Asuu Strike: Enough Is Enough


All excitements about the early possible resolution of the seemingly interminable impasse between the Federal Government and the Academic Staff Union of the Universities (ASUU) over the ongoing strike may have been aborted again.

Yes, aborted in vitro. This is because neither the government negotiating team nor the aggrieved union is ready to shift ground on the hardline position of the authorities on the ‘no work, no pay’ policy. If the government’s threat is carried out, and it appears there is a determined effort to wield the big stick, it means that the striking lecturers will have to forgo their six-month salary arrears in lieu of the period they have expended on the protracted face-off.

But then, there may be no guarantee that the universities will reopen anytime soon. That, for now, is the battle line.

Some couple of weeks ago when the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu, signified to take charge of the continued talks with ASUU and promised to break the logjam within the shortest possible time, not only parents and students were excited, but also other stakeholders in the educational sector for an anticipated end of the protracted crisis that had crippled learning activities at the nation’s Ivory Tower. They had waited in vain for a positive result of the negotiation earlier initiated by the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige, but it kept dragging until Adamu announced his decision to intervene. Even though matters relating to education are directly under his purview, he received some applause from concerned parents and students for the reassurance of early resolution of the lingering industrial dispute.

However, the excitement is short-lived as negotiation is now stalled by issues bordering on the six months salary arrears of the striking lecturers. According to Adamu, the Federal Government had already acceded to all conditions listed by ASUU before its leadership pulled another string, demanding for the payment of the backlog of salaries. This, he said, the Federal Government had turned down insisting on a “no work, no pay policy.” ASUU has also remained adamant about sustaining the strike until the arrears of salaries are paid.

This is even as the Minister of State for Education, Goodluck Nanah Opiah, has disclosed that the government has set aside N50 billion to meet up with their earned allowances. The President of the union, Prof Emmanuel Osodeke, maintained that the backlog of arrears must be paid or else “the two sets of admissions that JAMB has given that are waiting should become irrelevant.”

He argued that there was no justification for the application of the no work no pay policy since, according to him, ASUU would make up for the missing period whenever the strike was called off.

“But for ASUU, when we go back today, we are going to start from the 2020/2021 session. For these two sets of students that have been admitted by JAMB, we have to teach them over these periods to ensure that we meet up with the system. So, we are going to do the backlog of the work we have left behind,” he said.

With this seemingly unbending obstinacy on the part of the two negotiating parties, it thus appears that the battle is just beginning. The outcome of the NEC meeting of the union scheduled to hold, today, will determine who blinks first.

Since February 14, 2022, public institutions in the country, with the exception of a few state universities, have been shut by ASUU to press home its demands for the renegotiation of the ASUU/FGN 2009 agreement, deployment of UTAS to replace IPPIS, the release of the reports of Visitation Panels to Federal Universities, adequate funding and revitalisation of public universities, earned academic allowances, poor funding of state universities and promotion arrears, among others.

ASUU is not alone in the protracted crises that have crippled learning activities at the nation’s Ivory Tower. However, while the strike by the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) and the Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and other Associated   Institutions (NASU) has been called off to allow room for further negotiations, the leadership of ASUU has remained adamant about its demands.

Harvest of losses

With the continued imbroglio, there is now a seething cauldron of anger among concerned parents, students as well as other stakeholders who see the perennial strikes by ASUU as a great disservice to the nation and educational sector, in particular, resulting in avoidable losses of academic years, brain drain and consequential falling quality of graduates being churned out. Under the present administration of President Muhammadu Buhari alone, ASUU has gone on strike for not less than a cumulative period of 15 months approximating two academic sessions and still counting.

Deputy National President, National Parent Teacher Association of Nigeria (NAPTAN), Chief Adeolu Ogunbanjo, fuming with a rage of anger said that ASUU was grandstanding on a matter that it lacked control over.

