Crises and Struggle of Tertiary Education Unions

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Fund Education Coalition meeting of ASUU and Take It Back activists at UI, 27/4/22

A wind of strikes is blowing across universities in the country. And these are warning strikes. The key demand of the different unions is for the federal government to honor collective agreements reached in 2009.

The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) started with a one-month warning strike on 14 February. This was extended by another two months due to the federal government’s dismissive response to the warning strike.

The National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT), on its part, called on its members to down tools for a week, starting from 21 March. 

And on 28 March, the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) and Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Allied Institutions (NASU) jointly kicked off a two-week warning strike on 28 March. The strike was subsequently extended by two weeks.

University education in crisis since SAP

This situation reflects the deep crisis in the country’s tertiary education and the hypocrisy of the ruling party, APC. It was evident that the education sector was in severe crisis before APC came to power in 2015.

But while the party had given a false impression that it would help alleviate the situation, the unfortunate reality of public tertiary education has gone from extremely bad to outrightly terrible under its watch.

From the primary to the tertiary level, public education has been grossly underfunded since the introduction of the structural adjustment program (SAP) in the mid-1980s. This period also marked a history of waves of strikes by unions in tertiary institutions, particularly ASUU.

Before this period, university teachers had only gone on strike once. This was in 1974, under the banner of the National Association of University Teachers (NAUT). In 1978, the relatively conservative NAUT, which had been formed in 1965 with just five universities, was replaced by ASUU.

This was also when NASU and SSAUTHARAI emerged when the federal military government reorganized the trade union movement. It aimed to be able to curtail trade union militancy, which had defined the 1970s. But, as history has shown, it was not successful.

The first ASUU strike was in 1988, with Dr. Attahiru Jega as the union’s president. The university teachers had three demands: implementation of an Elongated University Salary Scale (EUSS) to cushion the impact of their impoverishment due to economic structural adjustment; establishment of a Joint Negotiations Committee between the Federal Government and all the University Staff Unions; university autonomy; and enhanced funding of university education.  

Military repression of the unions and root of division

The military junta clamped down on the union to smash the strike. ASUU was proscribed on 7 August 1988 and all its properties were seized. Dr. Jega and his predecessor, the indefatigable Dr Festus Iyayi, were arrested, detained, and tortured. The passports of several leaders of the union were also seized.

While the main focus was on the stick, the military also used the carrot. All universities were directed to pay the EUSS ASUU had demanded, with the effective date of commencement of payment being January 1988. This meant eight months of arrears!

The lecturers went back to work. But ASUU activists did not abandon union organizing. They reorganized as University Lecturers Association (ULA). However, the seeds of division between ASUU and its sister unions in the universities might have been sown during this period.

NASU was never part of the strike and dissociated itself from it. SSAUTHURAI had been in alliance with ASUU but withdrew once the federal government threatened repression. This created bad blood, which contributed significantly to schisms in the union movement in the universities in the 1990s.

As the temporary incarnation of ASUU, ULA continued to challenge imperialist and local ruling class attacks on public tertiary institutions, even though it could not enter into negotiations with the government on employment relations issues. In this struggle, it worked closely with the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS).

A key example of such united actions was the joint mobilization of resistance by ULA and NANS against plans by General Ibrahim Babangida junta to collect a $120 million loan from the World Bank, with conditionalities that would have largely limited university education to “technical” courses.  

The ban on ASUU was lifted in 1990. The following year, it called for negotiations on working conditions and the state of the universities with the government. But the government did not negotiate in good faith. It eventually suspended talks in May 1991 and unilaterally declared a new salary package for the university teachers.

This government approach set the context for a series of strikes in the 1990s, starting in 1992 and culminating in the ban of ASUU, NASU and SSANU, which had just been formed in 1993, by the Sani Abacha junta in 1996.

The three unions were unbanned in 1998 by the Abdulsalam Abubakar junta. This was in the spirit of the transition to civil rule. But any hope that things would be better for working-class people in general or public tertiary education under civil rule would soon crumble.

Worsening situation under civil rule

The civilian rulers have been as concerned more with the deep pockets that they stuffed and continue to stuff with billions of naira, than with funding education. They have also proved to be even worse than the military in terms of (dis)respecting collective agreements.

Meanwhile, the expanded democratic space – for what it is worth – creates opportunities for sustained organizing by unions. It is more difficult for a supposedly democratic government to ban unions as military juntas did in the 1990s.

Older unions like ASUU, NASU and SSAUTHURAI could be bolder in making their just claims, as well as SSANU and other newer unions formed as associations in the 1990s.

These include the National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT), which was formed as the Association of University Technologists of Nigeria (ASUTON) in 1992, and transformed into NAAT in 2006, as well as the Academic Staff Union of Research Institutes (ASURI), that has been at the heart of a strike since November 2021.

The leading role of ASUU is, however beyond dispute. The main reason for this is ASUU’s strong culture of internal democracy which sees full participation of branches and members in decision-making. And this is buttressed by a heritage of radical convictions.

