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ASUU: Lessons From Averted Train Workers Strike In USA

ASUU Strike
ASUU Strike
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September 20, (THEWILL) – The strike by teachers in our tertiary institutions under the trade name, Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, has been going on since February.

That is in excess of seven (7) months or over half of a year and still counting.

And the authorities appear to have been running around in circles with no end to the strike until it had to exercise the option of suing ASUU to court, where it hopes to get justice.

In the United States of America, where l have been in the past three (3) weeks, workers for critical train services-Amtrak, etc, which is the backbone of the country’s economy, transportation-wise, only threatened to go on strike, and the government apparatchik literarily went on an overdrive to ensure that the industrial action does not happen.

In other words, when US train workers coughed, the authorities caught a cold and a cure was administered with alacrity.

Guess why train workers in the US wanted to go on strike – they are demanding about four (4) things, amongst which is paid sick leave. Not salary increase and other fundamental welfare packages which are being agitated for by Nigerian tertiary institutions lecturers. Can you imagine that?

Now, having weighed the cost of a crippling strike by train workers on the economy, basically because it is the backbone of logistics in the country, the authorities engaged the workers in marathon negotiations that produced an interim agreement that aborted the strike.

To see if there are lessons to be learnt, let us compare the situation in the US to the case of Nigerian school teachers, who have been on strike as a result of the government’s failure to keep to the terms of the agreement entered into with their union many years ago.

Now, Nigerian university lecturers’ contention is the absence of conducive working conditions which are making it increasingly difficult, if not impossible for them to discharge their duty effectively, and for students to, as it were, optimally gain knowledge from the lecturers who have been unable to do so, owing to the litany of challenges including poor welfare packages hindering their ability to deliver maximum performance.

Keeping in mind the criticality of the role of teachers in society, where they are the purveyors of knowledge required to sustain growth and development, the negative effect of their going on strike for a period of over seven (7) months and counting, is an occurrence that has practically paralysed tertiary education in our beloved country, which cannot be overemphasised.

But unlike the USA, where the authorities including president Joe Biden, prevented the strike from happening by engaging with the aggrieved train workers Union in meetings that lasted over the night and in excess of twenty hours in a stretch, before the deadline, leading to an agreement to call off the strike – Nigerian government officials and ASUU members appear to be insensitive to the plight of the students, who are being denied education.

Understandably, the striking teachers that are making a legitimate demand for better working conditions have the right to ask for better take-home pay as a reward for their hard work.

Hence, they are contending that they are being shortchanged by the government, which has allegedly been reneging on its pact with ASUU to make their task of teaching less drudgery.

By the same token, the government is most likely handicapped, hence, it has been unable to deliver on its promise made, not necessarily by the incumbent, but by past governments.

And the incapacity of the authorities, and if you like, infidelity of government is owed largely to the unanticipated circumstances of dwindling revenue flow into the economy which has arisen from a cocktail of calamities such as the Covid-19 pandemic that has slowed down the global economy since 2019, now exacerbated by the Russian-Ukraine war, which has further worsened the precarious condition of economies of nations worldwide, and capped in Nigeria by massive stealing of crude oil, which is the main source of the economy, hence, the country has become more or less insolvent as it is hemorrhaging financially.

Given the foregoing scenario, it would be clear to all that both ASUU and the government have legitimate and justifiable reasons for taking their respective tough positions, which are ASUU going on strike and the government going to court, having failed to secure an out-of-court settlement.

But above justifying their actions from their narrow, even selfish, and hard stance, there is a need, more than ever, for both parties engaged in the feud to stop and think about the consequences of such a prolonged strike action that is having a negative impact on our children in the short run, and society in the long run.

Inevitably, Nigeria as a country must ultimately suffer the consequences of the current avoidable lecturers versus government impasse, whose impact may not be felt immediately, but which is a recipe for catastrophe, when the hordes of school drop-outs become ready tools for nefarious ambassadors such as the promoters of religious insurgencies, ranging from Boko haram, ISWAP, and ethnic nationalism agitators, to criminal gangs including kidnappers for ransom, as well as evil ritual practitioners that use humans for money, which is a nihilistic act being embraced by our youths in droves and a phenomenon driven by idleness arising from the closure of schools.

