Even amidst mourning or in war, people still occasionally laugh, especially when clowns happen around such scenes. That seems to have been the situation with this war declared against a trade union by an entire national government, which is busy deploying every arsenal at its disposal to crush the perceived enemy as if the Government were fighting an external enemy; indeed, more ferociously than it is engaging the terrorists killing people and kidnapping and destroying the economy of the nation. But even during this minor, otherwise in-house conflict-turned-into-a-fiery-desperate-battle by Government, there are still moments when one cannot stop laughing or getting amused. Those are moments when Her Excellency, Lauretta Onochie, wakes up to say something. Whenever she throws her tantrums at the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), she reminds me of a situation in church in which someone who has been sleeping in the church suddenly gets up to answer “Yes” to such a preacher’s directive as “Stand up if you’ve been cheating on your spouse!” That is how Madam Lauretta Onochie’s howling has been fitting in. And one cannot help being amused and laughing whenever she stirs awake with her characteristic insults.
The first time she suddenly woke up, she did so with a scream, “ASUU has a new born baby. It’s called Rapid Response Committee RRC. Its birth certificate is displayed here…. Let’s see which [sic] of the members of RRC will deny this”. Anyone who read this would think she had caught the Union looting a treasury; stealing billions of naira as an accountant-general, raising special snakes to swallow government money; being scandalously presented for an INEC position while serving as an Aide to an incumbent President; patronizing terrorists or willfully destroying the nation’s education system handed over to the Union by government after government since the nation’s independence; or even looting trillions of the nation’s money through the fraud called fuel subsidy. But it was none of these. It was simply and only that the Union had selected a few of its members to help in improving awareness among Nigerians on the knotty issues between her and the Government which have sadly kept the gates of our universities shut for several months. It was also just to get a few of its members to watch out for whenever a Lauretta Onochie would happen to the nation by maliciously misinforming the citizens about ASUU’s cause; and yet the great lady rose suddenly and raised the false, disproportionate alarm. Of course, we were amused, and we laughed.
For much of today we have been laughing again. Lauretta Onochie is suddenly up one more time from her slumber. In some social media platform, she writes, “President Muhammadu Buhari will be remembered as the Leader [sic] who put a permanent stop to the incessant rascality of ASUU”. In the last paragraph of the same post, she writes, “Nigerians are delighted that ASUU’s wings, which they grew,[sic] over the decades, have finally been clipped by the laws of our land. Enough is enough”. To show the odiousness of this odd thinking, let us consider, firstly, the timing of the post on social media. The post has been made about the same time a more serious, indeed a politically far higher member of the ruling APC, Governor Yahaya Bello of Kogi State, has raised the alarm that the ASUU strike is being wickedly orchestrated and manipulated to linger endlessly by saboteurs within the same ruling party, and most Nigerians in both the ASUU and Government camps are ruminating over this most likely possibility, and almost even naming the culprits. If this hypothesis is true, and most Nigerians believe it is, then it follows that the real battle should be shifted from ASUU versus Government to ASUU/Government/the students and their parents, and the Nigerian public, on the one hand, and those selfish saboteurs within the ruling party, on the other. Perhaps some substantiation might help. It was the government, specifically the minister of labour, Dr Chris Ngige, who had challenged ASUU in 2020 to provide an alternative payment platform to the leprous IPPIS if the Union did not want to be paid using the IPPIS platform. ASUU complied and developed the UTAS even during the horrendous period of COVID-19. But it’s the same minister who now occasionally asserts that it is not the right of employees to decide what platform the employers should use in paying them salaries. It was on a national television network that the same minister of labour, Dr Chris Ngige, asserted that it was unacceptable that a Nigerian professor should be paid anything less than N1,000,000 a month. Yet, he is still the same person who took the Union to the National Industrial Court when the Union rejected the offer of just an additional N60,000 or so thrust into its palms as an increase in the salaries of professors. So, the same man who had publicly asserted that no professor should earn less than N1,000,000 is now angry that ASUU is rejecting an increase that would take the professor’s salary to just about N470,000! Further, the ASUU-FG impasse had almost been settled by the minister of education in the short time Dr Ngige went chasing after the presidential nomination of his party; but everything was returned to point zero once Dr Ngige lost the presidential ambition and dashed back to the scene of the conflict. There is the saying in Yoruba that if the owl cried last night and the child died this morning, no one should be left in doubt that it is the witch that killed the child. All these are besides several other subterranean desperate moves by the same minister to either destroy ASUU or prolong the strike unnecessarily. This is one thing that has occupied the minds of right-thinking members of the Nigerian public since Governor Bello raised the alarm a few days ago. And, given the cavalier nature of Nigerian politicians, who knows if those treacherous elements within the ruling party aren’t even consciously using the strike to demarket their own party’s candidate? But Lauretta Onochie is far from joining in these speculations because of her pathological hatred for ASUU. That’s why we laughed when she woke oddly from her usual slumber to display her euphoria so absent-mindedly.