“The Federal Government has tried to bring them to the table to talk, but ASUU has been unnecessarily toeing the hardline stand and it is unfortunate. In this case, ASUU is looking at UTAS while the government is saying it can only pay through IPPIS. I am yet to see an employee dictating to his employer how he wants to be paid. Now, they want arrears. Which arrears? With what package are they going to work it out? Is it UTAS or IPPIS? There are more questions than answers,” he posited.

Recounting some avoidable losses that have been recorded since the commencement of the ongoing strike, he added: “ASUU should understand that a lot of things are involved in this crisis. Many of our children, especially the girls among them, who are in the universities, have turned to glorified prostitutes because of this strike. Some of the boys have also become yahoo fraudsters and things like that because an idle hand is the devil’s workshop. It is affecting everybody. ASUU should stop grandstanding and consider whatever their employer says.

“The Federal Government is saying there is no money to implement the 2009 agreement, let us renegotiate. During the negotiation, they brought in UTAS. I don’t know why ASUU is dictating which package they want their salaries to be paid. Are they different from other civil servants in the federation who have embraced IPPIS?

“SSANU and NASU are back at work. Does ASUU want to frustrate the education system? They want Boko Haram to win because Boko Haram doesn’t want education in Nigeria.”

A renowned legal practitioner, and Pro-Chancellor of the Osun State University, Yusuf Ali (SAN), also speaking in a telephone interview with  Sunday Sun, berated ASUU for insisting on the payment of arrears of salaries its members did not work for, describing it as an aberration to the Nigerian constitution.

His words: “I am one of the advocates of no work no pay in this country by virtue of my position as Pro-Chancellor of the Osun State University. There is no other place in the world except this poor country of ours where anybody goes on strike and gets paid. If you go on strike in the UK or US for two hours, they will deduct the two hours from your salary. It is basic. Two, except here in Nigeria where you must belong to a union, in every other place, if there is going to be a strike, they will ask you whether you want to work or you want to go on strike. It is optional. Three, when union members go on strike outside this country, it is the union that will pay them stipends from the union funds which would have been invested.

“If rich countries cannot practice ‘no work and you get paid’, how much less a poor country like Nigeria? I will be surprised to see anybody who is serious to support that people must be paid for the period they didn’t work. If lecturers in private universities decide to go on strike, will they be paid? Will there be any hue and cry about it? If you can’t do it in private institutions, why must you do it in public universities using the hard-earned taxes of some other people?

“Anybody who talks about not going to work without payment should be blacklisted. Section 43 expressly states it without exception, ‘once you go on strike, you don’t get paid.’ Strike is a right. It is your right to go on strike but there is no attachment to it that you must be paid if you don’t work.

“There are so many people within the union who are very well lettered. There are so many eggheads and professors who know the rule. But in Nigeria, we all like this rule of convenience. If a rule favours us, we support it. If it doesn’t even if the law is going to be broken, so be it.

“The solution to all this is that you should not be paid for the period you did not work. There are instances when people didn’t work in this country and they got paid. I am not saying the government is doing well for the institutions in this country, but a head cut is not an answer for a headache. Some of our children in the universities have lost their lives in the process of this strike.

“What do you do to those children whose lives have been bartered because of this strike? One minute lost in anybody’s life is gone forever. Forget about what anybody says, these children have lost a session, which means they have lost a year of their lives. Who pays for that? Those in the law course who attend private universities will become senior to their colleagues in the public universities not because they failed, but because of strikes. “When you elongate the number of years more than what they bargained for, money that is supposed to be used to train two persons will be used in training one. So, it is a vicious circle.

Similarly, another constitutional lawyer, who is also the Pro-Chancellor of Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba, Dr Tunji Abayomi, corroborating the same view said: “ASUU should see the ‘no work, no pay” stand of the Federal Government as a sacrifice it has to make for the benefit it has got and in the interest of the students because the government is not going to change its mind and no government does that. The question then is: Are the students going to remain at home perpetually? Or are the university teachers going to remain at home perpetually? No.

