Nigeria: students hope to go back to school
Teachers in public universities across Nigeria have entered their fourth month of a strike. With classes suspended, students have felt abandoned. Frustrated and angry, they have started a movement urging the government to prioritise their right to education and calling on the authorities and the teachers’ union to resolve their issues and end the strike. Many students view politicians as more concerned with the coming elections than their problems. As elections approach, the student movement will hope to take advantage by making young people’s voices heard at the ballot box.
This is not what Nigerian students signed up for. Having worked hard to get into university, they now have no idea when they might graduate. Due to chronic education underfunding and miserly teachers’ salaries, no year passes without a lengthy strike and many school days lost. This year’s was started by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) on 14 February and continues to this day. Rightly frustrated, students are not staying silent. They are channelling frustration into action, calling on the government to reach an agreement with teachers’ unions so they can get back to class.
An estimated two million students are enrolled in Nigerian universities, with 94 per cent attending public universities. This is the second time in two years that public universities have closed for long spells due to strikes. The current strike has affected a vast number of people – not only teachers and students but others whose income depends directly or indirectly on universities.
Voices from the frontline
Benedicta Chisom is a student at Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Nigeria and a creative writer. Being directly affected by the current strike, she has worked on social media to create awareness about it and its underlying issues.
The #EndASUUStrike movement started with students’ protests at the University of Benin and Ambrose Ali University, Ekpoma, and then snowballed into an online movement. Its message is simple: we want to go back to school.
Students just want to voice their grievances over the strike. Both the federal government and ASUU at some point made us feel like our education doesn’t matter. They keep going back and forth while our academic year is wasted. Every time teachers go on strike, we become passive spectators, just waiting on them to decide when to end it. We had to remind them that we matter too, and that it is our education and future that is at stake.
For students, the strike is frustrating and disheartening. We are told to stay home without any idea of when we will return to school. I have spent a whole semester at home, and what was supposed to be a five-year course increased to six years. Our lives are put on hold; this affects not only our academic progression but also our life plans. Education workers should be more flexible with their demands and have more empathy towards students.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Benedicta. Read the full interview here.
Teachers stand up for their rights
Founded in 1978, ASUU has been a major force in Nigerian education for decades, mobilising and protesting repeatedly over the years. The current strikes are far from the first. As a result of a similar four-month strike in 2009, the Nigerian government signed an agreement with the union to improve public universities and ensure timely payment of salaries.
But according to ASUU, the government later reneged on its promises and little changed in reality. This time around, by striking for as long as it takes, teachers are determined to force the government to fulfil the 2009 agreement. Current demands articulate long-held grievances about salary structures, the non-payment of wages and allowances, and unfulfilled promises to fund public education properly.
The government systematically fails to fulfil its promises and implement the agreements reached with unions.
ASUU has been joined by its non-academic counterparts: the Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions, the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities and the National Association of Academic Technologists. More recently, the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress, two of Nigeria’s leading unions, have threatened to join the strike unless the government concedes teachers’ demands.
With the government unwilling to grant union demands, strike action is expected to continue.
Students affected by the shutdown have taken to the streets to protest against government inaction and demand change. The National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) organised the first protests in March, demanding the government and ASUU reach a compromise. Protests have grown in size and intensity ever since. Recent demonstrations have been violently disrupted, with barricades being torn down and armed forces firing gunshots in the air.
Every time teachers go on strike, we become passive spectators. We had to remind them that we matter too, and that it is our education and future that is at stake.
Though the strike has affected their education, many continue to support ASUU because they view their teachers’ complaints as legitimate and agree there is urgent need to invest in education. Others blame both sides for disrupting their education. But what unites students is they all want the strike to end. Many have been vocal about this on social media, where they have popularised the #EndASUUStrike hashtag.
Nigeria: a legacy of youth protest
Nigerian civil society has a long history of anti-government mobilisation, including by students and young people, and an equally long history of police brutality and political repression of protests.
In 1978, the president of the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS), the predecessor of NANS, led students across the country in a nationwide boycott that challenged a federal increase in university fees. What followed was one of the most violent responses to peaceful civil disobedience by Nigeria’s government, leaving several civilians dead at the hands of police and army. After a week of national protests, the government shut down all universities and disbanded NUNS. The fee rise was not reversed but the movement turned student activism into a permanent presence in Nigeria’s political landscape.
A successful protest came in 1989 with the movement against the structural adjustment programme imposed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Under these policies the prices of oil-based products increased, exacerbating the effects of austerity measures. Peaceful protests initially organised by NANS soon expanded beyond the student community and resulted in widespread damage to state property. The government attempted to quell the protests by closing several campuses, disbanding NANS and taking its leadership to court. But the movement had grown and protesters persisted. Austerity measures were not reversed, but protests forced military president Ibrahim Babangida to call for elections.
