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Babalakin panel and the burden of ASUU, FG row

By Iyabo Lawal
25 May 2017   |   3:44 am
With ASUU having gone on strike for at least 36 months between 1999 and 2013, the Federal Government appears keen to end its endless crisis with the union...

Some ASUU members during a protest

With ASUU having gone on strike for at least 36 months between 1999 and 2013, the Federal Government appears keen to end its endless crisis with the union as it sets up a committee to renegotiate the 2009 agreements between the two entities, writes Head, Education Desk, Iyabo Lawal.
We no go ‘gree oh, we no ‘gree; our demands must be met or else we no go ‘gree,” a group of Nigerian university scholars chanted as they began a strike in 2013 that would later last for five months and 17 days.

“Soli-soli-soli-solidarity forever, we shall ever fight for our rights,” was their chorus.

Since 2009, the Nigerian government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities have been at daggers drawn. Agreements have been made and promises have been broken and university education has been left to hemorrhage.

But will the appointment of Dr. Wale Babalakin to head a 16-man committee, by President Muhammadu Buhari; to renegotiate the 2009 Federal Government agreement with staff unions in federal universities, polytechnics and colleges of education bring about the needed changes?

According to the Minister of Education, Malam Adamu Adamu, the President constituted the committee to engender sustainable peace and industrial harmony in tertiary institutions.

“The 16-member team is chaired by Dr. Wale Babalakin, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). Babalakin, who was adjudged the best pro-chancellor at the time of the negotiations in 2009, headed the agreement implementation committee then,” Adamu pointed out.

Other members of the team are Prof. M.M. Jibril, Pro-Chancellor, Federal University, Lafia; Prof. Nimi Briggs, Pro-Chancellor, Federal University, Lokoja.

Also in the team are: Senator Gbemisola Saraki, Pro-Chancellor, Federal University, Otuoke; Arc. Lawrence Ngbale, Pro-Chancellor, Federal University, Birnin Kebbi; Prince Alex Mbata, Pro-Chancellor, Imo State University, Owerri; Prof. Olufemi Bamiro, Pro-Chancellor, Tai Solarin University of Education, Ijagun. Representatives of the federal ministries of education; labour and employment; finance; justice; budget and national planning; the National Salaries, Incomes and Wages Commission (NSIWC) and the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (OSGF) are also in the committee.

The committee is expected to dialogue with ASUU; Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU); National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT) and Non-Academic Staff Union of Associated and Allied Institutions (NASU).

During the inauguration of the committee, its head, Babalakin, had said, “A conducive environment in the tertiary institution is the bedrock for the development of a nation’s intelligentsia. A nation’s development can be seriously enhanced by the active participation of the intelligence in the pursuit of the country’s developmental goals.”

Earlier during the inauguration, the education minister had said, “The administration does not consider‎ the unions enemies.”

However, the chequered relationship between ASUU and the Federal Government has not always proved that.

On July 1, 2013, ASUU embarked on a nationwide industrial strike over Federal Government’s refusal to implement some components of the 2009 agreement with the union, which include the academic earned allowance, funding and development of infrastructure.

Fourteen days into the strike action, a meeting between the Senate, the Federal Government and the leadership of ASUU on how to resolve the crisis ended in a deadlock. Previous meetings with the then education minister and the secretary to the government of the federation had yielded little or no result.

In order to demonstrate commitment to the implementation of the recommendations of the Needs Assessment Committee to Nigerian Universities – one of ASUU’s demands  – the Federal Government constituted the Implementation Committee with the then Governor of Benue State, Gabriel Suswam as the chairman.

On August 1, another meeting between ASUU and Federal Government’s representative, Suswan, ended with no resolution as the union insisted on the total implementation of the 2009 agreement.

Nineteen days after, another meeting was held on August 20 between the two warring sides; no truce was reached. Following that the Federal Government met with pro-chancellors and vice chancellors of federal universities. At that meeting, N30bn was announced as being released for earned academic allowances; N100bn for the provision of infrastructure on campuses of 61 universities covered in the needs assessment report.

That announcement did not placate ASUU, as the union accused the government of insincerity. In frustration, the Federal Government threatened its employees with the “no work-no pay’ policy.

As the crisis deepened and began to embarrass the government, the then Vice President, Namadi Sambo, took over the discussion with ASUU. Still the union was not ready to shift ground in a meeting with the vice president.

The crisis got to its climax when then President Goodluck Jonathan on November 5 had a 13-hour meeting with ASUU in conjunction with representatives of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC).

Some success appeared to have been achieved as ASUU on November 23 told the government before calling off the strike that it should pay the four-month salary arrears owed varsity lecturers, N200bn for infrastructure development should be deposited with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and that non-victimisation clause be included in a Memorandum of Understanding to be signed by both parties.

That demand did not go down well with federal universities’ pro-chancellors, calling for the immediate re-opening of the universities.

In cahoots with the pro-chancellors, the supervising Minister of Education at that time, Nyesom Wike, on November 28 gave a one-week ultimatum to ASUU to resume work or be given the sack.

On December 11, the Federal Government and ASUU eventually reached a compromise to end the months-long strike.

This was sealed by the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the implementation of all resolutions agreed on between Jonathan and the union.

The MoU was signed in the presence of five vice chancellors, Executive Secretary of National Universities Commission (NUC), Prof. Julius Okojie and the Executive Secretary of Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund), Professor Mahmood Yakubu ASUU and the Federal Government have been resolved to the satisfaction of the parties,” a seemingly pleased Wike had said.

According to him, the Federal Government and ASUU are partners in progress.

Resolution of crisis between the two entities sometimes is like one step forward and two steps backward.

Last November, the Senate had to intervene in the crisis between the Federal Government and ASUU.

“After the deliberation, we set up a sub-committee that will meet with the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Budget and Planning to resolve the issues,” Sen. Jibril Barau (APC-Kano) had said.

The senator, who is the chairman of the sub-committee, noted that the parties involved had found a way forward as there was determination to get the issues resolved.

At least, between 1999 and 2013, ASUU had gone on strike for 36 months – a grim reality that the Federal Government wants to turn into a forgettable past.

In line with UNESCO’s declaration, scholars have urged the Federal Government to progressively increase education budget annually to 26 per cent.

They also feel that the government should declare a state of emergency in the education sector, particularly in tertiary institutions to resolve all lingering issues.

“When financial crises broke out in 2007 and banks were in trouble, government brought out N3tr to bail out the banks. It was even so when the aviation industry was in distress – government gave it N500bn and the same government gave billions of naira to Nollywood,” Dr. Ojeifo Aidelunuoghene, had said.

Asked to speak on the issues and their grievances, ASUU President, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi who accused the government of insincerity said to end the industrial actions in Nigerian universities, government must be engaging and adopt an established framework that would address demands as they crop up.

On the new renegotiation move, Ogunyemi while welcoming government’s action maintained that priority attention must be given the sector.

He said, “The truth is that education sector particularly university is where government need to intervene urgently in order to reverse the recession. To get out of recession, you need to invest money in the university system. That can even help to transform the economy. In the 60s and 70s, Nigerian universities were so attractive and the quality of education then was so high that it attracts students from abroad to come and school in Nigeria and they brought foreign currencies. What we have today is a reserved of that trend.

Will Babalakin’s panel bring about a lasting solution to the crisis-ridden Nigerian universities? Will ASUU be patient with a man it respects? And will strike actions be a thing of the past? Only time will tell.