Time To Foreclose ASUU’s Salary Arrears Palaver 

By Bolanle Bolawole

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My people have a saying, to wit, “when you flog a child with the right hand (and it cries), you embrace him with the left (to console and comfort him)” If you fail to do the first (when a child errs), you are an irresponsible father or parent and should you fail also in the second, you are a wicked and thoughtless father. Your case would then be like that of the proverbial in-law of Mr. Tortoise, who did not know when to say “enough”  or, like William Shakespeare counselled, who failed to quit the stage when the ovation was loudest. 

Tortoise’s in-law caught him red-handed stealing yams in his (in-law’s) farm, arrested and brought him home and chained him to a tree in front of his house. For a very long time Tortoise’s in-law had wondered who was stealing yams from his barn and couldn’t just fathom what to do; until one fateful day he got fed up with his losses and decided to lay an ambush for the culprit. That night, Tortoise, thinking everyday was Christmas, sneaked out of bed from the warm embrace of Yannibo, his wife, when that one was fast asleep, put on his camouflage and made, as usual, for his in-law’s farm when every honest man was already in bed with their family. He had forgotten the elders’ saying that “every day is for the thief but one day is for the owner”

To make matters worse for Tortoise, it was on market day that he got caught. So, everyone going to the market saw Mr. Tortoise bound hand and foot in front of his in-law’s house and asked what the matter was. When Mr. In-law narrated how he caught Tortoise in the dead of the night stealing yams in his barn, everyone rained curses on Tortoise and called him all sorts of unflattering names. “So you have been the one secretly causing your in-law pain only to sympathise with him in the open? Crocodile tears! Thief! Shameless idiot! Wicked soul! A man gave you his daughter as a wife; yet, you would still steal from him! Lazy drone! Could you not have worked with your own two hands?” And so on, and so forth!

But on their way back from the market in the evening when the villagers still met Tortoise chained to the tree, the story changed and the tide turned. The blames and curses were now directed at Tortoise’s in-law: “Wicked man! Do you want to kill him? How can you be this heartless keeping this man bound hands and feet since morning and in this scorching sun? Is he not your in-law? And did he steal more than yams?” Hence, the Yoruba would say: Alo ti ahun; abo ti ana re, meaning that the blame when the villagers were on their way to the market was Tortoise’s but on their way back from the market the blame shifted to his in-law who lacked an understanding of the principle of moderation. 

As Orlando Owoh crooned, if you don’t understand when to stop, ordinary water, taken too much, will turn your stomach as if you had taken strong wine. Try it and see! Hence also the wisdom of our people that the same mouth that shouts praises “Adegun” (the crown fits) is the same that will say “Adeogun” (the crown does not fit at all) if you lack moderation or overdo things! The lesson to be learnt here is that we should do everything in moderation. As my Grandma would say: “A jo i dabo oun o muu r’oko eegun” When a masquerade gets carried away and does not know when to stop, he dances to the point of uncovering his own nakedness; like it happened to King David in the scriptures! Let everyone heed William Shakespeare’s admonition and leave the stage when the ovation is loudest!

Therefore, it is time to foreclose all matters leading to incessant ASUU strike action so that our universities can enjoy industrial peace and harmony. Critical to the achievement of this is the quick and positive resolution of the FG/ASUU disagreement over the eight months salary arrears that the Federal Government has refused to pay the lecturers. I have been vociferous in condemning ASUU and its last strike that was as destructive of the university system as the government’s irresponsible and cavalier attitude to the funding, not just of the universities but of education in general. 

Time is now to also resolve other issues that will provide a good enabling environment for our universities to flourish and compete favourably with their counterparts elsewhere. Funding has consistently been abject here. Overtime, this has led to decay at an abhorrent level in our institutions of higher learning; infrastructure is decrepit; essential facilities, including lecture halls, hostel accommodation, office spaces and essential edibles are either totally lacking or in short supply. No one who was in these universities three or four decades ago will visit the place today and not “cry, the beloved country”, to quote Alan Paton. Libraries and laboratories have become ancien and disciplines needing practical demonstration are now taught like arts subjects. 

How, then, can the products of such institutions be of relevance to national developmental needs and how can they be expected  to compete favourably with their counterparts in other lands where teaching and research facilities are first class and the environment for teaching and learning is enabling? Now, no nation can develop better or faster than the level of its educational infrastructure. It stands to reason, therefore, that by relegating education to the background, successive Nigeria governments – not the Buhari administration alone but Buhari’s is the worst, truth be told – have demonstrated not only an abject understanding of the place of education in national development but have also been pathetic in their response to issues affecting the sector. 

