Strangulated Public University System: The President Buhari Golden Legacy

Abdelghaffar Amoka Abdelmalik, PhD
Department of Physics
Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria

It was a long walk to victory in 2015 after 3 unsuccessful trials in 2003, 2007, and 2011. The victory was celebrated by Nigerians across the globe. My joy was unquantifiable. I doubt if any election has witnessed such celebrations since 1999, thanks to the alliance with Tinubu's ACN and the rebranding from the South West. It was a victory that Nigerians willingly donated their hard-earned resources to achieve. It was like the anticipated messiah had landed. We thought the vehicle was either on autopilot or with a broken tyre that was making it to be wobbling around without any direction and the perfect pilot has arrived to fix it for a smooth ride. Little did we know that we were in for a shocker, especially in the education sector.

We thought he was going to use the transition period to get ready and hit the ground running as soon as he was sworn in, but we were wrong. He could not form his cabinet until 6 months after swearing in. Despite the 6 months of waiting, he gave us the same usual faces, including a former PDP chairman. The same PDP he accused to have destroyed the country. But after a critical look at the ministerial list and the portfolios, a cabinet member struck our interest. It was Mall Adamu Adamu, the Education Minister.

Mall Adamu Adamu was a fierce columnist who never hide his support for the ASUU struggle for the emancipation of Nigerian public universities. Though the appointment was a surprise to the nation as he was not an academic and has no history with the university aside been a student. His CV has no link with education. But from his write-ups, he was seen by many as a man with deep knowledge of the public university crisis. On this note, some observers thought that with Adamu Adamu in charge of education, his documented words will be put into action and the ASUU-FG dispute will be gone for good.

Mall Adamu Adamu had, in 2013 during the government of Goodluck Jonathan, wrote: “This nation owes a debt of gratitude to ASUU and the strike should not be called off until the government accepts to do and does what is required. So, instead of hectoring ASUU to call off its strike, the nation should be praying for more of its kind in other sectors of the economy". You will ordinarily not expect such a critic to be worse than the government he criticized.

To crown the disaster waiting to happen, he appointed a former ASUU Zonal Coordinator as his Personal Assistant. With an ASUU active member as PA, everyone thought the Education Minister meant business. ASUU however, gave the government a few months to settle down before attempting to engage the minister.

Two years after Buhari took over, the miracle expected in education never happened. It was from one economic crisis to the other. From one trial-and-error policy to another. No meaningful policy on education, no discussion on the state of education. It was like the education system was still on autopilot. Then, in June 2017, the Federal Government raised concerns over the fallen standard of education in the country and resolved to organise a ministerial retreat to proffer solution(s) to the problem.

During the FEC retreat on education in November 2017,  the Minister of education said: "I appeal to the federal government under the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari to declare a state of emergency in the Education sector for the country to be able to change the fortunes of the system". "Indeed, even among Sub-Saharan African countries, we are trailing far behind smaller and less endowed nations in terms of our investment in education. There is a need for a major investment in education in the national interest". The president, as usual, read the beautiful speech that was written for him and the retreat ended. The requested state of emergency in education ended with the end of the retreat.

Meanwhile, a few months after the minister assumed office in 2015, ASUU made frantic efforts to engage him but without success. The fact that an ASUU active member was the PA to the minister was not an advantage. The supposed ASUU member was rather busy building political and personal gains. The minister refused to engage the union of university lecturers and the union had no access to him. That led to the declaration of the first strike during Buhari's administration in 2017.

The strike then created a platform for discussion they could not have for over a year. An agreement was reached and an MoU was signed. The non-implementation of the MoU led to another strike in 2018, then another strike in 2019. ASUU strike used to be every 4 years during the PDP government but the seed of insincerity planted by the Buhari government made the strike to become an annual event with several signed MoAs.

The 2020 strike on IPPIS and other outstanding issues came with the COVID crisis. The 2022 strike exposed the intent of the Buhari government. An issue that could have been resolved in less than 4 weeks was not resolved in 8 months. This government set up the Munzali and later the Nimi-Briggs committees to renegotiate with ASUU. The committees' reports were dumped in the bin by the same government that set them. They were not even sincere with the committees they set up. The committees were set up and financed just to while away time. They did not intend to implement the reports.

I have never seen educated people that so much hate the education of the people like the Nigerian political class in Buhari's government. They did not even hide it. Rather than making efforts to resolve the crisis, the government was more interested in ending the strike without the issues being resolved. Salaries were withheld without minding the economic implications and the impact on the university system. Even though the president has no adviser on tertiary education, the economic adviser should have advised him on the economic implication of his actions.

As FG was taking every step to destroy the universities, so are the state governments complimenting their effort in primary schools. In a state in North Central, for example, the primary schools have no adequate teachers, and the few available teachers are paid about 30% of their salary for the past 7 years. Nobody to call another person to order. They all have the same mindset on public education after all their kids are not there.

The university crisis was on the proper funding of education which is glaring to even the blind. But instead of addressing the issue, they were more concerned with steps to criminalize the ASUU strike, the only action that has brought funding relief to the tertiary institutions. As Adamu Adamu said in 2022: "Lecturers would not be paid for the period on strike to serve as a deterrent to any worker planning to go on strike in the future".

