Businesses feel the crunch of university staff strike

Businesses of all sizes around government-owned university communities in Nigeria are bleeding from the prolonged strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). Many of them have shut down, while commercial activities at those still in operation remain skeletal as the industrial action, now in its seventh month, turns campuses into ghost towns.

Food vendors, computer centre operators, shuttle drivers, hairdressers, barbers and several other entrepreneurs operating on campuses are smarting from the ongoing strike amid rising inflation that has lowered the standard of living in the country.

“The strike has impacted us negatively because the food we sell is mostly consumed by students,” said Owoyemi Olatunji, managing director of the Iya Yusuf Restaurant, a popular canteen at Tanke, a community around the University of Ilorin in Kwara State.

Olatunji said that, before the strike started in February, the restaurant had managed to break even.

“Now, we are not meeting our targets. In fact, we had to lay off some of our staff members because of a sharp drop in sales. The strike is really affecting the business, and nobody is happy about it,” he told University World News.

Samuel Gbadebo is a cab driver shuttling between the University of Lagos and Yaba, a neighbouring community. Since February, when the university students and staff who make up 70% of his patronage stopped going to school, he has been enduring an unstable income.

“When the school is in session, I realise about NGN12,000 (US$28) every day after deducting fuel cost and charges I pay at the park,” Gbadebo said. “[Now] I hardly realise NGN5,000. I have three kids, a wife and ageing parents I care for. At times, I have to borrow to provide some basic needs for the family,” the 36-year-old driver added.

ASUU, government meetings stall

The Nigerian government and ASUU leadership have been meeting to resolve the strike without any significant progress. Academics insist the government must implement a renegotiated 2009 agreement it reached with the union.

The ASUU demands include revitalisation funds for universities, payment of outstanding allowances, better working conditions and the adoption of the university transparency accountability solution (UTAS) as the payment platform for lecturers as opposed to the integrated payroll and personnel information system which has resulted in irregularities in salary payments.

In an attempt to force lecturers back to classrooms, the government has suspended their salaries since February.

ASUU president Professor Emmanuel Osodeke said the government has agreed to only one of their demands. “It is not just about wages. It has to do with the system, funding, the structure, the autonomy, and other issues; and how to fund universities,” Osodeke said earlier.

“The government has reduced [the dispute] to salaries alone. But if they had looked at the whole agreement and implemented it, we would not be talking about funding,” he told a local television station recently.

Meetings between the ASUU and the government have been ongoing, but without any breakthrough.

Strike worsens inflationary effects

Nigeria’s national bureau of statistics has revealed that the inflation rate in Nigeria hit 19.64% in July this year, the highest since 2005 and up from the 18.60% recorded in the previous month.

Professor Akpan Ekpo, a former director-general of the West African Institute for Financial and Economic Management, estimated that economic activities at Nigerian universities have dropped by between 60% and 80% since the strike began, with several SMEs impoverished.

“The government has been very inconsiderate in dealing with ASUU, and that is very unfortunate,” he told University World News. “Any town where a university is located depends a lot on the school for its economic activities. In typical university towns, the economic activity is gone and, across the country, there’s a downturn in economic activities,” Ekpo added.

Dr Femi Egbesola, national president of the Association of Small Business Owners of Nigeria, noted that an average of 500 to 700 entrepreneurs work in a university community. He estimates that each of these entrepreneurs has at least five dependants, translating into 2,500 to 3,500 individuals affected by the shutdown of every university.

Nigeria has 49 federal universities, all of them on strike, including some state universities.

Egbesola said: “The ASUU strike has negatively impacted SMEs, particularly those in and around the university communities. When universities are on strike, businesses have to close down because their primary customers are students and lecturers. Since these customers are out of school, they are out of business. That means their livelihood is threatened.

“When people who are supposed to get their means of livelihood through their businesses in the schools can’t do so, they are either jobless or look for other means of making sure they get food on their table. At times, this can lead them to crime or illegal business because they just have to live.”

Egbesola said the economic effects of the ASUU strike have spread beyond the university environment as the suspension of lecturers’ salaries means they have been denied the financial power to meet their needs.

If lecturers are not paid, money won’t trickle down to their dependants, and businesses outside the school environment will experience reduced patronage, he said.

He urged the government to consider the far-reaching implications of the strike on livelihoods and be guided by this in its decision-making.

“The government should look beyond the impact [the strike] has on lecturers and students. They should consider business owners, the university community, and the Nigerian economy as a whole. If all of these are put together, they will discover a lot of havoc is being done each day the strike lingers.”

Families getting poorer

The World Bank projected in a report in June that inflation would push an additional one million Nigerians into poverty by the end of 2022.

Sarah Anyanwu, an economics professor and former director of the centre for entrepreneurship development at the University of Abuja, said that, coupled with the strike, inflation would drive many people further down the poverty ladder.

She said: “It is very unfortunate that, till now, the government has been unable to resolve the ASUU strike. Once there is a strike, it has a lot of consequences for stakeholders; not only for students but even for the employees of the various institutions and the economy at large.

“Some business operators have had to return to their villages. Most of these small and medium-scale enterprises around the universities have collapsed because students are not on the ground. No patronage, no income. Their families are suffering. So, we have a lot of problems in terms of the negative effects of the ASUU strike.

“Inflation has a multiplier effect. Poverty and unemployment will increase along with the inflation rate. And for those who have been shut out of business, they will become jobless and poorer.”

Ekpo said there is a need for the Nigerian government to be sincere and treat academics with respect, noting that there is no political will to do the right thing.

“The administration is not serious in solving the problem. And that position hurts everybody. It hurts the government, parents, lecturers, students and businesses. The president should consider the ASUU strike as an urgent situation which he should be involved in directly,” he said.