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Strike: FG weakens ASUU, registers rival union

By Iyabo Lawal (Lagos), Collins Olayinka, Terhemba Daka, Msugh Ityokura and Sodiq Omolaoye (Abuja)
05 October 2022   |   4:39 am
After 234 days (33 weeks) of university shutdown owing to strike action, the Federal Government, yesterday, registered two new trade unions for workers in the university and teaching hospitals...

ASUU and FG on negotiation table

• Gbajabiamila presents ASUU’s recommendations to Buhari, another meeting tomorrow for final outcome
• NASU, SSANU members receive September salaries, FG silent on outstanding wages
• Govt may pay outstanding salaries of new unions
• CONUA: We are committed to advancement of varsity education
• I will not dignify CONUA with a response, says ASUU president
• Buhari: ASUU complicit in varsities’ corruption

After 234 days (33 weeks) of university shutdown owing to strike action, the Federal Government, yesterday, registered two new trade unions for workers in the university and teaching hospitals in a fresh bid to forcefully reopen tertiary institutions, weaken influence of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and break the ranks of lecturers.

The unions are the National Association of Medical and Dental Academics (NAMDA) and the Congress of Nigerian University Academics (CONUA).

The Minister of Labour and Productivity, Chris Ngige, who spoke while presenting the certificates of registration to the two unions, explained that the two bodies will exist alongside ASUU.

ASUU has been on strike since February 14, 2022, as lecturers of public universities protest unpaid allowances and demand better welfare package from the Federal Government.

Ngige, who approved the existence of the two unions in Abuja, said CONUA’s registration became necessary because they do not believe in the current strike by ASUU. He hinted that CONUA has been seeking registration since 2018.

Ngige noted that the Ministry of Labour and Employment set up a committee to look into the merit of CONUA’s application and has now approved the application having passed the basic minimum requirements.

Like their colleagues in CONUA, he said NAMDA had applied for registration as medical teachers in the university system under various groups, saying, “they include medical doctors doing pre-clinical teaching of basic medical courses and honorary consultants teaching clinical students in tertiary health institutions and teaching hospitals.”

When the Minister was reminded that the Trade Unions Act clearly states that another trade union cannot be registered by the Minister in a sector where a similar one is already existing, Ngige cited Section 32 of the Act that empowers such registration at the discretion of the Minister.

He hinted that more unions in the universities would be registered in due course, adding, “yes that is what the law says, but there is another proviso that the Minister can register new unions where the existing one no longer serves the purpose it was established.

“We registered pensioners in the contributory pension as a breakaway from the Nigerian Union of Pensioners (NUP) when it was becoming too big and there was restlessness everywhere among the pensioners. The NUP went to court, but the court said the Minister was right in registering another union. I can tell you that after these two new unions, others are coming and we will register them if they meet the requirements.”

The Minister also hinted that university teachers and workers who had been working would be paid after government goes through their claims.

This comes as some members of Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions (NASU) and Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) have started receiving their September salaries.

Some members who confided in The Guardian in Abuja, last night, said most of their members have indeed received their September salaries though they were unwilling to speak on the outstanding February to August salaries.

PRESIDENT Muhammadu Buhari, yesterday, received recommendations on how to end the protracted ASUU strike from the leadership of the House of Representatives, where they presented their report to the President as part of the lawmakers’ contributions to ending the industrial rift between the aggrieved varsity lecturers and the Federal Government.

Speaker of the House, Femi Gbajabiamila, who led the delegation to the Presidential Villa, Abuja, disclosed to State House correspondents that another meeting has been scheduled with the President for tomorrow (Thursday).

He explained that the House leadership was in the Villa after a series of engagement with ASUU and having submitted the recommendations to him, the President has accepted its details, it is left for him to think things over before taking a final decision.

Gbajabiamila stated: “As you know, what is on the front burner today, even beyond politics, is that our universities are shut, our lecturers and our children are out of school.

“The House of Representatives decided to step in at that point four weeks ago and we’ve had a series of meetings that lasted hours and we’ve been able to get both sides to shift ground to an extent and that’s what we came to discuss with Mr. President.

“The leadership came up with recommendations to the President for approval. The President had a good listening ear, he accepted the details of the report.

“We have another meeting on Thursday to take a final decision after he has digested the report. We are done with our meeting with ASUU. We are hopeful of a good engagement and quick resolution of the crisis. He accepted the report and we clarified a few grey areas.”

