Hundreds of demonstrators marched towards the seat of government in Lagos on Tuesday, singing anti-government chants on the first day of a planned three-day nationwide demonstration against the continued closure of Nigerian universities.
Workers’ unions across several sectors participated in the protest led by the National Labour Congress (NLC), saying the closure of the tertiary institutions affects the quality of life all-round.
“They are wasting the lives of generations and generations. That is why we are demanding government listen to them,” Chinedu Bosha, a 47-year-old protest organiser with the Socialist Democratic Movement, one of the several interest groups that joined the protest, told Al Jazeera in Lagos.
Local media reported protests going on simultaneously in many other states including Kano, Kebbi, Oyo and Osun.
Since February this year, public universities across the country have been closed down due to a dispute about wages with the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).
Strikes, usually over unpaid salaries and lack of funding for the development of public universities, have become a recurring feature in the Nigerian academic sector. This is the 16th strike since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999.
Nigerians have expressed displeasure towards the government about the protracted strike online and offline, alleging the government’s inability to prioritise talks with the lecturers.
Gbenga Olongbojaye, a 25-year-old agriculture student at the University of Ilorin, who joined the protest in the central state of Kwara, said he is in “severe pains” over the continuing strike. An undergraduate in his third year, he was hoping to be rounding up his university education by now, so he hoped the protest will send a message to the government.
“When people come out to protest, it will show that the administration is not really capable,’’ he told Al Jazeera. “We are exposing that [the] administration is not capable of solving national issues and they will want to respond.”
In Lagos, a government official met the protesters and promised to deliver their message to the governor, leading to shouts of disagreement from those gathered. Across several other states, government representatives made similar promises.
At the heart of the continuing strike is a 2009 agreement in which the government promised to provide more funds for universities and grant the universities more autonomy. Two successive governments have failed to fulfil those promises and now ASUU is determined to see an implementation this time.
The government has often claimed it is too broke to pay up the 220 billion naira ($529.8m) outlined in the 2009 agreement. This time, it is citing a downturn in the country’s economic fortunes and that the present government which came into power in 2015 is not responsible for the contentious deal.
However, the NLC claims this is not true and accuses the government is engaging in ostentatious spending.
“Let us pinch ourselves and know how it pains. The demands of ASUU and other tertiary workers are not out of place, they are asking for their legitimate rights,” Funmi Sessi, the NLC chairperson in Lagos told Al Jazeera.
“The office [of the government] is a continuous one. The government that inherits assets of the nation must also be ready to inherit the liabilities,” she added.
Last week, President Muhammadu Buhari instructed the ministries of labour and education to resolve the strike in two weeks but ASUU and NLC leaders dismissed the ultimatum as “lip service”.
In January 2012, the NLC led a nationwide strike to force the government to reconsider its position on the announced removal of petrol subsidies. That was the last major industrial action led by the union.
And now the NLC says a similar shutdown is likely if the government does not agree to ASUU’s demands soon.
“This is just a warning protest,” Sessi told Al Jazeera. “If the government fails to conclude the negotiation with all the workers in tertiary institutions soon, we will come out in full force.”