Counting the cost of ASUU strike
No doubt, the decision by Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) to suspend their eight-month long strike has provided a big relief to all Nigerians who are largely stakeholders in the matter. Students and their parents are real victims; but the teachers have gone through a horrifying period, having been deprived of their basic means of livelihood. Therefore, ASUU’s decision to sheath its sword in compliance with the orders of the Court of Appeal is laudable. However, this development has brought little cheer, merely reconfiguring the industrial battle to a silent cold war between the disputants, as the issues in controversy remain unresolved.
ASUU had on February 14, 2022, embarked on a warning strike, which later became indefinite, to press home its demands on the Federal Government to provide funds for the revitalisation of public universities to the tune of N1.1 trillion, payment of earned academic allowances, adoption of the University Transparency Accountability Solution (UTAS) instead of the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS), payment of promotion arrears and the renegotiation of the 2009 ASUU-FGN Agreement. After intensive bargaining, the Federal Government constituted a committee headed by Professor Nimi Briggs, and ASUU came to a compromise leading to the submission of the revised draft agreement to the Federal Government in June 2022. Surprisingly, the Federal Government refused to execute the renegotiated agreement, claiming that it lacked funds.
Rather than toeing the path of honour, government resorted to mind games and arm-twisting to frustrate ASUU’s strike. It enforced the ‘No Work No Pay’ policy; threatened to proscribe ASUU, and later alleged that all the demands have been met except the withheld salaries. Realising the futility of these gimmicks, it then sued ASUU at the National Industrial Court of Nigeria, registered fresh academic unions; to wit: Congress of Nigerian University Academics (CONUA) and Nigerian Association of Medical and Dental Academics (NAMDA); and finally accused ASUU of corruption. The timing of registering the new unions strongly suggests bad faith on the part of the Federal Government. Similarly, it amounts to egoistic show of executive powers to weaken ASUU, more so that there is nothing to suggest that the latest unions will not meet with the same negative treatment as their contemporaries anytime they lock horns with the government.
The turns and twists of events are a clear demonstration of the poor conflict resolution skill set of the current administration. In any working system, whenever there is a misunderstanding between two discerning parties concerning specific issues, it is expected that they first seek to resolve the dispute amicably in utmost good faith. In the instant case, the government has repeatedly proven to lack commitment. It should accept responsibility for the various stalemates encountered during negotiations, as they were caused by government’s vehement disinclination to abide by the terms of agreement it had signed.
The university teachers’ action was chiefly aimed at getting the government to implement the negotiated and renegotiated 2009 Agreement, which successive governments, including the current one, have failed to honour. ASUU resorted to strike when government repeatedly failed to listen to their cries. Nevertheless, given the attitudinal behaviour of the extant and successive administrations; and the grave setback to the learning institutions, students and parents, it is apparent that strike is gradually losing its place as an effective dispute-resolution tool in labour matters in Nigeria.
In the words of Mazi Ifeanyi Nnadi, Esq: “A good wrestler should know when a fresh tactic is needed against an opponent. Over the years, ASUU has adopted a single labour union strategy to press home its demands against the Federal Government. This single strategy has no doubt weakened our public (tertiary) institutions, caused frustration and untold hardship to university students, impoverished lecturers of these public institutions, increased the rate of criminal constituents and in some cases caused avoidable deaths for young promising students.” Put differently, strike is an ill that blows nobody any good. It is indubitable that whenever the activities of the higher institutions are halted, the ripple effects are always disastrous. The country loses some of her best intellectuals to more educationally advanced climes with the attendant consequence of churning out poorly trained students as graduates thereby leaving the country at the mercy of quacks. While Nigeria keeps holding herself out as the giant of Africa, South Africa is consistently topping the African University Ranking. What an irony!
Clearly, strike actions have done more harm than good. This explains why the jurisprudential odyssey embarked upon by the courts to rescue the public educational sector from total collapse has received notable commendations. Granting the interlocutory application of the Federal Government, the NICN ordered ASUU to resume work pending the hearing and determination of the substantive suit. Aggrieved by this decision, ASUU approached the Court of Appeal (which incidentally is the final arbiter in labour/industrial matters) seeking leave to appeal the ruling of the lower court. The appellate court granted the prayer subject to ASUU’s “immediate compliance and obedience of the subsisting and valid order of the NICN.” According to Sir Biobele A. Georgewill JCA, “… amidst the resultant clash of arms, as between the Federal Government on the one side and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) on the other side, and regrettably the majority of students in the universities in this country are left on their own and in the lurch and without neither any say nor hope and any end in sight to their untold sufferings being out of school for eight months now and still counting, it is said, and quite aptly too, that the Court will not and will never be silent.”
Notwithstanding, it is not yet ‘Uhuru’ for the educational sector as the real issues linger. There are no concrete plans to satisfactorily address ASUU’s concerns, the issues of poor teaching facilities, and ill-equipped laboratories, among others. The general state of our public institutions remains worrisome. The devaluation placed on education by the current ruling class may not be unconnected with the semi-literacy status and half-baked education of a considerable number of them and the fact that their children school abroad. While it remains the prerogative of parents to send their children to their preferred institutions of learning, most parents lack the means to send their children overseas for education; in any event, local institutions deserve much better attention and should not be left to rot. Besides, government has a fundamental duty, enshrined in the 1999 Constitution, to give quality education to all Nigerians. The abdication of that duty, as exemplified in the lackadaisical treatment of the ASUU grievances, is not acceptable.
The assertion that strike has lost its appeal may be correct. Government at all levels seems to be immune to strike actions. In 2021, the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) was constrained to resume work (without achieving its intended goal) when it was completely shunned by state governments. It remains imperative for government to conduct itself responsibly in handling labour matters. In particular, government must sheath its devious manner, and learn to honour agreements as well as court orders, even when these are unpalatable. This is what ASUU has done to bring the strike impasse to an end. On their part, ASUU and other unions must necessarily device other potent means of driving their affairs and disputes with government. The country can do without the massive collateral damages occasioned by ASUU’s eight-month strike.