Nigerian education minister Iyorchia Ayie has stopped salary payments to every university lecturer in the country.
The minister ordered vice chancellors at 31 universities to implement his directive with effect from December following a four-month strike by lecturers over military interference and conditions for study.
In a broadcast to the nation in November to mark the first anniversary of the military coup, General Sani Abacha, Nigeria's head of state, ordered the university teachers to resume work immediately "in the overall interest of the students".
Reliable sources within the presidency in Abuja, federal capital of Nigeria, said that if the lecturers did not call off their strike, the military junta might order the striking lecturers' union to leave its official quarters.
There are growing fears that leaders of the 10,000-strong Academic Staff Union of Universities might soon be invited for "chats" with state security agents.
The industrial action by ASUU, which began in August, has completely paralysed the university system. "It means that two academic sessions would have been lost because of the indifference and insensitivity towards education and particularly towards higher education by Nigeria's military regimes since the era of General Ibrahim Babangida," Abubakar Momoh, a national officer of the union, said.
This is the second strike by the university lecturers in the past two years. The first ended in mid-1993 when a ban imposed by General Babangida on the ASUU was lifted. Both government and university lecturers reached and signed agreements on basic reforms and subsidies to the universities as a means of saving higher education from collapse.
Jimi Adesina, chairman of the University of Ibadan branch of ASUU, said: "We decided to embark on another round of industrial action because the government failed to implement the agreements."
After weeks of protracted negotiations the government agreed that Pounds 250 million was needed to rescue the universities which were being starved of funds. The money, according to the government, would be put in a consolidated account and released, bit-by-bit to the university authorities for the purchase of academic journals, books for the libraries, re-equipping the laboratories with chemicals and equipment.
The second part of the agreement was that government should not interfere arbitrarily in the appointment of vice chancellors. The government agreed that university senates and governing councils should democratically select their vice chancellors with formal endorsement by the ministry.
According to Dr Adesina, the national executive council of ASUU reviewed the situation in early August at the University of Maiduguri and decided to call for indefinite industrial action.
"All the officials from our 31 branches reported that the extra-funding promised by government has not come. We are receiving salaries without adequate tools to teach, impart knowledge to students and carry out meaningful research. This is unethical and unacceptable. We can no longer pretend to be teaching our students when we are gradually becoming in a frightening manner, illiterate teachers," he said.
The lecturers are also alarmed that the procedures for the appointment of vice chancellors are not been strictly adhered to, specifically at the Federal University of Technology in Minna and the Federal University of Jos.
In Minna, the military junta unilaterally imposed what it called a university sole-administrator for one year, instead of ensuring that a vice chancellor was elected. The vice chancellor appointed at Jos was not recommended for appointment by either senate or governing council. Another complaint was that the government approved the arbitrary suspension of six professors including the deans of law and social sciences at Abuja University.
Dr Adesina said that the immediate effect of the depressing working conditions in universities is mass resignation, departure of hard-working colleagues to North America, western Europe, the Middle East and even to African countries with less buoyant economies than oil-rich Nigeria.
Government's obvious insensitivity to the collapsing university structures became more apparent to the academic staff when the Pounds 49 million aid given by the World Bank for assisting the universities was withdrawn at the beginning of 1994. The withdrawal is said to follow World Bank officials' insistence on transparent and objective standards in the award of contracts to equip federal universities with computer systems, chemicals, water, electricity and efficient telecommunication systems. An administrative system based on lucrative corruption and inefficient bureaucracy grounded the World Bank project.
The political crisis precipitated by the annulment of the June 12 1993 presidential election became a significant factor in the strikes. Long, heated discussions were followed by a referendum in all ASUU branches. The majority voted that the military junta should accept the result of the presidential election as the beginning of Nigeria's journey towards democracy. The lecturers argued that incessant military incursions into the political arena and the cancellation of presidential election were the cause of the current political uncertainty.
"We shall not call off our strike until most of our demands are met. Stopping our salaries will not solve the crisis. Our struggle is to ensure that this generation and indeed future generations are entitled to decent and proper university education because Nigeria produces about 1.8 million barrels of oil a day at $16 per barrel," Dr Adesina said.