Opinion

Queen, NANS, ASUU And Who Dey Shop?

By Dr Reuben Abati

Yesterday would be remembered for long in history even by generations yet unborn, as a historic moment in the 21stcentury, the day, Elizabeth II, embarked on a journey to the Eternal Realm, after 70 years of reign as Monarch of Great Britain and leader of the Commonwealth, the grandmother of many across the world and “the rock upon which Modern Britain was built” to borrow British PM Liz Truss’s words.

I was impressed by the symbolism, the culture, the tradition, the pageantry, the inter-generational links, the grandeur with which the British, paying attention to every little detail turned that into a tribute to the value of constitutional monarchy, national pride, and the history of a people. There has been so much said in the last ten days, but now that Elizabeth II has gone to be with the Lord, there is a lot more to be said about lessons and the future, and the rest of us who would forever share a connection with the United Kingdom, at cultural, historical, diplomatic, bi-national and individual, polemical, levels. In the end, what was shared was the humanity that connects the entire population of the world, and the subtle differences and disregard for a rules-based international order that divides us. Elizabeth II is gone. The Lord is Her Shepherd…/She has passed beyond the mists that blind us here/Into the new and larger life/Of that serener sphere.”  May she travel well.  A new era begins. 

At the historic occasion, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari was represented by the Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo and Nigeria’s High Commissioner to the UK, Alhaji Sarafa Isola. Nigeria was not one of those countries that were asked to stay away from the funeral: Russia, Belarus, Myanmar, Syria, Venezuela, and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.  The Russians have complained that their exclusion is “particularly blasphemous.” I can’t figure out how. The British were determined to make a diplomatic statement, and play politics with the Queen’s burial and they did so. Some countries were grudgingly allowed to attend through their ambassadors: Iran, Nicaragua and North Korea. China sent its Vice President, Wang Qishan. But the American President, Joe Biden, the French President Emmanuel Macron and the Prince of Dubai, were treated preferentially – allowed to travel in their own means of transportation, with the US President going to Westminster Abbey for the state burial in “The Beast”, while others were conveyed in buses provided by the British hosts. 

As it were, the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II was one of the biggest diplomatic gatherings in decades, the first state burial in the UK since two-time Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill’s passing in 1965, and one of the biggest security operations that anyone has seen for decades: 4, 000 military personnel, 10, 000 policemen on duty, 142 naval officers manning the gun carriage that was last used in 1952 for the burial of King George VI, father of Elizabeth II,  drone-blocking technology, a Bank Holiday that  placed the entire UK on pause, 4.1 billion people watching across the world, the pomp was a clear indication of how majestic Elizabeth II was in life and death. The British used the occasion to advertise strength, tradition, seamless institutional capacity, and continuity.          

The Elizabethan Age is a specific reference in the teaching of English history and culture, and world-view, which in literary scholarship has provided a benchmark for the introduction of students in the humanities to an understanding of the British Renaissance between 1558 and 1603, during the Tudor period.  It was the golden age: the time of William Shakespeare and his contemporaries, the Spanish Armada (1585 – 1602) and the emergence of the royal union with Scotland. As someone who once taught the literature of the Elizabethan Age, specifically  Shakespeare and His Contemporaries from Shakespeare himself to Ben Jonson, Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe and John Lyly, up till the Anglo-Irish Theatre of the 19th Century from W. B. Yeats to Lady Gregory, John Millington Synge and Sean O’Casey, I would not be surprised if literary scholars begin to explore the constructs for a second Elizabethan Age in the 20th and 21st centuries given the range of Elizabeth II’s  reign across culture, science, and politics. Such was the import of the significance of her leadership. 

Many Nigerians who attended the Queen’s lying-in-state, or funeral, physically, or virtually, whatever may be their misgivings about the truth-telling, expiatory, cathartic moment this may represent about the legacy of Empire and colonialism, may well have been reassured by the fact that Nigeria was not one of those countries banished from attending the funeral of the world’s grandmother whose burial yesterday was even celebrated in rural Cameron, with an elaborate thanksgiving service! VP Yemi Osinbajo represented President Muhammadu Buhari. But there is a problem here that I would like to throw up, thinking aloud, for general interrogation. As the Vice President’s delegation jetted off to London on Sunday, Nigeria’s President, Buhari also left town for the 77th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). The country’s two principal leaders of the Executive Arm of Government at the Federal level, travelled out of town the same day to go and attend events.  In those days, Sahara Reporters and Omoyele Sowore would have raised an alarm over the number of persons on the Vice President and President’s delegations, and how that indicates sheer lack of prudence in managing public resources. This time around, Sowore, an anti-monarchist by the way, has missed an opportunity to soro soke!

But my concern is as follows: whereas there is no law that says the President and the Vice President must not leave town at the same time, I still do not think that it is politically expedient that they do so. I also do not think that it is cost-efficient, at a time Nigeria’s Finance Minister, the National Assembly and international observers are complaining about a terrible revenue problem that calls for an urgent review of the country’s corruption vulnerabilities, the civil service, competitiveness and fiscal framework.  Nor is it administratively convenient either.

What does the 1999 Constitution say? Section 145 of the Nigerian Constitution deals with, “the temporary absence of the President” while Section 146 expatiates on circumstances under which the Vice President may discharge the functions of the President, but nowhere in both instances do the framers of the law envisage a situation whereby the President and the Vice President could both abandon post and leave the country the same day, even if on two different state assignments. None of the rules of interpretation – literal, golden, mischief or the ejusdem generis rule would seem to resolve the dilemma in my view. But perhaps, simple common sense would help.  I can understand President Muhammadu Buhari deciding to attend UNGA 2022. With Nigeria’s next general elections fixed for February 2022, and his two-term tenure as Nigerian President due to expire in May 2023, this would be his last attendance at the UN General Assembly as President. 

