FOR the past three weeks, we have published parts one and two of our exclusive interview with Dr Omotoye Olorode. In this concluding part of the almost three-hour chat, Comrade Olorode advanced reasons why it has been difficult for ASUU and “the overlapping generations of the ruling class in Nigeria” to agree on any issue. He also provided revealing insight on progressive politics in Nigeria and the weak state of trade unions in Nigeria and how this can be turned around. Excerpts.
National Record: You have been in the thick of ASUU’s struggles for decades, why do you think it has been difficult for the union and government to agree on the basic issues of academic freedom and autonomy, in addition to the economic issues of allowances?
Olorode: Well, basically, if you look at the ’70s and especially ’80s when the lecturers and students began to raise social, political and economic questions about the future of Nigeria, you will see that these were the periods when the struggles of these organisations peaked.
These periods also provided the link between lecturers, students and the Nigerian labour movement which peaked in the ’80s; at the point when imperialism was going to completely takeover Nigeria. You know that in 1978, the whole question of Ali-Must-Go riots, in which lecturers were also involved, had to do with the withdrawal of certain supports from the university system.
So all of this put together began to put the academies – students and lecturers – in direct confrontation with the Nigerian State. We also know that that was the period of SAP [Structural Adjustment Programme], the definitive programme for takeover of countries like Nigeria.
It was ASUU working inside the NLC with the student movement that articulated all the dangers that lie ahead. So the condition for the academics to carry out this task, the academic freedom; if you cannot articulate your views, especially views alternative to the dominant ruling regime’s views about society, you will go into direct confrontation with the state. So, it follows that the academics will not continue to enjoy freedom, intellectual freedom or academic freedom; the right to express alternative views on where society should go.
There are many documents in this general regard. If you look at Dr Bala Usman’s book, 1978: For the Liberation of Nigeria, there is a chapter there where he talked about it, that in fact, the thing about the imperialist programme of taking over Nigerian universities was in a United States’ State Department document in 1978 already stipulating what roles the NUC was going to play because it has powers to control things and so on and so forth. All of these things just fall into place when you look at it. If ASUU is going to play that role of spearheading the defence of the Nigerian people and interest, a state that is committed to imperialist neo-liberal resolution of the crisis on ground will not allow any such organisation.
So, I am just saying that the war against ASUU, the war against the student movement and the war against the labour movement is one and the same war; it is just that ASUU has been more resilient.
You remember the Abisoye Panel in 1986 after the massacre of our students in Ahmadu Bello University?
Olorode: Abisoye came out to say that the problem was that ASUU; that lecturers were teaching what they were not paid to teach; that they were telling Nigerians what they should do instead of just teaching biology and British economic history and supply and demand in economic theory.
He was essentially saying that the lecturers were also telling people that they must find out who is supplying and who is demanding; and in whose interest is the state organised and so on and so forth. People should be reading that kind of documents.
The thing about academic freedom and the autonomy of the university is central to the capacity of the academy to defend the long term interest of the Nigerian State irrespective of what the statement of the ruling class in power is.
The fact that the overlapping generations of the ruling class in Nigeria have had to fight ASUU should tell people that it is the same people who have been running our affairs; they are the same interests, if not directly the same people, that have been running our affairs; people who just want to take us to Washington and hand our fortune over to them.
NR: But prof, on this issue about autonomy and academic freedom, it is clear that we didn’t pluck the university system from the air; the system exists in other places; what stops us from adopting a model or a mix of the the university systems in the developed world?
Look, [chuckles] this is not about, ehm… incidentally, we have to look historically at what happened in places like America and Britain and in Europe generally. In Europe, like UK, they universities have considerable autonomy without losing government funding.
In England, for example, there is no private university to the best of my knowledge today, which means that a lot of resources come from public funds, never mind that they have certain internally generated source of funds.
In the US, it is slightly different, historically. The people they call the robber barons in America; people who actually committed mass murders; people who killed aboriginal people, the American Indians, to take over their land. They became the oil magnates; people like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Cornelius Vanderbilt and so on, the so-called robber barons; they accumulated sufficient resources, what economists called primitive accumulation of resources, very large, like conquest; they were able to set up universities that will carry out research; so there is a limit to which such universities will have freedom.
