It is great that President Jonathan has not made any pronouncements yet on the on-going ASUU strike which has grounded the university system in Nigeria again. That allows the president rooms for maneouvre out of a completely avoidable stalemate deliberately created by the monetarists and the Charlie-Charlie groups in the government. Without going into the blame game though, the reality of what pervasive technocrats with access to the engine room of power can do on issues like this cannot be dismissed. In the Yar’Adua regime, they were so successful that the late president had to ask a family member to fetch an ASUU squad for him for a meeting behind the scene. He had to resort to that when he found out that a governor whom he put in charge of getting him to see the ASUU team had connected with a Rock of Gibraltar at Aso Rock then determined to prevent the president from seeing the ASUU team informally.
It is possible that this particular president might even be lonelier in finding answers to this particular challenge because this is a time when it is most risky in Nigeria to be frank in government without being labeled disloyal. It is compounded by the observable dearth of senior citizens who could be approached to approach the government, particularly the president, behind the scene so that a particular crease can be eased. It is understood but not confirmed that the last time some people in ASUU contemplated compiling a list of such senior citizens, they could not go beyond two – a wealthy retired general and an ambassador. Shows how Nigeria is a real case of trouble in Form 6.
But this is a trouble that must be confronted because ASUU is a very interesting evidence that Nigeria will triumph to glory from its present decay, a decay which has been total and steady. So much so that books have been written on its impending implosion, (Karl Meir’s This House Has Fallen and Ambassador Campbell’s Dancing On the Brinks). Scenario analysts have even put 2015 as the D-Day.
It may sound patriotic to dismiss them as prophets of doom as OBJ, understandably, once did but we all know Nigeria is in very deep trouble. The Nigerian State is totally overwhelmed, with a defining characteristic of a destabilizing intra-elite disagreement. Additionally, local and foreign interests have forced the state to abdicate its developmental roles and duties and everyone is pulling in different directions from a state that has nothing to offer him, her and them.
Then in this desert of compromised citizenry and hopelessness, there stands that single oasis in an ASUU that says No, its own sector – the (university) education sector – must be isolated and shielded from the madness called Nigeria because they are not just salary earners, they are, first and foremost, patriots and their patriotism tells them that no country can make any meaningful progress without educating her youths properly. And they have the intellectual cum professional as well as the political/organisational capability to match state callousness to (university) education with union power.
And they have stood on this position and paid the price for it in the hands of military dictators and autocratic leadership as long as anyone can remember – from arrest and detention to arbitrary termination of appointment to ejection from staff quarters, denial of salaries and just about every humiliation thinkable. Above all, it is not afflicted by the Nigerian sicknesses of ethnicity, religious chauvinism and leaders who trade unions for their own personal agenda, otherwise called trade union traders. The public interest in ASUU campaigns is so strong and impeccable that even when the Nigerian parents are yet to understand that ASUU is fighting its fight, God stands behind the union. Hence, it has always won.
Paradoxically, it is only Jonathan’s regime that has not meted out this punitive menu list. Not yet. In fact, someone like Anyim Pius Anyim, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, stepped into the arena initially in a way that assuaged feelings. He didn’t step in as an ASUU collaborator but obviously as someone who didn’t want the embarrassment of the entire university system grounded by an ASUU strike. It might have to do with his experience in government and similar exposure. Now, it appears the monetarists and the Charlie-Charlie guys have successfully blocked him and pushed on to greater heights in their technocratic infamy within the context of primitive accumulation. Who can stop them?
Subsequently, clearly implementable agreements suddenly run into in a hitch as official documents begin to develop wings from secure government cupboards. Haba! Does the Nigerian State even need to have agreements with any organisations before it funds and manages the universities the way they should be managed? Does the Nigerian government and those who run it think that their counterparts in North America, Europe and Asia are foolish by funding and insisting on world class universities that can respond to national priorities and national security? Is this colonial mentality or plain lack of common sense?
Again, one must be fair enough to admit that President Jonathan did not create all the troubles in the university system even as we must admit that his regime has not been forthcoming with any clarity in terms of what the primary contradiction is and how to resolve it. That primary contradiction must be located as a prelude to the resolution of the ASUU – FG tango.
