ABUJA – Adenekan Ayomide had been attending the University of Abuja for two years when the lecturers went on strike in February. The 27-year-old undergraduate student hoped he would return to school quickly but immediately took a job as a taxi driver to pay bills.
Unfortunately for him, the strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities has now clocked six months and Ayomide’s hopes of returning to classes anytime soon grow thin.
“Nobody is talking about school again,” said Ayomide, who said he is working more than one job and the budget he had for getting through university now looks unrealistic.
University strikes are common in Nigeria, which has more than 100 public universities and an estimated 2.5 million students, according to Nigeria’s National Universities Commission. The universities here have recorded at least 15 strikes covering a cumulative period of four years since 2000.
The latest strike, however, is biting harder on an education sector that is struggling to recover from a COVID-19 lockdown and an earlier strike that lasted for most of 2020.
No alternative means of learning is provided for students because “more than 90%” of lecturers in Nigerian universities are members of the academic staff union, according to Haruna Lawal Ajo, director of public affairs at Nigeria’s universities commission.
The striking lecturers are demanding a review of their conditions of service including the platform the government uses to pay their earnings, improved funding for the universities and the payment of their salaries withheld since the strike started.
Talks between the lecturers and the government ended in deadlock this month, dashing hopes of a compromise agreement.
Lecturers have faulted the government’s position, arguing that the government has still not provided higher pay for lecturers 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 northcentral 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 are far behind in terms of welfare when compared to others,” said Atteh.
Atteh said some of his colleagues are moving abroad for better opportunities and improved pay.
“Our situation in this country is just in a sorry state,” said lecturer Sabi Sani at the University of Abuja. After 12 years of teaching, Sani said his monthly salary is “not even enough to pay my children’s school fees.”
He said that when “more lecturers realize they can migrate, we will be left with unqualified lecturers to teach our children (because) all the qualified ones will run away.”
It is not just lecturers who are eyeing relocation for better opportunities.
Amidat Ahmed, a 22-year-old economics student at the University of Abuja said the strike has prevented her from getting clearance that would see her wrap up her undergraduate studies in the school because lectures are not available. She is now considering going abroad for a fresh undergraduate degree program.
“My life is stagnant,” said Ahmed who said she is working two jobs including one as a shoemaker where she is learning the skill to set up a business later in life.
It is a case of using the lemons to make lemonade, she said.
“Apart from this (learning the shoe-making trade), I don’t think I have done anything with my life all this while and it has been six months.”
Across Nigeria, students are looking for work to survive. Rent and other bills have accumulated, making things worse for many from poor backgrounds in this nation with a 40% poverty rate, according to the latest government statistics.
Some students' financial situation is better when school is in session as a small proportion of the students get funding provided by nonprofits and government agencies.
After the latest round of talks to end the strike was unsuccessful, Ayomide remained on the roads as a taxi driver.
“I don’t have 5 naira ($0.012) in my account and I cannot go home because there is no money,” said Ayomide. His only option is to work long hours, he said. “Sometimes, I sleep at the airport or inside the car.”
“We just have to double our hustle and hope for the best,” he said. “This is the country where we are, so we have no choice.”