The strike was forced to an end, the court case could last for ages, the lecturers hectored back to lecture rooms with 8 months' salary withheld, and the issues not resolved. Privileged information revealed that the dumb reason for not paying the withheld salary is to subject the lecturers to economic hardship that will make it difficult for them to embark on any strike action again. That was their idea of resolving the crisis.

Meanwhile, the state of the universities is getting worse as this was reflected in the inability of some public universities to afford electricity bills. They sadly experienced an electricity supply cut-off by their respective DISCOs while students were preparing for examinations. The well-publicized electricity supply cut-off was a good indicator of the state of funding for our public universities to the public.

About a month to the end of the 8 years of Buhari's administration, public universities are in their worst state ever, and no visible policy on university education, especially on university funding, and education in general. Never have we had a government that use 8 years to lament the state of education without a single solution proffered aside the criminalization of strike action.

However, in a speech delivered at Federal University, Oye Ekiti in February 2023, that was about 3 months to the end of his tenure, The President, Muhammadu Buhari, was said to have urged university unions, particularly the Academic Staff Union of Universities, to partner with the Federal Government to arrive at a funding blueprint for the university system. Buhari wants to partner with his perceived enemies in the universities to achieve in 3 months what he was not willing to do during the last 8 years? I guess that should be his last lamentation on public university education before leaving.

For the first time, the Nigerian education minister is encouraging Nigerians to go and study outside Nigeria. As Adamu Adamu stated in 2022: "People going out to study in Ghanaian and Benin Republic universities is not a bad thing. The internationalisation of schools means people can study anywhere".

The minister also said: "President Buhari has given Nigerian youths access to university education more than any other President". Yes, Adamu Adamu was right, Muhammadu Buhari has amplified the proliferation of public universities using TETFund which was meant for interventions in the existing public universities. But there is no blueprint for the sustainability of the universities and how they will be funded. At least, Buhari's town and Adamu Adamu's got one new university each and their people are happy. Dividends of Democracy. In Buhari's government for 8 years, NASS made the establishment of more public universities a constituency project but was silent on the funding.

The message from Buhari and his men is very clear: We have given the people more universities to increase access to university education, there is no plan on their funding, and we don't want ASUU to keep disturbing us on funding and as a result, strike actions are now criminalized. The public need to understand that there are 2 major sources of funding for the universities: funds from the owner (FG) and the beneficiaries (students). If FG can't fund it, then, the burden of the funding will go to the beneficiaries, the students.

If the electricity bills of a university with 40 thousand students for example, is N1.2 billion naira for a year and the staff quarters consumed about N400,000 million of the bill, it is very logical to expect that the students will have to pay for the N800 million bill consumed within the academic areas and the hostels. Dividing N800m by 40,000 students, you will expect each student to pay N20,000 for electricity bills per year. This is just one of the charges that will be added to the student's fees for the next academic session since Buhari is leaving us without any funding model after his 8 years in office and ASUU strike actions on funding that have consumed 2 academic sessions.

Femi Gbajabiamila, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, hurriedly put together the passed bill on student loans and education banks and working on another bill for tuition in tertiary institutions. I hope he understands that a funding model from a political point of view without any input from the critical stakeholders in the education sector is bound to fail. But unfortunately, the Buhari government for 8 years was afraid to engage education stakeholders to discuss the revitalisation and sustainability of public universities

The Education Minister at the peak of the crisis admitted on one of the editions of the Channels TV Politics Today that he was under internal turmoil and he could not even bear the hearing of the word "honorable" as he said he has not earned it. I understand his pain. It is heartbroken to see what you complained of getting worse under your stewardship. May 29th is not far away and he will become a "yesterday man" in a couple of days. Will he continue to defend ASUU as a columnist, condemn ASUU or remain quiet? The future will tell.

University staff were not dragged into IPPIS to help improve the university system but to further strangulate the system. At the end of every month, an average university staff prays that one of the sadists at the IPPIS office does not exclude his name from the payroll. If you happen to be a victim, you may have to stay for the next 7 months without salary except you are willing to go to Abuja to lubricate their palm with an amount of cash you don't have. The universities management has no say in that.

You can't say President Buhari doesn't value education else he won't get his kids schooled in some of the best universities in the UK. What is surprising about him is the fact that he said FG can't fund public universities but he is approving the establishment of more universities for the people, universities that are not good enough for his children and grandchildren.

We just wish that President Buhari is leaving the education system in the state he met it in 2015. But unfortunately, the president will be leaving with a legacy of a battered and strangulated university education system and demoralized academics that are supposed to be human capital developers for the nation. What sort of human capital do you expect them to develop?

To those that helped to mastermind the strangulation of the public university system, when I think of you I remember Reuben Abati's article: "the phones no longer ring". As the phones stop ringing in 33 days and you become a yesterday-man, I hope in a few years from now you will look back and be proud of your role in helping this government bring pain to the public universities when your phone was ringing. The prayer from the public is for life to treat you and your family the way you have treated the university education system.

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