“What it means is that the longer ASUU stretches the withdrawal of service, the more its members remain unpaid. Where then is the logic? ASUU cannot force the Federal Government to change its mind. If ASUU understands how government works, they will know that they are not likely to change the mind of the Federal Government. So, it should consider the gains it has made, be satisfied with it, and see the loss of salary as a sacrifice for that gain.”

In the alternative, Abayomi urged the union leaders to approach the industrial court for possible redress.

“If ASUU is of the view that the position of the Federal Government is not in conformity with the law, then it should go to industrial court and initiate an action there or go back to work. People are not happy about the whole thing because so many things have been affected. You can imagine the effects of it on the food sellers on the campuses, transport operators, business centres and so on. In fact, the university economy has been completely rendered comatose. I think ASUU should go back to work. That is just what it should do,” he stated.

Hide and seek

Meanwhile, there have been accusations and counter accusations of insincerity between the government negotiating team and the aggrieved university lecturers. While the Minister of Education maintained that the government had acceded to all demands made by ASUU except the request for the payment of six months’ arrears of salaries of its members, which he said had been turned down, Prof Osodeke denied having any meeting with Adamu since he took over the negotiation.

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Adamu had said while explaining the reason for the current stalemate that “all the six offers made by government have been accepted except two other conditions which I told them would not be acceptable to the government. But I had to report back and it was turned down. They want the government to pay the salaries for the months they have not worked and I told them the Federal Government will not accept it. If you have the chance to measure the effect of the strike, you will find out that the economy is also affected. Parents are also victims. Some parents depend on their children to pass out of school to take care of them. It is a loss for the nation not for the students alone. They (students) should take the union to court to pay them; probably the court will award damages to them.”

Responding to the claim on AIT interview programme, Wednesday, Osodeke accused Adamu of inciting the public against the union, using the media to blackmail the lecturers.

He said: “Knowing the pedigree of that minister, I was surprised about what he was saying. Is no work, no pay part of the issues we are talking about? Did ASUU go on strike because of no work no pay? We went on strike on a number of issues and none of them has been resolved. He is threatening ASUU with no work no pay. Do you resolve issues in academic by threat?

“Let the Minister provide one evidence to show that they have offered us anything on the seven issues we went on strike for. Let him show the Nigerian people a signed agreement or evidence of any amount of money they have released. You don’t solve problem by going to the media to tell lies. Let me tell you, we have not formally met with the Minister of Education since this strike started in February. If we have met formally, let him provide the evidence. They tell lies just to turn the people against ASUU. You don’t use blackmail to solve a problem.

“Nimi Brig Committee is to discuss one of the seven items on which we went on strike. That item is re-negotiation of the 2009 agreement. We have met, negotiated and reached an agreement which the government also refused to implement. On six other issues we have not met with any group of government appointees to discuss any of those issues. If he knows we have met, he should provide the evidence.

“If the issues have not been resolved, on what basis are we calling off the strike?  They refused to talk in the first four weeks. Now, they are talking to the media; they are not talking to us. That is why we are where we are.”

Part of the recommendations contained in Nimi Briggs Committee Report is 109 to 185 per cent increase in the university wage structure, but the Federal Government considered N560 billion it would add to salaries has a huge burden and, therefore, did a slight review, promising N60, 000 and N30, 000 increments for professors and other cadres respectively. However, Osodeke dismissed this as “award” unbefitting of the status of academics.

“In collective bargaining, you don’t give award. There has to be basis for increase in salaries of academics, you don’t award. And that is what we have told them. You gave us your own view of what you want to pay, we haven’t finished signing, you went back to say no, we are throwing that away, we are giving you award. We are very particular about the process, we don’t want award. During the era of General Abdulsalami (rtd), he gave us award and we rejected it. We want to negotiate our salaries, we don’t want award,” he declared.

