ASUU: FG’s defiance killing university system —Omatseye

Founding president, Philosophy of Education Association of Nigeria (PEAN) and first chairman, National Directorate of Employment, Professor Jim Nesin Omatseye, speaks with EBENEZER ADUROKIYA on the ongoing face-off between the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the federal government among other sundry national issues.

ASUU has been on strike since February as a follow-up to past struggles between them and the federal government! But it now appears the union has been boxed to a wall. As an experienced academic, what’s your thought on the ongoing strike?

Before I retired, I was a member of ASUU for many years and the struggles we’ve had in the last three decades with the Nigerian university system is the lack of appreciation for what tertiary education is all about. The average Nigerian does not appreciate the work of the lecturers, professors and the university workers. A nation that does not appreciate the significance and the contribution of education towards national development is not likely to make progress; and that is precisely where we are. It is most unfortunate that the government that we’ve had in the last three decades (30 years) have really never appreciated education. The only time that we saw a government move in the direction and appreciate what tertiary education is, was during the Obasanjo era, where we were taken from the ground to a reasonable level and since then, subsequent governments after Obasanjo have not done much.

The worst of them all is the present one that we have. It is very unfortunate that for six months, these people in government have really not appreciated what to do to get ASUU back to work. Somehow, the money that ASUU is asking for is to improve the condition of learning in our universities. Salary is a small part of the ASUU demand.

When I was in service, I was teaching a course that was required by most students, sometimes I had 200-300 students in one lecture hall. Some were sitting on the ground and windows to take lectures and there were no microphones most of the time. An average Nigerian student is from a very poor home; they are not even sure of the three meals an average person should expect. Buying books is a problem, so is maintaining themselves and so, you don’t expect that these children can actually pay the fees that can sustain a university, ideally.

Universities should be a private enterprise, social service kind of thing, but because of the level of poverty in our country, we have left it to the government and they have not done enough to respond positively to the needs and aspirations of the people, so it is very unfortunate.

Somehow the money that we have in government is misused by politicians in government. Somewhere along the line, the average Nigerian senator is the highest paid in the world.

In the United States, Europe and the United Kingdom where there are legislators, they don’t make as much money as the Nigerian senators and House of Representatives members are making. So, our money is being diverted to areas where it is not as needed as the universities and education sector. That’s why the politicians, governors, presidents and so on are taking their children abroad to get good education and leave the children of the poor to suffer here.

As I speak, my last daughter has been at home for six months. I am not happy that she’s at home neither am I blaming ASUU for what they are doing. I’m not blaming ASUU, because some many years ago around the Abacha era, I had a reason to leave this country as a result of the harassment of the Abacha tyranny to go to the United States to teach. My salary before I left here was less than N1000 at that time. When I got to the US, the dollar equivalent that I was paid at Florida International University at that time, was five to six times what I was being paid in Nigeria. I looked at the money and I said: can a professor make this kind of money?

It would have been a situation, where I would have stayed back there in America and enjoyed that kind of money, but I chose to come back to serve this country. Thank God Obasanjo had improved things and things got better. But inflation and all of those things have wiped out those advantages we had before.

So, ASUU is not asking for too much and it is because the politicians don’t really care about the children of the poor in this country; because education is the bedrock of development in any country. And it should change because education is the bedrock of any development.


With the manner the FG handled the case last week after months of back and forth to the extent that the Minister of education is asking students to sue ASUU, doesn’t it appear the union is being boxed to the wall?

I don’t like the expression of ASUU being boxed to the wall. The average professor is an international person who can pick up his passport and go to Ghana, South Africa, US and find a job. But if we all leave, and I don’t think we all should leave, the university will collapse completely. And we don’t want that to happen. Not everyone can go to these countries where the pay is better. SSANU and NASU may go to work, but you need ASUU – the lecturers and the professors to be at work in order for them to have something to do. We have a proverb in Itsekiri: if your body is itching you and you scratch it too much, you’ll peel it. If we are to follow the insensitivity of the government that we have, with regard to education, and because they have little or nothing to lose, their children are not in the system, we will all continue to suffer, so will our children.


What do you suggest ASUU should do next?

