Nigeria's Teachers Deserve Better Treatment

By Victor E. Dike

Nigeria's teachers are again on national industrial action because of the refusal of some state governors to honor the agreement they reached on August 6, 2008 between the Teachers Union and the Governors Forum on the payment of the enhanced 27.5 per cent salary increase and allowances for teachers before the end of January 2009. Any person who has been following the series of teachers' strikes in Nigeria knows the devastating effects on education. Yet the leaders who are complaining about the nation's dwindling standards of education are unable to find solutions to the problems. Being a teacher in Nigeria today is increasingly becoming a curse because they are being treated with little or no respect. In fact, some people think that teachers are lesser human beings who don't deserve anything better than the shabby treatments they receive.

However, given the place of education on national development and the role teachers' play in nurturing the minds and hearts of the youths, don't the teachers deserve better treatment? During the Obasanjo administration, education was relegated to the background and some Nigerians had thought that Yar'Ardua, given the fact that he was a classroom teacher, would change their conditions of service for the better. They were deceived. The administration, through the Minister for education, has only succeeded in making high-sounding promises and bogus plans on how to improve the quality of education in the society. Having been pushed to the wall again there was no option left for them than to take to the streets. Don't the teachers deserve more than what they are asking for? Is there any wonder why the standards of education are dwindling in Nigeria?

Comparative study of nations provides a framework with which to measure the value system of a society and how it affects the working conditions and productivity of the people. Some societies have good value system and others don't. There are many problems facing Nigeria today but that which involves the non-payment (or delay in payment) of teachers salaries and other benefits are incomprehensible. Despite being abused (including non-payment of basic salaries) and working without teaching resources the teachers are expected to perform magic and improve the standards of education, nurture the youths and work for the development of Nigeria. Is there any greater social injustice than what the teachers are getting? The shabby treatment of teachers has subjected their children to the ills of poverty.

In organized and humane societies teachers are paid regularly like every other civil servant. For instance, in the United States, teachers do not beg for their salaries and retirement benefits because they have bills to pay and to meet other family obligations.

People fight against social injustice because political struggles are about social justice. Despite Nigeria's myriad social problems and its democracy expedition most of the political leaders are not concerned about social justice. They are mostly concerned about how much public money they could steal, and whom to kill to remain in power. Social justice could be interpreted in varied ways, including payment of workers salaries when due and the redistribution of national wealth. In organized societies everybody (not a few) gets some benefit during good economic times and shares the burden during economic downturn. Those on the lowest social ladder receive nothing during economic growth and bear greater of the burden during economic bad times. The leaders are now using the global economic and financial crisis as an excuse not to honor their agreement with teachers. But this does not hold water because they did not treat them any better when tones of money were flowing into the national coffers.

Social justice is, however, an "ideal condition" where the people of a society have "the same basic rights, security, opportunities, obligations and social benefits" and the laws are aimed at promoting and protecting these rights. As Al Camp (1999) notes, "social justice is a concept focusing on each citizen's equality of life and the equality of treatment of all citizens." However, as Plato noted in The Republic, an ideal state would operate on four virtues such as wisdom, courage, moderation and justice. But Nigeria does not operate on any of the virtues prescribed by Plato because the poor do not have economic opportunities and social benefits.

The plight of Nigeria's teachers is pitiful; many of them have died of hunger, diseases, and out of frustration. In fact, the system has turned many of them into beggars and destitute! Many of those who worked all their lives could not boast of a house of their own to retire into as they have joined the ranks of the working poor. Why should teachers, many of whom are university graduates, be forced to live the life of hopeless and helpless poor workers? This writer shaded tears recently when he was informed that one of his teacher friends refused to vacate the dilapidated teachers quarters he was assigned after retirement, because he has no house of his own in the village? Why can't the leaders appreciate the contributions of teachers to national development? Is Nigeria a cruel society? Why are the teachers begging for their salaries? Is it because the nation's skewed value system or its sharp social-class divisions, or the society's apparent disregard for education and human life? Denying the teachers equal access to the nation's resources is a violation of their human rights.