It should be recalled that the alarming number of out-of-school children in our country did not happen overnight before becoming a global issue, as it is currently being highlighted by United Nations International Children Emergency Fund, UNICEF.

Sadly, it culminated in a crisis after being allowed to fester when our youths were denied education, especially in the North, through the imposition of Boko haram doctrine on the populace over the years.

It is trite to state that the consequences of an uneducated society can be dire.

In Nigeria it is reflected by the devastating and horrendous effect of insecurity of lives and properties being perpetrated by criminal elements earlier listed, who would easily source converts from the army of uneducated youths, owing to our broken education system.

So, in the light of the foregoing, the reality is that since both members of government and ASUU would remain Nigerians, we all would sooner or later suffer the consequences of our present actions and inactions, if our wards continue to be out of school due to strike actions by lecturers which relevant authorities fail to prevent or act quickly to end.

As a consequence, the youths could join the growing ranks of outlaws that have made criminality a lucrative industry in our country that is currently teetering on the brink.

It is worth restating that the Nigerian society is currently broken, and it did not suffer the fractures overnight.

Rather, the calamity that is currently bedevilling the country is a fallout of a series of missteps by successive administrations.

And this is symbolised by the current uncompromising posture of both the government and ASUU, to amicably resolve the ongoing labour imbroglio, which has led the country into the current bind from which it must try harder to extricate itself.

By and large, the benchmarking of the tale of the seven (7) months old teachers’ strike in Nigeria and the averted train workers strike in the US, is with a view to identifying what lessons Nigeria can learn from the US on how it averted a potentially crippling strike.

Hopefully, Nigerian authorities and tertiary institutions lecturers would find encouragement in the American experience and redouble efforts to end the ongoing strike that commenced in February, which has defiled resolution, thereby jeopardising the future of our children who are the leaders of tomorrow.

It may be argued by skeptics that comparing a proposed strike action that was averted in the US to an ongoing downing of tools by lecturers in Nigeria is an anathema.

But the approach or methodology that the US adopted in negotiating the prevention of the train workers’ strike in their country can be instructive to their Nigerian counterparts, who hopefully would be inspired enough to borrow a leave or two from their peers in the US.

That is basically the underlying reason for this comparative analysis.

For instance, in contrast with the case in Nigeria, president Joe Biden was said to have been directly involved in the negotiations that averted the strike in the US.

Perhaps, if President Buhari had also been engaged directly in resolving the dispute at the early stage, it would not have degenerated to the level it has currently.

That is why l was struck by the recent leadership shown by president Buhari when he held a meeting with the association of vice-chancellors of state-owned universities with a view to preventing the educational system in our country from total wreckage via the extended truncation of the education of our children.

In fact, l deem Mr president’s direct intervention as signifying light at the end of the tunnel. Although somehow late, it is certainly a game changer.

For too long, our president has not been leveraging his huge personal charisma and large followership to influence outcomes in non-partisan matters such as the dispute presently wrecking our educational system.

There is this sense of aloofness of president Buhari in governance that makes me feel that his handlers, for too long, forgot or neglected to utilise his cult figure image of being ‘Mai gaskiya’ to manage situations like the crisis in the educational sector.

I can bet that the striking lecturers would kowtow to President Buhari if he implored them to sheath their swords and personally make promises to them about an amicable resolution of the conflict.

That is because I am convinced that Buhari’s persona, despite the failures of his government, is still worth its weight.

As a matter of fact, l am optimistic that a direct intervention by Buhari like Biden did in the US, would quicken the resolution of the imbroglio.

Another notable thing about how the US prevented train workers’ strike, is that all the issues were not taken together, but they were dealt with one by one.

It may be recalled that the petroleum industry bill recently passed into law under president Buhari’s regime was on the table without passage for nearly two decades because the issues were lumped together.

