In July, 1992 the Nigerian military government headed by General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida gave an announcement that sent chills down the spines of millions of Nigerians. For the second time, Babangida’s Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) had proscribed the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). The announcement was made by the Vice-President, a navy admiral named Augustus Aikhomu in Abuja. That was not the first time ASUU was coming under the hammer. On the 18th of July, 1988, the same regime banned ASUU and it was not lifted until the 22nd of August, 1990.

Aikhomu was blowing hot. He said any lecturer or university teacher in the federation who did not resume duty within 48 hours should consider himself or herself fired.
But what happened? Lecturers all over Nigeria were mad at the government over its insincerity and insensitivity in relation to salary increment and other demands. In an expression of its fury and collective resolution, ASUU embarked on a crippling strike. Babangida and his goons felt the best way to crush the radical teachers was to club ASUU to death via a proscription. But IBB failed. In fact, the proscription of ASUU was one of the many reasons that led to the eventual kicking out of the sly general about a year after.
Leading the pack of Nigerian lecturers and symbolizing the struggle against the military junta was a no-nonsense man of limitless courage and the ability to remain calm and focused even in the midst of the most tempestuous storms. His name was Attahiru Jega. He was addressed simply as Dr. Jega as he had not attained the rank of a professor yet. He was the president of ASUU and he led his colleagues on constant railings against the Babangida regime. In response to the proscription, he vowed that ASUU will not call of its strike or return to the classes. He dared the raging generals and simply refused to cow before them. Jega was a hard nut. As Aikhomu was making his threatening gestures in Abuja, Jega called the government’s bluff and he was busy networking with his colleagues all over the country. That was a time without GSM, Internet or instant messaging.
At the University of Ibadan, Jide Malomo was the chairman of the ASUU branch and as Aikhomu was notifying the country of the proscription, Malomo was also busy addressing journalists. He said:
‘ASUU is resuming its suspended action as a last resort and with the utmost sense of responsibility and maturity.’
He said they refused to be bullied into taking any action by the government. The muscle flexing continued at the Obafemi Awolowo University, OAU, Ile-Ife where the ASUU Chairman, Dipo Fashina echoed the same sentiments with Malomo. He said:
‘We will not yield to blackmail from any quarter. We are prepared for anything the government wants to do. ’

Sitting at the apex of the ASUU war room directing all the strategies all over the country was the general commander, Attahiru Jega. In order not to be caught by surprise, the Jega-led ASUU had formed what was called the Association of University Teachers (AUT) even before the proscription of ASUU came into effect. AUT was to immediately step into the role of ASUU. AUT had its shadow executive council at the national and state levels and if Babangida eventually clamped down on all the ASUU leaders, the plan was for the AUT shadow executives to swing into action, control the union activities and continue with the struggle. Jega was resolute in his decision and was ready for any outcome. Lawyers and all the radical human rights groups in Nigeria were contacted to get their support as the strike went on.

ASUU also ensured it got its message out to the Nigerian populace and the world. It flooded Nigerian newspapers with adverts explaining its position and why they were picking up perennial fights with the government. On the 20th of July, 1992, The Guardian ran one of its adverts, it was captioned: ‘Why ASUU is resuming its strike.’

