Is ASUU Targeting Pyrrhic Victory?


Apparently miffed by the federal government’s dodgy rhetoric, the Academic Staff Union of Universities last week extended its six-month-old strike to an indefinite industrial action. Louis Achi, however, writes that the university lecturers may record a pyrrhic victory

The “comprehensive, total and indefinite strike” declared by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) last week has indisputably turned the six-month rollover industrial action into a major national crisis. The union argued that the federal government has failed to satisfactorily meet its demands.

Having lost confidence in the present administration, some ASUU members had argued that negotiations should be suspended till a new administration takes over from the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration in May 2023.

It could be recalled that on February 14, 2022, the ASUU called out its members on a one-month warning strike over the non-implementation of the Memorandum of Action (MoA) it signed with the federal government in 2009. The government’s insistence on adoption of the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) as a payment platform for all federal workers, among other factors, represented further sticking points in the face-off.

The union had proposed the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) as an alternative platform for the payment of its members’ salaries following discrepancies highlighted in the use of IPPIS. The warning strike which turned into a full-blown action that has dragged for six months last week transitioned into a “comprehensive, total and indefinite strike”.

At the core of the contentions are academic autonomy, improved staff welfare and the non-payment of public universities revitalisation funds, which amounts to about N1.1 trillion. But the federal government has said it doesn’t have the money to pay such an amount, citing low oil prices during the current administration.

However, ASUU has outlined steps the government should take to end its six-month-long academic strike. Speaking on a national television programme, ASUU President, Prof. Emmanuel Osodeke, said the government must exhibit transparency. He insisted that “government should tell us and Nigerians – the money that has been alleged to have been approved for revitalisation – how much is it and where is it lodged? When will it be released?”

The varsity don also said that the government must clearly state its position on the UTAS, a payroll system which ASUU wants as a replacement for the IPPIS.

His words: “Three, have they accepted the agreement we reached with their panel? They should come and tell us this, and not go to the press…strike is a symptom of a problem; any day you sort out that problem, you will not have strike.”

In his reaction to the unfolding drama, the Chairman of ASUU, University of Lagos chapter, Dele Ashiru, stated that the federal government had declared war on ASUU, srressing that the lecturers in public universities are only responding to the unacceptable treatment with the indefinite strike.

According to Ashiru who spoke mid last week as a guest on a national television programme, “government has declared war on our union. We are only responding. Six months or seven months down the line our members are suffering the consequences of a strike caused by the government. If you deploy the weapon of hunger upon people – that is a war.”

Dismissing claims that the government has met 80 per cent of the demands of ASUU, Ashiru said, “not one item (has been met), even the one that requires no money. For example, we desire that a government White Paper on Visitation Panel be released. Up till now, more than two years, (Minister of Education), Adamu Adamu cannot release White Paper.”

On his part, a former Vice-President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Issa Aremu, who also spoke on the same programme said the issue at hand is a “legacy crisis” and there is a need for “a new paradigm shift to handle the labour dispute in the education sector”.

Further according to Aremu, “there have been shutdowns of public universities 16 times since 1999 and it amounts to 62 months, that comes to roughly about five years plus,” adding that both parties should note that “industrial dispute is not industrial warfare” and should resolve the crisis through “time-tested collective bargains which have resolved trade disputes”.

The emerging consensus is that the federal government must concede that it has displayed inexcusable insensitivity by not stoutly tackling ASUU’s demands and taking urgent needful action. It has reacted to industrial conflicts in the aviation, electricity and petroleum sectors with some dispatch while largely ignoring the trade dispute in the public university system.

Deducible from this footing is that education enjoys low priority in government’s national development calculations. This impression is unfortunately reinforced by the government’s diversion of limited funds to constructing standard gauge rail lines and the purchasing expensive, high-profile vehicles for neighbouring Niger Republic.

Victor Ecoma, Anthropologist and a Fellow of its world body, RAI, London has cautioned the federal government on the no-work-no-pay approach it is pushing. His words: “The no work, no pay maxim drawn from Trade Dispute Act Vol.15 CAP T8 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004 was aimed at discouraging industrial actions by workers. The law did not take cognizance of workers who on resumption must go back to deal with the work load left undone for the period of a strike.

“This is the case with the operation of the university system. Yes, time is lost in relative terms but the backlog of work still remains and has to be done if post-strike progress must be made.”

Curiously, amidst the strike action that has taken another turn, the Minister of Education, Adamu  reportedly travelled out of the country and was being expected to come back to the country on September 2, 2022.

But beyond the seeming clueless dithering of the core promoters of this critical academic niche, to fundamentally address and resolve the funding challenges of public tertiary institutions require far more imagination and leadership.

Dr. Aliyu Ibrahim offers a direction: “There is need to convene a national education summit, where various stakeholders in the country including ASUU and the federal government, governors, the National Assembly, pro- chancellors, civil society organisations, even UNICEF and the business community, among others, to develop and agree on a sustainable funding model, in which public universities will be given subventions, and then they will generate additional revenues for their sustenance. Reasonable increment in tuition is unavoidable.

A database for academic staff should be established, this is with a view to control academics from taking up many visiting appointments at a particular time for quality control. The appointment of Vice Chancellors should be reviewed; being a Professor is not enough. Evidence of the ability to attract grants and mentor upcoming academics should be key requirements”

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