By Mahmud Jega
I hear that Academic Staff Union of Universities [ASUU] National President Emmanuel Osodeke is a professor of Soil Science. That is very good because it means he can appreciate a down-to-earth discussion. Since he is leading the third biggest fight in Nigeria right now [after the war against terrorists/bandits and the 2023 election war], I urge him to supplement his knowledge of soil science with a little reading of military history. As we learnt from Adolf Hitler, the biggest strategic mistake in war is to open a second front when war is still raging on the first front.
Osodeke did just that last week. Apparently irked by the question that some ASUU branches in state universities were pulling out of the six-months’ strike action, he reeled off names of the big federal universities that are still on strike. He then off-handedly referred to the ones that pulled out as quacks. Show moderator Reuben Abati gave him a chance to recant when he asked him if state universities are quacks. The ASUU leader affirmed what he said. Osodeke’s later claim that he was misquoted was forlorn, since a video of his remarks had already gone viral. Several ASUU branches and authorities of state universities reacted harshly to Osodeke’s remarks. Suddenly, like Hitler, he had opened a second front when war was still raging on the first front.
If indeed state universities are quacks, then Osodeke’s non-quack colleagues in federal universities are substantially responsible for it, because many of them teach in those varsities. Indeed, the authorities allege that ASUU’s main objection to IPPIS [never mind the alleged mind-boggling theft there under the former Accountant General] is because IPPIS will detect any name that appears more than once in the Federation-wide payroll and promptly delete it. With respect to the first front of this war, ASUU has already rolled over its strike twice, and some reports say that when the second roll-over expires this week, it will declare an indefinite strike.
That means indefinite no work, no pay. It looks like this time, the government is bent on enforcing the law and not acceding to the “non-victimisation clause” that has traditionally been the last item in government-ASUU agreements to end strikes. Non-victimization is a euphemism for paying salaries withheld during the strike period. That is illegal under the law. To ask the government to accede to it is to ask the President to set aside his oath to uphold all laws and willfully break one law. It is better instead to get the National Assembly to amend that section of the Trade Disputes Act, if possible. If Presidents reserve for themselves the power to break laws, there will be no end to it, and in the end, the same citizens will cry foul.
As a former ASUU member myself who used to sit in the staff common room and monitor the movement of salary vouchers from the middle of the month, I have a good idea of how poor lecturers’ salaries are and how tough things are for lecturers, even in the best of times. We had a colleague who was well informed on the voucher’s movement. He will say, “Today, it left the desk of Mr. Krishnan [Chief Accountant Payroll]. It is with Audit. It will go to Bursar tomorrow for cheque signing.”
In the long run, as former vice chancellor Prof. Tukur Sa’ad wrote, the dire situation should be alleviated through innovation, substantial reform and ample research funds, sourced from all over the world. Right now, the demand for one trillion naira to revitalise federal universities seem far-fetched because N1 trillion is nearly 6% of the cash strapped federal budget for this year, half of it borrowed, a huge chunk of it going to repay debt, one quarter of it going to subsidise fuel consumption, and the government still has a war to fight against terrorists, kidnappers and bandits. Removing fuel subsidy alone will help a lot, but then, which president will do that on the eve of general elections?
As to the matter of no work, no pay, Nigerian trade unions should better institute a system of Strike Funds, as in done in other climes. These are small amounts deducted from members’ pay, which is then invested and used to pay members’ salaries anytime the union embarks on strike. Of course the assumption here is that the union will go on strike once or twice in a generation, not every year, as has become ASUU’s tradition, and not for many months at a time. When British coal miners led by Arthur Scargill went on a year-long strike in the 1980s, they exhausted their strike funds but other unions across the world rushed in to help, including a 4 million pounds’ donation from the Soviet Union’s All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions. Here, apart from huffing and puffing in solidarity, even Nigeria Labour Congress has no money to donate to ASUU.
Before Prof Osodeke’s gaffe of a lifetime, the chief controversy in Nigeria last week, at least as blown to high heavens by social media activists, was regarding the suit that APC vice presidential candidate Kashim Shettima wore to the Nigeria Bar Association [NBA] Annual Conference in Lagos. It was very ironical that Shettima, who in his eight years as Governor of Borno, in the last three years as senator, in his previous life as a commissioner, top Zenith Bank manager, university lecturer and ASUU member, was best known for his profound speeches, compassionate care for IDPs, building of model schools and rebuilding of destroyed towns in addition to lightly embroidered Kanuri flowing gowns, will be assailed for unfashionable wear. While a photographer was busy capturing his sneakers, unbuttoned suit and long neck tie, Shettima also delivered the most profound speech at the conference. Good luck to the electorate if, in the upcoming race to Aso Rock, we give more attention to suits than to ideas about how to end insecurity and tackle poverty.
Comprehensive proof soon came, from the same NBA gathering in Lagos, that smartly-fitting suits, short neck ties and designer cover shoes do not in themselves gentlemen make. Videos went viral of “learned” lawyers rioting at the convention hall and breaking the booths. Why this show of shame? Allegedly because they paid for expensive conference bags and got substandard ones instead. What? Rioting because of a conference bag? Even though I am not “learned,” I have got dozens of bags that I got from attending conferences in the last decade alone. I never had to stand up from my seat before one was thrust into my hands, quite often at the registration desk before I even enter the conference hall. It was the final proof, if any was needed, that the hood does not make the monk. Fashionable suits, ties and shoes do not gentlemen make.
Last week was also the week of the Wike trip to, err, London. It was an impressive delegation that Governor Nyesom Wike led, including Governors Makinde and Ortom of Oyo and Benue states. There they held three high-profile meetings, with former president Olusegun Obasanjo, with Labour Party presidential candidate Peter Obi and with PDP presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar. Oga Wike, you mean all the gardens in Port Harcourt are not enough to host meetings until you go to, err, London? What is the meaning of this eclectic group that you met with? Two candidates on the same presidential ballot; are you going to vote for, err, both of them?
Speaking to reporters at the airport when they returned home, Ortom said they were on a rescue mission because Nigeria is in distress and they were gathering ideas about how to rescue it. Then why did you go to Britain? Oga Ortom, are you aware that the British are also looking for a solution to a big problem that they just created? Your quarrel with Atiku is even small. Ms. Liz Truss, who is most likely to become Prime Minister of Britain next month, opened a big quarrel with French President Emmanuel Macron when she said “the jury is still out” as to whether the French are friends or enemies of Britain. This Madam, who is also the British Minister of Foreign Affairs, does not believe that matters were settled at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, when the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon.
Remember, she is the Foreign Minister and she made this most undiplomatic remark. Which is a reminder to Oga Wike that degree certificates alone do not a good Foreign Minister make. He devoted half the time at his press briefing lambasting Alhaji Sule Lamido without mentioning his name, saying imagine a man with a secondary school certificate becoming Foreign Minister. Truss has a degree from Oxford but by picking up an unnecessary fight across the English Channel when the war in Ukraine is far from over, she behaved like ASUU. I am wistfully wishing for a down to earth Foreign Minister, down to the bag learned lawyers, down-to-the-speech [not suit and sneakers] reporters, and a down-to-the-soil ASUU President.
*Mahmud Jega, former Editor -in- Chief of Daily Trust, wrote this article originally for Thisday