Until they got unknotted and separated under the watch of the minister of state for petroleum, Chief Timipre Sylva, the bill could not be passed into law. So the issues in the ASUU strike need to be dealt with individually.

Also, independent negotiators were used to carrying out the negotiations in the US.

This is as opposed to the abortive attempts to end the teachers’ strike situation in Nigeria through only the efforts of officials of the ministries of education, labour and productivity.

In that regard, l recommend that the likes of Adams Oshiomole, ex-labour leader and now a partisan politician, should be engaged, just as the services of other notable labour leaders, who are still around should be procured to negotiate the end to the protracted ASUU strike.

Most importantly, as l have been emphasising in several media interventions, the management of education in Nigeria must change from old school to new school.

As a matter of urgency, the source of funding must change, as it is obvious that the government cannot sustain the current approach.

That is why the four (4) trillion naira dedicated towards subsidising the pump price of petrol in the 2022 national budget should be channelled into funding education.

As l have underscored earlier, it is universally agreed that it is better to subsidise production than consumption.

And we all know that education is a major input into the process of production.

By its very nature, it would benefit all members of society from top to bottom when education is available freely for all, than when the pump price of petrol is subsidised.

The benefits of the policy of investing heavily in education is evidenced by the pole position of the people of old western and midwest regions in terms of education when compared to their counterparts in the Eastern and Northern regions.

Free education which was one of the cardinal policies of the then premier of the western region, late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was like a magic wand that put the Yoruba nation head and shoulders above their peers.

If Nigeria elects to pump the N4 trillion into funding education instead of wasting it by subsidising the pump price of petrol, which is more or less like pouring water into a basket, the tendency that Nigeria would be turning out a tremendous number of excellent Human Resources is incontestable.

It was Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, that had drawn Nigeria’s attention to the potential of its tremendous Human Resources, evidenced by its huge youth population which has remained largely unharnessed.

But instead of working towards partnering with Bill Gates to invest in our youths, Nigeria treated his wake-up call with askance.

And it seems as if some of the leaders of our country are still closet Boko Haram (against Western education which enables them to lead adherents of religion by the nose), hence, they scoffed at the idea of investing heavily in boosting the skill and knowledge acquisition by our youths as proposed by Mr Bill Gates.

Today, Nigeria is suffering from the negative side effects of the present youth bulge, which is being complicated by the shutting down of higher education institutions in Nigeria.

As the saying goes, the idle mind is the devil’s workshop. So youth restiveness and their propensity to engage in sundry unwholesome practices would potentially be a direct consequence of a long period of closure of schools.

It is common knowledge that the current trend of most Nigerian parents, (even those below middle class) sending their children to school in Ghana, Benin Republic, and other neighbouring countries, is a direct consequence of the unending school closures in Nigeria, owing to persistent ASUU strikes.

It is needless to point out that the practice constitutes a major drain pipe to our country’s treasury and economy, as capital in the form of school fees is being exported unnecessarily to the countries where we send our children to acquire basic education.

The 2020 #Endsars street protests, which was basically about youth outrage against poor leadership ostensibly triggered by police brutality against them, is also a consequence of the failure of imagination by our political leaders.

It is that energy that is currently driving the political consciousness of our youths, who possess the latent capacity to be positive disruptors of the political status quo in Nigeria via the 2023 general elections.

Is it not such an irony that while our youths are languishing and education is dying, the rich are being buffeted with N4 trillion petrol subsidy largesse?

It is common knowledge that subsidising petrol pump prices benefits mainly the rich more, simply because most poor people do not own cars or vehicles that consume the 60-70,000 liters of petrol that is being bandied around as the volume being consumed by Nigerians on a daily basis. Meanwhile, the poor, who are on the lower rung of the ladder, only utilise kerosine for cooking and the quantity is nothing compared to the volume of PMS consumed by the rich.

Little wonder the quantity consumed is hardly in the news.

A reversal of the petrol subsidy policy and channelling of the resources into education certainly holds the potential for ending the prolonged ASUU strike and lifting the education sector out of darkness and by extension, our country from the abyss.