With these, ASUU has a greater capacity and inclination to mobilize in defense of its members’ interests and salvaging public tertiary education. The result of this, if it could be so put, is that ASUU has gone on strike at least 16 times since 1999. A few of these have been for some weeks. Most have been for several months.

The other university unions might not have organized half as many strikes as ASUU. But the strikes they have organized have been with some extent of unison. SSANU and NASU have collectively carried out industrial action as a “Joint Action Committee.”

And borrowing from the model of the Joint Health Sector Unions (JOHESU), NASU, SSAUTHRIAI and ASURI have in recent times constituted themselves into a Joint Research and Allied Institutions Sector Unions (JORAISU).

However, this has not been sufficient to project workers’ power in this sub-sector of tertiary education. The strike there that has been on for about half a year is almost invisible to the public. And the government seems to care less about it.

“All promises cancelled” – a luta continua!

Maj Gen Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) and other APC leaders condemned PDP when it was the ruling party for being insensitive to ASUU demands. In an old video recently gone viral, Buhari said that it was a shame for President Goodluck Jonathan of the PDP to have spent N7 billion naira for a national confab when ASUU was on strike instead of using such money to meet the lecturers’ demands.

Over the last seven years that the shoe has been on the APC’s foot of General Buhari, we have seen the same attitude as the PDP’s: lies, blackmail, and contempt for collective agreements. All the party’s pre-2015 promises to adequately fund social services (such as education and health) have been canceled.

In 2016, when APC implemented its first national budget, 7.9% of budgetary provision was set aside for education. Since then, except for 2019 (the next election year!), the proportion of the annual budget for education keeps falling.

It is 5.4% in 2022, the lowest in seven years of the regime’s reign. This is despite the promise made by the government at the July 2021 Global Education Summit in London to meet up with the global benchmark of 20% budgetary provision.

While universities and public education, in general, remain underfunded, the federal government keeps licensing private universities at an astonishing rate. There were less than 47 private universities when the regime came to power.

By last year, there were 79 private universities for children of the rich. Apart from being assured of uninterrupted academic sessions, these were also centers to bond and establish “old boys/girls” connections to help them through life.

But even these schools are not good enough for the top echelons of the ruling class. The children of the super-rich, including the top politicians all, attend the best universities in Europe and North America.

Virtually all the president’s children, for example, attended universities in Britain. The same goes for leaders of the national assembly and most governors. That is why they are less concerned with the abysmal degradation of the education system.

ASUU has remained resolute in its fight against this slide of public university education into the abyss. It has been unflagging in its efforts to salvage the system as well as in defense of its members. This has inadvertently meant continued strikes.

After a nine-month strike in 2020, the federal government reached a Memorandum of Action to implement the 2009 agreement with the union. But it has refused to take any action in line with the memorandum. That is what set the stage for the current warning strike and what might be another long-drawn strike after that.

Building a united front to salvage public education

From their first strike in 1974 till date, university lecturers’ demands have essentially been three-fold; improved salaries and working conditions enhanced funding of public universities and university autonomy.

While the situation has been most terrible with the APC, every government has refused to address these demands over the last half a century. These clearly show that there is no section of the ruling class that we can rely on to address the crisis in the education sector.

Some would argue that the main focus of SSANU, NASU, SSAUTHRIAI, NAAT, ASURI, and ASUU has been their members’ wages and working conditions. Assuming that this was true, it would still be legitimate.

The primary concern of a trade union is to defend the welfare and interests of its members. We thus cannot but support the strike actions of each of the unions unequivocally.

And we must also point out that, apart from the legitimate demands for improved wages and working conditions, the struggle of these unions has also won some concessions.

A good example of this is the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND), which has been beneficial to the sector’s development. But these concessions and improvements in the welfare of their members have been few and far between.

One of the reasons for this would be the fragmented nature of the struggles of the different unions. What is needed is a more united and strategic approach that brings together all the trade unions in the entire education sector, the students’ movement, and civil society allies.

The recent intervention of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) might be a step in the right direction.

In the second week of April, Congress convened a meeting of the leaderships of its affiliates in the tertiary education sector. These are ASUU, NASU, SSAN and NAAT.

In the communique issued after this meeting, NLC “called on the Federal government to immediately set up a high-powered panel constituted of members with requisite mandates to resolve within 21 days the preceding issues militating against industrial harmony in Nigeria’s university system.”

While this intervention could arguably play a stop-gap role, much more would be needed to address the crisis in the sector on a programmatic basis.

At the end of April, ASUU and Take It Back activists met at the University of Ibadan, as a Fund Education Coalition. The spirit of this initiative is instructive of the next steps that have to be taken at this stage.

An all-inclusive process of engagement of academic and non-academic staff and students’ unions in the sector needs to be initiated, to arrive at a shared strategy on how to “Save Public Education,” towards ensuring universal access to quality public education and decent work for education sector workers.

by Baba AYE

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