By Bolanle Bolawole
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After a two-day meeting at the University of Lagos, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) backed down on its threatened total, till-Armageddon-comes strike action and has, instead, announced a one-month warning, roll-over strike. A news medium reported the story thus: The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has officially declared a one-month rollover warning strike. Emmanuel Victor Osodeke, the national president of ASUU, disclosed this at a press conference…This followed a two-day deliberation of the union’s National Executive Council (NEC) at the University of Lagos… The union, which embarked on a nine-month strike that halted university education in 2020, had lamented the failure of the federal government to fulfil some of the agreements they had reached to suspend the industrial action. The mobilisation for strike followed the federal government’s attitude towards the renegotiation of their salaries and allowances as well as the adoption of the University Transparency Accountability Solution (UTAS) payroll software”.
Whereas the modification of ASUU’s strike comes as a relief to students and parents alike – and, perhaps, to the FG and ASUU itself! – ASUU has only postponed the evil day! As things stand, this government meeting ASUU’s demands all the way any time soon is very much unlikely. At the very best the government will, again, offer tokenism, push the critical issues further upstream and buy time, which is what it is resorting to on all fronts, and leave the in-coming government – if Nigeria as a country survives till that time – to carry the can. I repeat that ASUU must begin to think – and act – out of the box. Strike action appears to have lost its mojo with this government. The children of the decision-makers don’t school here; if they do at all, it is in private institutions and not any more in our run-down public institutions. So, down tools till eternity, it does not remove a strand of hair from selfish and self-centred leaders. Unfortunately, this is a country where the followers are so lethargic and docile that “people positive action” to compel the attention of leaders is generally lacking – and this is one area that ASUU must begin to focus its attention on. Mobilise the people to confront the government and demand for their rights! Education is a right, not a privilege! I wouldn’t know how many of today’s ASUU leaders are aware of the struggle, when ASUU was being birthed in 1978, as to whether it should function as a trade union or as a professional body. Those who favoured ASUU being a trade union won the argument. ASUU was meant to act as the vanguard of the Nigerian workers’ struggle for emancipation; an intellectual power-house providing the ideological underpinning necessary to raise the consciousness of the working class in the never-ending class struggle between the oppressor-class and the oppressed. ASUU appears to have jettisoned the reason for its existence. It has totally lost focus. Its concern now is more bread and butter. But until it returns to its original concept; until it rediscovers the original nexus between it and the people; and until it is able to march as the arrow-head of the masses of our people to confront the oppressor-class and wrestle denied democratic rights from the vice-like grip of the ruling class, I fear that not much will be achieved. Failing to re-think its strike-only option, ASUU will soon lose public sympathy and support. It will also be helping a do-nothing government to further de-market the public school system. More and more Nigerians will recourse to private institutions. A post making the rounds on social media posits that ASUU has embarked on strike action 15 times between 1999 and 2022 as follows: 1999 (150 days); 2001 (90 days); 2002 (14 days); 2003 (180 days); 2005 (14 days); 2006 (3 days); 2007 (90 days); 2008 (8 days); 2009 (120 days); 2010 (157 days); 2011 (59 days); 2013 (165 days); 2017 (35 days); 2018 (94 days); 2020 (120 days); and the just-declared warning strike in 2022 (30 days), making a total of 1,329 days! If these figures are correct, then, that is a whopping 44 months and three days (that is, three years, eight months and three days, where an average semester is made up of between 3 and 4 months!) So, you can imagine how many semesters and whole academic sessions the university system has lost to ASUU strikes alone, not to talk of time lost to strike actions by other workers in the university system and student demonstrations!