My thinking at this point is that ASUU should be a little more flexible at this point. Up till this point, I don’t know any reasonable person, who is blaming the union for what they are doing. But again, when you’re right, sometimes you don’t press your case too hard, or else you would be blamed. So, I think the time has come, because, as people like Obasanjo have said about this government, this government can’t do better than they are doing now. We have to manage whatever we have and pray for a better government to come. But before then, our children have to be given the opportunity to go back to school, whatever is offered, though it may never be enough, let ASUU bend backwards and forward and sort of take it. Not because they are foolish or they are wrong, but because if you are dealing with an intransigent group of people who don’t care, you are going to lose everything and we don’t want to lose everything. That’s where I stand.


Given your experience in the US and Nigeria in academia, what are the things you think you have learnt that can be replicated here?

I honestly believe that the average ASUU person buys from the market that everybody buys from; they have children in the school and many cannot even afford to send their children abroad like the politicians do. But in terms of borrowing some ideas from abroad, it is a good thing now that private universities are coming into place. Because our government tends to mis-apply their financial priorities. As long as they take huge salaries, pay and allowances (imagine dress allowance makes no sense) that’s why it is important to flush out the current set of politicians that we have because of their insensitivity. I am not campaigning for anybody, but let people use their PVCs well to flush out these politicians and that is where we need to start.

The second thing is to pray for a government that will appreciate the contribution of education. The average American and European knows that education is very essential and it is sheer stupidity for some of our youths to even say education is a scam. Education, for God’s sake, is not a scam. Education is the basis for proper development. Those ones who have money without education are beginning to realise that today. It is not the certificate that you have that makes the difference, but it’s what you have in your head that makes all the difference. So, let us do whatever we can to put in place a government that is sensitive like the ones abroad that realise and know that education is key to national development.


There is a school of thought that believes that university education should be optional, what’s your take on this?

I agree that university is not for everyone, but it should be because the level of development where we are right now, secondary school education is no longer enough to carry you into the world of industrial technology and ICTs.

But little by little, we should be moving in the direction where university and education should be required. When you hear some of our politicians talk and behave, their level of education is a factor in the level of reasoning that goes into what they do. So, we need education.

I’m not saying that it’s only graduates that can think logically, but it’s very helpful.

University education may not be for everybody, but it should be for as many people that want to have it and it will help us a great deal. I wrote my PhD on the difference between the North and the South in terms of educational development 40 years ago. Things have not changed in 40 years in Nigeria. Because the killings that are going on in the North that is spreading to the South now, is as a result of the large number of uneducated people that have been produced in the North who are into terrorism. In the South where the situation is better, I don’t want to be tribalistic, but the Yorubas appreciate education very much.

The number of universities in the West is more than you can find anywhere and we give Awolowo the credit. Education matters and makes a difference and as much as possible, we should accept education as the bedrock of development.


The school of thought further insisted that universities should be allowed to manage themselves, do you buy this idea?

It should be a dual system. Let the private universities operate side by side with government owned universities. Only the federal government does not have universities in the United States. The states manage their own universities, but the other universities that are owned by churches and other individuals run side by side and so, the government is not 100 per cent burdened with the responsibility. Let them allow private universities to operate and the good ones will continue, and we have many good ones in Nigeria that are competing globally; so let the good ones attract people so that the burden is less on the government. But the government should not wash its hands off university education in Nigeria because of the high level of poverty that we have. That is where it should be.

It is believed that the quality of education in your time was higher than what we have now in spite of the technological advancements; can you compare education at your time with what we have now?

I don’t share the view that the quality of education then was higher than now. What the average Nigerian Senior Secondary School Student knows now compared to what the average secondary school person in our days knew, is hard to say which is better. As an educator, I’m not going to make that comparison; because with computers and technology now, you don’t go to the classroom and make statements that are not true or correct. Because students have a way of checking it out on google and the rest of information sources.

So, it is hard to say that the average Nigerian student is good, has more information and knowledge in terms of their exposure through computer and social media. It is hard to say we were better. Saying such is all mere sentiments to say that we were better in the 60s. My generation is trying to catch up with the computer, but that comparison is really not valid.


As an Itsekiri with much influence, what will be your assessment of the first year coronation anniversary of the Olu of Warri, OgiameAtuwatse III?

One year in any situation like we have in the kingdom is a short time. But within the one year that Atuwatse III has been on the throne is that he has demonstrated considerable interest in bringing needed changes in our kingdom. For many years, a lot of money came to the Itsekiri nation that went into private pockets. People made millions and billions, but the communities from where they came were left in abject poverty. The thugs, the uneducated and the wild ones who could use violence use their type of strategy to acquire money!

