BusinessDay

ASUU strike: 167 days of national shame

…helpless students idle away …parents worry …campus businesses gone …Government unperturbed …wealthy citizens flaunt graduating children abroad

Today, July 31, 2022, marks 167 days since the gates of federal universities across the country were shut due to an industrial action embarked by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).

Sadly, the strike, which commenced on February 14, 2022, about five months 17 days today seems to be unending despite several meetings, interventions, consultations and FG-ASUU negotiations, which have yielded no result.

There is no assurance that the strike would be called off at the anticipated meeting of the National Executive Council of ASUU slated for tomorrow, August 1, 2022.

But away from the fight between the Federal Government and ASUU; as the proverbial two elephants fight, the students, their parents and businesses that depend on functional campuses are bearing the brunt.

The undergraduates are idling away; their parents are worried as the months of inactivity are having negative impacts on the would-be leaders of tomorrow, while many businesses are wrecked, leaving the owners in debt, poor health conditions and some even dead.

Ademola Okunola, a Theatre Arts undergraduate student of University of Lagos, is back to hustling on the streets of Lagos again.

The undergraduate, who is on scholarship by a non-governmental organisation (NGO), is forced to hustle as a middleman at the Ikeja Computer Village for commissions from buyers he brings to sellers as the scholarship is only activated when school is in session.

“I did not merit the scholarship because it is strictly for brilliant students who pass WAEC and JAMB at first sitting. But the coordinator of the NGO, who lived in our compound, during her youth service year, saw it as an opportunity to lift my family,” he said with teary eyes.

He noted that going back to ask for upkeep when the school is not in session implied ungratefulness and that was why he decided to keep his body and soul together with the hustling.

“I get between N2,500 to N6,000 every day, and sometimes, I lose all the day’s commission if the buyer returns the items because of factory error or damage. But I am always booed by the sellers, especially the semi-illiterates among them, who think going to school is a waste of time. I fear that they would influence me to drop out if I stay longer here,” he said with much pain.

While Ademola fears dropping out of school, many of his folks are not returning to the university when ASUU calls off the strike.

Chioma Izunna, an undergraduate of Nnamdi Azikiwe University Awka, Anambra State, has been in Lagos since April, when she joined her friend for an ushering job. Today, she lives with the ushering job agent, who engages over 20 young ladies, especially on weekends for her growing clientele across Lagos.

The 21-year-old undergraduate, who has been living with her parents in their family house in Awka, is off the hook for parental care for the first time and is scared of the risk she will be taking as there is no free tea anywhere, her hostess in Lagos, will always tell her.

“I am from a decent home, but we are poor. I am here to make small money to augment whatever my civil servant parents will give me when school reopens. The fact is that we are four in the school and there is no money and we all want to go to school,” she said.

However, she was convinced that she would definitely go back to her parents and school a different person as life is teaching her survival in a hard way.

“I am forced to smile at people I don’t like at events, I am forced to shake hands, be unnecessarily polite even when there are advances by crude men, all for N5,000 per event ushering job,” she said.

While Chioma intends to go back to school when the strike is over, Albert Ekpemo, an Ugheli, Delta State-born undergraduate of University of Benin, has gone back to the creeks and may not surface until late December for Christmas as life inside the Niger Delta creeks is more organised and coordinated than even government.

Speaking to his senior cousin who often sends him money while in school, Albert, who is popularly called Lord Albert by friends in his Okota neighborhood, said he is being invited by a school mate from Patani, who is in now money.

“If school is in session I will not have attempted leaving Lagos because I love being a graduate, but we were at home doing nothing for two months before I decided to leave and I just want to use the opportunity to help myself and meet my old friends,” Albert said.

But his senior cousin, a senior travel journalist, is worried because the young man is going to endanger his life in the creek, doing oil bunkering or any other thing that usually gives youths in that area fast money.

“I don’t know why the government is less concerned, the undergraduates are idling away every day, some in illegal business, some die trying to cross to Europe by road, you heard of the many killed in a North African country recently, but you cannot stop them because they are idle. Government please open universities; it is in your hands,” the travel journalist said.

Of course, the rank of bus conductors is swelling with many undergraduates, especially in Lagos, who cannot stay at home again, and you know them by their more respectful demeanor.

Meanwhile, a study by an independent education initiative, sponsored by an Abuja-based Christian organisation for some federal university undergraduates, revealed that 20 out of 100 undergraduates opened their books to read in the first month of the strike, with a huge decline to 5 out of 100 in the fourth month.

The frightening decline, according to the study, speaks volume of the rot among undergraduates because of the long strike.

“We will see a situation where lecturers will begin afresh and many students will struggle to catch up with class work, though many drop out on the account of traveling abroad for greener pastures, being held down by family business, sickness, death of the students or their sponsors, among other challenges. So, you are not going to see a full class,” the report further revealed.

On the part of the parents, it has been tales of woe for the nearly six months their undergraduate children have been at home.

Margaret Odum, a matron in a government-owned hospital in Lagos, has been having sleepless nights since the strike because her undergraduate children are at risk of peer pressure to look for something to engage themselves, no matter what it is.

“They hardly open their books; I always hear them discussing crypto currency, parties, traveling abroad and dollars. I am scared because I often supervise night shifts and my husband is a police officer, who is serving in Jigawa with little control of activities at home in Lagos.

“My children are almost out of control and they cannot travel to meet their father in Jigawa because of insecurity. I am forced to double their allowances to ensure they stay at home and focused. It is a very hard job to do,” she lamented.

The mother of three boys has also encouraged her sons to go for part time teaching at a private school in their area or join a neighbour who is a travel agent until the strike is over, but the children seem to look for bigger things, which are hard to come as undergraduates.

