ASUU vs FG: When education becomes a burden

ON November 7, 2018, the Academic Staff Union of Universities, (ASUU) commenced an indefinite strike, over the non-implementation of the 2009 agreement executed between the Federal Government and the union. There is no hope in sight of the terminal period of the present strike by the teachers, save that the students, their parents and the nation are paying heavily for it.

Nigeria is a member of the United Nations (UN), which has established the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), primarily to promote education for all, with a mandate to lead the Global Education 2030 Agenda through Sustainable Development Goal 4. It is prescribed by the UN that all members-states shall make reasonable efforts to allocate not less than 26 per cent of their annual budget to education. This is so because the UN and indeed all of humanity now consider education as a human right. This stems from several declarations and conventions, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which recognises the right to free, compulsory primary education for all, an obligation to develop secondary education accessible for all and an obligation to develop equitable access to higher education, by the progressive introduction of free higher education, as encapsulated in Article 26 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights and replicated in Articles 13 and 14 of International Covenant on Social and Cultural Rights.

It is in the light of all the above that Nigeria declared its educational objectives in section 18 of the 1999 Constitution as follows:

“Government shall direct its policy towards ensuring that there are equal and adequate educational opportunities at all levels.

“Government shall promote science and technology.

“Government shall strive to eradicate illiteracy; and to this end, Government shall as and when practicable provide: (a) free, compulsory and universal primary education; (b) free secondary education; (c) free university education; and (d) free adult literacy programme.”

Nigeria has always made feeble attempts to implement the UN Charter on Education. Indeed, in the early 1970s, we had the Universal Primary Education (UPE), through which most governments in the regions adopted free education. In the South-West in particular, Chief Obafemi Awolowo made free education his priority programme, with tremendous results in human capital development. Till date, most states in the South-West of Nigeria have compulsory free education at the elementary stages. In Lagos State, for instance, Section 9 of the Education Law of Lagos State provides that “tuition in either a primary or a secondary school shall be free of charge,” and it imposes a jail term of 18 months upon anyone who receives or obtains any fee or levy as tuition. In 2004, the Federal Government of Nigeria enacted the Universal Basic Education Act, which makes provision for basic education. The Act also provides for the establishment of the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) to co-ordinate the implementation of the programme, at state and local government levels, through the State Basic Education Board (SUBEB) and the Local Government Education Authority (LGEA). The Education Tax Fund was also established.

Having laid the right foundation for basic education, the reasonable expectation then would be to catapult such huge investment into profit by consolidating the gains thereof, at the higher levels of education. Given the huge investments involved in the establishment and sustenance of higher education, it became part of the basic responsibilities of government, leading to the establishment of several colleges, polytechnics and universities in the early 1960s and 1970s, by the Federal Government. Due to lack of funding and total abandonment, most of these institutions have since become a shadow of their glorious pasts. Some photographs were sent to me recently of some halls of residence in Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, with decrepit toilets and empty rooms, where students sleep on mattresses spread on bare floors.

When the students’ movement was vibrant and assertive, they took up successive governments on funding of education. But given the eclipse of that revolutionary group over the years, the teachers have been most vociferous in the clamour for quality education at the higher levels. ASUU has been at the forefront of this struggle, which has now become more of a ritual. Matters came to a head in 2009, after a protracted strike by ASUU, which led the Federal Government to execute a comprehensive agreement, basically “to address the identified rot in the university system, as evidenced in dilapidated infrastructure and poor conditions of service for all categories of staff.” The Federal Government team was led by the late Deacon Gamaliel Onosode, who was once the Pro Chancellor of the University of Ibadan.

The comprehensive agreement addressed the issues of non-salary Conditions of Service; pension for academic staff and compulsory retirement age; establishment of a pension management company; establishment of National Health Insurance Scheme; funding for universities, aggregated to a cumulative N1.5 trillion, between 2009 and 2011; university autonomy and academic reforms, by which government pledged non-interference in the statutory powers of all levels of university authorities; prohibition of appointment of sole administrator in any Nigerian university and maximum six months non-renewable tenure for principal officers appointed in acting capacity; to amend certain legislations directly affecting university administration, especially the JAMB Act, NUC Act, Education Act, etc, all for which Amendment Bills were proposed and annexed as Appendix V to the agreement; and to set up an implementation committee for the execution of the terms of the agreement.

This was 10 years ago in 2009 and it is a marvel that a strike is still required to execute an agreement duly executed by the presumed representatives of the Federal Government. Of course it is not in doubt that ASUU played itself into the hands of government through this agreement, being an unenforceable document with no binding capacity. The signatories to the agreement were Dr Wale Babalakin, SAN, then chairman, Committee of Pro Chancellors of Federal Universities; Deacon Gamaliel Onosode, Chairman, FGN/ASUU Re-negotiation Committee and Professor Ukachukwu Awuzie, President of ASUU.

First, pro chancellors of universities cannot be said to be legal representatives of the Federal Government to execute an enforceable agreement. The minister of education who set up the process of the negotiations should be the appropriate person to sign on behalf of government or the Attorney-General of the Federation or Secretary to the Government of the Federation. Second, since the agreement itself dictates autonomy and freedom for all statutory organs of the university, it is taken that the chairmen and members of Governing Councils of the universities are all part of the university. How then can two pro chancellors claim to be executing an agreement purportedly on behalf of the Federal Government? The legal consequence is that the agreement is an internal document of the universities, executed by two pro-chancellors and ASUU president; it has nothing to do with the Federal Government!

Third, with the nature of politicians that occupy government positions, any agreement with itinerant public officers should immediately be forwarded to the National Assembly to be properly documented, enacted, assented to and duly gazetted, or else in 10 years from now, we will still need another ASUU strike to implement any agreement that may be reached, even now. A government that is led by a political party that has openly denied and reneged upon its own manifesto, cannot be trusted to be faithful to any agreement that has no force of law.

Given the statutory obligations of government in respect of education, it is not expected that an industrial action would be required to implement that responsibility. However, when one considers the record of strikes executed to get the present government to respond to issues, expecting any premium upon quality education without a conscious struggle from all stakeholders will most probably be a sojourn in the dreamworld. The future and success of any nation depends largely on the value it places on education in all its ramifications. That is why the strike by ASUU cannot be faulted for now.

However, deliberate efforts must be made on the side of ASUU to translate the gains of each strike into a workable template that will allow resort to other alternative methods of enforcement, by avoiding the legal pitfalls of the 2009 agreement. If it will take a whole year to lock up the schools in order to achieve a holistic solution and overcome the various challenges of securing quality higher education by all means, let us do so and then ensure that the result of such revolutionary effort is enduring, permanent and enforceable. If it is becoming difficult for labour to sustain a strike, if it has become herculean for lawyers to enforce a boycott and for civil society to embark upon simple protests, on account of the perfidious infiltration by renegade “comrades” and treacherous progressives who have now adorned the political space to pollute and frustrate all mass-based agitations, I see an ASUU strike becoming impossible in years to come. For now, however, we all declare support for the ASUU strike, so that education will not remain a burden to us all.