Giving A Dog A Bad Name In Order To Hang It: The Case Of The ASUU President

It was the late St Lucian (Caribbean) poet and Nobel Prize Laureate, Derek Walcott, who wrote: “You prepare for one sorrow, but another comes”. In that same vein, just as I was preparing these clarifications as a response to the cacophonic reactions to the supposed recent urging of Nigerian students by the ASUU President, Prof Emmanuel Osodeke, to vote out certain political parties, and to open our eyes to certain realities, a series of sordid incidents occurred mainly from the usual source: Dr. Chris Ngige and his misled team in government. While the clarifications by ASUU to the public on yesterday’s weird happenings continue their circulation, here is an explanation of the ASUU President’s exchange with the students.

In recent times there have been discussions, arguments, and even quarrels on both the mainstream and social media centering on a statement credited to the President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Prof Emmanuel Osodeke, during his interactions with some Nigerian students. In a characteristic situation of a melee, some allege that the ASUU President “incited the students against the government”, “incited the students against the ruling party”, “turned the students against the government”, “said the students should vote out the APC party”, etc.

Some further push it home to various destinations: “The ASUU President is partisan”, “ASUU is partisan”, “ASUU has become an opposition party”, “ASUU is against the ruling APC”, “ASUU sees itself as a parallel government”, and some even proceeded to the ridiculous extent of identifying the Union and or its President with a particular political party.

Among these extremely mischievous ones are those who, ignorantly, thought Prof Osodeke was an Igbo and hence, when they decided to frame him, they landed on the ludicrous choice of an Igbo name for his supposed daughter schooling somewhere in the United States when, in reality, Prof Osodeke is not yet Igbo, has no female child and no child schooling in the said university. Of course, predictably, one god in the government has long personalized the alleged statement and has vowed to personally destroy the Union for what its President “said about his political party”, even when the ASUU President did not name any one such party.

All these are some of the fruits the Nigerian politicians are harvesting from the seeds of ignorance sowed among the wounded and traumatized citizenry over the decades, especially since military rule to date. The serial underfunding of public schools has, naturally, left many young Nigerian children at home to be harvested as thugs, assassins, and bandits during elections, and these become a post-election security burden to their fellow underprivileged Nigerians living in low-profile areas where security is porous.

For those “lucky” to be in these financially anemic schools, the criminal, systematic neglect of the schools has produced a crop of Nigerians who believe everything without any critical thinking or reflection. But while most Nigerians weep over this state of affairs, the politicians giggle victoriously since the victims are not their own children or relatives. Their investment in ignorance among the children of the poor is yielding the right fruits. Yes.

Once more, and for emphasis, the ASUU President never mentioned the name of any political party as the one to be voted out, or as the one from which the students should withhold their votes. It was a blanket statement about ALL political parties and or candidates that would perpetuate the anti-people culture of cultivating ignorance as a vineyard from which to reap thugs, cultists, assassins, kidnappers, and so on.

If the very young Nigerians either on the mainstream or on social media considered such a statement strange, it can be understood. But it is unpardonable and sad when even older Nigerians who have followed ASUU’s trajectory from the military era till date would join in screaming at the current ASUU President for urging Nigerian students to vote wisely in the interest of their own future. 

Nigerian university lecturers’ battle for the survival of education began during the military era, especially as the military then did not seem to understand the indispensability of education to the development of society. This could be understood since the military, by their training, are wired for destruction and not for creation. Accordingly, the trouble began with the Government of General Yakubu Gowon, under whose regime lecturers were ordered out of their quarters in the universities, and one could see professors with their lean belongings on the open streets of the campuses of universities then.

This struggle was continued in the civilian regime of President Alhaji Shehu Shagari during when ASUU had its first longest strike of three months. That was when the lecturers’ salaries were disaggregated from those of the other civil servants as a correct of the fusion erroneously implemented by the military, contrary to what had been obtained in the 1960s when the professor’s salary was higher than that of the cabinet minister.

The battle was continued in the succeeding military regimes of Generals Olusegun Obasanjo, Ibrahim Babangida, Sani Abacha, Abdulsalami Abubakar, and the neo-military civilian regimes of, again, General Olusegun Obasanjo, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan and now Gen. Mohammadu Buhari. In all these previous administrations, military or civilian, ASUU engaged the government of the day most stoutly, stoically, loudly, and almost confrontationally.

Indeed, ASUU joined forces with civil societies in the struggle to end military rule in Nigeria. Both the Union and the civil society organizations seemed to have peaked their battle in the days of Gen Sani Abacha, when, among other demands of the Government during the 1994 long strike, ASUU had asked for the actualization of the June 12, 1993 elections. This meant the ousting of the Abacha regime and the replacement of same with that of the presumed winner of the elections, MKO Abiola. 

Particularly, the Union pressed for the enthronement of democracy in the country, as it has come to be since 1999 till now. Its leaders were hounded, persecuted, and detained. For any Nigerian interested in knowing a bit of the Union’s role in the fight for this same democracy that midgets of body and vision in the government are now basking in, the 643-page volume entitled, Transition Without End, published in 1996 by Vantage Publishers and edited by Larry Diamond, A. Kirk-Greene and Oyeleye Oyediran, is recommended.

In all of these encounters, whether with the military or the neo-military civilian regimes, ASUU confronted the government unambiguously. On a number of occasions, notably during the military era, the Union was banned and unbanned; proscribed and de-proscribed; academics were sacked and recalled; their salaries were stopped and later paid en bloc, etc. But in none of these moments, including the military era, were the lecturers so consciously and systematically starved to death, humiliated, and gleefully dehumanized by fellow citizens in power as it is now happening. And if an ASUU President would most patriotically advise the students, who are the primary victims, to be wise in electing their leaders subsequently, why should Dr Chris Ngige lose his sleep over such counsel instead of appreciating the Union? 

