ASUU and the New Unionism: Redeeming Imperatives, By Adeshina Afolayan

‘What happens in a strike happens not to one person alone…. It is a crisis with meaning and potency for all and prophetic of a future.’  Meridel Le Sueur (1900-1996)

Is it possible to imagine an industrial union without a strike agenda? An answer to this fundamental question must necessarily be qualified by historical circumstances and contextual variables. And a union must respond to these circumstances and dynamics with light-footed flexibility.

A one-dimensional industrial relations mind-set, especially within the delicate context of higher education in Nigeria or anywhere for that matter, is a cause for real concern. So, to recast the first question: What does ASUU make of its inflexible strike agenda? The answer must come from within ASUU in a serious effort at self-redemption.

It is time ASUU begins an intellectual process of rethinking itself. This reconceptualization, after ASUU’s thirty six-year’s founding and several strike efforts, should be defined around the need for re-mystification. I am using mystification guardedly here. I definitely do not intend a metaphysical obscuration which, according to Marx, beats down the capacity for critical consciousness.

Rather, I refer to a quality of profundity and secular sacredness that separates a phenomenon for distinct attention. Such a phenomenon is demystified when it loses is sacred aura; it becomes re-mystified if and when it regains it often through self-awareness and strategic reconfiguration. Stretch your imagination a little and you quickly arrive at my essay’s end. Re-mystification speaks to ASUU’s need to redefine who we are as a body of intellectuals.

In my last commentary on my constituency, I indicted ASUU as a demystified body of intellectuals, reduced to the level of a negative signifier. We seem to have lost our aura of profundity and direction. Parents no longer revere us; students now regularly deride us; the public follows our antic in ambivalence. We now only wield blunt-faced power rather than charismatic authority. Under our watch, education is no longer educing or edifying; and rather than teach our students to lead, we are leading them into nothingness and a bleak future. Now you see more clearly what I mean by re-mystification: It implies returning university lecturers back to a pedestal of honour, strength and creativity that will see them becoming significant in the national scheme of things. Higher education is the bastion of intellectual capital a nation requires urgently to confront its development dilemma. If we are not re-mystified, we amount to nothing—well, may be only sound and fury which equally signifies the same emptiness. Nigeria is in a predicament, yes! But what alternatives do we have? And how can primary and higher education instigate the alternatives?

Rethinking who we are requires rethinking what we do and how we do it as a union. I have decided, unimaginatively, to call this ASUU’s urgent need for a new union dynamics defined by new global organising forms and modes of representation. In this regard, the first imperative for ASUU is to see unionism as a form of partnership and involvement, a co-productive enterprise that is demanded by the theory and practice of education in Nigeria—primary and higher; local and global.

Co-production in this sense represents, in part, an enlargement of the democratic avenues by which the issues of education can be made more earnest. It implies that ASUU must speak stridently through many sources and platforms. Strike alone is too limiting. Strikes lack intellectual imagination, especially when the supposed victory remains pyrrhic. What has happened to the efforts imputed into the last strike? Co-production also implies that fighting for (higher) education is not ASUU’s sole/solo fight. Co-production brings other stakeholders into a network that wields more strategic influence and voice as to why education matters in Nigeria’s national development. We shouldn’t be a silo; we should stop speaking with ourselves.

Within the ambit of the new unionism, ASUU jettisons both its accustomed silence and hubris in the recognition that the fight to improve higher education, especially against a determined set of unconscionable national elites in Nigeria, requires a larger movement and creative strategy. ASUU, in other words, needs to create a dialogic consultation with the Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT), Federal Ministry of Education, the Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council (NERDC), West African Examination Council (WAEC), the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), the National Universities Commission (NUC), and other bodies that supervise the administration of education in Nigeria. ASUU thinks its supposed commitment to higher education excuses it from conferring regularly with these other bodies.

That may explain why, characteristically, the recent changes made to the WAEC syllabus have not elicited any reaction from ASUU. That is recent; I didn’t hear the outcry when History was abolished or when the national languages became relegated in the curriculum. These issues ought not to leave the public sphere. We ought to rail against them constantly and globalise our educational challenges in Nigeria. Well, maybe all these aren’t our business; we are the overlords of higher education (as if education is not a continuum; or once the problems of higher education are settled, the gains trickle down seamlessly). In global higher education circuit, the issues of soft power, mutual power and the urgency of international educational partnership have invaded the educational discourse. How can Nigerian universities become a higher educational hub to be reckoned with in global terms? The answer isn’t outlined; we only strike.

And that strike always loom. I should burst into laughter but for the seriousness of the matter. The Federal Government against the best in brain powers Nigerian can afford—shame! Government is driven by power dynamics; what is driving us? We say it is the love for higher education in Nigeria and its redemption. I think we lie. Our action, or the lack of it, speaks contrary to our intentions. And actions are what we perceive not intention. If the two must meet visibly, then we need a new union framework that will enable ASUU facilitate the protection of its members and the strengthening of the borders of higher education in Nigeria. Both are mutually inclusive. Protecting higher education interests will often imply speaking truth to members who use the union as a hideout. The new union will also be a vociferous and energetic one that engages the local and global educational spheres in search of lessons and insights that aid strident advocacy for national development.

Well…our website isn’t even functional and dynamic; and the webmaster must be perpetually on strike! The website is drab, unimaginative and doesn’t point at any vibrant vision. The first condition in re-mystification is to learn to communicate well; to learn to tell story of our struggle so creatively that we will make sense. Right now, we aren’t.

Dr. Afolayan teaches philosophy at the University of Ibadan.


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