EARLIER, President Buhari had pointedly accused ASUU of complicity in the menace of corruption in the tertiary education sector in the country. He spoke yesterday in an address during the fourth national summit on diminishing corruption in the public sector, jointly organised by the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation and Joint Admission and Matriculations Board (JAMB), held at the Banquet Hall of the Presidential Villa, Abuja.

He said: “Incessant strikes, especially by unions in the tertiary education often imply that government is grossly underfunding education, but I must say that corruption in the education system from basic level to the tertiary level has been undermining our investment in the sector and those who go on prolonged strikes on flimsy reasons are no less complicit.”

The President also listed other activities by lecturers, including deployment of disguised terminologies to perpetrate corruption in the ivory towers, a development he said, impinges the fight against the menace in the education sector.

President Buhari, however, commended ICPC for its due diligence in investigating and prosecuting sexual harassment as abuse of power in the country’s educational institutions.

NEWLY registered CONUA has described the development as validation of power of the human will. The group said the journey to registration, which started four years ago, has been a tortuous one, but National President of ASUU, Prof Emmanuel Osodeke, dismissed the association, saying he will not dignify the group with a response.

In a statement by its National Coordinator, Dr. ‘Niyi Sunmonu, CONUA said its registration asserts the value of courage, initiative, focus, tenacity, patience, forbearance and persistent positive thinking. Sunmonu said the recognition is a sacred trust and pledged to reciprocate it by devoting themselves to the advancement of university education in the country.

“We are immensely grateful to the Minister and his team of diligent staff for insisting on merit, due process and thoroughness all through the processing of our application for the registration of CONUA.

“The very strict and dispassionate review of our application brought out the best in the membership of the union. We would make the details of our programmes available to the public in due course.

“We appreciate the entire membership of the union for believing in the righteousness of the CONUA cause, and for believing in the leadership of the union, thereby remaining steadfast, even when disconcerting and demoralising situations arose.”

Sunmonu assured that CONUA would work to ensure that the country is not traumatised by academic union dislocations in public universities.

CONUA, headquartered in Obafemi Awolowo Univeristy (OAU), was formed on the campus in 2018 following a leadership crisis within the university’s chapter of ASUU. The crisis erupted in 2016 during the selection process of a new Vice-Chancellor of the university.

The then leadership of ASUU on campus was accused of bias in its ‘blind support’ for a particular candidate among many of its members in the race.

Meanwhile, since 2018 when it was formed, CONUA said it now has branches across almost 17 universities across the country.

This latest move by the Minister may not be unconnected with the recent brickbats between him and ASUU President, Osodeke. The duo had engaged in hot arguments at a meeting last Thursday conveyed by Gbajabiamila.

The Minister had accused Osodeke of deliberately frustrating the government’s efforts at resolving the crisis and mobilising Nigerians against the government but the union leader said Ngige was peddling lies against the union.

Femi Falana, human rights advocate and counsel to ASUU has said the Federal Government was chasing shadows over its reaction to the recent judgment of the industrial court asking striking lectures to resume.

On September 21, the industrial court ordered ASUU to call off its ongoing strike. Subsequently, the union filed an appeal seeking a stay of execution of the judgment. Ngige had at the weekend warned ASUU against the consequences of contempt of court.

But reacting to Ngige’s comments, Falana, in a statement, said ASUU did not engage in contempt of court on the recent verdict of the national industrial court.

He said the application for the leave of the court of appeal against the injunction is the same as an appeal under the rules of the court, adding that ASUU cannot be accused of contempt of court because the union is seeking to appeal and stay the execution of the judgment.

“The Minister is unaware that the national industrial court lacks the jurisdictional competence to intervene in the resolution of a trade dispute that has not been determined by the industrial arbitration panel,” Falana said.

“Having exercised their constitutional right of appeal and prayed the court of appeal to stay the execution of the interlocutory order of the national industrial court pending the determination of the appeal, the members of ASUU cannot be said to have engaged in any form of contempt.

“However, instead of chasing the shadow by threatening ASUU with contempt of court and proscription, the government should adopt urgent measures to end the strike that has paralysed academic activities in public universities for the past seven months.

“In particular, the Federal Government should take advantage of the intervention of the leadership of the House of Representatives to resolve all outstanding issues and end the strike as soon as possible.”