Certain universities are more public, like what they call Liberal Arts colleges and the Langland colleges which also have a lot of public support. But you cannot compare America with Nigeria because America, especially since the Second World War has been able to through its corporations extract very massive surpluses from countries like Nigeria, also through these international finance organisations and so on.
There is no organisation or individual in Nigeria that has that kind of money that they can bring in. So when you are now saying that universities should look for their own fund, it is not going to happen because we don’t have that kind of system of external resources. And you will see that it is only now that the ruling class has been able to empower some of its members through stealing of public funds; that they are now bold enough to have some money to set up private universities. But even these private universities they have, they cannot turn them to the public, it is only the same people of their own class that can attend such universities. That is why today, in spite of the fact that there are more private universities than public universities in Nigeria, only about 4% of undergraduates that enrol in Nigerian universities are in those private universities; in spite of their proliferation and all the noise. These are the things that our people should know about all the propaganda on privatisation and how government can’t do everything.
The fact of the struggle of ASUU is because of the ordinary people in Nigeria even when ordinary people don’t know. It is their struggle, not only ASUU’s struggle. If they think ASUU is giving too much trouble, they should shut down the universities and do whatever they like to do. If our people allow them, fine! And let them impose fees that ordinary people will not be able to pay, they can reduce them to secondary schools if our people can live with that.
So ASUU doesn’t have a choice about the struggle on ground; if there is any member of ASUU that thinks that we have a choice, it means that member still doesn’t understand what he or she is talking about or he or she may just have decided to give up!
NR: The issue of implementation of IPPIS in federal universities is the current most pungent conflict between ASUU and FG. Don’t you think that the FG is right on the basis of the logic of he who pays the piper dictating he tune?
Olorode: No, no, no! Well, look, every situation has a tradition, and every tradition has a logic, okay? This person who is paying the piper cannot even pay the piper anymore. You know, there are many universities where there is shortfall in the salaries that government is paying; do you understand that? In fact what they are saying now is that they can’t pay more, they can’t pay and that the universities should look for fund; so who is this dictator of the tune that is paying the piper? They are asking the piper who is piping for them to just get lost; that is what it means!
A particular government is not the owner of the universities. The Nigerian people are the owners of the universities. Because of the role of the universities in the society the way we know them, the university lecturers are not employees of government; the university lecturers are employees of the governing councils, okay?
NR: But the governing councils are put in place by the government, are they not?
Government happens to appoint some of the most influential people in the governing councils. A governing council is not totally an appointee of government, okay; there are explanations for some of these things.
Half of the governing council are people elected by congregation, senate and others. It is the governing council that is the employer of a lecturer. If the universities are going to carry out their functions, this port string that they want to take to Abuja means is that the governing council has become irrelevant.
If somebody was; for example, I was sacked at least three times in Ife [Obafemi Awolowo University] as a lecturer, there was no way I would have been able to fight and be reinstated; and my crime in all instances was that I was defending Nigerian people; I was defending the future of our people.
If IPPIS were being implemented in 1990, I wouldn’t be able to pick my job, and not just me, at least two or three other people. Before me, there were Edwin Madunagwu, Ola Oni and Co. during their union too; they would have just stopped our salaries in Abuja and that would be the end of it; okay; but we were defending the Nigerian people; all the issues we were raising were about the future of Nigeria and nobody was listening; it is the crisis that Nigeria is facing today. There are other issues, critical issues on how universities should be run.
Look, if they are insisting that the Accountant General’s office will decide whether to pay lecturers or not, then the universities cannot grow because the universities cannot run certain programmes without permission from the Accountant General’s office. If the programme needs more resources, new employees at various levels – academic and non-academic levels – you can’t employ new lecturers without a lot of problems being created for universities.
We are saying that, if there is a governing council whose chairman is appointed by government; the chief executive of the university, the vice chancellor, who is ratified by government and can be queried; if there is power in the statute and laws of the universities for the visitor to send visitation once in five years to the universities, all the things about chasing out corrupt practices and so on and so forth; are there not enough checks in the universities to deal with them?