With that kind of thing, it is difficult for one individual to, overnight, change what people are used to doing. But this Olu is doing his best and it is an ongoing process.

The Petroleum Industry Act (PIA) that has been signed into law that is intended to put money into the development of various host communities is going to take money from the hands of those I described as charlatans and thugs who have been controlling the communities, and put it in the hands of reasonable and educated and more articulate people.

The battle has started because many of these so-called leaders in the communities are uneducated; they depend on violence and all of these things in order to maintain their grip on power and money coming into the kingdom. So, the Olu has a lot of work in his hands; it will take the determination of all Itsekiris to stand with him to salvage the situation and to remove these people who have millions from oil companies and gas companies in order for the money to be used well. It is unfortunate that our neighbours, the Ijaws and the Urhobos have used their resources reasonably well.


Do you think so? What do you mean?

I think so, because if you go to some Ijaw villages, they have steady light and water, but it’s not the same in some Itsekiri communities. This Olu is trying to change all these, though he’s being opposed already by these charlatans, Itsekiris must stand with him to salvage the situation from the hands of these people. Education is one of them; our neighbours have universities, but Itsekiris don’t.

So, at the end of the day, it is because a lot of our people do not appreciate the contribution that education brings. It will take a lot of convincing to get them to subscribe to the idea of using education as a way of changing our society and moving us forward. It is going to be a struggle, but we are going to do it as a people.

So, the Olu has done very well and it is a pity that he may not get the cooperation of all Itsekiris because of what the pattern has been on ground. Monies diverted, contracts awarded and not carried out, projects started are not completed and nobody is challenging them for doing what they are doing! I am an Itsekiri man; where my people are doing well I will say, but where they are not doing well and they should change, we should say.


Considering the influence the Itsekiris have, they’re well read, connected and influential; why should it take an Olu to subdue or redirect such hawks that are perpetuating poverty in the Iwereland?

It is unfortunate that it is that way. We have some well-educated Itsekiris who should have changed the situation, but the reason for not changing it is more political than anything else. These leaders would rather work with illiterates who are given to violence and enrich them in order for them to perpetuate themselves in power.

You know if you bring in an enlightened, educated person as an adviser they would tell you the truth, and so you would rather bring in an uneducated thug who will just do your bidding without giving you proper advice.

What is important is for us to begin to shift our focus to education. We were not always like this, Itsekiri used to be in the forefront. Itsekiri produced the first graduate Olu in the whole of West Africa and beyond. But today, the average Itsekiri boy wants you to believe that education is a scam and they look around those who have money around them that are stack illiterates and they would ask you if they had education before controlling the millions they are controlling.

We have no good role models, but thank God those of them who forged certificates are being called and flushed out.


The Olu’s first year coronation anniversary celebration spanned five days, which of the days did you attend and which was of most interest to you?

I was at the Thanksgiving Service which was the grand finale and it was very interesting. I saw the rest on social media; you know social media has brought everything to you (laughs). What I saw is that the Itsekiris love this king and the ordinary Itsekiri man and woman is ready to give his or her loyalty to this king and so on. We are only hoping that the elites would do so because as I said, many of them who reaped where they did not sow, are now going to be forced to rethink their strategy and ponder over how to live in a situation where they would be accountable. So, the trouble is going to come more from the elites than the ordinary Itsekiri man/woman who loves the Olu.


Have you met the Olu one-on-one and given him these pieces of advice and is he the type that listens to advice?

I have discussed all these with him. I have met him many times and he is a good listener. But don’t forget that as a leader, there are so many forces both negative and positive and how you choose who to listen to as a leader and what advice to take, makes all the difference. I know he listens to all and so far he has done very well.


What will you tell the Itsekiris home and abroad?

All that I am saying to everyone both at home and abroad is that this Olu has very good intentions and good plans for the Itsekiri people. A good plan does not automatically translate into success. It takes good people to translate good plans into a successful thing. What I am saying to the Itsekiris home and abroad is make your contributions towards the development of education, and one way of doing this is by developing education and investing in industries that will bring peace and progress and also for all to know that the time for self-centeredness is over.

Just like the whole country, people are tired of old politicians who are only concerned about themselves and so is the Itsekiris nation. Do things that will help the ordinary man and woman to live a better life. The level of begging and hunger is very very high today and it is not a comforting situation. We should do our best for people to live better and not depend on begging.


What kind of governor should we expect in Delta State come 2023?