Only illiterates or people deliberate in their determination to destroy education will behave and act the way government and its officials have done here insistently and consistently over time. But that is one side of the coin. The other side is ASUU’s refusal or inability to think out of the box. If they posit, like some of its blind defenders do, that the only weapon available to ASUU is strike action – intermittent strike, prolonged strike – why, then, did they call off their eight-month-old strike without and before achieving their goal? 

Government has not jettisoned its IPPIS or accepted ASUU’s UTAS; the government has not implemented the 2009 or whatever MOU reached with ASUU; the understanding of ASUU when it was calling off its strike was that its members would be paid their salaries for the eight-month period they were on strike; none of the above has materialised. My understanding is that efforts are ongoing to resolve these and other lingering issues. ASUU cried out – and understandably so. 

If it fails to get the arrears paid, ASUU will lose face with its members and its hitherto potent weapon – strike action – would have had its sharp edges blunted. That is apart from the material loss individual ASUU members will have to carry for a long time to come. To forfeit eight months’ salary cannot be easy, especially so in these difficult times. How will some university lecturers and other workers offset the loans they took in lieu of the anticipated salary arrears windfall? Those who sold cars and other properties to meet exigencies during the period of the strike action, how will they recoup?

So, it is understandable that ASUU will continue to insist on being paid. But why have they now said they are eschewing strike in respect of the new agitation? Why are they pursuing other options? It means there are other options! Strike action has only been the lazy man’s approach, like Mr. Tortoise’s in this story. And because it has always worked, it is reasonable or it makes sense to think it will work this time around; again, forgetting, like Mr. Tortoise did, that every day is not Christmas! Every day for the thief, one day for the owner! 

Mr. Monkey, another animal prominent in Yoruba folklore, is fond of going to the market; he was warned that humans will one day catch and cage him as a pet (if not use him for pepper-soup!) but he wouldn’t take heed. Each time he went to the market and returned unscathed, he mocked everyone. But one fateful day, Monkey went to the market and never returned. To this day, no one has seen Mr. Monkey’s rear light or heard anything about him! What ASUU’s latest approach indicates is that there are options other than strike action for it to make its grievances known; for it to pursue its laudable objectives and for it to fight and achieve its noble and just cause. 

Eight months’ strike at a stretch beggars belief! Almost one-and-half academic sessions! What worker will abandon a place of work for eight months and will not return to it work-rusty? I do not buy the hogwash that ASUU members are not casual workers and that they will cover lost ground. They cannot! It is not possible for them to cover the eight months already lost. Even if they are super humans or robots, they cannot. “A o r’ojo mu so l’okun” is the wisdom of our elders in Yoruba land. No one can turn back the hands of the clock. Those eight months are lost and they are lost forever!

The best the lecturers can do is “rush” the students – which is what they are doing right now. The students will simply cram and pour. They will simply struggle to pass their examinations. No serious teaching or learning in the real sense of the word can take place under the current atmosphere, especially where the lecturers are also groaning over their so-called unpaid salary arrears! Is that not why the National Universities Commission has warned the universities not to collapse a 17-week semester into just six weeks! The law says “No work, no pay”. Or are laws made only for casual workers? And are university lecturers above the law?

 All the same; please pay them so that we may have peace! Let us put this sorry event behind us, hoping that useful lessons have been learnt on both sides. The government should begin to give education the pride of place it deserves. The countries that are doing that are no fools. Implement the MOU with ASUU without delay. Where there is the will, there is a way. But should the Buhari administration fail to foreclose the ASUU issue, let them alone! More rational, reasonable, responsible and responsive helsmen will soon arrive that will do just that. 

There is another proverb pertaining to Tortoise in Yoruba folklore. One day Tortoise put on his best attires and called out to Yannibo his wife: “Yannibo, I am going to show off my new attires” “And when are you returning?” quipped Yannibo.  “Not until I get disgraced” answered Tortoise! In Yoruba folklore, Ijapa oko Yannibo never returns home except in ignominy and disgrace! It may interest you to note that some people carry similar destiny or aura with Tortoise; even if you deck them in gold and diamond, they will, like Mr. Pig, insist on going into the murky pond to take a shower! May our head reject shame and disgrace!

  • Former Editor of PUNCH newspapers, Chairman of its Editorial Board and Deputy Editor-in-chief, BOLAWOLE was also the Managing Director/ Editor-in-chief of THE WESTERNER newsmagazine. He writes the ON THE LORD’S DAY column in the Sunday Tribune and TREASURES column in New Telegraph newspaper. He is also a public affairs analyst on radio and television

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