Monday, November 2, 2020 12:35 am
By Hope Eghagha
The last time I made a public comment on the ASUU and federal government ding-dong affair titled ‘ASUU Members as National Farmers’, my tongue was in my cheek. That is, I entertained my readers (I think) to no end. This at the expensive expense of the Education Minister of State, judging from the reactions I received from different persons and the number of times the essay was forwarded. I was an ‘Alawadite’ in that essay. And for good measure I enjoyed the barbs because I caught myself laughing when I reread the essay! It was an expensive joke, you know! One could easily have been misunderstood! We know what once happened to a poet who wrote bad verses! Nigeria is very hot now especially with the youths whose tempers are boiling like a volcano and we must mean what we say and say what we mean! So there!
Today, for clarity, my hungry tongue has been brought out of my lean cheeks and I intend to make plain comments on welfare for ASUU members. My thesis is simple: ASUU should henceforth focus only on the welfare of its members. I refer to bread and butter issues! Nigeria has become a place where only bread and butter matter. How else can we account for the monthly Naira-millions which a Nigerian senator takes and the odd monthly-five-hundred-thousand Naira that a professor takes home at the peak of his profession? And except we carry out the fight no one will remember us in the kingdom!
I am sure some of my colleagues and Nigerians will take umbrage with the ‘selfish’ thrust of my thesis. That should not be a problem. I recall what a professor told me in 1992 when ASUU was negotiating with government so that a professor could take home six thousand naira monthly. At that time the average monthly pay of the academic was about one thousand naira. ‘Young man’, he said, ‘where do you think government can get that kind of money? He was worried about government that did not care a hoot about him!
The Jega-led ASUU executive negotiated a monumental increase in wages for lecturers that year after an emir was reported to have observed that he paid some of his palace guards one thousand naira monthly! Whether this anecdote is true or false I do not know. The rest is history. At the core of my presentation is the folkloric Urhobo saying which crudely translated means ‘ours is ours, but mine is mine! It was Achebe who eloquently advised us not to be forced into a situation where we ‘can only enter our house through another man’s door! ASUU, it is the salary that will be ours! That is why we have it as our union; not the nation’s union!
The salary structure of academics is a welfare issue. The state of infrastructure and equipment in the universities is primarily the business of government or the proprietors. Strictly speaking, it is NOT the business of any union to press for more lecture rooms or laboratories to be constructed and furnished. Students’ unions should demand these of the proprietors. Of course, we all recollect why and how ASUU started the struggle for government to pay attention to learning conditions in the universities. No one can fault ASUU on that. Classroom space and numbers were inadequate. Some universities had no lecture theatres. Students sat on and still sit on the floor to receive lectures in some institutions. Hostel accommodation was below standard, dehumanizing in some cases. ASUU, standing in loco parentis, seeing the gradual erosion of the facilities and standards which some of us met in the university, decided to cry out. The problem now is that whereas infrastructure has improved, welfare and emoluments have remained stagnant. ASUU has cried more than the bereaved! Hehehehehehe!
When I mention welfare, I think of the value of all the allowances, for example, hazard allowance or postgraduate supervision and all the earned allowances. Or travelling for international conferences. One could serve as Head of Department for three years and earn nothing for those years. Something is wrong. A union is as strong and healthy as its members. Too many members have suffered in silence as the earning power of the academic is daily eroded. Side hustles save the day when one is in a city that can provide alternative sources of income. In some universities, a retiring professor’s salary is stopped three months to retirement for accounting purposes! Callous. Inefficient! Foolish, very foolish, in these days of computerized accounting!
I dare say that since after 1992, what ASUU has been trying to do is to enter its house through another man’s door! Simply put: the 1992 agreement which gave academic staff a decent salary at that time has long been eroded by prevailing economic and political factors. Inflation is the main cause of the erosion. Through the years, ASUU has definitely fought for improvement in university conditions. But the pre-1992 slogan ‘my take home pay does not take me home’ needs to be resurrected and vigorously pursued. When next ASUU calls its members out on a strike, lecturers’ salaries should be, must be on the front burner. I am familiar with the argument that salaries can easily be slashed or taxed whereas allowances cannot be taxed or slashed. The reality on the ground is that the basic salary structure of academics is due for a radical review. The mechanism that is supposed to adjust salaries of academics has failed as far as I know!
So, when next ASUU calls out its members or contemplates a strike, a salary review must be included on the list of demands. And that should be soon! Academics have made enough sacrifice for the nation, yet there is little appreciation from the public. A PhD holder who is Lecturer 11 in the university takes home less than one hundred and fifty thousand per month! None of our children want to take to university teaching seeing how their daddies struggled to make ends as highly-educated but poorly remunerated workers. I read a post somewhere when a bright guy changed his mind about taking up lecturing after he stumbled on the pay slip of his professor! It is not a joke. By training, academics are usually reticent about money matters. Job satisfaction is crucial, even fundamental. That moment, those years when one engaged young minds on intellectual issues, teaching, lecturing cannot be quantified in monetary terms. The feeling
Finally, I commend ASUU for the long years of struggle and tenacity, holding together all academics under one umbrella despite regional, religious, or ethnic differences. Only private universities have stayed out of ASUU. ASUU can manage diversity better than our regular politicians. I recall the forty-eight hours (all day and all night) NEC meeting in Maiduguri during the June 12 crisis and how wisdom prevailed in the end so that that imbroglio would not split ASUU. The communiqué that came out was a study in brinksmanship. It etched a mark in my memory on crisis management based on a deep understanding of the overall interest of a group. ASUU now requires that ancient wisdom to handle the stomach infrastructure question of academics as we position the university system to meet the demands of the 21st century in a largely mercantile and rapacious world.
-Professor Hope Eghagha writes from the University of Lagos