Strike stalemate shuts down Nigerian universities for months


ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Adenekan Ayomide had been attending the University of Abuja for two years when professors went on strike in February. The 27-year-old undergraduate hoped to get back to school soon but immediately took a job as a taxi driver to pay his bills.

Unfortunately for him, the University Academic Staff Union strike has now been going on for six months and Ayomide’s hopes of returning to class soon are dwindling.

“Nobody talks about school anymore,” said Ayomide, who said he worked more than one job and the budget he had for his college education now seemed unrealistic.

University strikes are common in Nigeria, which has more than 100 public universities and about 2.5 million students, according to the National Universities Commission of Nigeria. Universities here have recorded at least 15 strikes covering a cumulative four-year period since 2000.

The latest strike, however, hits hardest on an education sector struggling to recover from a COVID-19 lockdown and an earlier strike that lasted most of 2020.

No other means of learning is offered to students as “over 90%” of teachers in Nigerian universities are members of the Academic Staff Union, according to Haruna Lawal Ajo, director of public affairs at the Universities Commission of Nigeria.

The striking professors are demanding a review of their terms of service, including the platform used by the government to pay their salaries, improved funding for universities and payment of their salaries withheld since the start of the strike.

Talks between the speakers and the government broke down this month, dashing hopes of a compromise deal.

Lecturers have criticized the government’s position, arguing that the government has still not provided higher lecturer salaries and more funds for the education sector, which it agreed to in 2009.

If the government has not fulfilled a promise made in 2009 by 2022, how can it be trusted? asked Femi Atteh, a lecturer at the University of Ilorin in north-central Kwara state, who now works with his wife to run a food retail business.

“I just see ASUU (the union) trying to fight for the rights of its people. … Nigerian lecturers lag far behind in terms of well-being compared to others,” Atteh said.

Atteh said some of his colleagues go abroad for better opportunities and better pay.

“Our situation in this country is just in a sorry state,” said Sabi Sani, a senior lecturer at the University of Abuja. After 12 years of teaching, Sani said her monthly salary was “not even enough to pay my children’s school fees”.

He said that when “more teachers realize that they can migrate, we will end up with unqualified teachers to teach our children (because) everyone who is qualified will run away”.

It’s not just professors who are considering relocating for better opportunities.

Amidat Ahmed, a 22-year-old economics student at the University of Abuja, said the strike prevented her from getting clearance which would see her complete her undergraduate studies at the school as lectures are not not available. She is now planning to go abroad for a new undergraduate program.

“My life is stagnant,” said Ahmed, who said she worked two jobs, including one as a shoemaker, where she learned how to start a business later in life.

It’s about using the lemons to make lemonade, she says.

“Other than that (learning the cobbler’s trade) I don’t think I’ve done anything with my life in all this time and it’s been six months.”

Across Nigeria, students are looking for work to survive. Rent and other bills have piled up, making matters worse for many people from poor backgrounds in this country with a poverty rate of 40%, according to the latest government statistics.

Some students are financially better off when school is in session, as a small proportion of them receive funding provided by nonprofits and government agencies.

After the last round of talks to end the strike failed, Ayomide stayed on the roads as a taxi driver.

“I don’t have 5 naira ($0.012) in my account and I can’t go home because there is no money,” Ayomide said. His only option is to work long hours, he said. “Sometimes I sleep at the airport or in the car.”

“We just have to double down on our hustle and hope for the best,” he said. “It’s the country we are in, so we have no choice.”

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