When I was researching this article, something halfway between hilarious and sad happened. I was looking for the exact date when the most recent strike action by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) was called off, and I stumbled across a headline that read “ASUU Officially Calls Off Strike.” I clicked on the headline and found myself reading a story stating that following an ASUU executive council meeting in Minna, the strike had been called off and lectures were expected to resume in January.
It was a bog-standard, prosaic news article that should have given me all the information I wanted except that one small detail was off – the story was dated December 16, 2013. It was actually a 7-year-old story going back to the Goodluck Jonathan administration, at a time when I was still an NYSC member reading out the News at 7 on EKTV in Ado Ekiti. You could literally take the date off it and put it side by side with the more recent story from December 2020, and you would sincerely be hard-pressed to tell which was which.
That little anecdote is one tiny illustration of the giant hamster wheel that is the perennial struggle between university education in Nigeria and the infamous ASUU strike phenomenon. Going back to the genesis of its strike actions in 1988, ASUU has gone on prolonged strikes no fewer than 9 different times, spanning the tenures of Ibrahim Babangida, Sani Abacha, Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Yar’adua, Goodluck Jonathan, and Muhammadu Buhari. The headline issues vary, but the underlying factors do not. This time around will be no different. Regardless of whatever agreement is announced and however long the latest truce lasts, one thing is sure – we will be back here again in the not-too-distant future.
Here is why.
Nigeria’s State Capacity to Fund Education is a Mirage
Globally, it is recommended that countries spend 15-20 percent of their annual government budget on education and research. In Nigeria, this figure consistently hovers around 7 percent. The highest ever budgetary share for education was achieved in 2014 with 10.28 percent. The N13 trillion 2021 budget not only fails to allocate anywhere near even a double-digit percentage share to education but has actually given education just 5.6 percent – its lowest budgetary share in a decade, worth just N742.5 billion.
There are many reasons for this, but the number 1 reason why the funding allocation for university education can never satisfy ASUU enough to avert the next inevitable strike is that Nigeria is critically broke. In Q1 2020, the country’s debt service-to-revenue ratio hit a staggering 99 percent. For the non-economically inclined reader, this means that for every naira the federal government took in as revenue during that period, 99 kobo went out for loan repayments.
To put that figure into further perspective, Nigeria’s 2019 budget performance was only about 84 percent, which means that about 16 percent of the budget simply went unfunded. Given that after debt repayments, the next highest source of recurrent expenditure on the government’s books is wages and allowances of political appointees and civil service personnel, it does not take Nostradamus to figure out that education inevitably ends up taking a substantial share of the budget performance column marked “unfunded.”
I was on an episode of ‘Patitos Gang’ a few weeks ago where Prof Pat Utomi reiterated his long-standing suggestion for how to solve the funding quagmire afflicting Nigerian higher education. Prof Utomi believes that first of all, there are too many publicly-funded universities in Nigeria, which has had the net effect of lowering standards across the board while exponentially increasing funding liabilities. To solve this he said, a serious Nigerian government needs to take the politically explosive decision of categorising public universities into tiers for funding priority.
Under this framework, the “Big 5” (UNILAG, UI, OAU, UNIBEN, ABU) would be given top tier funding priority over all others, with said funding linked to research and development KPIs that would result in a net benefit to the economy. The next tier would be the plethora of post-1999 federal universities, followed by the final tier made up of state government-owned universities. Prof Utomi in my opinion would be bang on the money with this plan as he so often is, were it not for one major oversight.
Education Isn’t Just a Non-Priority – It’s an Enemy
As mentioned earlier, Major General Buhari’s latest iteration as Head of State has managed to take the budgetary share of education to less than a third of the globally recommended levels. It is important to bear in mind that as a developing country, Nigeria should actually be spending more than the global recommendation on education, since that is the only way to make its huge population relevant in the 4th industrial revolution – and thus transition out of poverty. None of this is news to Major General Buhari, by the way.
Buhari in fact is not the simple-minded caricature that many insist on painting – you don’t get to become a 2-star general in one of the most poisonous and political-military environments on earth by being simple upstairs. What Buhari is in fact, is a soldier. Soldiers are trained to think and conceive of the world in binaries – friendly or hostile. In Buhari’s world, everything must fit into this narrow prism, including government liabilities and sectors of the economy like education, research, and development. Buhari’s instincts are to make those decisions based on a threat assessment to his regime – perceived anti-regime sectors will simply not get funded.
If you are an ASUU member, there is a good chance that Buhari is at best distrustful of you, if not outright hostile. The higher education ecosystem is completely antithetical to all that Buhari has demonstrated that he stands for. Are you a young person? You should be on the farm, he never stops reminding everyone. What was his reaction the last time his government was confronted by a group of young Nigerians sufficiently freed from the drudgery of subsistence agriculture as to demand an end to police brutality? A real-life massacre of unarmed civilians.
Under his great friend and former boss Sani Abacha, what was the Nigerian government’s attitude toward ASUU and university education? Funding was regularly withheld arbitrarily and several academics were dismissed at Abacha’s behest because (again, ‘friendly vs hostile’) they were deemed to be a threat to regime security by virtue of being critical of Abacha and well respected. It is no coincidence that it was only in 2014 under a fully civilian Ph.D. holder that Nigeria managed to allocate a double-figure percentage of its budget to education for the first and only time ever. Of course, as soon as Buhari came in, that percentage went straight down, and we’re currently at a 10-year low (and still digging).
My point? University education is not merely a lower priority for a Buhari government – it is an actual enemy to be targeted, fought, and neutralised. Muhammadu Buhari’s conceptual vision of Nigeria is not and has never been that of a highly industrialised knowledge economy populated by 150 million highly skilled and globally relevant young people. His vision is the archetypal feudalist dream – a cornucopia of widespread poverty punctuated by subsistence agriculture and government pork barrel.
More than the judiciary; more than the media; more than the civil society space; the university is the institution that is on a direct collision course with General Buhari’s vision, and so it will continue to find itself under attack, primarily of the budgetary variety. 5 percent budget share for education in 2021? It might be 4 percent in 2022 – don’t bet against it. Political struggles within prominent university senates? Expect many more. Payroll mistakes resulting in academics getting paid N4,000 for a month’s work as it happened during the botched IPPIS integration? Expect more of that too.
Every single grouse that has been “discussed” and “agreed on” will erupt once again, as they have done roughly once every 30 months since 1992. ASUU will definitely go on strike. It is only a matter of time.