By Joseph Akawu Ushie

NEWSDAILYNIGEERIA: In the opening paragraph to his contribution under the title referenced above, Prof Farooq Kperogi has referred to his support for the cause of ASUU since its 6-month-old strike till now.

I am among those who have read his contributions reasonably consistently in the course of this struggle, and I attest to the fact that he has been quite on the side of the survival of the nation’s university education system through his support for the patriotic and altruistic sacrifices of the union.

This is the one reason for my responding to his latest outing which, I strongly suspect, has sprung from his not having a full picture of the situation he is reacting to.

Let me add to Prof Kperogi’s credit that his interventions have regularly been conveyed with admirable clarity of thought and expression. I am proud of him as a Nigerian in the Diaspora who, unlike the dispensable arrogance displayed by some of his colleagues in the Diaspora who have been looking back at the hell of a country left with only scorn, has been reaching back to us with deep understanding of the harsh realities of our beleaguered land.

This is why I would rather talk back to his recent outing most mildly as I believe he is just a victim of under-information and or the misinformation by the Minister of Education.

I begin from his citation of Section 43 of the Trade Disputes Act which he maintains is “unequivocal in insisting that striking workers are not entitled to their habitual remunerations for the period that they cease to work”. It’s needless disputing the existence of such an act. Rather, let me point out that the so-called universal laws do have their local, place-specific and situational contexts.

When Kperogi states that the act is “almost universal, and it’s not unreasonable”, does he remember also that the realities that obtain in the different climes of our so-called one world can be radically different one from the other?

The relative liberalization of education in the West, Asia and even in some African countries which walk the talk of placing premium on education as the main muscle for national development cannot be the same as what obtains in Nigeria under a government whose attention is divided between western and non-western education as it is rumoured that some of the key actors in government are indeed sponsors and supporters of the anti-western education terrorists ready to destroy the nation.

This is not to say that these same suspected supporters of anti-western education terrorism do not appreciate the relevance of western education. They do, which is why they competitively send their own children and wards to the very best of universities in the West.

The situation in Nigeria is, therefore, too uniquely different in character and modus operandi to be placed on the same pedestal with what obtains elsewhere in the world. For instance, in which of these other countries of the world would academic staff of the nation’s universities need to waste precious time going from the executive arm to the legislature to the traditional rulers to the public and back to the executive begging just to be given attention to table the problems affecting the very institutions owned by the government and run with public funds?

In which of these other countries of the world would governments engage high profile public servants to negotiate conditions of service with the nation’s academics only for the same government to fail to honour the terms of the negotiation, let alone implement them?

In which of these countries of the world would governments sign tens of memoranda of understanding and memoranda of action with university staff and fail to honour them as it has been the case with us in Nigeria, government after government?

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In which of these other countries would staff of the nation’s universities embark on warning strikes for four weeks, eight weeks, sixteen weeks, then gingered by a national labour protest before the government is stirred into doing some talking with them?

And in which of these other countries would government finally set up committees three different times to dialogue with the union on same issues only to cast into the dustbin the very outcome of the dialogue?

Yes, there may be laws and acts and regulations and all that regarding remuneration or the withholding of same for workers on strike. But, given that the strike was about matters that had been lingering since 2009, and which had been brought to some head in May 2021, did the government need up to one full month to engage with the lecturers towards resolving the issues if the government was truly concerned about the education of the young ones?

Yes, there may be the laws and acts and all that, but there is also a clear distinction between laws or what is legal and what is just and fair and in tandem with natural justice. Government’s reference to acts and laws, which Kperogi is supporting, may be a reality, but there is no justice or fair play in the application of such an act or law in the case of the present strike action which was entirely provoked and prolonged by government’s inaction and callous, irresponsible disdainful posturing.

For instance, while this strike was on, government’s political appointees abandoned their basic responsibilities, including paying attention to the strike, for months in pursuit of their personal presidential ambitions.

Thus, rather than suggesting so cynically that ASUU members now use strikes as a device to save money, the right observation should be that government actually promptly stopped the salaries and ignored the union for six months thereafter in order to appropriate the lecturers’ entitlements for the period through the weapon of an act such as you have cited. In this case, even if the labour act were to provide for non-payment of salaries during strike periods, the clear fact that government systematically precipitated the strike action in the first instance, and orchestrated its prolongation would be a gross act of inhumanity to the lecturers which should naturally burst or nullify the provisions of any extant laws.

Specifically, it means, in one sense, that the lecturers’ salaries would not be paid for the period those who should have talked with them abandoned their duty posts in pursuit of personal interets. Cases and situations such as this were what made the late English jurist, Lord Denning, to be considered one of the greatest legal luminaries of all time. In his characteristic manner, he always went after justice, not necessarily the law except where both the laws and justice converged or conflated or were on the same page. That was how he came to establish many principles in law all in pursuit of justice for humanity, the most celebrated being the High Trees case around which he established the principle of promissory estoppel. He was later to reverse himself in the subsequent carbolic snowball case, where he restored consideration as a basic feature of law which a side wind such as promissory estoppel should not destroy.

The concrete extenuating circumstances which have been clearly consciously authored and orchestrated by government should be necessary and sufficient to estop the enforcement of any such acts as mentioned here in the situation of this lecturers’ strike in the interest of equity and natural justice.

