Nigeria university strike caused ‘crisis’ for small businesses

Forums Bowen University, Iwo Nigeria university strike caused ‘crisis’ for small businesses

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      Ibda Solomon

      Ilorin, Nigeria – Last March, tricycle taxi driver Murtadoh Alfa, 33, never imagined that the declaration of a two-week academic strike at the University of Ilorin would cripple his business and leave him in debt.

      But as the initial warning strike called for by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) – the umbrella body for Nigerian lecturers working in government-owned universities – persisted, eventually stretching until December, small business owners like him who depend on students for patronage faced an unprecedented challenge.

      The sprawling 5,000-hectare campus in the capital city of Kwara State in western Nigeria, hosts more than 50,000 students and nearly 4,500 staff. It is normally a hive of activity, but by late March 2020 – with lecturers refusing to return to class coupled with the government’s national lockdown measures for COVID-19 – there was an exodus of students.

      The shuttle park where Alfa spent most workdays was no longer noisy and congested, but populated only with birdsong.

      Tanke – a normally bustling student neighbourhood near the university – became a ghost of its former self. The hum of traffic vanished; marketplaces emptied of everyone but frustrated sellers and their stocks; and restaurants and other student social hubs adopted an alien silence. Shops began to close in droves.
      Alfa’s job, rushing between the 15 faculties and administration buildings to transport students and staff from one end of the campus to the other in his privately owned tricycle taxi, came to a standstill. “When the strike happened I did not really make money,” he tells Al Jazeera. “My income reduced because there was no sale. So I had to take my meagre earnings to my family like that.”

      His taxi business used to earn him up to 3,000 naira ($7.88) on an average weekday. But when the university emptied, he struggled to make even 500 naira ($1.31) a day. “However small, we managed it,” he says, but adds: “My family felt the brunt. They knew that something unusual was going on.”

      When Alfa occasionally did find fares, his taxi gave him trouble. “Sometimes there would be customers at the park but my tricycle would refuse to work because I do not use it frequently, then I would struggle to get it fixed.”

      Normally, he would buy his family’s regular ration of food – rice, yam flour and beans – at the start of each month. But that became impossible, and he could only afford to buy food in small, inconsistent rations. Sometimes his family had to skip meals; other times, they got by on pap or garri (cassava flakes), or whatever they could find.

      Alfa is thousands of naira in debt – from costs he accrued throughout the 10-month strike. He was forced to take loans from family and friends when he could no longer provide for his three children and wife, who is chronically sick with an illness he does not want to talk about. To help ease the pressure, he has since sent his children to stay with his wife’s family in Lagos, some 300km away.
      “As I speak to you presently, the situation has not improved a lot. Paying the bills is still difficult and I still owe the debts of my children’s school fees and my wife’s treatment fees,” he says.

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