These two contrasting examples provide clues about the likelihood of protest movements achieving success in Nigeria. The 1978 protest was mostly limited to university students, while those in 1989 attracted more widespread participation. And while the first of these was mostly peaceful, in 1989 protests were frequently marked by violence. This seems to suggest that the Nigerian government only responds to what it views as a strong threat, either because protests become massive or grow violent.
The danger for protesters is that when the government sees protests as a threat, it can respond with heavy violence. The youth-led 2020 #EndSARS protest movement, which demanded the abolition of the police force’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad, attracted support from around the world and threw the spotlight on the brutality Nigeria’s young people routinely experience at the hands of the police. The government responded to this embarrassing exposure with lethal force. At least 12 people were killed when the army opened fire on protesters in October 2020, and the government then tried to hush up the killings.
An inadequate government response
President Muhammadu Buhari’s early response to the protests was to direct his chief of staff and the ministers of education and labour and employment to form a team to address the teachers’ concerns. However, no meeting was held between the two parties until May, when discussions were conducted with ASUU and other unions. No progress were made in these discussions, as the government, according to ASUU, remained uncommitted to taking serious action. A second meeting proved equally unproductive.
The government has consistently argued it has limited resources so it cannot fulfil the union’s demands within the timeframe initially promised. President Buhari has also sought to frame the teachers’ protest as detrimental to students, urging teachers to end the strike for students’ sake. This tactic has not been successful so far, and teachers have pledged to continue their strike.
But unlike previous actions, this strike is not supported by all state-owned universities and their associated unions. The protests also come on the heels of an unsuccessful nine-month strike in 2020. The government may feel it can win through a strategy of attrition. The problem is that meanwhile students will suffer and even if the current strike is defeated, future actions would seem inevitable.
Voices from the frontline
Olorunfemi Adeyeye is a student activist and member of the Fund Education Coalition, which works to raise awareness about the importance of Nigerian public universities and is currently supporting teachers by taking part in the #EndASUUStrike movement.
The origins of the campaign are in the Fund Education Coalition movement, a coalition of Nigerian student groups advocating for education rights. #EndASUUStrike started when student organisations came together and called for students to be at the forefront of the struggle for their rights to quality public education. It uses the grievances of the ASUU strike to highlight what students need to have on their respective campuses.
The demands of the strike include several issues that concern Nigerian students directly. For instance, the union has raised the need to revitalise public universities. This is of great importance to students, who are the direct victims of underfunding. The campaign to fund education properly demands the revitalisation of laboratory equipment, which is in poor state, and fixes to the problems of overcrowded lecture halls and moribund campus health centres, among other key aspects.
The union also frowns at the proliferation of universities and seeks an amendment to the 2004 National Universities Commission Act. The establishment of more universities, while existing ones are poorly funded, has become a constituency project for Nigerian rulers. Almost everyone in the ruling class wants to have one in their backyard. This is just unacceptable. We are fully in support of the strike, which also highlights issues surrounding the poor remuneration of lecturers.
What the Fund Education Coalition wants is for the Nigerian government to accede to workers’ demands in the educational sector. With all education workers currently on strike, it was only rational for students to join them.
There are no new problems in Nigeria. Our issues date back a long way. Strikes similar to the current one have been happening since the 1980s and the issues they point to continue to affect generation after generation of Nigerians. We are still dealing with the same issues, as the government systematically fails to fulfil its promises and implement the agreements reached with unions.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Olorunfemi. Read the full interview here.
A question of democracy
Nigeria may have two million university students, but in this huge country they make up just one per cent of a population of just over 200 million. This means that even though efforts have been made to frame the issues raised by the strike as relating to education more generally, the protests could be viewed as an elite concern.
But this goes beyond the grievances of students. It’s about young people not being listened to, time and again. Nigeria has one of the youngest populations in the world. It’s also approaching general elections in 2023, when people will choose a president and National Assembly.
Nigeria has, thankfully, put its history of military rule behind it. There have been several peaceful transitions of power, a scenario that once felt unlikely. Yet there seems little sign that those competing for power next year are willing to listen to the vast ranks of young voters. Youth-led protests are one sign that young people feel locked out of the institutional politics that remain dominated by older generations.
As elections approach, Nigeria’s many young people will continue to search for politicians who seem prepared to take their concerns seriously and commit to finding a solution that ends the cycle of strikes and restores their access to education. Progress in resolving the strike could help build students’ faith in democracy.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government should negotiate with protesting unions to find creative solutions to resolve the current impasse.
The government should agree to fulfil its 2009 commitments to ASUU and its members.
The police and armed forced should refrain from using violent tactics to suppress peaceful protests.
Cover photo by Students’ Union UI/Twitter