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University Workers’ Strikes and Governments’ Treachery: For a Popular Action

July 26, 2009

If anything is to be deduced from the current face-off between the Yar’Adua government and striking staff unions of tertiary institutions: Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Senior Staff Union (SSANU) and Non-Academic Staff Union (NASU), it is that the ruling class in Nigeria is incurably politically treacherous and intellectually backward. How else will one define a government that set-up a negotiating committee on ASUU demands, which endorsed the final agreement on behalf of the federal government, only for the same government to deny the agreement. What then was the Deacon Gamaliel Onosode-led committee doing with the ASUU since 2007? It is ridiculous that the same Umaru Yar’Adua, who personally promised in 2007 (when faced with serious credibility problem) to resolve ASUU demands, has not uttered a word about the workers’ strikes. To add insult upon injury, the government is planning to use anti-labour policies to break the strikes through Industrial Arbitration Panel (IAP) and no-work, no-pay policy.


 

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These anti-worker policies, reminiscent of dark darks of military absolutism, must be condemned. Some university managements like Lagos State University (LASU) – owned by opposition party government – have even started taking roll call to break the strike. This brings to mind the unjust sack of 49 UNILORIN lecturers (five of whom have been recalled by Supreme Court) for over seven year by Prof. Oba Abdul-Raheem who was later compensated with chairmanship of Federal Character(?) Commission by the Yar”adua government that refused to recall the lecturers. Thus, there is need for unions and genuine students’ and youth movements to build a mass-based support against government plans throw public into new of crises. Despite the ideological and intellectual collapse of NANS, Nigerian students must see this battle as their, if they are to secure their future. This is why the planned protest by Education Rights Campaign (ERC)–a radical students’ group campaigning for free and quality education - must be supported.

 Unintelligent hypocrisy of the Government
Some days after ASUU strike, the duo of education and information ministers, Sam Egwu, and Dora Akunyili claimed that govt. had met three demands of ASUU. Assuming this is true, why did it take a supposed “responsible” government more than six months after the negotiation ended and more than two weeks of strike before stating this. The reality is that the so-called resolution is a ruse. Look at the fraud: ASUU demanded a standing agreement on funding, democratic management of schools involving staff and students’ unions, increased remuneration based on economic and working conditions, etc. The federal government in response claimed to have increased lecturers’ salaries by 40 percent while governing councils of universities should resolve other issues, thus killing the spirit of the agreement reached earlier. With this, government is making mockery of the agreement and university autonomy. Where will universities get resources to fund workers’ condition of service when the total 2009 education budget is less than N260 billion? Mr. Sam Egwu, in response to SSANU’s allegation of govt. planned N180, 000 fee super-hike, claimed that varsities can raise money from “consultancy”, and other services.

 One needs to ask Mr. Egwu how much his state university in Ebonyi got from consultancy in the past ten years. Maybe Mr. Egwu does not know that over 70 percent of universities’ funding come from government funding while the rest come from extortions from students – exorbitant school fees (already hiked by over 500 percents in the last 3 years), fraudulent pre-varsity programmes (pre-degree, part-time, remedial, etc.), and hand-outs from “well-meaning” fat-cats. Can’t blame him, he has more time to spend on his multimillion naira birthday jamboree than on troubling education problems. As a result of government’s continuous under funding of tertiary education, there are hardly enough facilities for undergraduate project work, not to mention post-graduate research. Where then does the minister want the universities to get facilities for consultancy services? Is it the manufacturing sector that has almost collapsed or multinational oil companies that undertake little or no consultancy in the country that will provide the needed resources? Nigeria’s economy is predicated on the rapacious profit-interest of big business and looters in power who care less about rapid technological development of the country.

  Therefore, Mr. Egwu’s response to SSANU is just hiding under a finger. He did not even deny that government wants to shift the responsibility of funding workers’ conditions of service on poorly funded universities. What other ways then can these universities carry the new burdens than hiking fees and reducing cost (via scrapping of “small” departments; contracting of vital university services; commercialization of studying and living facilities like hostels, workers’ quarters and outright retrenchment of workers). In the cause of implementing these policies, students’ and workers’ democratic rights will have to be trampled upon via victimization of activists cum proscription of unions (already several students’ unions have been proscribed). This is government’s definition of university autonomy and better conditions of service for workers: privatization, commercialization, retrenchment and cut in public spending.

 ASUU, SSANU and NASU demands are genuine
It is worth stating that even if staff unions are fighting for salary increase alone as it is being peddled by government apologists, they are correct. In fact, workers’ better living is central to improved service. This is even imperative in a country where a tiny clique of ruling and business class are amassing vast public wealth while every facet of public service that should make living worthwhile for the vast majority including workers are dilapidated. Many non-academic workers are paid peanuts that can hardly take care of their children’s education. Therefore, it is only a simpleton that will call workers’ struggle for a better pay selfish. However, even the immediate demand for better working conditions cannot be achieved without adequate funding of education and proper management of the funds.