Any person who is employed, and who performs his or her duties satisfactorily, deserves to be paid on time. Delay in payment (and non-payment) of salaries makes life difficult for teachers (and other workers) in Nigeria. And many of them have been forced to engage in some form of "petty corruption" to make ends meet. Playing by the rules in Nigeria could be very frustrating indeed. Who will blame them for stealing very little when the leaders are known to have converted state funds into their private bank accounts?  

The government recently blew its usual political trumpet on its plans to improve the state of education in Nigeria. But how can they do that when the teachers are on strike? What prevent the administrators from paying the poor teachers? Is the government alleviating poverty or creating one? How would the youths be encouraged or motivated to become teachers when the present teachers are being treated shabbily? A society that does care about the welfare of the citizens should not expect the workers to be honest, dedicated, productive, patriotic and loyal. The Nigerian system encourages corruption and other social vices. Would any person blame the workers for stealing when they are not getting paid their basic salaries/wages? A bad system begets bad citizens and vice versa!

Nigerians will continue to leave in drove in search of greener pasture in the West (or other African nations) if nothing is done to improve the condition of things in the society. Despite the hard and harsh life confronting some Nigerians in the Diaspora (including the United States) many them are taking solace in the fact that the country will not abound them when they are sick or at old age, after contributing to the system.

The restructuring and stabilization process in the polity should begin with the government' fulfilling its obligations to the teachers by paying their basic salaries and benefits promptly and providing them with basic necessities of life. The cruel and unusual punishment of not paying them their basic salaries negatively affects the economy. The health of the nation is, in many ways, a function of the social, political and economic conditions of the citizens. Poverty, disease, and death are intricately intertwined with social conditions. When people are immersed in harsh social conditions they get sick, stay sick and die younger!

What should be done to fix the broken system? Firstly, the society must be restructured into a complete and functional nation. A society is like any mechanical system that has components; as in any other system the success of a society depends on the ability of the leaders (and followers) to integrate the components parts to form a complete and functional system. Nigeria is "dysfunctional" because its component parts are not well-integrated. And the leaders' failure to live up to their responsibilities has worsened the situation.

The education sub-sector should be managed by competent and honest professionals (technocrats from within or without) who are inspired by moral purpose to make a difference in the lives of the students and the teachers by properly taking care of the institutions and redistributing the wealth of the nation. To sustain Nigeria's democracy expedition there is need for social justice; the nation should be restructured into a truly democratic state where policies that impact positively on the lives of the citizens are fashioned and implemented. As part of the solutions, the nation's politics must be transformed into an issue-based politics.

Teachers unions (and other unions) across the land should be re-organized to properly fight for the welfare its members. Political struggle is about social justice, and for that, serious political mobilization is imperative. To achieve their purpose, teachers must organize into a powerful political force and become active participants in politics. For instance, in the United States the politicians running for elective offices would only ignore teachers unions at their peril because the politicians must explain to the teachers how their policies would impact education and their welfare. But in Nigeria anything goes in politics!

Human rights abuses, such as non-payment of basic salaries and wages, are serious problems in Nigeria and the citizens should begin to sue the violators for human rights violations. And labor and human rights lawyers should take up the challenge. The degree to which a political system protects the rights of the citizens is a good measure of a nation's value system and how well it is administered or governed.

And any government official entrusted with the responsibility of paying teachers salaries (and other workers) who abuse his or her official position should be prosecuted and sanctioned, if found guilty. Are Nigerians not tired of having "rogues" to watch over their treasury? Nigeria needs honest professionals with democratic beliefs to manage the affairs of the nation, and not the unscrupulous politicians that kill others to remain perpetually in power. This writer believes that Nigeria is rich enough to pay the teachers (and workers) promptly, if the system is properly regulated. Happy and healthy workers would translate into a highly productive society! The system should be changed from the top-down to reduce the extreme economic and political inequalities in the society.

Finally, the media should take positive step in educating the people of their basic human rights. Nigeria should build a system that appreciates the contributions of the nation's teachers in the development of the society. Forcing them into perpetual industrial actions to press for better conditions of service is cruel. Nigeria's teachers deserve better treatment. Everyone should speak up because we are all affected directly or indirectly by the problems facing the teachers. 

Victor E. Dike, CEO, Center for Social Justice and Human Development, Sacramento, California, is the author of Leadership without a Moral Purpose: a Critical Analysis of Nigeria and the Obasanjo Administration, 2003-2007 (forthcoming).