The above is also the worries of Emmanuel Eloka, a father of an undergraduate.

“I am a civil servant and I don’t have business that would have engaged my son since the strike. I have to pet him because it is not easy and the strike is affecting my plans and budget for the year, and he should have been rounding off by now,” he said.

Jimmy Odusote, another father, regrets that the strike is putting him in a bad mood as his neighbour’s children in private universities are in school, while his children are angry that their father cannot afford that.

“I know one has to cut one’s coat according to one’s size, but children nowadays do not reason that way. I almost feel ashamed when my children are on the phone call with any of my neighbour’s children at Babcock University or Covenant University. Sometimes, I think I have not worked hard enough, yes, because I cannot afford three children in a private university,” Odusete lamented.

Many parents whose children have been idling away in the nearly six months of ASUU strike are also in the shoes of Odusote.

The situation for them is lack of means, if not, they will all move their children to private universities here or even overseas and leave the government to negotiate with overgrown grasses at its owned universities.

“If not because of lack of money, I will not allow the government to make a mess of my children when their own are all enjoying continuous study at foreign universities all because they stole enough from public funds to live large. You see, corruption will not stop in Nigeria, do you know what these young ones are thinking, to be sincere like their parents and suffer for it, no?” Andrew Iguru, a father, said.

Yet, businesses that depend on functional campuses to thrive are the worst hit by the strike. From food vendors, business centre services, campus shuttle services, graphic designers, printers, banks, POS operators, recharge card vendors, to many other small businesses, the over five months of strike has not only shutdown their businesses, but also run many of them out of business as those who depend on daily income have been fighting hunger since then.

Ma Machere, a food vendor at University of Nigeria Nsukka, has long vacated her one-room apartment on campus because there is no business and the lecturer, who rented out the apartment to her, is demanding rent despite no business.

The 50-year-old woman is now hustling at Peace Transport Park, Nsukka town, but stays in Opi, a nearby town where rent is cheap.

Ogbonna Chinwetaoke, an indigene of the university town, has to stop work on a 20-room hostel he is building about half a kilometer to the university because of poor business.

The entrepreneur with businesses across bakery, water tank supply and restaurant, lamented that Nsukka has always been a university town, and that business survival is dependent on student population, the town is empty and also business is dull, hence he is cash-strapped and his hostel project abandoned for now.

“We had to scale down our bakery and restaurant operations because there were no students to buy them. Nsukka has a water scarcity issue and my water tank supply business thrives when there are more people demanding water, but they have all gone to different places because of the strike. It seems we are in lockdown again,” he lamented.

In Jos, the banks with branches on campus have recalled their staff members to other branches in the town because the University of Jos is empty, as well as other businesses on campus.

Speaking on the empty campuses, Onyemaobi Ugokwe, an Abia State-born senior lecturer at the university lamented that the strike seems to have more impact than others.

“This is the first time all ASUU affiliates; Senior Staff Association of Nigeria Universities (SSANU), Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions (NASU), and National Association of Academic Technologies (NAAT) are all joining the strike at the same time. It is tough and the campuses are truly empty,” he lamented.

Read also: How ASUU strike slows graduates’ readiness for jobs

Also speaking as a parent, the lecturer, who was born in Bukuru, in the outskirt of Jos, decried that lecturers are parents with children who are undergraduates and are worried over the welfare of their children as well.

“Yes, some lecturers are still on campus, but there is no salary in the last five months and don’t forget that we have families to feed and relations as well. So, the situation is very tough for us now”, he said.

Recalling a clarion call by a fellow lecturer, an associate professor, Ugokwe said the associate professor has been borrowing money to settle his son’s tuition fees in a foreign university in this inflationary and high foreign exchange regime.

“Imagine the stress and embarrassment of borrowing when you have money that you cannot access. It is the same for many of us, especially those off-campus whose rents are due; you will have to face the embracement of an angry landlord,” he noted.

In the same vein, Bode Oluleye, a lecturer at the University of Lagos, decried that many lecturers who lost their loved ones in recent times are postponing the burials with the hope that the strike would be called off soon and arrears paid.

“I have two burials, which I am financially involved in. I have been technically influencing the postponement on the ground of insecurity, but the bottom-line is that there is no money because I have not received salary in the last five months. If I ask people to pay N100,000 each as a contribution, I need to pay more and should be the first to pay in order to encourage them. The option is low key, which my relatives do not support,” he said.

While many established lecturers, especially long-serving professors are finding the strike tough, living five months without salary is tougher for younger lecturers, especially the newly-wed, PhD students and those waiting for their confirmation before the strike commenced.

Hassan Inua, a young lecturer, is sad because the situation is impacting his folks the most as the long-serving staff have something to fall back on.

“I have been lecturing for 8 months before the strike and was hopeful of my confirmation before July. But the initial small salary is difficult now and confirmation is out of it. My fear is calling my parents for financial help and that is shameful for me, instead of giving them”, he said.

It would be recalled that between 1999 and the end of 2021, ASUU was on strike for 60 months and seven days.

Regrettably, the present strike is already going on for six months, is lasting longer than expected and may linger due to the government’s approach to it.

The crux of the matter for many has been the government’s continued reneging on the promises and agreements it signed with ASUU to end the previous strike.

Considering the looting of public funds, largesse for National Assembly members, among others, welfare of lecturers, who many believe do a greater job in nurturing the future leaders, should be given priority by any government, and failure to do that, many also believe is a sign of poor leadership.

While the gates of the federal universities across the country are shut for close to six months now, wealthy Nigerians are flaunting the graduation pictures and videos of their children and of their own in foreign universities, which many say is an insult to the right-thinking and long-suffering citizens.

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