When Khadijah Alade was admitted to the University of Ibadan, Nigeria’s oldest degree-awarding university, in 2017, she was optimistic about her career and future. But five years later, and in the midst of a grinding series of academic strikes, she is stuck in her fourth year, disillusioned and heartless. “The whole motivation to study law is expiring, especially as the strike lingers,” she lamented. “This has affected me personally, and it hinders my career trajectory. I do not remember most of the things we were taught earlier this year, and except for internships, my interests in studying and practicing law are waning.”
Alade is one of the many law students across public universities stuck in Nigerian academic strikes. The current strike, which started on Feb. 14, 2022, has no clear end in sight. It marks the 16th strike of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Nigeria’s umbrella body of professors, in the 22 years since the country returned to democratic rule.
The professors are protesting the refusal of the Nigerian government to fulfill a 2009 agreement to improve staff welfare packages and facilities. The ASUU also seeks the implementation of an improved payment system for lecturers.
In the context of a country with a 34% rate of unemployment, a burgeoning youth population (the country has the largest population of youth in the world, with a median age of 18.1 years), and the largest economy in Africa with devastating levels of inequality, the strikes offer a telling case study of how Nigeria’s bright youth get diverted from their educational paths, thereby affecting the country’s literacy levels and workforce.
Nigeria’s educational woes, accentuated by the academic strikes, have also evoked an emigration outburst — the Japa syndrome — leading to an export of talent fleeing from the country’s unstable institutional structures. The strikes offer an insight into the degradation of the educational sector in Africa, which leads to a retrograde of talents fit to participate and represent the continent’s interests in industries and contribute to collective global development.
PAUSED TRAJECTORIES, INCREASED DISILLUSIONMENT
The strikes bring personal hardship to students and stall their educational and career advancement. Some students worry it could delay their bar exams and graduation. In between the series of strikes, academic calendars are often rushed.
Another law student, Abdulrasheed Hammad, said that he is so off track from his legal trajectory that he sometimes forgets he is a law student. Hammad, who now freelances in journalism to keep himself busy and make ends meet, noted that the strike is bound to affect academic performances when the universities resume.
“The strike embarked on by the staff union of academics has lasted 7 months, and still counting, yet positive resolutions are elusive. It has made a lot of individuals lose hope in education. We are stuck in our homes, doing nothing. This would affect law students, especially in terms of academic performance, because when the strike is suspended, these students have their attention divested into some other pursuits. For me, I would [already] have been a graduate, and proceeded to the Nigerian Law school for my year-long training to be a legal practitioner if not for the strike,” he said.
The strikes offer a telling case study of how Nigeria’s bright youth get diverted from their educational paths, thereby affecting the country’s literacy levels and workforce
These strikes put the lives and careers of students on hold, which can have wider consequences for the strength of the Nigerian workforce and even the choice to leave or stay. Education experts recommend students explore opportunities beyond the shores of the country. Already, Nigerians in the United States are the most highly educated immigrant community, with 61% holding at least a bachelor’s degree compared with 31% of the total foreign-born population. There are an estimated 15 million Nigerians living in the diaspora.
Nigeria is also one of the most unequal countries in the world with 40% of the population living in poverty. The strike is only worsening this divide. While students in public universities are stalled by the strikes, their counterparts in private institutions are moving ahead with uninterrupted academic calendars. “Our colleagues in private and state universities now prepare for their graduations, whilst we sit at home due to the lingering academic strike,” Hammad lamented. “Our years of graduation might be the same, but the years of call to the bar would be different from our counterparts in these institutions not infested by the strike, which is not supposed to be.”
On the other hand, for Hammad, the strike holds a silver lining. “However, it has been a blessing for me in disguise, because now I’ve got time to focus more on my journalism career. I have diverted from the legal field for now because journalism is where I make money. Studying law is not financially rewarding, as student interns are not paid by most law firms. At least, I get to earn from journalism.”
Experts have suggestions for some ways to break the impasse, including increased funding of the country’s education sector, strategic dispute resolutions, and introduction of new tuition payment structures to drive revenue for tertiary institutions, but so far they are held up by authorities who are enmeshed in the quagmire and relentless incremental negotiations.
For Hammad, while he understands his professor’s grievances, he thinks they should prioritize moving forward. “The best way for ASUU is to suspend the strike. If this is not done, it is bound to linger beyond all expectations. This would amount to a waste of time, and so much time is wasted already without achieving anything. To resolve delays in law school mobilizations, university authorities should arrange fast academic calendars to ensure that they meet up with their colleagues in other institutions.”
If the strikes continue, students like Alade and Hammad will continue to walk a tightrope in pursuing their career trajectories, while feeling disillusionment and angst against their colleagues in private universities, their lecturers, and their governing institutions for not resolving the situation. And if compromises are not met by university lecturers and the Nigerian government, forgetting coursework might only be the start of a downward spiral. The crisis could lead to growing disillusionment, malaise, and stagnation, and continue to worsen the out-migration flow.
Adedimeji Quayyim Abdul-Hafeez is a freelance journalist and creative storyteller covering culture, governance, media, law, and technology.