’s not possible. They just want to be wicked”, said Shalom Tewobola, a 400-level student of Chemistry at the University of Ibadan.

Yimika Adedeji, a 300-level student of Mechanical Engineering at Federal University of Technology Minna, stated that both parties’ incapability to meet each other’s proposals was “really disgusting”.

Moyosore Onipede is of the opinion that ASUU should stop looking to the government and take matters into their own hands. “While I don’t know the intricacies of the agreement they had, I still feel like if ASUU felt this to the core, they would look for sponsorship from other sources pending the time the FG pays. ASUU needs to find a way to get independent soon so this doesn’t keep happening again,” she said.

Dr X shares a similar view about federal universities becoming autonomous. However, she fears that this might make universities unaffordable for many. “Are we saying we want to disenfranchise the average Nigerian from sending their children to tertiary institutions? I appreciate the fact that the education in Nigeria is highly subsidised. It’s what has afforded some of us the chance to get to where we are today.”

How the Government Has Responded So Far

In an interview with The Guardian, the Ministry of Education’s Director of Press and Media Relations, Ben Goong accused ASUU of intimidation and bullying. He claimed that the Federal Government only acquiesced to that 2009 agreement because they were virtually held at gunpoint and sought to have students sent back to school at all costs. He stated that he didn’t believe strike was the only way to resolve issues. This begs the question, “What other ways have the Federal Government responded to in the past?”

Goong, on behalf of the Ministry of Education, has demanded that ASUU should call off the strike, so they can negotiate “under a serene atmosphere”. Goong also stated that the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND), a scheme established by the FG in 2011, annually pumps at least N230 billion into universities. On the 9th of May, TETFUND started disbursing the direct intervention funds approved by the FG. According to The Guardian, the scheme is allocating N642,848,138 to each university, N396,780,086 to each polytechnic and N447,758,804 to each college of education for this year.

Owing to this supposed resolution, Minister Ngige described the strike as a breach of labour law. He expressed that the strike was uncalled for since “The workers that are agitating for an increment in salaries are at work. Why will university workers be different from other workers?”. In response to the strike, the FG has stopped payment of salaries of the striking ASUU members, citing Section 43 of the Trade Disputes Act which empowers them to do so.

The Education Trust Fund (ETF) solution was originally implemented by members of ASUU in 1992. The Education Tax Act No. 7 of 1993 imposed a 2% tax on Nigerian companies that would be used for the trust fund. In 2011, ETF became TETFUND, with a new focus on just tertiary institutions. Some claim that ETF was ideated by members of ASUU and was later taken total reins of by the Federal Government, resulting in stiffer disbursement of funds to ASUU.

Recently, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) of Nigeria expressed their unequivocal support for ASUU and the students, threatening to join the strike if ASUU’s demands are not met. The President’s Chief of Staff then called for a tripartite meeting between the Federal Government, ASUU and TUC to resolve the matter soon. This is likely because the blowout from TUC’s strike would be too much for Nigeria to handle.

How Students of Public Universities Are Coping

When the strike extension was announced on the morning of May 9, several students took to social media to lambast the Federal Government, and ASUU. Over the years, students of public universities have had their lives delayed indefinitely because of the strikes. 4-year and 5-year programs have gone on to take durations of 5-7 years, talk more of those studying medicine which is supposed to be a 6-year program.

“No one wants to be stuck doing something that has a time frame for it. Everyone sets a time frame for stuff in our lives. There’s no how at one point, you didn’t say oh at this age, I’ll be done with school and at this age, I’ll start work. And then when that age comes and you see that something beyond your power has caused that time frame to be disrupted”, said Moyosore Onipede.

Whether through humour—which is the typical Nigerian way—on social media, finding work to do, or skills to learn, many students have sought escapisms to cope with the harsh reality of the strike. However, some students are just fed up of having to find ways to cope. They are tired of being told to learn skills to improve their lives when education at their universities was supposed to do that for them.

“I don’t want to have to focus on other engagements because the only engagement I bargained for was my education and it’s upsetting enough that it’s being put on hold. I don’t want to have to possess other engagements before I feel okay about my confidence in myself and education”, said Ayanfe Sogelola.