It makes sense if he wants to show up to bid his brother Heads of State farewell. UNGA begins formally today with the statements of Heads of States, so it probably would have been a bit stressful for him to attend the Queens’ funeral on 19thSeptember and then immediately make the long trip to New York. But then, there were other Heads of State at Westminster Abbey yesterday who will depart London, and go straight to New York. What is the matter with us?  The Vice President didn’t even need to go to London. Nigeria could just have been as ably represented by the country’s High Commissioner to the UK, as some other countries – Iran, Nicaragua and North Korea were represented by their ambassadors. Only African Presidents go to every UNGA, almost every year for a jamboree. Countries can even be represented by their Ministers of Foreign Affairs or their UN Ambassadors, the only concern would be the order of protocol. In other words, President Buhari himself could have stayed behind, he really doesn’t need a hollow farewell tour.   

The argument can be made that the two trips not falling under the intendments of Sections 145 and 146 aforementioned are in a special category of their own, especially as the Vice President could be back in the country before this newspaper reaches the newsstands, and that in any case the President going to UNGA for a few days can still run the country with the aid of phone calls, text messages, or zoom from wherever he is, or better still, through any of his aides back home. The only problem with this is: the Nigerian Constitution does not say that Nigeria can be governed through telephony from a foreign location. The problem now is: should the President and the Vice President both leave town the same day for whatever length of time, no matter how short, or do we need to amend the Constitution to address this? Yesterday, Nigeria had no Commander in Chief on the ground! Both the President and the Vice President were not only out of the country, even key Ministers were either in one entourage or the other. I was compelled to ask the question, as Nigerians would say:who dey shop oh? 

As it happened, yesterday turned out to be a momentous day in Nigeria. Nigerian students under the aegis of their umbrella body, the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) decided to stage a protest in Lagos in solidarity with the union of Nigerian university teachers, ASUU whose members have been on strike since February 14. NANS had blocked expressways – the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, last week and also threatened to shut down the country’s airports to make the ruling elite feel the pains of parents and students, and to compel the Federal Government to accede to the demands of the university teachers. On September 19, as the President arrived New York, and the VP attended the Queen’s funeral in London, aggrieved Nigerian students, defied early morning rainfall, and blocked access to Nigeria’s main international airport. Travellers could not access the airport for hours. NANS accuses the Federal Government of “crass irresponsibility”. The Chairman of the association’s National Taskforce on #EndASUUStrikeNow has threatened that its members would also shut down the Nigeria Ports Authority and the Third Mainland Bridge. The traffic gridlock on the way to the airport was kilometres-long. 

When the students shut down the Expressway the other week, many motorists and commuters groaned in pain. NANS has the support of the striking university teachers. Federal Government officials have however threatened that it is a criminal offence to disrupt movement and inflict pain on innocent civilians. The Nigeria Police Force has also threatened to deal with the students. On Sunday, the Lagos State Police Command reportedly said the students “were free to come out and see what awaits them”. The students ignored the threat. They came out as promised. We can only hope that the security agencies would not do anything stupid and further aggravate the delicate situation in the country. Incidentally, the Nigeria Police Force is under the direct command of the Nigerian President and he is away in New York. His Deputy is in London. 

For more than 200 days, aggrieved Nigerian students in public universities have been at home. Their anger is understandable. The agony of their parents too. It is not just a whole academic session that has been lost, the future of university education in Nigeria is endangered. Many university teachers have left the country to seek employment elsewhere. Many students have either started afresh in private universities and those who do not have the privilege of being sent to other schools by their parents have abandoned the dream of university education. We have read stories of university teachers who have taken up new careers as petty traders, personal assistants to politicians, or as roadside hawkers of bean cake. The Federal Government has taken ASUU to the National Industrial Court (judgement is expected in the matter tomorrow, Wednesday, September 21), but the university teachers are resilient. They have given minimum conditions: the revitalization of universities, the payment of earned allowances and arrears, review of salaries and payment systems, implementation of agreements and Memorandum of Action reached with ASUU, and outright rejection of the Federal Government’s “No Work No Pay Rule”. What is required is a complete paradigm shift, and a proper re-construction of the idea of the university.  Even if ASUU calls off its strike tomorrow, the Federal Government would only have further postponed the crisis, if we fail to address the core issues at stake, the interpretation of which is now a function more of emotions rather than actual knowledge. 

Yesterday, Nigerian students were able to get the support and approval not only of ASUU, but also of Omoyele Sowore, a former students union leader, now a Presidential candidate as well as a number of non-governmental organizations including the Social and Economic Rights Accountability Project (SERAP) and Enough is Enough (EiE). With the manner in which Nigerian Students are mobilizing, what began as an industrial dispute with university teachers could very easily snowball into a repeat of the youth protest of 2020, that is the #EndSARS protests. It is not in anyone’s interest to allow another degeneration of the social space, especially as Nigeria prepares for a major political transition, due to begin with campaigns by political parties on September 28.         

It is important that Nigeria’s leaders and other stakeholders pay attention. Someone must begin to engage the Nigerian students, and not just allow them to do their worst. The Buhari government may soon effectively become lame-duck, but that inevitability should not be compounded with a lackadaisical attitude.

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