Further, in the same period that Madam Onochie raised her noisy euphoria on social media, the leadership of the House of Representatives had been busy trying to resolve the imbroglio between the Union and the Government; and, thus far, the House has been irked by the discovery that IPPIS is still being used as a payment platform despite its failing the tests by the relevant authorities. But this, too, is lost on Madam Onochie, who is busy fighting an ASUU that was away from the scene of war. So, while these efforts have been in progress, Ms Lauretta Onochie rose from her slumber to shout “eureka!” to the President for “clipping the wings of ASUU”. How much more can an outburst be out of tune with, and irrelevant to, extant issues on ground! But with Madam Lauretta Onochie, all noise is relevant; all emptiness is meaningful. To those Nigerians who are really sincerely, patriotically and altruistically concerned about the future of Nigeria’s education; and who are abreast of the unfolding events, the noise by Ms Lauretta Onochie is only of nuisance value, only of amusement value as a comic relief in a moment of war, in a period of mourning of the death of education in the hands of the government of which she is a dispensable attachment desperately seeking to prove her relevance.
No one expects Ms Onochie to be abreast of the rubrics of law if she is not a lawyer. But wisdom provides that one steps most cautiously into waters whose depth one is not sure of. But it is not so with my sister, Lauretta Onochie. In her case, rather than humbly asking to know, as many of us have done, the implications of an interlocutory injunction, she did not and considered it such final victory that is a great achievement of her Principal, the President. If, in securing what my great Nigerian students have described as “black market judgement”, our Lady would be so very ecstatic, one only wonders what she would do if the Government had won the substantive case at the Nationall Industrial Court, or had defeated the many groups of terrorists destroying the country and its peoples and its economy. I wonder why a semblance of “victory” over a trade union should be so celebrated by this woman when the nation’s very existence is threatened by forces that the Government appears helpless in tackling.
