The futures of more than a million Nigerian university students are on hold as a lecturers’ strike drags on less than a month before a presidential election, as Yemisi Adegoke reports from Lagos.
Olamide Tejuoso had been looking forward to the start of 2019.
She was expecting to be a fresh graduate beginning her career with a paid internship at a media company. The first step in realising her dream of becoming a writer after four years of studying at the University of Ibadan.
But instead of excitement, the communications student feels frustrated because of the ongoing strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).
Students at Nigeria’s state-funded universities have not resumed their studies due to an indefinite nationwide strike by academic staff that began in November.
The union has accused the government of failing to honour past agreements over the redevelopment of tertiary education.
They are also protesting about poor facilities, poor funding and an alleged plan to increase tuition fees.
There have been talks between the union and the government but negotiations are dragging on.
‘Can’t make plans’
Meanwhile, the future of Nigeria’s 1.2 million federal university students is in limbo.
“It’s depressing,” says Ms Tejuoso. “As a final year student, you have all these plans, but you’re not seeing the reality.”
“I should have graduated last December, but because of this strike I’m limited. I can’t do any major travel, I can’t take any major job because I don’t know when we’re going to resume.”
She now keeps herself occupied by writing and trying to work on her final project.
Ms Tejuoso has also enrolled in a sewing class, but she is anxious and desperate to get back to university.
“We’ve had more than two months [of the strike] already and it’s making the future look so bleak,” she says.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen. Because of the elections, [resuming in] February is in doubt. We don’t even know what the future holds for us.”
ASUU president Biodun Ogunyemi, who himself has two children at public universities, says the strike is to secure the future of tertiary education, and ultimately the students’ future.
“We have always told our students and their parents what we’re doing is in their own interests,” Prof Ogunyemi says.
“We don’t want them to earn certificates that will be worthless, we don’t want them to get an education they can’t be proud of, we want the restoration of the integrity of their certificates.”
One of the major demands of the union is the implementation of past agreements and the spending of $2.7bn (£2.1bn) in total to revamp universities.
Annually, the government currently allocates about $1.8bn (£1.4bn) to the education sector overall, which accounts for 7% of federal government spending. Federal universities get nearly $750m of that.
But the lecturers say that it is not enough.
In a move to reassure striking workers, Employment Minister Chris Ngige said that the president was determined to “reposition our universities [and] will do everything possible to remove the present challenges”.
This is the second strike since President Muhammadu Buhari came to power in 2015, but the tradition of the ASUU taking industrial action stretches back further than that.
Its members have been on strike almost every year since since the country’s return to democracy in 1999.
Prof Ogunyemi, who became ASUU president in 2014, says this is because the education sector has been sidelined by successive governments.
“What is missing is how to get political leadership that will appreciate the role of education in the development of individuals and the country,” he says.
With a presidential election less than a month away, both candidates of the major parties have talked about their commitments to education, promising to increase funding.
But despite the frequency of the strikes in the university sector, neither has raised the issue of labour relations in the tertiary sector in their party manifestos.
“This is election period. If one wants to campaign fully this is a place you should work on,” says Lydia Agu Uka, a biochemistry student at the Federal University of Technology Owerri.
“But they ignore this crucial part, they focus on trivial matters, things that don’t really count at all.”
Since the strike began she has started selling second-hand items through a website. Earning money online has become a common way for Nigerian students to earn extra cash.
One of the country’s most popular and successful employment websites, Jobberman, was started by three students during the 2009 ASUU strike.
Although Ms Agu Uka enjoys running her business she is worried about how the time off is affecting her studies.
“At a point you start to lose focus, which is not right,” she says. “I don’t know when last I actually opened a biochemistry textbook.”
Despite this Ms Agu Uka and many other students support the aims of the strike.
But not all of her peers agree. The Nigerian Association of Students has accused lecturers of holding the strike for their own personal interests and have threatened mass protests.
While students like Ms Tejuoso are hopeful the outcome of negotiations will be successful there are concerns that if real action is not taken strikes will continue to be a constant feature of student life.
“Public universities are really, really suffering,” she says. “It’s a bad reality. We need the government to start focusing on our education.”