Security agents harass strikers

October 11, 1996

Nigerian security agents are harassing lecturers and leaders of their banned union in an attempt to break a strike that closed the country's 38 universities.

Assisi Assobie, national president of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, has gone into hiding, like most of its leaders. They are fearful of arrest under a decree that threatens at least three year's imprisonment and a fine of over US$1,200 for any lecturer who refuses to go back to work. The decree also proscribed the union.

Andrew Onorkhekhoraye, vice chancellor of the University of Benin, has ordered security agents to eject lecturers, who went on strike for better pay and conditions, from their residences.

At Bayero University in Kano, Mallam Saka Audu, the union's public relations officer, complained that he was being singled out by the state security agents as a ring-leader and trouble-maker. "I will just teach my students and go home to relax and continue to pray for improved conditions of service," he said.

At the University of Ilorin, police have detained local union chairman Bayo Lawal for undisclosed reasons. At oil-rich Delta State University eight union leaders have been barred, again for undisclosed reasons, from entering the campus.

Acting on orders from General Sani Abacha, Nigeria's military ruler, education minister Mohammadu Liman ordered vice chancellors to list academic staff willing to go back to work. No salary arrears would be paid to those who did return and if fewer than half of lecturers and students of any one university department did not return it would be closed for two years.

Many, but not all, of the country's 7,000 lecturers indicated their willingness to go back to work but most have adopted a work-to-rule strategy. Only skeletal teaching and minimal practicals are being undertaken because journals and chemicals are not available.

"The strike has now turned into a cold war," Joe Obilom, vice chairman of the union at Jos University, said. "Real commitment has gone. You hardly see a department that is functioning. But this does not mean that the lecturers have thrown in the towel, just that they have adopted a wait-and-see attitude. I see a situation where there is going to be an exodus of teaching staff and a nonchalant attitude of staff to work."

Some university lecturers are still on strike. Students at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria's oldest university, returned to find lecturers insisting that they would not resume lectures. After their latest congress meeting, they said: "Today, we are even in a worse situation compared to March [when the strike started]. We still cannot train chemists, pharmacists, medical doctors, economists etc. For years, we have been 'managing' disaster and falsehood. We cannot keep propping up a collapsing edifice called a university. Standards of education are international."

In an open letter to General Abacha, university staff wives, under the auspices of the Chapel of Resurrection Women's Fellowship at Ibadan University, said that the strike has taken a great toll on their family lives with grave implication for the quality of university education and the future of the youth.

"The youths are now roaming the streets and some of them are getting into trouble, engaging in crimes of serious dimension. The homes of thousands of staff who have not been paid for over five months are distressed. Their families are suffering and sharing in the distress. We as mothers and wives are concerned about the present situation and the consequences to our children who will be leaders of tomorrow and the social and economic decline of our beloved country," they stated.

The prolonged crisis has political dimensions. Official sources claim that the strike is being funded by the opposition National Democratic Coalition, a claim the union denies.

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