THOUGH activities have resumed at public universities across the country after eight months of a crushing lecturers’ strike, an uneasy calm pervades the campuses. Dons, under the canopy of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, are seething following the government’s payment of only part of their salaries for October on the principle of “no work no pay.” With several ASUU chapters threatening to act strongly and the government sticking to its guns, the fear of a resumption of the strike is real. For the sake of the two million students in the institutions, their parents and guardians, this should not be allowed to happen.
There is also the urgent need to save the public university system, restore the quality of teaching and research and improve the global rating of Nigerian universities. This requires moderation on all sides.
ASUU went on another strike in February this year to pressure the Federal Government to implement a long-standing agreement on the revitalisation of universities and better pay for dons. First inked in 2009, the pact has been renegotiated several times by successive federal administrations after debilitating strikes.
The crisis revolves around the government’s failure to release about N1.2 trillion to refurbish the universities, pay lecturers Earned Academic Allowances and raise pay their pay and allowances. An additional demand is the replacement of the government’s Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System used to pay public sector workers with the one developed by the academics that they say is more suited for the peculiarities of the academic community.
Not only has the regime failed to honour the FGN/ASUU 2020 renegotiated Memorandum of Action agreement, it has also not released the funds promised for equipping the universities and the backlog of lecturers’ allowances. Moreover, the Labour and Employment Minister, Chris Ngige, and the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, adopt a combative, hard line stance that infuriates the dons, students, parents and guardians. The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), as usual, gives ineffectual directives, makes half-hearted interventions and refuses to take charge.
ASUU finally bowed to pressure to call off the strike only after the Court of Appeal ordered its members to resume work, and following the intervention of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila.
ASUU now accuses the government of acting in bad faith by failing to implement outstanding pledges, and by the “insulting” pro rata payment of lecturers. ASUU says this is treating scholars like casual workers and is “unprecedented in the history of university-oriented labour relations.” It has however given an assurance that it would not resume the strike over the salary cut but would explore peaceful consultations.
But the Ministry of Education insists that it has met “almost 80 per cent” of ASUU’s demands, a claim faulted by both ASUU and independent fact-checkers. A ministry statement said it had for instance empanelled a committee to harmonise IPPIS, the ASUU-developed University Accountability and Transparency Solution, and University Peculiar Personnel and Payroll System. Also, Adamu had claimed recently that “all contentious issues had been settled except the quest for members’ salaries for the period of the strike to be paid, a demand that Buhari has flatly rejected.”
Similarly, Ngige asserted that the government had “dealt with most of ASUU’s demands.” But the Minister of State for Labour and Employment, Festus Keyamo, telegraphed the regime’s stance by saying the government would not be “blackmailed to borrow N1.2 trillion” to meet the demands.
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The government has to change its tactics; and its personnel. Ngige has not demonstrated the temperament, negotiating skills or effectiveness in dealing with restive industrial unions. Combative, abrasive and contemptuous of labour leaders, strikes consequently abound in various sectors. Typically, he is backing rival unions, notably the recently formed Congress of University Academics, which he hopes will be a counterpoise to ASUU. Buhari should drop him and appoint a suitable replacement.
Adamu recently admitted failure in solving any of the problems he met despite being Nigeria’s longest serving education minister. He should resign honourably or be dropped to make way for a competent hand.
A civil rights lawyer, Femi Falana, has argued that the “no work, no pay” rule should not apply because the universities had amended their academic calendars to ensure the 2021/22 session is not cancelled, and students not taught during the strike are currently receiving lectures.
To ensure industrial harmony, the government should disavow brinksmanship. A reported move to give members of CONUA full pay while denying ASUU members the same will likely backfire. Already, some ASUU branches are spoiling for a renewed confrontation.
In the short-term, the government should meet all its obligations and release the first tranche of the agreed backlog of funds. It should also quickly resolve the issue of an appropriate payment platform.
Nigeria’s public universities are in crises. They are usually in the news, not for research breakthroughs or other academic feats, but more often for industrial unrest, scandal and in-fighting. Between 1999 and October 2022, ASUU embarked on strikes 16 times.
Only two Nigerian universities, University of Ibadan, and University of Lagos, made the top 600 in the Times Higher Education Global University Rankings 2022. Only one (Ibadan) made the top 10 in Africa at fourth position and along with Lagos, were the only two in Africa’s top 20 list in the US News and World Report’s Best Global Universities chart.
Students admitted for four-year courses end up spending six or more years. This bites harder on the society’s most vulnerable since the richer Nigerians opt for private universities and increasingly, foreign institutions. All stakeholders should therefore join forces to save the system.
ASUU should continue to exercise its new-found restraint; Gbajabiamila and the National Assembly leadership should step up their mediation efforts. Buhari should sweep aside the ministerial failures and meet ASUU’s demands as practically as possible. He should not depart office in seven months hence leaving the tertiary education sector in a greater shambles than he met it. ,
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