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Now the key point possibly unknown to Prof Farooq Kperogi is that he does take line, hook and sinker the Minister of Education’s weird statement that everything else has been settled between the government and ASUU except the payment of the withheld salaries. Contrary to this position announced to the public by the minister, nothing has been concretely settled. While the Federal Government itself, through the same Minister of Education, set up the Nimi Briggs’ Committee to dialogue with the Union, the same Minister threw the report of that committee into the dustbin and simply awarded, without any scant recourse to the content of the Committee’s report, a salary schedule to the lecturers.

Going by this award, which contradicts the principle of collective bargaining, a professor at bar is to go home with a gross of about 750,000 naira monthly, which translates into a figure in the neighbourhood of $1000 at the current exchange rate of about NGN700 to one USD. When the system removes the feathers from this gross, what a professor at bar would take home would drop to below $1000 a month.

Prof Kperogi and other patriotic Nigerians both at home and in the Diaspora, would you describe this as such a globally competitive remuneration that can stop brain drain and attract both Diaspora Nigerians and other world scholars to the country?

Worse, even in Africa, such a salary would remain the lowest for a professor. This is the misery that has been inflicted on the nation’s academic staff by a government whose functionaries can dole out with ease the sum of NGN100,000,000 to buy a nomination form; a government whose accountant-general can loot over one hundred billion naira effortlessly; a government which can sign out four trillion naira as fuel subsidy within three days; and a government which can spend without tears over one billion naira on cars for a neighbouring country.

Still on the question of lecturers saving money through strikes, nothing can be more insulting and offending than this, Prof Kperogi. How does a professor at bar whose present monthly income is just a little over $500 save with all the galloping inflation in the country, let alone the junior colleagues?

If you knew how many lecturers who have died because of their inability to sustain purchase of their routine medications during this period, you would never insinuate this. If you knew how many have been evicted from their residences for failure to pay rents, you would not go near this suggestion. If you knew how many had to involve themselves in menial jobs, including hawking, in order to put food on the table for their families, you would regret suggesting this. If you knew how many have been indebted to persons who are even on more humble financial rungs than the lecturers, you would be sorry for saying this. If you knew how many insults some have received from neighbours for defaulting in paying community bills, you would feel bad that you said this.

If you knew how many have had marital challenges arising from the lecturer-spouse’s inability to fend for the family, you would not go near such a thought. That is why this suggestion that lecturers are using the strike to save money is terribly offending, insensitive and inhumane. Of course, the lords running the affairs of the country know all these pains that lecturers are going through, and whenever they are together they discuss our pains and laugh gleefully, mockingly and triumphantly at us. And you would say to the same group that they are using strikes to save money?

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You, the same cerebral Prof Kperogi, who is in an environment in which scholarship and scholars are venerated? That’s why I believe you simply didn’t get the full picture.

Others of the lecturers’ demands have remained unresolved. Earned academic allowances, the payment platform, revitalization, the disquieting issue of proliferation of universities, the release of a white paper for each of the federal universities following the visitation panels to the institutions and a host of other matters have simply been mummified, or in the lingo of the day, have simply gone into voice mail even as detailed recommendations on each of these by the government’s own committee are cast into the dustbin, and Prof Keprogi would whip us back into the lecture rooms?

No. We would be big fools if government functionaries call us fools in their songs amidst drinking and wining, and we sheepishly echo along with them.

Ours is a peculiar situation, different from what obtains anywhere else in the civilized world. Ours has no name and, therefore, should not and does not really equitably come under any urbane laws or acts without hurting the delicate tissues of humanity irreparably.

We will not return to the classrooms on empty stomachs and wearing garments of debts to all manner of persons in the society. We have sacrificed for the nation and would always do; but we are not yet ready for martyrdom or collective hara-kiri.

We cannot accept this sort of martyrdom in the midst of plenty. We will not. Indeed, if I were deciding for ASUU, the union should now declare a full, comprehensive and indefinite strike. Whichever new government that would come in next year may then resolve the crisis while it will be fossilized in the memory of the nation this administration, in its eight years of disservice to the nation, successfully destroyed western education at the university level in a manner reminiscent of the Boko Haram ideology.

Finally, the current ASUU President, Prof Emmanuel Osodeke, as with all others before him, is one who is very passionate about the welfare of students. But you will praise his tranquility of speech if you were to understand the provocatively impossible situation in which government has placed him and the union.

Indeed, the members of the Union have been treated worse than slaves, worse than the very lowest of outcasts by the same country they believe they are labouring and dying for.

The ASUU President’s speech is the speech of one anguished by a world and system he has given his all to save and serve. He certainly couldn’t be showing insensitivity to the students when he has doggedly refused to drop from our demands the students’ welfare concerns.

His reference to the cancellation of the session was, hence, an outburst against a murderous, genocidal system and not at all against these innocent ones entrusted to us to look after as teachers in locus parentis.

I must not fail, however, to commend Prof Farooq Kperogi, once more, for his patriotic support to the cause of the nation’s university education system through the flank of ASUU before the Minister of Education happened to him through the Minister’s mis-education of the public regarding the settling of matters with the union.

…Prof Joseph A. Ushie writes from
University of Uyo, Uyo. Akwa- Ibom State. Nigeria.


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