Beyond that, our experience is that ASUU people are the people that blow whistles in the universities about corruption and in virtually all cases, it is the whistle-blowers that got punished, the people who perpetrate corruption are usually set free, like in University of Ilorin where 49 lecturers were illegally dismissed. When Obasanjo set up a visitation panel, it indicted the governing council and the vice chancellors but it was the lecturers who blew the whistle that were sacked and it took about eight years before the Supreme Court nullified it.
We have heard that IPPIS is not an autonomous government instrument; it is a World Bank instrument; there is a document to that effect.
NR: Given the many dimensions to the ASUU-Federal Government conflicts, we will try to have detailed discussion with you on these specific issues soon.
Olorode: There is no problem on that at all.
NR: But we would like to take you to a related issue; the larger trade union area in Nigeria which you are very familiar with. As a renowned labour intellectual who had worked and continues to function to strengthen trade unions, the trade unions seem to be increasingly getting weaker by the day; they are not as visible in policy contestations and protests against bad leadership as they used to. What do you think is responsible for this and what should be done to reverse or revive the labour movement?
Olorode: Look, there are many issues here; but let us start with the legal question or rather the organisational question. The central labour organisations; NLC, TUC, ULC, but let us shift our attention to the NLC.
The NLC has a fundamental weakness. It is a federation of trade unions. I don’t know whether I am right about this, but an industrial union can simply withdraw its membership from the NLC. This means that as a central trade union organisation, the NLC has to tread gingerly in terms of enforcing the corporate integrity of the Congress. We have said this several times. A trade union can easily just pull out; the ULC serves as a ready example.
I know for a fact also that the industrial unions, many of them are very likely committed to their independence than to the NLC financially or even policies and struggles. That, for me, is a fundamental weakness for the NLC, and I think in a way, that arrangement is deliberate from the 1978 decree that started the NLC. So, there is that part.
The other part of the problem is that I think even for the industrial unions, the hold on workers in the union is very strong, and the hold is strengthened by the nature of the law that made check-off dues compulsory, it is not voluntary. It is the government that gives this power to the bureaucracy of the trade unions. So, as long as an industrial union is on the good side of the government, government can always ensure that it will keep having funds. The industrial unions have the capacity to see themselves as agents of government, only secondarily as agents of workers. I will give you an example.
In 1984, when this same Buhari’s military government decided to withdraw catering services from the universities; I was a lecturer in Ife and about 800 workers were sacked in Ife alone, and about 10,000 catering workers from across Nigerian universities. We mobilised the NASU people in Ife and even wrote proposals on how workers can organise their own union even separately in each university.
Before that, we tried to persuade NASU people, in fact we went all the way to a CWC meeting of NLC in Lagos to present our position on the need to defend the catering workers, but nobody paid us any attention because NASU still had a large number of workers outside the catering service of the universities. They felt that they can sacrifice the catering workers and therefore they didn’t lift a finger. They were even deriding us that what business has lecturers with non-academic workers to come all the way from Ife to come and defend catering workers. That was in 1984.
Because of this, the trade union bureaucracies are very strong, in fact stronger than the workers themselves; the General Secretaries are very, very strong. Only those of them that have some degree of political consciousness, working class consciousness are able to really deliver to workers.
If you can proceed from that to the question of commitment; without fundamental political commitment to the struggle of the working class, commitment to the extent that you are willing to lose your job in the defence of workers. The way the trade unions are structured in Nigeria does not allow the working class movement that enables trade union leaders to develop sufficient political commitment to be able to checkmate the state.
NR: What do you think can be done to reverse this trend?
Olorode: Well, I have always said that we cannot, those of us outside the mainstream trade unions; our union, ASUU, for example, as a member of NLC after about 12 years, was thrown out of the NLC by the IBB military junta after the ABU crisis in 1986. We didn’t get back into NLC until 2008, but we are picking very active interest in the development of the trade unions, and privately, my view is that because of the commitment of the trade union bureaucracy to working class interest, is not uniform; there are people in the trade union bureaucracy who are interested in building stronger political capacity for the movement; there are people who are cynical, if not completely antagonistic to any attempt to build very strong political movement outside the regular negotiations and economic questions.
