ASUU and the Crisis of Hegemony
By Biko Agozino
I SALUTE the courageous members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) in Nigeria for leading the struggle to improve higher education in the country. No other civic organization could lay claim to more dedication, more sacrifice and more achievement in making university education better in Nigeria than the great ASUU. The recent three month-long strike is another reminder that ASUU members are willing to sacrifice their own comfort for the patriotic goal of advancing higher education to a level comparable in the international community. As a former member of ASUU and a passionate supporter of all the actions taken by the union, I send solidarity greetings.
Having said that, I must submit that the time has come for us to review the permanent revolution strategy of ASUU and see if the mode of protest has outstripped the means of protest and what needs to be done. The preferred means of protest by ASUU is the declaration of indefinite strikes. If we look around the world, it is clear that this means of protest is no longer as popular as it once seemed in the 20th century. Indefinite strikes by university teachers are almost unheard of in a modern university where the mode of struggle is predominantly intellectual and moral for obvious reasons.
I am uncomfortable with the strategy of the indefinite strike because it leaves our students vulnerable to manipulation and NANS threatened to dramatize such vulnerability with a planned naked protest of 700,000 students in the federal capital territory, Abuja. Since students have always predominantly sided with ASUU in its disputes with the government, we need to review the dominant strategy of ASUU to avoid handicapping students in such disputes.
The privileging of indefinite strikes appears to come out of the books of what Gramsci described as the 'war of the maneuvers' which was how battles were fought in the olden days with each side lined up and with victory coming in a flash as a result of the breach of the defences of one side. Due to changes in the means of warfare and the mode of warfare which Gramsci used as metaphors for changes in political struggles generally, strategies changed to the war of positions or the war of the trenches with the awareness that, for politics, the trenches encompass the whole of civil society and therefore the fronts are everywhere and not at this fortress or that.
There are many scandals in Nigerian higher education but the fact that university teachers are forced to abandon their duties indefinitely from time to time is a huge scandal that is making the great ASUU lose the struggle over hegemony with the government. The university intellectuals should reconsider this worn-out strategy and rely more on intellectual and moral leadership because such hegemonic tactics appear to be more successful when adopted in any struggle than the strategy of militancy and force. Lenin was credited with fashioning this strategy when it became obvious that Russian workers were too few to win the support of the peasant majority by force. He strategized that the workers would only win the loyalty of other exploited classes by offering them intellectual and moral leadership.
Gramsci has been credited with extending this analysis to the ruling class since the ruling class in a capitalist society is also too few in number to rule by force alone. They have to dominate by offering intellectual and moral leadership to the dominated classes in order to win over their coerced consent. Force is never absent from the strategies of the ruling class but the reliance on the consent of the ruled is more effective than domination by force and whenever the dominant group resorts to force, it is proof that the hegemony of the group is in crisis. For people under domination, moral and intellectual leadership would be more effective than militant confrontations, Gramsci suggested in his Prison Notebooks.
It may be argued that Gramsci is not relevant to Nigeria because he was theorizing conditions in advanced democratic societies where class struggles were the dominant concerns in the consciousness of the people (although Gramsci underestimated the importance of white supremacy or racism and patriarchy or sexism, his brief commentary on 'The war in the colonies', not withstanding) whereas Nigeria remains a society that is mired in ethnic and religious loyalties and crass opportunism. This may be why Nigerian University workers believe that the only language the country's rulers understand is force. However, Nigeria is not the only underdeveloped country in the world but we appear to be the only one where intellectual professionalism has sunk so low that many believe that the only way to correct the situation is to close the universities for five years and set up a commission of enquiry to find out what is wrong.
The tendency to abandon duties for months on end, no matter how justified the reasons and no matter how glorious the outcomes, must be ended because it is making us the laughing stock of the global intellectual community while giving employers the opportunity to declare victory over syndicalism. I salute ASUU but I am reluctant to support another indefinite strike in our crisis-ridden university system. So I hope that the end of the strike will translate into an enduring decorum suitable for intellectual pursuits.
Of course, the government could easily prevent another strike by granting the very basic demands of ASUU following agreements reached in the past but not fully implemented. The government should take the new agreements seriously and adhere to them. The government should even go beyond those basic demands and surprise everyone by investing heavily in education at all levels by, for example, recruiting unemployed graduates and deploying them as mass education teachers to eradicate illiteracy within four years the way that Cuba did. Increasing the funding for education four-fold would make ASUU smile and rule out any more hurtful indefinite strikes.
Dr. Agozino is Professor of Sociology and Director of Africana Studies Program, Virginia Tech. United States