‘Facing another strike would definitely break some of us’

The latest Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) strike in Nigeria has, from 14 February, rolled out across the university landscape, criss-crossed state lines and has halted higher education in public institutions.

Participating academics say they want to improve a struggling, underfunded system but, with what appears to be perennial labour action by the union, comes a build-up of frustration among students who have hardly been able to recover from other, recent strikes affecting them on their educational journeys.

Between 1999, when Nigeria returned to democracy, and December 2020, ASUU had spent about 1,500 days on strike, and this has disrupted the academic projections of most students who passed through the public universities.

A week ago, the union asked its members nationwide to embark on lecture-free days in preparation for the strike action and, across the country, most branches of the union complied with the directive. Subsequently, as this was extended to a month, academic activities have been halted.

These developments have left Mavin Chima, a medical student at the University of Lagos, distressed.

Chima, who has witnessed at least two bouts of prolonged industrial action by the union since he entered the university in 2017, said that having to spend eight years on a six-year course has been traumatising and he is troubled about what lies ahead.

“Facing another strike would definitely break some of us,” he said.

“I should have been rounding off by now, ahead of [graduating] in 2023. But with all the strikes, I would graduate by 2025, which is also tentative as we do not know how long this current strike will last.”

Chima’s story is no different from that of Somto Ude, a fifth-year medical student of the University of Port Harcourt.

Ude recalled that, so far, he has witnessed four strike actions during his studies and, like Chima, he does not know when he will be able to graduate.

Both students are frustrated because they believe they have fallen behind their peers who are studying at private universities and are likely to graduate and find employment ahead of them.

But the students are not the only ones affected by the strike.

What about parents who pay fees?

Ude revealed that the incessant labour dispute has taken its toll on his middle-class parents who pay his school fees.

“My parents are not happy with the situation. They had their expectations as to when I would graduate so they could also have some deserved rest, but it is taking longer than necessary. Paying school fees and other associated costs is no longer easy.”

Adebayo Olusegun, a final-year student of Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile Ife, Osun State, spent five years on a four-year degree.

“It feels as if one year has been deleted from my life. I would have graduated and even concluded the mandatory one year National Youth Service Corps programme and probably secured a good job by now, but I’m still here, not certain of graduating this year.

“I don’t think the federal government knows that some of us have poor parents who cannot wait for us to start working so we can take care of them. It is really very bad they don’t take the poor masses into consideration.”

That is also how Tijani Mariam, a fourth-year student of surveying and geoinformatics at the Federal University of Technology, Owerri, feels.

Mariam, whose mother is a widowed petty trader, said the strike has affected her mother who wished she had been done with school last year.

“By now, I would have been helping my mother to take care of the younger ones financially. It is heartbreaking,” she said.

The students’ testimonies align with those of several other graduates and undergraduates who told University World News they believe many students who settle for public universities would have to wait for a long time, even if they abhor it.

Is the strike in the interests of students?

Meanwhile, ASUU has pointed out that the industrial actions were for the benefit of the students and the public university system in general.

The immediate-past president of the union, Professor Biodun Ogunyemi, who led some of the strike actions, said lecturers were also affected by the strike because many lecturers have children in the same public universities.

“The issue of ethics or morality of our ongoing strike is a complex one that we need to examine … from the angle of the students, to the lecturers, the educational system, the country and even future generations,” he said.

“I need to erase the notion that ASUU does not have genuine concern for the students. In the benefits the strike has brought to the system, I would say the students have always profited even more than the lecturers. For example, we ask for improved facilities, and so on.

“In 2012, we saw terrifying situations on our campuses. You could imagine having 20 students in a room originally meant for four or six students and they were sleeping in shifts. We even found that, in some cases, the students had cooking stoves, preparing food in that same room.

“We came back and protested. We cried aloud and these things were documented. They are not speculation. We captured them in photographs and we have shown the report to everybody that cared to know.”

He pointed out that the report had been one of the union’s propellants in advocating for the need to revitalise and fix the university system.

“So, each time the students say the union doesn’t consider them, we believe they are speaking from lack of knowledge. If they know the gravity of the issues that brought the system to where it is, they probably would understand better,” he added.

Research findings

Meanwhile, in their academic research titled ‘ASUU Strike and the Nigerian Governments: Implications on students and society in a changing world’ published in December 2021, Ekene Celestina Chukwudi of Covenant University, Ota, Ogun State, and Samuel Sunday Idowu of Caleb University, Lagos, identified the consequences of the strike actions to include the fact that public university students are exposed and tempted to indulge in social vices.

In the research, published in the South Asian Journal of Social Studies and Economics, the authors added that the students tend to, “have a sense of being disadvantaged unlike their private colleagues, and the society developmental agenda is threatened because of the poor quality of graduates produced from the Ivory Tower”.

They called on ASUU and the government to renegotiate their agreements with sincerity of purpose and realistically.

They cautioned that striking was no longer acceptable and that ASUU should jettison it as a tool for pressing for its demands.