“The first few days of the strike usually feel like relief especially when there’s tonnes of school projects, but then after the first few weeks it dawns on you that the strike will only mess up your plans. You try to involve yourself in other engagements and then ASUU calls off the strike right in the middle of your new found love”, said Ebunoluwa, a 400-level student of Visual Arts at University of Lagos.

Ebunoluwa had coped with previous strikes by taking on commissions and interning in as many places as she could. At the beginning of the year, she quit her full time remote job to focus on what was supposed to be her final year, only for the strike to start one month later. “It’s very depressing. I don’t like to overthink it. This time, I’m looking for a full time remote job that I can hopefully continue to do even when the strike is called off”, she expressed.

Also expressing her dislike of the constant disruption caused by the calling on and off of strikes, Titiladun Ala shared, “Yes. It gives you time to explore other things. But you also can’t even be fully engaged cos the strike can be called off anytime and then you have to leave everything”.

Some other students express mixed feelings about the strike. While it delays their education, they are a bit happy about it because they have more time to “make money” and pursue what they had already started to keep them busy. Shalom Tewobola is one such student who expresses joy at the freedom the strike has afforded her. She recently obtained a scholarship to learn UI/UX design—much different from her Chemistry program—and is elated she now has time to focus on that.

For a student like Moyosore Onipede who works in the entertainment industry, the strike gives her a lot more time to do her work. “Sometimes, I’m very, very angry, but sometimes I’m just like it just gives me more time to do other stuff, and that’s because I’m working”.  Conversely, for students who don’t have anything to do at home and see school as an escape, the strike is immensely devastating.

Moyosore also said she’s been so busy that she hasn’t really paid attention to the effect of the strike, but the fact that she’s still a student is always hanging on top of her head. The unpredictability can be a big hindrance to planning sometimes. She fears that she might not be able to adapt her sleep and work schedule into the school system once the strike is called off.

How Strikes Affect the Quality of Nigerian Public Tertiary Education

The frequent strikes have caused a reduction in the quality of education that can be felt by both students and lecturers alike.

“Each time we resume, everybody is mentally tired and just trying to move on to the next semester. So everything is pretty much rushed, we get more assignments than actual lectures”, said Ebunoluwa when asked about how the strikes have affected the quality of her education.

Titiladun Ala had more to say about how the strikes affect lecturers and in turn, students. “I don’t know if the quality of the education was that great to start with, but the back and forths with ASUU and FG over the years definitely leave the entire union frustrated and demotivated and that spirals down to what they offer us”, she said.

Dr X shed more light on this. “Students are being kept out of classroom for 6 months, for no reason. There is no way they can keep up with their education. The strike creates a disjointed learning journey. Students are put under pressure to cover so much when they come back, so they just end up cramming to pass the exams. Because the calendar is being crashed to try to meet up and the curriculum is compressed, there is no opportunity for experiential learning or experimentation. A lot of pressure is placed on lecturers too”

Some, like Ayanfe Sogelola, question the point of even going to university in the first place. “Since the strikes, I have seemed to have lost that academic determination I had when I first got in . It really takes away the hope you have for wanting to practice a profession”, said Ayanfe. Shalom Tewobola even went as far as saying she felt like she had “dropped out mentally”.

Most of the students express that if they were given a chance, they would attend a private university but it feels like it’s too late since they are so far into their degrees. Private universities are not susceptible to strikes at all, however, they are significantly more expensive and often have restrictive rules for their students. For Moyosore, this restrictiveness would be a major obstacle to the flexibility that her work requires.

 

Nigeria’s federal institutions have an appalling track record of strikes. According to a report by Punch, ASUU has spent an aggregate of over 4 years on strike since 1999. The longest of these was the 9-month strike that spanned the whole academic year in 2020. “Many times, the government will sign memorandums, but in a month or two, they go back on it and ignore ASUU’s complaints. That has been the pattern”, said Dr X, expressing her fears that strikes would not stop reoccurring in the foreseeable future.

The Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUUP) also declared a two-week warning strike that will take effect from Monday, May 16. The union decided on this following the Federal Government’s failure to implement the June 2021 Memorandum of Action that was signed to end the two-month strike at the time. The major demands in the memorandum were the provision of a 15 billion naira revitalisation fund and the payment of  a 9 billion naira of unpaid debt to the accountant-general’s office – an amount that was accumulated over 10 months. Other labour unions in federal universities are also currently on strike.



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