Before February, Khalil Rahman Abdullah would start his day with morning prayers before racing off to classes at the University of Ilorin, where he is a final-year medical student.
These days, he wakes to his phone and laptop screen, then browses the web or signs up to online courses. As time ticks by, like many Nigerian students, he is becoming enormously frustrated.
Nigeria’s Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the umbrella body for university lecturers, went on strike on 14 February … and staff have not returned since.
“With the strike, it means I will spend a longer year,” says Abdullah, 28, who would have qualified by now if the strike hadn’t happened. “The bulk of the work I do at this level is hands-on, not what you can study at home. You need constant exposure to patients.”
The ASUU says it is protesting over the government’s refusal to fulfil a 2009 agreement which included a better welfare package and improved facilities for universities across Nigeria. It also wants the government to adopt the University Transparency and Accountability Solution [UTAS] for payment of its members’ salaries.
For students like Abdullah, plans for their lives and careers have been put on hold. “At this point, I am not supposed to be a student,” says Abdullah.
The current strike comes after a 10-month strike in 2020. National affairs analyst Alausa Issa Sanni says the strike is bringing an “idleness to young people”. “The danger is that we will have potential students becoming uninterested in education. Many have already lost interest, and it leaves the country in a shaky place.”
But Prof Emmanuel Osodeke, ASUU president, says the industrial action is in the best interests of students. “The students are not being punished – what we are doing is fighting for the future of the Nigerian university system,” he says.
“We are negotiating with the federal government, and making emphatic progress. We hope the government will accept whatever they’ve negotiated, and then we can look at all the issues and come back to work if they meet the conditions.
Osodeke adds that the government only started negotiating three weeks ago, and lecturers have not been paid for four months.
The strike has crippled small businesses that depend on students. Sherif Olayiwola, 27, runs a cafe on the Ilorin campus. “When the students left, there was nothing to do other than close down. I’m eating into my savings, and I’m scared they may finish before the strike will be called off. I don’t know how things are going to pan out.”
Fatima Owoeye, a final-year history student at Ilorin, says the strike has left her feeling depressed. “At my age, I am supposed to have something promising I’m doing, but the fact that the country is not good at all makes it impossible. I was supposed to spend four years in school, and it has turned to almost six years now.”
To ease the burden on her single mother, who cares for her and her two siblings, Owoeye has started applying for jobs. Most employers turned her down for not having a degree, even though she sat her final exams a week before the strike began. “Some told me they want someone who can work full-time and won’t leave after school resumes,” she says.
She has learned to bake to keep herself engaged, but she remains troubled by the knowledge that most employers in Nigeria’s competitive job market discriminate against applicants older than 24. “I will be 26 next year. What position will I be in? Will I be able to get these opportunities? This is not the plan I had for myself,” she says.
“I’m not moving forward, I’m not moving backward, I’m just in one place.”
By Pelumi Salako