Revitalization of the university system 

In retrospect, ASUU had always maintained that its industrial actions were primarily motivated by the desire to achieve revitalization of the university system. But over time, the popularity of this sentiment has waned quite considerably. The argument does no longer appeal to most Nigerians because, on the balance sheet, the cost of shutting down institutions far outweighs the gains, if at all there is any.

In view of this, there is already a loud whisper among the stakeholders that some cabals might be working in concert with the government to stifle the public universities to promote private-owned institutions. But Osodeke swiftly debunked the insinuation, saying: “That we still have 95 per cent of our students in public university is because of ASUU struggles. Without ASUU, in the next five or six years, our public universities will be like public primary and secondary schools. But we will not allow that because the children of ordinary Nigerians will be forced out of school. Only the children of the ministers will have access to university education.”

But Oguntade refused to be cajoled by the rhetoric, arguing that ASUU is only using the issue of revitalization of the university system as a decoy to attract public sympathy.

“ASUU will always rob in some these funny inadequacies to whatever salaries or packages they are fighting for. Most of the time, they will fight for the system and their salaries. Even if government releases the money they are asking for, it is not going to be sustainable because there are other competing demands.

“Instead of being adamant, they should be able to reach an agreement for the money to be released in tranches over a period of three to four years. They shouldn’t insist on UTAS. Where on earth does employee dictate to the employer? Some of them are lecturing in private universities and that is why they are not bothered. Some of them also have their children abroad,” he said.

Abayomi equally responded to the argument in a cynical tune, saying: “I understand that their salary has been increased. Maybe to that extent, some gains are made by ASUU. But has the nation itself gained? I don’t think so. The nation hasn’t gained anything. It is an illusion to think that any government can adequately fund the university system. It is not going to happen because university funding consumes a whole lot of money. How you will know is what private universities charge in Nigeria. For single courses, they charge as much as N2 million. If you go abroad, in Britain, you are talking of almost £24,000 in a year. In America, you are talking of about $30,000 per session. So, education is clearly very expensive. And education is not excluded from economy stress in Nigeria. So, I don’t know how ASUU is going to go about the problem. It should know that Federal Government is not going to change its mind.”

Ali, in his own perspective, noted that passion rather than money was what sustained the university system in the days of old. “You say you want to protect the university system, but the place is being destroyed. We are all lamenting the poor standard of education. Those who taught us and taught many of them also didn’t have everything. It was their commitment that sustained the system. In those days, if two students failed in a class of 20, the lecturer would feel bad. People send these children to school because they don’t know. So, if you are unable to impact knowledge in them, you are the failure,” he said.

Students’ dilemma

As they say, “where two elephants fight, the grass suffers.” With the way things stand now, the fate of the students offered 2021/22 admissions is currently hanging in the balance as ASUU has already issued a threat to cancel the current academic session should the government fail to accede to its demand for the payment of the six months’ salary arrears of its members.

A 400-level Engineering student of the University of Ilorin, Salihu Olalekan, speaking with Sunday Sun, expressed his frustrations over the prolonged strike, lamenting that he was on the verge of losing another session in addition to the one he had lost to the COVID-19 strike.

“I don’t want to think about this strike again. As an Engineering student, I have already spent six years in school and still in 400-level. We lost one session to the COVID-19 strike. Now, we are on the verge of losing another session. When am I going to graduate? The future of the youth in this country is full of uncertainty. After all said and done, when you graduate, employers will discriminate against you doing elimination by age. It’s quite frustrating,” he lamented.

Another 100-level Pharmacy student of the University of Lagos, Farda Abdulrasaq, also expressing her dismay over the lingering imbroglio, blamed the two warring parties for their insensitivity to the plights of the students.

