Lagos, Nigeria – In the 22 years since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999, academics in its public universities have gone on strike a record 15 times. The 16th one, a one-month warning strike declared on February 14 to press for increased wages, comes barely two years after a nine-month industrial action.
In each case, the institutions have had to shut their doors, disrupting academic calendars to the frustration of students and parents nationwide. But for the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the umbrella body of the lecturers, a similar frustration is at the heart of its perennial struggle for better remuneration and improved infrastructure in the schools.
‘’Imagine receiving the same salary since 2009 and compare what you received in 2009 with what you are receiving now [and] with the inflation,” asked Foluke Aliyu-Ibrahim, an English lecturer at the University of Ilorin who told Al Jazeera that the government has reneged on several agreements with ASUU. “People don’t understand what we are going through, it is a lot of sacrifices.’’
Since the oil boom of the 1970s, the government has traditionally subsidised tuition in tertiary institutions, but these days, it can barely keep up with the rising cost of education. Industry stakeholders have said the public education system is in a state of gradual decay, best exemplified by the declining standards of the universities.
Currently, there are at least 170 licensed universities in Nigeria; almost half of those are bankrolled by either the federal or state governments while the rest are owned by private individuals and organisations.
According to BudgIT, a civil society organisation dedicated to fiscal transparency and budget tracking, Abuja allocated 335.4 billion naira ($807.23m) in total (PDF) to all 44 federal universities last year – a third of the Lagos state budget for the same year.
Depending on their rank, the monthly salaries of lecturers range between 95,000 naira ($228) and 332,000 naira ($800), with 416,000 naira ($1,000) being the maximum pay for a professor. Staff are forced to run businesses on the side to make ends meet, leaving no time to engage in research and development. Undergraduates routinely post photos of their dilapidated hostels and classrooms to social media.
Authorities have repeatedly told the union that the government is broke and cannot continue to subsidise tertiary education – and there is some truth to that statement.
Due to the pandemic and a slump in global oil prices, the Nigerian economy, Africa’s largest, experienced its biggest recession in more than three decades, in 2020. Figures from its Debt Management Office show that the country’s debt obligations have now hit 38 trillion naira ($92.62bn), its highest ever.
However, the academics accuse the government of reckless spending – and insensitivity.
‘’Why can’t they say they don’t have the money to fund the national assembly, Aso Rock clinics and foreign trips?“ asked Emmanuel Osodoke, ASUU’s national president. “Why is it the one that affects the common man that they say they don’t have the money? They have money to fund trips abroad but they don’t have the money to fund education which is the number one priority in any country that is serious, so it does not make any sense.’’
Ben Bem Goong, the spokesman for the federal education ministry, claimed to be unaware of any industrial action, telling Al Jazeera that ASUU “has breached the procedure” by not informing it of its position.
In a swift counter, Esodoke told Al Jazeera that the agreement reached with the government in 2020 stipulated that the union could go on strike without notice in the case of a breach.
The labour minister did not respond to multiple requests for comments.
The government is solely responsible for funding Nigerian public universities but education analysts have said it has barely lived up to its responsibilities. In the past five years, the federal government only budgeted between 6-8 percent of the annual budget for education, which falls short of UNESCO’s recommended 15-20 percent mark.
‘’When the government does not believe in the instrumentality of education towards delivering on the objectives of the nation itself, then there is no way they are going to allocate significant funding to higher education,’’ Gideon Olarenwaju, head of Aid for Rural Education Access Initiative, a nonprofit working with under-resourced schools, noted. ‘’[However,] I think the body of universities themselves should have acknowledged the reality that the government cannot be relied upon.”
As the Nigerian economy navigates difficult times and its currency continues to plummet against the dollar, the government’s investment in public education continued to suffer. Individuals and religious organisations have stepped in to fill the gap, seeking accreditation from the National Universities Commission to build viable alternatives. But the private institutions remain out of the reach of the majority of citizens in a country where 40 percent live below the poverty line.
‘’Nigerian universities cannot generate income because you don’t expect a country where more than 70 percent of the country are earning less than 60,000 naira ($145) to pay upwards of one million naira ($2,409) in fees,’’ Esodoke, a professor of soil science at the Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike, said.
Universities need to complement the government in generating funds to run the system according to Olarenwaju. ‘’It should be a two-way contribution,” he said. “The government has its role to play … but it is unreasonable that ASUU continues to strike without themselves looking and exploring alternative measures.”
Given the government’s notoriety of not adhering to signed agreements and a seeming unwillingness to meet the union’s demands, Esodoke knew the odds of another indefinite strike are high.
But the deadlock is necessary, the ASUU chief insisted. In 2011, the authorities established Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND), an agency that sources and disburses tax paid by companies domiciled in Nigeria to the tertiary institutions. He claimed that as a product of the struggle and as further proof of the need for a hardline stance in negotiations with Abuja.
His comrades agreed, too, including Aliyu-Ibrahim who was pessimistic about any quick resolution. “Strike is the only language the government understands,” she said.