A statement from ASUU signed by Attahiru Jega, the national president, said its conflict with the government was not just about the poor remuneration of the teachers but also many other issues. The statement went thus:
‘Funding, academic freedom and university autonomy are also of primary importance to us. We only began with a discussion of salaries because it would have made no sense to reach an agreement on funding without knowing the salary bill, which is an important component of funding. ’
Jega argued further that while the enrollment of students in universities had increased by 200% since 1987, the budgetary allocation of to the university ‘has fallen from 2.26% in 1987 to 1.45% in 1992.’ The statement concluded saying it was willing to resume negotiation whenever the government was ready. Aikhomu was not pacified and based on the announcement made by the government, doors were shut on further negotiations.
On the salary issue, ASUU was actually very lucid in its demand. ASUU specifically demanded that ‘academic staff in Nigerian universities be placed on a salary commensurate with that of academics in other African universities’. That meant the following salary package:
• N223,340 for a professor
• N169,933 for senior lecturers
• N58,263 for assistant lecturers
They also wanted allowances for books, journals, research, research supervision, examination supervision, teaching practice and others so as to reflect the ‘unique nature of the work of an academic.’ In comparison to what obtained in other parts of Africa, Nigerian lecturers were being subjected to daylight robbery by the government. The Babangida government brushed their demands aside saying it was not in line with the reality of the Nigerian economy. That explains why Jega fired back in 1988 when the education minister Jubril Aminu gave ASUU an ultimatum of 48 hours to end their strike and resume teaching immediately.
ASUU had actually suspended its strike on the 30th of May, 1992 when the minister of labour and productivity, Bunu Sheriff Musa, referred the dispute to the Industrial Arbitration Panel (IAP) so both parties could negotiate properly. On 6th July, the negotiations started, the government offered 45% salary increase (as stated by Aikhomu), insisting it was final. ASUU rejected the offer saying the 45% represented an increase of just 26% of what it was demanding. The meeting ended in a stalemate. Jega led his ASUU warriors back to the trenches and strike resumed in full force. Please note that for much of the 1980s and early 1990s, Nigeria was experiencing galloping inflation which rubbished the wage agreements reached earlier between ASUU and the government.
By the end of July, ASUU national secretariat sent a circular to all its branches urging all its members not to panic or give up no matter the reaction from those in power. The circular stated the ‘five ifs’, which is reproduced below:
• ‘If government threatens to withhold our salaries, members should not panic. The objective of such a threat by the government is to break the resolve of members. Once members are determined to ignore such an order, salaries will definitely be paid. ’
• ‘If the government threatens to dismiss erring university teachers, be assured that no court will allow the dismissal of any ASUU member for a strike called in accordance with the union’s constitution.’
• Do not comply if asked to report and sign registers or undertakings.
• Remain calm and remain in your houses.’ Legally, as tenants, we are entitled to stay in university house for at least three months, even if we are dismissed.’ The union does not also think that it is possible to ‘physically’ eject 8,000 academics.

• Branches were advised to ‘ensure that their officials guard against secret arrests of members.’ To avoid this, the union advised its members to avoid night movement and they should always travel in the company of others.
• If the government tries to weaken ASUU by dissuading some of its members to ‘break the strike’, branches were ordered to set up mobilizing committees to ensure that members complied with the strike.

Jega’s leadership of ASUU was a successful one and he was able to rally support for the body. In no time, lawyers, human rights groups, non-governmental organizations and sister bodies like the National Association of Nigerian Students (please don’t ask me what happened to NANS today) all threw their weight behind the ASUU strike. The president of NANS, Olusegun Mayegun, said in clear terms:
‘Nigerian students are ready to join the right course pursued by ASUU.’

NANS was very vibrant then and Nigerian students were feared by the military dictators (Omoyele Sowore of Sahara Reporters belongs to that generation). The strike went on and it had devastating effects. Academic activities were brought to a halt at most universities. At the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), Enugu campus, the examination scheduled to hold on the 20th of July was shelved because no lecturer showed up to supervise. At the University of Ibadan, 100-level students were not able to write their General Studies examination and at the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) in Zaria, the Vice-Chancellor, Daniel Sasore was in a running battle with ASUU, and had to reschedule the students’ examinations.

But in spite of all the obstacles, the Attahiru Jega-led ASUU national executive was able to force the military to its knees. In September 1992, ASUU was able to accomplish a landmark agreement with the federal military government. All through the toil, struggle, doubts, tribulations and fears, Jega led and inspired all his colleagues and students across the nation. The agreement was a humbling of the arrogant military leaders and a heroic achievement for Jega and his ilk. The accord stated that the agreement was to be reviewed every three years. There was jubilation all over the country even if unknown to many, a fresh crisis was to break out in 1995 when the Assisi Asobie-led ASUU executive approached the Sani Abacha government to revisit the mutual agreement reached by Jega and the IBB government three years earlier. If IBB showed ASUU hell, Abacha flung them into hell. I guess what transpired between Abacha and ASUU is going to be a story for another day.
It was a terrifying and dangerous moment for Nigerian lecturers battling a lethal combination of civilian and military authoritarianism. At a point, union leaders and ASUU leaders like Jega and Festus Iyayi were all flung into jail. The politicians had conveniently fled the country or were cavorting with the military in their joint plunder of the nation. Babangida spread a pall of terror and fear over the nation but few men were able to stand up to the tyranny and dictatorship. One of them was Attahiru. As he resumes his lecturing job at the Bayero University Kano, not a few of his students will be deceived by the calm mien of the soft-spoken professor of political science who was part of the gang that clubbed a despot out of power.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *