Towards lasting solutions to varsity strikes
“I have noted with great concern the incessant strikes by teachers and other university workers which most of the demands are germane but the repercussions have negative consequences.
Let me assure you that this administration will very soon come up with modalities of addressing your grievances without face-off so that we attain stability and balance in the system,” President Muhammadu Buhari disclosed at the 23rd, 24th and 25th combined convocation ceremonies of the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University (ATBU), Bauchi.
In other words, Buhari was promising that the federal government will come up with measures to stop strikes by university workers –both academic and non-academic staffs.
Alluding to strike actions as the reason ATBU had to hold three different convocations at the same time, the President lamented, “The university is unable to conduct convocations as and when due for sets of students.
This is not peculiar to your university (ATBU) but rather (it is) an underlying difficulty the (university) system has found itself over the years.”
The President is right as the history of downing tools in the country’s various universities is concerned.
In December 1992, when Prof Babatunde Fafunwa was Education Minister, the federal government approved a separate university salary table that favoured members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), when the Non-Academic Staff Unions (NASU) heard of the disparity in the salary, they went on a 42-day nationwide strike to demonstrate their disapproval of the salary review which favoured the academic staff over the non-teaching staff.
In 1999, they presented a memorandum to the federal government to press home their demand for improved terms and conditions of services that would correct the problem created by the National Minimum Wages of Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar (rtd) on Elongated University Salary Scale (EUSS) in favour of the civil service salary table.
The EUSS was re-styled as the Harmonised Tertiary Institutions Salary Structure (HATISS).
The first recorded national strike by university workers was in 1988 to agitate for fair wages and university autonomy.
By going on strike that year, the government of the day proscribed ASUU on August 7 of that year.
In 1990, it was unbanned. Two years later, on August 23, it was banned again.
By September 3, 1992, a truce was reached. But again, another two years later, in 1994, ASUU went on strike; it also did in 1996.
All those years were moments that the military dictatorships of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida and Gen. Sani Abacha reigned supreme.
It would appear that with the advent of democracy in 1999, strike actions by university workers would end.
Barely three years into the democratic administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, university’s employees were unsparing in its agitations for rights of its members going on strike in 2007 for 93 days.
The following year, it called for a two-week “warning strike” demanding for improved salary scheme and reinstatement of 49 lecturers that were kicked out of the University of Ilorin.
A year later, the workers went on another strike that lasted three months over disagreements they had reached with the federal government, which the latter was accused of not keeping.
By October 2009, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed by both parties and the strike was called off.
There was respite for about four years.
By July 1, 2013, the ivory tower workers embarked on yet another industrial action that was only stopped in December 16 of that year.
In 2016 and 2017, the narratives were the same as regards strike actions.
According to Buhari, no nation will progress if its educational system is poor.
It is little wonder that the president is determined to look into the operations of some agencies in the education sector with a view to finding solutions to the problems militating against their desired impact in the university system.
“Nations across the globe are in stiff competition. We cannot lay back and take the back seat as simply consumers of other nations’ products but must come with our own products for others to buy.
Nations are in stiff competition to outwit one another in the area of offering quality knowledge and positive research and we must provide leadership in Africa in this regard.
“Our agencies in charge of educational development must find a way of encouraging our youths to aspire learning in the country’s institutions but as well attract foreign students and researchers so that our global ranking of universities can soar,” Buhari had said at the convocation.
Observers of the tertiary education sector are, however, wondering how incessant strike actions by the union have not brought about lasting solutions to the issues it often raises.
Experts in the sector have also noted that despite the fact that past ministers of education – and the incumbent Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu – were at one time or the other university workers.
With the chequered history of incessant strike actions, some members of the public are wont to think that the university employees under whatever umbrella name have become an arm-twisting gang who only care about their own interests.
The primary responsibility to train youths to become professionals has been pushed to the background.
The university workers, over the years, have felt that successive Nigerian governments have become deaf and not open to agreements; and thus, the only language the government suggests it can understand is strike action, which does not take into cognisance the future of tomorrow’s leaders.
More than 36 months of industrial action in its kitty since 1999, the university workers have not relented.
Speaking about the incessant strikes, Moses Adeniji at the Olabisi Onabanjo University (OOU), Ogun State, noted that unionisn is one reaction of workers to employers’ actions. Workers of different interests and needs come together in a trade union to negotiate the price of labour.
Olalekan Adekunjo at the Ambrose Alli University (AAU), Ekpoma, Edo State, agrees that is the logic of trade unionism. He believes that trade unions, like NASU, SSANU, etc., are the main power resource of the work force, which can promote the resolution of problems faced by the workers in an organisation.
If the government continues to renege on its promises to university staffs, the end of strike actions in the ivory tower may not be in sight yet and can lead to further crippling of the education sector and the disillusionment of Nigerian youths who spend many years seeking admission and many more years in school because of one policy somersault after the other.
To end incessant strikes in universities, the causes must be considered and resolved. Prof. Mahdi Adamu, a former vice chancellor at the Usmanu Dan Fodio University in Sokoto, had once noted that the crisis of university education rose to a frightening level in 1987 when government’s grants to universities were reduced by 30 per cent from what it used to be –leaving the institutions with money that was barely enough to pay staff salaries. As a result of that, teaching and research facilities began to rot.
The university workers’ strikes are usually nightmarish. In 1994, there was a six-month strike.
In 1995, they went on strike for five months. In 1996, they downed tools for seven months.
In 1998, they shut down universities for five months; for five months in 1999 and two months in 2001.
They refused to work for three months in 2002 and six months in 2003. In 2005, they went on strike for just two weeks; one week in 2006 but three months in 2007.
Again, they went on strike for one week in 2008; four months in 2009; five months in 2010; and three months in 2011. In 2013, the strike embarked upon by the workers lasted for six months.
A scholar and researcher, Olawale Albert, noted that there are three critical stakeholders in the issue of strikes in Nigerian universities. The first is a government that stopped funding the universities properly since the late 1970s and entered into agreements with the university workers that it is not ready to implement them.
The second are the university workers, especially the academic staff that will not mind shutting down Nigerian universities for months on a regular basis pressing for demands that the government is usually reluctant to meet.
The third are the Nigerian public that usually responds to the strikes with panic not wanting their children stay longer than necessary in school.
Various experts have observed that the issue of workers going on strike has become entrenched in Nigeria. It is not limited to university workers and these strikes have far-reaching impacts on the country and its development.
For a lasting cure to a perennial malaise, the analysts in the education sector admit that the government “must invest more in mapping and tracking the dysfunction” of the universities with a view to addressing the “structural and contingent causes of destructive strikes”.
According to Prof. Olukotun, budgeting meagre amount of money for education while maintaining extravagant budgets for public office holders are not ways to evolve measures to put an end to strike in the universities.
Also, said Albert, the mechanisms and protocols of reconciliation and dialogue between employers and employees must be resuscitated and made functional.
There is the need too, for the government “to prune its spending frivolities and conspicuous consumption which give the impression that money is not the problem but how to spend it,” to deploy a statement made in the heyday of the oil boom.
“It is in the context of kinder, gentler governance tempo featuring the disciplined political elite that the enervating culture of strikes can be drastically reduced.
The way things are with Nigerian universities now suggest that the government alone can no longer carry the burden of financing university education.
Yet, the government has refused to allow the universities to charge school fees to meet some of its needs.
This makes it necessary for Nigerian universities to start working on how to contend with the challenging situations around them.
“It is necessary for these institutions to start working towards internal sustainability through rededication, pragmatism, innovativeness, and cutting-edge competence, most especially in terms of cost rationalization and resource optimization.
The revenue base of the institutions can be improved by investing in economic ventures and partnering the private sector. Some universities are already doing this.
The scholars working in the universities must also link up with industries and foreign agencies for grants that could help solve some of the problems,” Albert noted.