ASUU and SSANU demands are clear enough. ASUU demands are centred on adequate funding of education by at least 26 percent of budget, genuine autonomy/democratic decision-making in varsities, federal government intervention fund for state universities (as practiced globally), improved facilities in schools and better conditions of service for lecturers. Despite the explicitness of these demands, Nigerian ruling class has found excuses to justify its shameful neglect of education. One of such, according to Mr. Egwu is that federal government cannot alone take decisions on ASUU demands “in the spirit of federalism”. This same federalism hardly applies when bogus salaries of politicians are to be inflated. However, when meagre salary cut is to be effected as is currently being done by the Revenue Mobilization, Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC), you will see politicians in power use the principle of federalism to avoid its implementation. Nigerian constitution explicitly compels government to provide free and quality education at all levels. How can Yar’Adua government then use the excuse of federalism when it is stubbornly committed to big business and neo-liberal policies which are anathema to provision of free education?

 Government cannot claim there is no money to fund free education. Simple calculation shows that spending half of the bogus N1.13 trillion annual salaries of all 17,474 political officers on primary and secondary education will build over 500, 000 standard classrooms, employ 500, 000 teachers staffs (at N50, 000 per month) and create 15 million new spaces (at 25 pupils per class) for young minds currently out of schools. In fact, half of over N170billion spent on federal politicians alone will mean extra N3.5 billion for each of the 24 federal universities. This is just in a year. When all looted funds (including over $16 billion wasted on power generation, over $10 billion looted NNPC fund, etc) are recovered and salaries of politicians are cut to workers’ level, there will be adequate resources to fund not only free and globally competitive education, but also free and quality healthcare, secure and gainful employments for all, cheap and safe mass housing, integrated transport and peasant-based, mechanized and environment-friendly agriculture systems, among others. These are not task for capitalist neo-liberal government run by treasury looters (both in business and politics) but for working class in struggle to dethrone these looters and enthrone socialism.

How to fight and win
Demands of the unions are general to not only education sector but the whole nation and thus demand collective actions by the education and central unions – NUT, ASUU, SSANU, NASU, ASUP, COEASU, NLC, TUC, etc. to force government to commit public resources to public education. An situation where all unions will have similar demands – proper funding of education, better conditions of service, etc – but will be fighting separately in a country where the ruling class is united in plundering the nation’s wealth, makes no meaning. It only gives the government opportunity to strike a blow at each union as a basis to defeat others and working class as a whole. Example is the federal government plan to take each union to IAP. Therefore, it is vital for the staff unions on strike to immediately convene a joint struggle committee along with other education unions, students’ movement, central labour unions (NLC and TUC), radical civil societies in LASCO, etc to strategize on collective actions to bring government on its knees.

Also, the unions must know that sit-at-home strike alone without mass activities like rallies, protest marches, press campaign, enlightenment (through leaflets and posters), gives authorities the opportunity to blackmail/isolate striking workers and build support base. Also, there are many Nigerians who are dissatisfied with the way the government is running the education sector and will be prepared to join the staff unions in struggle. Despite effort of LASCO in organizing solidarity protest, the lack of coherent participation of the labour movement has hanged the next line of action in the air. In fact, NLC and TUC, despite being partners in LASCO hardly played any major role in the protest. In fact, the proposal for a 24-hour solidarity strike by NLC in support of striking workers was rejected. There is need to organize simultaneous monthly mass actions in each region, with active participation of unions’ branches and supports of genuine students’ movement and civil society. Subsequent actions can be organised at state level. With this approach, it will be possible in the shortest period to defeat governments. Workers need popular mass actions to prevent avoidable defeat that may affect future struggles. This is lesson from successful national teachers’ strike in 2008, although national and many state leaders of NUT have failed to sustain the successes.

 For a system change
Conclusively, it must be noted that the demands of the tertiary education staff unions – ASUU, SSANU and NASU – cannot be resolved on the long term without a system change. As it has been said earlier, Nigerian ruling class like every of its kind in Africa, is deeply rooted in neo-liberal, neo-colonial capitalism and corruption. Every penny spent on public good means less money to loot by the ruling class in power. Of course, if coordinated struggle is organised, the ruling class can be made to concede, but this in itself will raise the political question of the need for independent political party of the working people which will wrestle power from the current set of corrupt capitalist politicians and create a working people’s government committed to the massive development of public infrastructure if the concession are to be sustained. Such a party will have to put the commanding height of the economy under the democratic control of the working people, if it wants to achieve a real change. We need a party that will demand that public officials should earn average workers’ salary; that children of the political officers should attend public schools and their family members attend public hospitals; a party that will subject public officers to public scrutiny and immediate recall. This is the party that can appeal to the poor who have been disillusioned by corrupt politics.

While public commentators in Nigeria refer to some African country who spend more on education, it is better said that this is not that straight forward. It is true that countries like Ghana, South Africa, Botswana, etc spend more on education than Nigeria, it is worthy of mention that most of these monies do not necessarily go to public need. Otherwise, why are fees in Ghana institutions so expensive? Why are several millions of South African youth uneducated and poor? Why are Botswana students currently struggling against cut of bursary awards? The reality is that ruling classes in these countries were forced by mass struggles (or the fear of it) to give some concessions like increased education funding to the people, but as a result of neo-liberal capitalism, most of the monies, which are not under democratic control, are directed towards projects that favour the few. Therefore, despite improved education funding in these countries over Nigeria, the same question confronts the working, youth and poor people across Africa: need for a democratic, mass working people party with a revolutionary, democratic socialist orientation to dethrone capitalism. This should be singsong for labour and pro-masses movements in Nigeria, Africa and the world.

 

Kola Ibrahim ([email protected], 08059399178)

Editor-in-Chief, the Agitator Newsletter,

Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife, Nigeria.

P.O.Box 1319, GPO, Enuwa, Ile-Ife

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