So we need to be very strategic about how we deal with this, and for me, and I have said this before; the people who are committed to greater interest of the working class politically inside the trade unions need to work with people who will be outside the trade unions but who will have the time, energy and the commitment to enhance the political muscle of the working class, which means that sub-independent organisations can be set up inside each industrial union or across industrial unions that will have irregular people – students, market women, teachers, lecturers, ordinary people – a kind of labour-support organisation; that is how I called it before; a labour-support group, which can be multiplied across the country.
If industrial unions endorse them, link up directly with them, and NLC itself encourages it at the national level, so that these labour-support groups come together at the national level, they don’t need a bureaucracy, it is just people who are committed. Our experience is that people can build these things without asking the industrial unions or the NLC to bring money. It is just about having just basic things like circulating materials, making statements in support of trade unions and workers struggles, solidarity visits and things like that.
We have a complete experience on this. By the beginning of 1980 in Ife, we were the people that started local chapters of the Nigeria Labour Congress in Ile-Ife. Trade unions came together – teachers, ASUU, NASU, Gas and Electricity Workers, Nurses and Midwives and we contributed little, little resources to float a yearly worker education class for about two months.
Student volunteers joined, lecturer volunteers joined, imams joined, pastors joined; the records are there; and this was done without endangering the trade unions in town on their relationship with the government or the state governors. To do this, you need committed people. These things don’t have to be big to start, but we just have to start somewhere.
When we started in Ife, we were having about 16, 17 or so of the industrial unions participating and we were meeting every week apart from this yearly workers education programme that we were doing, and workers funded it themselves. Once we were able to start a credible programme in Ife, we started in Ilesha, in Ibadan, in Oyo North, Ibarapa, Irua, and in Ogbomoso. Of course we were getting stretched at that point but if we were able to pull the thing through; I am talking of 1981-82. In fact we were able to print a whole booklet and for the first time, I think in anywhere, we were able to celebrate local chapter of NLC May Day in 1982 at Ife in front of the Ooni’s palace; yes, I have the document on my system, I will send it to you.
We were able to print the worker education lectures in English and Yoruba for workers, on women, on conditions of work, on imperialism, on the World Bank and Africa; yes, we were able to do it. you can imagine what will happen if we have at least 4, 5 or 6 industrial unions that are willing to give token support to such an effort. It is not just some theory that we are pushing, it is doable.
NR: Before we let you off, we would like you to reflect briefly on party politics and the place of the progressive community. The movement is not doing well; it has no unified and strong platform to contest for political power at both the state and federal levels. Even some individuals with progressive antecedents who had ventured into politics tended to have deviated from the progressive path. What do think should be done to bring the diverse interests in the broad left together under a formidable political party in order to make the desired electoral impact either in 2023 or the near future?
Olorode: I am not sure whether the business there really is to start by saying that the progressives should take power at the federal level or at any level. You see, that goal has been misrepresented and has led to a lot of the crisis that we have on ground.
Many people have gone into these bourgeois parties precisely by telling us that we must go there to go and change things there and the question we need answer to now is: what has happened to those of our people who have gone there?
Many times, these decisions are taken entirely at individual megalomaniac level by people who had just gathered one or two people. Once an individual has made up his or her mind; that is what they want to do…
NR: [Cuts in] That’s exactly what I am saying, Prof; that don’t you think there is the need to take common or collective…
Olorode: [cuts in] It cannot be; it cannot be; a movement is something that grows. If people don’t have the patience to grow a movement, they won’t go anywhere! People will just end up there and get lost there. That is what is going to happen. It remains for me to have a single example of anybody who went there and came back; not one, comrade. So, if we don’t disabuse our minds about these things, we will keep making the same mistakes; people will be going there and getting lost or they will be coming back with stories.
NR: If individuals are going and getting lost, what about people coming together…
Olorode: But that is what I am saying! That coming together has to happen and…again, precisely because people have gone different ways and many people got stuck there. Some went the NGO way and they just got stuck there. There are things they can’t achieve.