…Prof. Ibiyemi Olatunji–Bello’s great plans for LASU
God says in Jeremiah 29: 11: For I know the thoughts that I think towards you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end”. This is one of the favourite scriptures of one of my pastors, RCCG’s Pastor Benjamin Ajayeoba. As disruptive of the university system as incessant strike actions are, there are still university administrators who, rather than getting discouraged, are leaving no stone unturned in their efforts to not only make up for lost time but to also take their respective institutions to the pinnacle of excellence. One such vice-chancellor is that of the Lagos State University (LASU), Prof. Ibiyemi Olatunji-Bello. Readers will recall that I took umbrage when some fellows, introducing extraneous matters, tried to erect brick walls on the path of Prof. Ibiyemi becoming the LASU VC. Be it on the excuses of gender, state of origin or whatever, the wall of Jericho came crashing down. What mattered was whether she was qualified; and whether she had paid her dues at LASU. So, I took interest when, a few days ago, I ran into an interview of the LASU VC conducted by Dr. Olabisi Deji-Folutile. Bisi and I were colleagues at The PUNCH; besides, she is one of Nigeria’s foremost authorities on Education reporting. The headline of the interview was also catching: “What I went through to become LASU’s vice-chancellor – Prof Ibiyemi”. This being Nigeria, I wanted to now – and I think my readers will also want to now! Her plans for LASU, as she outlined them, also afford us an opportunity not only to hold her feet to the fire but to also score her at the end of her tenure. The fascinating story ran thus: “The ninth Vice-Chancellor of the Lagos State University, Prof. Ibiyemi Olatunji-Bello, has revealed the long road leading to her appointment as the vice-chancellor of the university (as) she applied five times for the position before she finally clinched (it) in 2021. According to her, she would probably be the only one in the history of applicants for the coveted position of vice-chancellorship that had to apply for such a number of times. ‘I will probably enter the Guinness Book of Records as the only one that has applied for the vice-chancellorship position five times. I applied two times for the position in 2021 alone. I always applied and reapplied before finally getting it’. She said she was persistent despite several opportunities of being a vice-chancellor in many private and other state universities in Nigeria because she was convinced that she had a lot to offer at LASU”.
Now, what has she got to offer? “She said that her administration is poised to enhance the welfare and academic standard of both staff and students… One of the primary goals of her administration is to rebrand and upgrade the university to international standard…Many of her projects would be geared towards making it easier for students to run flexible academic schedules and to empower them with viable skills that would aid them to start-up their own companies, instead of looking for jobs after they graduate. ‘I want to replicate what I’ve seen at other acclaimed foreign universities in LASU. We want LASU to be the number one reference point for other schools in Nigeria and Africa…We have invested and are still investing heavily in ICT so that our students can have their lectures at any place without coming to the classroom. Then, we have introduced a 50 per cent refund to students that have shown diligence in their studies. This move is to reward excellence and breed healthy competition among students. We are also running a work-study programme for our indigent students. This welfare programme is to help them train and fend for themselves through school…The institution has established and is establishing various small-scale businesses, including a bakery, table water factory, and car upholstery factory where students can work to earn a living while also generating internal revenue for the school. We are also seeking partnership with big companies and small- and medium-scale enterprises for them to employ our students on a part-time basis…”
All of the LASU VC’s projects are laudable but the one that interests me most is the work-study welfare programme. At Ife, I benefitted from a similar programme in Part 3 and Part 4. Students could either work part-time in the Library or cafetaria for a maximum of 8 hours/week, 40 hours/month. I chose to work in the cafeteria. While my other colleagues preferred to hide inside the cafeteria to tend vegetables, peel yams, turn ‘amala’ or wash plates, I chose the open dining hall where everyone would see me pack plates used by fellow students. I recall an incident where a fresher (Jambite, as we called them), one tiny rat like that, just finished eating and pushed his plate towards me, saying, “Hey, pick it”! I moved closer to him and gave him a vicious knock on the head! “Stupid Jambite!” I said as I ordered him to pick up the used plate himself! Frightened, he obeyed. That incident happened at Fajuyi Hall, which was my hall of residence, and so, practically everyone knew me. “Don’t you know he is your senior?” amused students scolded the saucy boy.
But it didn’t come easy, especially at the beginning. Friends thought it was disgraceful and demeaning and begged me to stop – but I wouldn’t. Before long, my boldness earned me the confidence of the catering staff and they began to allow me to dish out food at the counter to my fellow students. That was when I became very famous, especially on Sundays when the menu was jollof rice and chicken. Virtually everyone became my friends and would queue up on my own service lane for preferential treatment. Friends who had pressured me not to work in the kitchen became those who came looking for me at lunch or dinner time! When, in Part 4 (1981/82), I contested for the post of Hall Chairman, the cafeteria staff campaigned for me and I won by landslide! As Hall chairman, I was served like a king in my room and in the cafeteria I gave instructions that the staff joyfully obeyed. Will such days ever return to our universities?
*Former editor of The PUNCH and chairman of its Editorial Board, BOLAWOLE writes the TREASURES column in the New Telegraph newspaper and the ON THE LORD’S DAY column in the Sunday Tribune. He is also a public affairs analyst on radio and television.