Ironically, in spite of the reputation problem Gen Abacha had, he never banned or even threatened the Union with a ban or proscription despite the fact that the Union’s strike of 1994 pressed for his removal from office among the demands. He never administered severe hunger on the lecturers. He never indulged in the madness of registering multiple lecturers unions. He never took the Union to court even when the strike was partly calling for his removal from office as Head of State. And, curiously, after the strike, he made about the highest allocation to the education sector in recent times of about 12%.

But now in the era of a supposed civilian regime of President Mohammadu Buhari and Dr. Chris Ngige and Mallam Adamu Adamu, the mere suggestion to innocent students to vote wisely has stirred such hatred for the Union that the “patriotic” Government of the day has now vowed to destroy ASUU and, by implication, the Nigerian University System. Would anyone have believed that there can be a civilian regime that would be less tolerant of dissenting views than any of the military, including that of Gen Sani Abacha did?

Would anyone have believed that there will come a time when supposed civilians would become so much against the nation’s educational system just because of a perceived personal disagreement with the personality of one leader of a union, or even with the Union as a collective? Would anyone have believed that military rule, which the same Union fought to oust from governance, would now be looked towards with nostalgia by the same Union, all because one of the government’s ministers’ personal idiosyncrasies, whims and caprices? 

Yet, right from about 1948, when the first university in Nigeria, the University of Ibadan, was established till now, the Nigerian university system has been the main producer of graduates for all the sectors of the economy, some of the products being Dr. Christopher Nwabueze Ngige, Ms. Lauretta Onochie, Senator Solomon Ita Enang, Mallam Adamu Adamu, Mr. Emeka Nwajiuba, Barrister Festus Keyamo, and millions of others, who, unlike some in the political terrain, are positively advancing the development and progress of the human race on many different planks here in Nigeria and across the globe.

But now he has arrived in this hour of the nation’s governance, one typical product of this same university system, Dr. Chris Ngige, with an axe and ready to hew down this huge baobab tree of the nation’s university system that has been the bedrock of development both of the country and the rest of the world. He is poised to bring down the entire tree because an ASUU President, Prof Emmanuel Osodeke, whose face Dr. Ngige does not quite like, is seen on a branch of the tree. And instead of all Nigerians stopping him from destroying the tree, some of them are querying the ASUU President for urging the student victims to take steps that would ensure the survival of the tree against anyone who tries to cut it down.

Surprisingly, one junior colleague even went as far as suggesting that the ASUU President should apologize to the Minister of Labour to calm down the man’s rage and ramp up his sorely bruised ego so that peace would reign. He was roundly condemned by all other colleagues on the same platform, though. But beyond the round condemnation of the colleague on the platform, if the current ASUU President were to have to apologize, then the tradition of apologizing must begin from the beginning.

Those presidents of the Union, dead or alive, who had kicked against the regimes of Gen Yakubu Gowon, General Olusegun Obasanjo in the late 1970s, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, Gen Ibrahim Babangida, Gen Sani Abacha, Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar, Gen Olusegun Obasanjo again, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, must all apologize to the leaders of the country, dead or alive, before we get to Gen Mohammadu Buhari. In particular, we must apologize very specially and profusely to those military rulers whom we fought openly, directly and fiercely to leave governance to civilians, a struggle that brought about this same civilian rule through which the present politicians have looted the nation into leaning on crutches. 

 Further, although the ASUU President did not mention the name of any one political party, is his statement in question to the students more destructive of the electoral chances of the ruling party than the incidences of insecurity as manifested in banditry, kidnapping, herdsmen attacks, IPOB, Boko Haram, and in the invincible corruption, the decrepit state of infrastructure and the economy that has been on oxygen for long now? Does it mean that all that the ruling party needed to secure victory was a nod from either ASUU or its leadership?

Even if the party’s success depended solely on ASUU, should a serious government (apologies to PMB when he said any serious government should have used the 2014 Confab money to resolve lecturers’ crisis) contemplate destroying the nation’s education system just to spite any Union, let alone to spite its leadership? If this happens, what becomes of the other victims of the collateral damage such as the students, their parents, and the entire nation who are not lecturers, not members of ASUU, and not leaders of ASUU? Hence, the ASUU President’s statement to the students cannot be the justification for the government’s mangling of the entire university education system. ASUU and its leadership are just being given a bad name in order for the Union and its patriotic and altruistic efforts to be hanged.

Interestingly, however, no matter for how long or how menacingly the Minister of Labour and his ilk prance about the stem of the baobab tree that is Nigeria’s university system with weapons of mass destruction, their axe cannot bring it down before they will themselves go down. Indeed, their threats would just be like the attempt of that mosquito in my Bette-Bendi folktale, which was perched on a trunk of a silk cotton tree and pulling at it in the hope that he would uproot the tree, this causing the passerby iguana to permanently block his ears to forestall hearing more weird things. They will labour in vain just as others before them had done.

They may ask some of their predecessors such as Dr. M. T. Liman, who had allegedly informed his then boss, Gen Abacha, that the ASUU members on strike were NADECO lecturers who had chosen the option of suicide; just as Prof Ben Nwabueze of imperfect obligations and parity; and just as Emeka Nwajiuba, who screamed at lecturers to go get their farming implements and dash to their farms if they were not satisfied with their thralldom. The union, ASUU, will outlive them and their freshly born baby unions.

Joseph A. Ushie

University of Uyo.