However, there are a few things I discovered about this woman late last night which would change my attitude to her characteristic thoughtlessness and self-enslavement to mammon in the name of service to a government. I discovered, for instance, that, contrary to my earlier impression of her as a trendy, young Nigerian lady who is only a sophisticated illiterate doing her desperation for wealth in the domain of politics, Ms Lauretta Onochie actually attended the same great University of Calabar, from where I had obtained the first degree. She also attended the great University of Benin, which was the academic vineyard of our immortal Prof Festus Iyayi. She also has had some training in the UK, and has or had been into lecturing. Perhaps, above all, it was discovered that she is a mother, a grandmother and an ordained pastor who should be very bothered about the type of country she would bequeath to her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and posterity as a whole. Yet, her outings have shown chronic deficiencies in logical thinking, in the management of the English language as an educated and sophisticated scholar who has/had settled in the UK – the very fountain of the English language, and in fidelity to godly altruism. She has shamed the Commonwealth tradition of education of which we prided ourselves on as its products when we looked down on American-trained graduates up to the early 1990s even here in Nigeria. Indeed, she is a colossal embarrassment to the two great Nigerian universities which are, incidentally, in the forefront of ASUU’s struggles for the future of the nation through the strand of education. It is very likely that some of the lecturers who had had the ill luck of teaching her are still in these same universities whose Union she attributed rascality to; and you wouldn’t think she herself is a rascally grandmother? Indeed, she has betrayed the fine education that has been available in these two great Nigerian universities by turning her back on the suffering students and their parents and guardians. Because of this discovery last night that Ms Onochie’s thoughtlessness and recklessness with emotions are not emanating from a lack of depth of understanding of the dynamics of society, I would change my attitude to her vituperations and insults which I now see as treachery and a betrayal of all the education she has had. Finally on this point, ASUU members do travel, and our products regularly emigrate to universities in the West. Can she honestly say that, apart from their need to always adjust to the state-of-the art- facilities and equipment which are lacking in our universities, our products have not been excelling once they get out of here? As one who had been first taught here by these “rascals”, was she unable to do well in the UK? Yet, the only reward this woman of God has for the same system which baked her for the UK is to associate the system’s members with rascality. Above all, as a Nigerian who has been feeding fat on the tax payers’ money as an Aide to the President, what input has she brought in from the UK to help improve education in her mother land other than the expertise at insulting ASUU? I don’t think it’s enough for her, with all these credentials of hers, to simply immerse herself into feeding fat on the so-called national cake like the young of the elephant that feeds and grows fat on dirty mud.
It is pertinent to point out a thing or two about ASUU to Ms Onochie and others who need to know. ASUU is an idea, not necessarily a person or even a group of persons. It is abstract and so it cannot be destroyed. Certainly, it can be proscribed. It can be de-registered by the powers that be, as they have been angling towards doing. Its leadership can be arrested and detained as it did happen during the military era. All of the members can, indeed, be imprisoned or starved to death by an anti-education system such as it is currently happening in the country. But if the conditions in the nation’s universities are not improved, the idea will sprout even from the ashes or graves of its members and live on. The idea or spirit can spring from even a so-called alternative to ASUU, as the Government is contemplating doing. The other day one person wrote alleging that ASUU always wants to win. Such a statement would normally arise from a destructive ego, which is one of the problems of our country. ASUU is never on an ego contest with anybody or government. What most Nigerians do not know is that the strength of the Union is derived from its refined superlative democratic process. For instance, there are always voices in the Union that would argue even more strongly in favour of Government than the Government functionaries themselves do argue. These voices are also patiently listened to, and their positions are ascetically weighed and factored into the thinking of the Union. Indeed, sometimes the arguments within the Union in favour of the Government are more rigorous than what the Government officials themselves can put up. There is, therefore, hardly anything the Government functionaries would bring up that did not feature in the Union’s own discussions leading to either a strike or anything else. This is when we talk of informed opinion or position based on facts and concrete realities. It is, hence, not a matter of ASUU always wanting to win; it is rather a question of the Union maintaining a principled stance which Sister Lauretta Onochie, in her paranoia, described as “rascality”, a term that is only laughable when one considers the caliber of Nigerians that make up the Union’s leadership and followership. The use of such a term to describe a group some of whose members are old enough to be her father shows her as an ill-bred Nigerian grandmother bereft of those values our society cherishes, some of who remain knowledgeable enough to be her lecturers. But she does not care since all that counts in her life is raw cash, which the system gives far more to her than it gives to the elderly professors. This is the real intoxicating rascality on display. As an idea, ASUU has seen governments, military and civilian, come and go. The Union has remained and has grown stronger and stronger by the day. It is a great idea whose members would always return from the graveside of every government to fossilize the strides and woes of the interred government, and when the time will come, names like Lauretta Onochie will bring out most offending odour when they are mentioned. It will happen, as it has always happened, to those before her; and ASUU will flap its unclipped wings and continue its patriotic, altruistic flight. For now, we remain thirsty for more of your false euphoria, like amoeba’s false ephemeral feet.
Prof Joseph A Ushie
University of Uyo