The parties as far as I’m concerned, APC, PDP and what have you, are irrelevant. In a civilised society, parties are guided by certain ideologies. Ask the major parties what their ideology is, you would find out that they don’t have. That is why they can cross from one party to another as they wish. All APC and PDP members are all the same.

The kind of governor we should have should be well-educated and education is not all there is because there are some among them who are well-educated, but are very corrupt. Your record should speak for you; so parties are irrelevant as far as I am concerned. Identify individuals whose level of education, integrity and intelligence can make all the difference.

That’s why when I look at the current politicians, I will not drop my vote for anyone of these ones who are in power that have not done well at the state and federal level.

Education is important, but the few ones among them that kind of know what they are doing have been corrupt. Corrupt in the sense that their education does not make any difference to them. But I think the time has come when we should try new people whether at the presidential, senatorial level or state level. Let us try new people because the old guards have failed woefully.


How do you describe your ‘new’ people? Peter Obi for instance was governor for eight years?

When I say ‘new’ people, not ‘new’ in the sense that you have not been anything. If you read and see what is going on, a revolution is going on right now in this country. I don’t mean a violent one, though it has not reached the level of violence, but the young people in this country are telling my generation that we have failed. “We want to try people who are new and have a different orientation from what is going on right now. It is not age. Why would I believe that the present leadership of APC would be different from the one that is coming in when I cannot travel from here to Lagos without the fear of being killed or kidnapped on the way! It is not whether you’ve held office before or not; what does your record show in terms of integrity? Why should I believe that the incoming APC government will not be the same or worse than what we have now? It’s garbage in garbage out!


What should Nigerians do in this circumstance?

We should look at the past records of those contesting. Nigerians are not foolish; it’s only poverty and hunger that is our problem. What I am saying to Nigerians is that take their money and vote for whoever you know is not corrupt and can change this country.

When I say ‘their money,’ it’s not really their money, it is your own money that is being given back to you (laughs). I will take their money, but I will not vote for those that I know are corrupt.


What’s your take on the ‘obidient’ movement?

If you think what the young people are doing with “obidient” or whatever they call it is nonsense, a revolution is already on. What happened recently in Kenya is coming to Nigeria. The unexpected guy won. I’m not campaigning for any individual, but you know who has done what in the past among the three forefront presidential candidates. If your generation doesn’t vote for change and flush out all these rotten politicians in the coming elections, you will have yourself to blame.

I am happy that the young people of today are where they are and know what is going on and how much they have suffered. Religion and tribe do not matter, the identity of the person is what matters.


On insecurity, what do you think Nigerians should do to take back their country from insurgents and terrorists?

Let us go back to what we believe. I’m not saying what we know. We are told, whether it is true or not, that the borders of this country were thrown open to allow Fulanis from everywhere and at the end of the day, our country is flooded with people that are not even Nigerians and are being registered to vote.


Somewhere along the line, the people who are responsible for bringing in these people have candidates who are running either as vice president or president. What is the guarantee that if these people from this particular area get to power, that the trend of throwing our borders open will not continue?

I believe that those who are not from these areas, but know what the problem is and who are politically strong to stand their ground and do something to close the borders; and possibly send back those non-Nigerians that are responsible for kidnapping and killings. But do we have the political will to do that? Because if you look at our people, the people who said that the presidency must come to the South are now the ones fighting to be vice president of the Northerner. You are not going to get any relief from people like Okowa, Wike and all those in the South that want power for themselves by all means. If they tell you that they can change the situation from within, it’s a damn lie. Could Osinbajo do anything? If by the Grace of God somebody from the outside the north comes out and it’s going to be a tough battle, but he can do it. He is going to have challenges, but if he has a good sense of what to do, he can stop the inflow of foreigners into this country to come and vote and keep our system in perpetual poverty and insecurity.

Such people know what to do because what can be done cannot be primarily found within the four walls of this country. Get help wherever you can get help in order to turn this country around. That’s why those who are benefiting from the present situation are going to fight like hell in order to keep the situation the same.

In my opinion, the West, East, South South and Middle Belt have a big job ahead of them in order to change the situation.

Even though the killing is now mostly in the North, it’s coming south, because whether you call it islamisation or fulanisation, the essence is to acquire people’s land. The act is to take over the whole country. Security or no security, we know what to do. For those who think it won’t reach them, it will reach them. God forbid! The change is not going to come from a particular direction.


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