Manifesto to Save Nigeria’s Public University

The labor dispute between the Academic Staff Union of Universities and the Federal Government of Nigeria dominated the media for many months. Throughout, ASUU leaders have declared and reaffirmed their members’ position, often advising the public from Memorandum of Understanding to Memorandum of Action, dating back to 2009, leading to current demands. Federal government officials have successfully perfected the act of “minor specializing”. They center one issue this month and another the next. Their story calls college professors greedy, uncompassionate, and unpatriotic.

As the dispute escalates, the familiar backlash and accusations have resurfaced. Too much confusing information and uninformed opinions circulating. ASUU’s greed experts and widely followed professional trolls aggregate and disseminate decontextualized data and stories on social media platforms, especially Twitter.

University students and future students are angry, depressed and anxious. They are also divided, not knowing how to get out of the educational institution that has put their lives on hold. The parents’ voices seem drowned or lost in the incoherence of the public space.

A Nigerian diaspora scholar was also an active voice. Although they are divided in their opinion, some of the loudest voices in this group are too obsessed with comparison: “In the United States…”, “In the United Kingdom…”, “In America…”, “In Europe…”, “In Canada…”, “In the South…” etc. Usually, these diaspora intellectuals ignore their privilege and the systemic nature of the crisis. They “speak” to striking speakers as “greedy and lazy” people who do not contribute to national and global knowledge, innovation and progress. In this conference, intellectuals from the Nigerian Diaspora hid why they left, stayed abroad and were unable to return to Nigeria as speakers.

ASUU is persistent and determined to keep fighting. As a young researcher employed at the largest university in the country, I sometimes wonder, “Why bother? Senior professors in Nigerian universities are already encouraging their best students to leave and never look back. Many who returned to Nigeria after studying abroad in the 1970s and 1980s are quick to tell their regrets to young professors in the halls of the department. Some of the best thinkers trained in the 1990s and 2000s didn’t stick around long enough to get their spirits shattered. More so, from 2010 to date, young PhDs who have entered the system are pursuing useless second PhDs abroad to escape the rapidly crumbling university system. So, “why bother?”

I concluded that some people have stayed to train the next generation of Nigerians. They stayed even if it meant struggling throughout their careers to ensure that the sons and daughters of ordinary people had access to a quality, globally competitive college education. Their struggle over the years is not just to save a vital social institution; they stayed to save the future and the soul of a society. Their fight is fair. Their fight is fair. Their fight is patriotic.

Again, ASUU is persistent and determined to keep fighting. Yet this struggle is not and cannot be a struggle for ASUU and allied organizations alone.

We must come together to build a unified voice against the common enemies of our collective future: those who understand the depth of the crisis and choose to play politics. Common enemies include the state and smart and cunning minions, elected politicians and spokespersons who know but pretend and speak in a vacuum. These are the people who think young people should be lined up at the altar of sacrifice indefinitely for the benefit of the few. They are comfortable proposing that your early career lecturer with a PhD in a specialized field should resign from the university instead of complaining that N137,000 per month at home – in 2022 – will not not enough to bring them home. They are the ones who criminalize patriotism, fake elitism and truncate national progress.

Those at the top of university leadership should speak up and speak out. Your silence is complicity. The Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ibadan led the way by presenting a passionate and frank assessment of our bleeding ivory towers, the first at the highest level of Nigerian university leadership in a long time not hidden behind political language advice”. VCs. More leaders should speak out, bearing in mind that their tenure will end and they will return to the ranks of the degraded workforce. You no longer have the luxury of playing the “baffled generation”. It is no longer safe for you to ask, “How did we get here?” When you write the letters, make a patriotic and heartfelt plea for “Why we need to get out of here and move on”. In the note, let the country know what you and your stewards are going through in Abuja.

Additionally, teachers must resist the urge to keep super dry skeletons upright. They must help the Nigerian Universities Commission to suppress courses lacking the necessary human resources by refusing to help glorified secondary schools to disguise themselves as universities. Those privileged as heads of government agencies should not sabotage their colleagues. If you can’t speak because your mouth is full, don’t be a hindrance to those trying to fight for a better system. I consider these simple steps not ignoring that they will have a personal cost for you.

Statesmen and stateswomen must give their voice. Before you leave, talk to your replacements. Remind them how we started as a nation and how far we’ve come since we took the wrong turn. Not tomorrow, but now.

Politicians should know that there is more for everyone if we have a functioning society. In a society where knowledge is valued, cultivated and accessible to all, regardless of social status, there will be prosperity that benefits all equally.

Parents and students have an important role to play in all of this. As a parent, you’re probably tired of your wards not making that transition to adulthood as quickly as you’d hoped. But to delay is not to deny. By seeing this struggle as your own and openly supporting it in any way you can, you are helping your wards have a solid foundation for their future. Your support is needed to ensure that the real tyrants fail in their scheme to further impoverish university professors. Also remember that your children will also have children and they may not be able to japa.

To young Nigerians, students and those considering going to university in particular, your voice is more critical today than ever. By advising them to sue ASUU, a suggestion unlikely to yield any meaningful outcome for you, they are asking you to excuse their incompetence and wrongdoing. It’s shameful that they demand more sacrifice from you now. Your grandparents sacrificed themselves. Your parents sacrificed so much. You have made sacrifices since you were born in Nigeria as a Nigerian. Refuse to be the sacrificial goat. Secure your future.

Intellectuals in the Nigerian diaspora should appreciate the plight of university professors. As many of you as possible should speak truth to power and resist the urge to vilify ASUU. Take the time to talk to your former colleagues and friends from Nigerian universities. Ask them questions, listen and reflect on where you are and where you could have been, then speak from conviction and truth. By all means, criticize ASUU, but ask stooges and state spokespersons on social media what they gain by degrading, demoralizing and demeaning college professors.

Finally, we should have an honest and public conversation about what we want for ourselves as a society and what role we want the university to play in it. In doing so, we also need to ask ourselves what is a fair working environment to play this role at the university, given the quality and cost of talent required. This is how we can begin the journey towards safeguarding public universities in Nigeria.

However, the journey must begin today, now – not tomorrow.

  • Dr. Adebayo is a Research Fellow at the Institution of African Studies, University of Ibadan, Nigeria

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