‘Ali Must Go’, and the ASUU Strike of 2022
By Femi Olugbile
How time flies! In April 1978, just a few months before you were supposed to graduate from Medical School, a monumental conflagration arose in the nation. It was to go down in history as the ‘Ali Must Go’ crisis.
‘Ali’, of course, was the then Colonel Ahmadu Ali, Minister of Education in the Murtala-Obasanjo. The government had made an announcement that, due to rising costs, the fees paid by students in universities across the nation were to be increased. While tuition would remain free, the cost of a student’s stay in the halls of residence would be increased to thirty naira a term, or a total of ninety naira for the year.
The real clanger, however, was that the cost of a meal ticket in the cafeteria would be increased by fifty kobo. That meant a good number of students would no longer be able to afford ‘three square meals’ a day, including the sumptuous Sunday afternoon repast of jollof rice and chicken that was served in many places.
The outrage in university campuses across the land was immediately palpable. University of Ibadan was thrown into ferment. Alexander Brown Hall, where the medical students stayed, was some distance from the main campus, ensconced within the snug walls of the University College Hospital. But even here, the tension quickly spread. Students gathered on the corridors in their white coats to discuss the development. The Head of State, irreverently referred to as ‘Bros Sege’, was an easy man to caricature. He became the butt of cruel jokes and target of angry remarks.
The government’s decision was seen as wicked and insensitive, a ploy to take University education beyond the reach of the poor in Nigeria. The National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS) directed that there should be a boycott of lectures starting immediately. Unlike what had happened in previous students’ crises, compliance at Alexander Brown Hall was total. The sense of grievance was great, against ‘the system’, against ‘Bros Sege’, and against a nation that did not, at the time, have enough university places to accommodate even a fraction of its citizens who were eligible for such education.
After a few days of lecture boycott, without a response from government, demonstrations began, on the campuses, and on streets from Lagos to Ibadan, and Zaria.
Then tragedy kicked in. At University of Lagos, Akoka, policemen, trying to stop students from going out on the streets, fired a bullet into the leg of Akintunde Ojo, a student of Architecture. He died shortly after. The students claimed he was denied treatment at LUTH and at Igbobi Orthopaedic Hospital. The crisis escalated.
At Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, eight students were shot dead by soldiers.
The Federal Military Government swiftly shut down all universities and banned NUNS.
At Alexander Brown Hall, despite the suspension of formal teaching, final year students loitered around, alternately reading and bellyaching against the government. Ibadan city was in especial distemper. Protesters had gone to secondary schools to rouse students to the cause, and the little urchins were on the streets, supporting their elders, causing chaos.
Snippets of those surreal days come to you still, even now. Jude, your friend and perennial sparring partner in long post-prandial arguments in the cafeteria on sundry topics, now a Professor of Psychiatry, walking aimlessly about the streets, whispering ‘My children. My children’. T-Shoks, now a renowned Neurosurgeon, seriously recommending that a new students’ body be formed, named Association of Nigerian University Students (ANUS).
In the end, Ali did not go. The poor man protested plaintively that the fee increase was not his doing but a decision of the Supreme Military Council, but he was marked for life. The increments were not reversed. Segun Okeowo, the NUNS President, was expelled from UNILAG. He would later obtain his Bachelor’s degree in Education from University of Ifè. And the final year students of ‘the class of 78’ went on to finish the home stretch of their medical education and get on with their lives.
There are strong parallels between ‘Ali Must Go’ and the recent protracted ASUU strike. The reasons given for the ASUU strike include poor funding of education by government and a demand that ‘appropriate’ fees should not be charged for university education so as not to exclude the poor. The official fee charged for accommodation remains ninety naira in some places. There is a curious story tagged to this. A former Vice Chancellor, Professor Wale Omole, in a recent interview, observed that some students who were allocated rooms at that price, cynically turned round, and charged their colleagues tens of thousands of naira to ‘squat’ with them.
Government must invest more in Education. This is a given. But should Education be ‘Free’, or ‘Accessible’? The distinction is crucial. There are similarities with the argument that has just been won in Health, where Universal Healthcare Coverage for the masses is now seen to be possible only through compulsory Health Insurance, with government catering for ‘Vulnerables’, rather than through an unsustainable ‘Free Health’ that forms a convenient political slogan which has, unfortunately, shaped public expectations for several decades. In the end, nothing is truly ‘free’.
The public may have to be helped to overcome the high emotions of the issue by reshaping the objective as ‘that nobody is deprived of University education, or forced to endure financial distress, in Nigeria, just because they cannot afford school fees.’ A leading candidate in the next elections has already flown a kite by recommending the use of some of the huge pool of funds known as TETFund to fund access or subsidy for those who need it, based on the actual number of students enrolled in each University. It would also enable Universities to charge appropriate fees and have more income, which will enable them to pay their lecturers better, and make their teaching and accommodation facilities ‘world class’.
‘Ali Must Go’ protesters were high on passion but low on logic. Government has no business fixing the price of jollof rice and Sunday chicken in university cafeterias. Nor does it have a duty to fix how much is charged for accommodation in halls of residence. What government has a duty to do is find a sustainable formula whereby no Nigerian is deprived of tertiary education because of money, putting the focus on access unhindered by financial limitation.
‘Ali Must Go’ raised the issue. The ASUU strike amplified it. Nigeria can solve the problem, but only by thinking out of the box.