It is in nowhere else than the very nature of capitalism we are practicing. It is so speculative in character that there are no capitalists in the scientific sense of the word. All we have are buccaneers and predators who are not genuine capitalists in the sense that they are not risk takers like their counterparts in Europe, North America and Asia. Having taken no risks, they have nothing at stake in terms of quality graduates who can run their factories, manage investments and bother about expansion. This being so, there is no collective pressure on the Nigerian State from such a crucial end user of universities in Nigeria in relation to well managed universities that can produce quality graduates to whom they can entrust the management of their investments. This is the crux of the matter because, in that situation, the government which has very limited needs for graduates can afford to say that government alone cannot fund universities.
Of course, it is a wrong statement to make because it is also the government that embraced a variant of deregulation that makes it impossible for ‘local’ capitalists to thrive. Instead of ensuring that the state creates an enabling environment for competition, it created a situation in favour of domination of the ‘local’ capitalists by their ‘foreign’ counterparts whose business logic does not also involve production but profit. On balance, this is a fair statement to make. In the end, we have no capitalists or a bourgeoisie with stakes in industry and risks in investments that will not allow it to let the government of the day neglect universities. Or for whom the consequences of allowing a university system that will produce graduates who could ruin their industries or make them fail in profit maximisation would have been too great to ponder. In this circumstance, we only send our children to universities in Nigeria just to fulfil all righteousness, not because there is a purpose to it. The parents know this, the students are aware and the government too knows that apart from the few graduates its departments absorb in a typical year, the rest are of no use to anybody but a burden to themselves and their parents.
This is the only reason why it is perennially permissible and almost normal now to tolerate the entire system being grounded by easily preventable strike actions. I use the words ‘easily preventable’ advisedly because a monetarist in government would find it incomprehensible that the Nigerian government should give N100 billion to the university system from the budget line. Our current Minister of Finance would never understand that because, such would be strange to the logic of the World Bank whose economics she understands more than any other. So, ‘easily preventable’ has to be put in quote.
But the risk is that this particular strike could last a whole year if it is not resolved quickly. It can last that long because there is a catch in it cutting across the various tendencies in ASUU, uniting the union. The legitimacy implication of this possibility for a president already in a state of siege must be obvious. If not that governments in Africa work mysteriously and if not that GEJ is, himself, some mystery, there is no president of Nigeria who can go wrong who works with ASUU. The ASUU of today might not be the ASUU we used to know in the 1980s in terms of aggregate ideological disposition or intellectual clarity of the membership but even then, ASUU is informed and patriotic. It is far from being a network of unreasoning and subversive radicals. It is feared and stigmatized only because it is the anti-thesis of the forces and interests opposed to shielding university education from budgetary and political blindness in Nigeria.
It is, indeed, a pity that this regime is consistently besieged by challenges out of proportion to its installed political and administrative capacity. One example is the insecurity crisis ravaging the country. The other may as well be the current ASUU strike. But it is in these types of challenges that the president should discover himself. In this particular case, his gate keepers have clearly failed in their cuwa – cuwa attitude to managing the universities. It is doubtful that the president has any alternatives to a direct, dramatic and personal intervention in terms of resolving the impasse to his own credit. It is not really to his own credit but to Nigeria’s glory. However, as a politician and a second term seeking incumbent, there is no way such an intervention would not become an electoral investment for him. But when it concerns education, what matters most is Nigeria, Nigeria and Nigeria.
He needs to do so and quickly too because he is alone. Outside the FG, other interests are suggesting that the solution lies in charging tuition fees in the universities. In the NGF, for example, only a few governors, to our knowledge, opposed those of their colleagues who suggested that the only way to solve the problem is to charge tuition fees. A particular governor reportedly told his colleagues that they could not make such a policy until the have told the people so during their campaign. Since it is beyond contemplation for anyone seeking elective office to tell Nigerians that if s/he got elected, s/he would charge tuition fees in the universities, those suggesting that option were said to have been mopping at the brave colleague at the meeting. And that was the end of the idea of charging tuition fees, something that is more volatile than removing fuel subsidy. The same situation which prefaced the January 2012 subsidy palaver might re-occur in the sense that those who might be urging the president not to give a damn would disown him immediately the dam of crisis bursts.
So, the president is on his own. And there is no earthly reason why the president cannot, at this point, tell the World Bank that monetarism cannot solve the problems of a developing country like Nigeria and that they should, please, give Nigeria a breathing space as far as education is concerned. It could be a politically costly statement but it might be the statement whose time has come for a president under pressure. After all, the World Bank must have read the very embarrassing Main Report of the Committee On Needs Assessment of Nigerian Public Universities of January 2012. Haba!
Mr Onoja is a columnist with Abuja based Blueprint