“It was a dream come true when I got the offer of admission into the University of Lagos to read Pharmacy. But hardly had I completed my registration for the 2021/22 academic session when ASUU declared the strike. Now, our fate for this session is hanging in the balance. Yet, JAMB is busy making money from sales of forms even when it is obvious that the 2021/22 session has already been truncated by ASUU. You can see the dilemma of the Nigerian students,” she said.

The JAMB spokesperson, Dr Fabian Benjamin, however, reacted quickly, saying that the statement was too generalized.

Speaking with Sunday Sun, he said: “You cannot generalise because there are schools that are ongoing. The strike affects less than 30 per cent of the institutions. We have over 200 universities in Nigeria. Out of this 200, the public universities constitute just about 40-something. When you put the state universities which are just 30 per cent, you now have about 70-something.

“And out of these state universities, some are not on strike. Lagos State University is not on strike, Osun State University is not on strike and Rivers State University is not on strike and so on. Even for the federal, there are some of them that are not on strike. Again, if you look at what ASUU is saying about cancellation of the current academic session, it is a conditional statement. They are saying that if they are not paid, they may cancel the academic session. I am not speaking for ASUU, but that is what I understand from what they are saying.”

The reality is that the lingering crisis has some serious consequences for those whose schools are still on strike. This is particularly more so for the final year Law and Medical students.

What it means is that the final year Law students will not be able to attend Law School, and will, therefore, miss their scheduled Call to the Bar. The question is: Who pays for the lost period? The Minister of Education, in his response to the poser, urged the students to take ASUU to court to seek compensation, a statement Osodeke quickly dismissed as comical.

Proscription rumour

Going by speculations milling around, two options are now on the table for consideration. One is to register a splitter union, Congress of University Academics (CONUA) to break the ranks of ASUU. The second is outright proscription.

Ali, however, disagreed, saying that “they don’t need to proscribe any union. Proscription is not necessary because we are in a democratic era. Even if we are not in democratic era, I can never support proscribing unions. They have their employers. The employers have the right to say if you don’t come to work, you deemed to have gone.”

But a member of ASUU, who did not want his name in print because he was not authorized to speak, said, “the Federal Government is fighting a war it cannot win.”

He said: “If you look at history, you will see that no government had done it and succeeded, including the military. If General Ibrahim Babangida (rtd) tried it and failed, Abacha did it and failed; Goodluck Jonathan tried and failed, what makes them think that they will be able to break ASUU? ASUU is so organised that it is not so easy to break like that.

“Without ASUU, Nigeria university system would have collapsed completely. The only institution that is holding Nigeria university system is ASUU. With the way our government is behaving with the kind of irresponsible leaders we have, it will get to a point they won’t care about the university system again. It is only ASUU that is making them to do one or two things for the universities. If we allow them to kill ASUU, we will be shooting ourselves in the foot. As much as possible, we must ensure that ASUU is protected.”

The way forward  

Nigeria is the only country where government spends so much on human capital development, but does so little to keep the brains to develop the country.  By comparison, Nigerian academics are said to be the poorest paid in Africa. It is obvious that such a system can never retain the best.

Moving forward, Oguntade suggested enactment of law that would bar elected public office holders from sending their children to schools abroad.

He succinctly put the remedy thus: “The only way to forestall the incessant strikes in our public universities is for the country to make it an offence for public office holders to send their children to schools abroad.

“Why government is nonchalant about education is because their children are not in public schools. We must begin public campaign against elected public holders, from councillor to the president, who send their children to schools abroad. That sensitization must start now; otherwise, they will continue to mess up our education system. Thank God, there is election in 2023, we as parents will drive the campaign. Until that happens, education will remain what it is.”

Ali equally weighed in, stressing the need to decentralise union activities in the country.

“That is why we have suggested at the level of pro-chancellors of state universities of which I am the chairman that the ideal thing is for unions to negotiate with their councils because in the letters of employment it is the council that employs anybody that works in a university. This military way of doing things is not going to work. We have passed the military era,” he posited.

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