And if President Buhari can make that decision, l can wager a bet that he would be forgiven by Nigerians for all the ‘sins’ that he is deemed to have committed in his soon to be eight (8) years tour of duty, as the number one occupant of Aso Rock Villa when he exits power on May 29, 2023.

In the manner that US president, Ronald Regan, urged his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, to symbolically end the Cold War by removing the wall separating east and west, while he was visiting west Berlin, he made the famous declaration “Mr Gorbachev tear down this wall.”

In like manner, l would like to make the following appeal: president Buhari, end the fuel subsidy regime and channel the funds into the education sector as loan to students.

With the loan, students would pay market rate and value as school fees, which would enable our educational institutions to pay the lecturers wages that are commensurate with their hard work.

The good news is that, as a loan facility to students, the converted N4 trillion would be like a revolving door of sorts, as the funds would be recycled when the students graduate, start working, and commence repayment of the loan for the future benefit of other students.

The gain of adopting such a practice is that it can have a multiplier effect on Nigeria, its economy, and society as a whole.

That is because students would acquire education, Nigeria would have an abundance of trained Human Resources to boost the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) locally, and also have enough to export to the world as expatriates, an occurrence which would facilitate more foreign exchange remittances from abroad into Nigeria.

Would that not be a win-win situation for all?

While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with disputes and conflicts, as reflected by the establishment of Tetfund, which is a product of ASUU, and numerous contentions with the government over the years, everything is wrong with allowing the dispute to degenerate into the monumental crisis that it is currently.

The good thing is that the current ASUU strike can have a happy ending if the government is magnanimous and teachers are gracious enough to harsh out an interim agreement and work towards a more robust and enduring panacea to the quagmire in the educational sector in the form of loans to students, which can be managed by consultants to government, who would disburse it to students at single digit interest rates, as it is done in the USA.

With the loan, students would pay the market rate for education and the institutions would then have enough funds to pay lecturers robust salaries, so that the decay in the education sector would end.

To validate the general understanding that petrol subsidy is the biggest albatross in Nigeria, below is what the Director General of the Budget Office of the Federation, Mr Ben Akabueze, had to say about it when he had the opportunity to share his sentiments which is that there was a need for our country to take urgent and decisive measures to avert public debt crisis occasioned by petrol subsidy, which has become malignant like cancer on the financial health of the country.

According to him, the removal of subsidy on Premium Motor Spirit (PMS) which is a typical example of subsidising consumption is imperative.

He was speaking on the topic: “The National Debt Burden: Causes, Effects and Realistic Economic Solutions” at the annual conference/awards of the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators of Nigeria (ICSAN),

Mr Akabueze revealed that “since 2020, public debt in Nigeria has risen to N32.9 trillion, equivalent to $86.4bn, It got to N39.6 trillion, equivalent to $95.8bn at the end of 2021 and this has risen to N41.6 trillion, equivalent to $101.1bn as of the end of March this year, while debt service approximately $7.7bn in 2021, an increase from N6.4bn in 2020, and because public debt is domestic debt, domestic debt service is also a significant proportion of debt servicing”

In my reckoning, petrol subsidy which has gulped multiple trillions of naira since 2016, is the biggest ‘419’ in the the Nigerian economy because as more funds are thrown into the gambit, the more funds are needed in successive years until it became certainly clear to all, including labour unions that it is unsustainable and must be discontinued.

Given the scenario painted above, how can the government keep its promise to university lecturers when the economy is in dire straits and stricken by the paucity of funds?

So, what better reason can the government have to scrap the petrol subsidy and divert the funds into funding education which is a critical component of the production process?

I have no scintilla of doubt in my mind that if president Buhari harkens to this noble call, Nigerians who are waiting with bated breath for the end to the ASUU strike would troop into the streets to celebrate him.

And his legacy which currently appears not to be cheery would certainly be dramatically boosted.

 

 

Magnus Onyibe,an entrepreneur, public policy analyst, author,development strategist, alumnus of Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Massachusetts, USA and a former commissioner in Delta state government, sent this piece from lagos.

To continue with this conversation, please visit www.magnum.ng