Look, there is somebody who became very big in an NGO and we were doing some work for the NLC, when the guy walked up to me and said; you know something; until somebody builds a house and is able to take care of his children, we can’t make any progress in this revolution… [General laughter]. I am telling you. Go and look at the kind of houses that they would like to build; they will become slaves to those houses. So we have this kind of things.
I am not saying that these are not worthy but I am saying that some of these things have happened. So, we must find some way of defining; we must define some minimal and some maximal. I think we have to start from people who said we need to get together but that we may not reach this goal in our life time, but we would build an organisation that we hope can grow to reach that goal. That is a core organisation, in my view. It doesn’t require a million people.
Again, these are not theoretical matters; they are things that we have done; a whole lot of what happened in the ’80s and ’90s; I’m not sure you can count a hundred people that were united and able to move from one location to the other and were able to get the type of impact that we had in that period. I am not sure there were a hundred people.
Even in the students’ movement. What happened was that these cores were then able, like one man, one woman, to formulate policies and ideas that they can then push in what we now call progressive organisations. If it succeeds, we move on, if it does not, we don’t use people to distort organisations.
We might even decide that such people should go into a political party; they will be people that we will not lose to that political party…
NR: [Cuts in] But we have had progressive political parties in the past, for example, PRP in the Second Republic and even in the first Republic, NEPU. In the current dispensation, there seems to be no ideologically clear political party that is viable or making waves. Even now we have PRP and Labour Party but they are fundamentally empty as congregations of progressives.
You see, that is the problem. Even at that periods that you referred to, part of the reason I said we cannot move very far is that we don’t have a core that is committed to…, look, this thing is not about us, it is not even necessarily about our lifetime.
Take PRP, for example; we didn’t go beyond the possibility that PRP represented. I know that there were efforts that were made to link with people outside the Aminu Kano, Bala Usman people; even people like Soyinka were in PRP. But then, PRP was not able to really maintain its grip on power, once it fails to face the anger of NPN and all of that.
We were not in PRP but we made efforts to reach some of our people in PRP; we didn’t join the party. We thought that it has limitations but we were willing to work with it, in fact, give it critical support.
We were also not in the Awolowo crowd, we thought that the Awolowo people were so really limited and our people who went there were disappointed; you know, they were thrown out. We told people that Awolowo didn’t set up his party for radicals to come and takeover. The man had already written an anthem, he had a band and all that. Somebody even said that we were involved in a kind of political opportunism, that we just assumed that somebody will set up his political party and we will go and take it over; it doesn’t happen.
NR: You said you were not in the PRP and not in UPN, which was your party? Were you with Eskor Toyo?
We were in the organisation called SCON, Socialist Congress of Nigeria. But then we were coming from way, way back before SCON; SCON came around 1988 or so. Before then, we were already linked up with Bala Usman’s people and Balarabe Musa and co, way, way back. We were working with Ola Oni people.
Our position was that whatever we can do across the board, we should do it, in the spirit of the movement. If we are able to work for a sufficiently long time on some minimum programme, our organisations will then be able to merge.
We were never in any organisation in which we thought that we have all the answers; no! We are in this organisation because we have to start somewhere. If we work with other people and we are able to advance work at that level, our goal should be for our organisations to become one.
But the question of people just insisting that you can’t do anything unless you have to take power has problem. I ask people today, for example; if you take power today, what will you do with that power without your own military and police and all of that? Even if you have all of that, you will have to do all sorts of things that will not create problem for the organisation immediately. This is because the people in charge will fight back and only ordinary people who are victims can defend a new political line and we haven’t reached those ordinary people; we haven’t. We then have to go slowly. We have to go fast enough so that there is no recession, and what happened to people like Salvador Allende and Co in Chile should teach us a lot of lessons. They even had a longer history of struggle; they had organisation that was armed to defend their revolution but see what happened to them.
It is good to talk about power but there are whole lots of things that can be achieved if we have an organisation that wants to defend Nigeria’s working people; that wants to speak up and mobilise and learn from people and teach them. That is my own understanding of the task.