PLAYING THE OSTRICH WITH ASUU
The procurement of an interlocutory injunction against the Academic Staff Union of Universities by the federal government only postpones the evil day, writes Bolaji Adebiyi
Unable to reach an agreement on its industrial dispute with the Academic Staff Union of Universities, the federal government has pulled out its old trick of seeking judicial palliative. A couple of weeks ago, it approached the National Industrial Court to challenge the strike by the university teachers who had shunned work for seven months. On Wednesday, the court in Abuja handed the federal government the respite it sought.
Justice Polycarp Hamman, a vacation judge, granted FG’s quest for an interlocutory injunction restraining ASUU from continuing its strike, which it started on the 14th of February, the lovers’ day. The judge said the strike was detrimental to public university students who did not have the money to attend high fees paying private universities. That sounds radical; not so?
Incidentally, the National Association of Nigerian Students, the umbrella body of the students the judge said would be relieved by his interim order, has dismissed the ruling as inequitable. Giwa Temitope, the students’ public relations officer, said it was a betrayal of equity that would not lead to a permanent resolution of the dispute since their lecturers could not be forced to work. Put mildly, the order, in their view, offers no relief at all as the university teachers would be expected to fight back.
The students’ premonition has since been confirmed with Femi Falana SAN, ASUU’s attorney, making public the union’s intention to go upstairs to the Court of Appeal to test the ruling of the lower court. The implication of this is that the matter might drag even longer than expected since the right of appeal could stretch to the Supreme Court on this preliminary matter alone. If that happens, the students and their parents should be prepared for the long haul.
However, Chris Ngige, the minister of Labour and Employment, whose comprehensive failure to achieve a consensus at the round table precipitated the lawsuit, tried to downplay the possibility of an extended industrial cum judicial hostility on Wednesday, saying the temporary ruling would not foreclose further negotiations between the disputants. Really?
If the saying among the Yoruba that a lawsuit indicates the irretrievable breakdown of friendship is anything to go by, then the dispute would appear to have reached a point of no return. The dispute had lingered since 2009 across two administrations without successful resolutions. Yet, the problem was not lacking resolution but the infidelity of the government to agreements it freely entered into. What the industrial court has done, therefore, is to indulge the federal government that has persistently failed to implement faithfully the several Memoranda of Agreement it signed with ASUU in 2009.
No wonder, therefore, the ruling is clearly unacceptable to the lecturers and their students, two major stakeholders in the dispute. This is particularly so because they feel strongly that the government’s lawsuit was a legal ambush in a quarrel that required good faith for resolution. They believe that the government remained rigid throughout negotiations simply because it knew it could always go to court to obtain the order it eventually obtained. This had been the trend.
Unfortunately for them, the law requires that no matter their dissatisfaction with the decision of the court, they must obey it until it is set aside by a superior court. Good enough, ASUU has expressed its dissatisfaction with the state of play and has decided to take its case to a higher court. This is how it should be. Nigeria, notwithstanding the serial infractions of the rule of law by the government, remains a country of laws and everyone must be enjoined to submit their grievances to the due process of the law.
There are, however, concerns about the limit of tolerance of some stakeholders who are directly affected by the ongoing hostility. The students, for instance, have started to show signs of stress. On Monday, they took over the roads leading to Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Ikeja, the capital city of Lagos State to protest the unending strike. Many Nigerians and their businesses that had nothing to do with the industrial dispute were adversely affected. Experts said billions of naira were lost to those few hours of disturbance.
The students also warned on Wednesday that they would disrupt the electioneering scheduled to start on the 28th of September if the strike was not amicably resolved. Though it is possible to dismiss this as an empty threat, its potential to snowball into a national security threat cannot be discounted given the restiveness of the young population nationwide. The serious implication of a large army of idle youths that would be available for political mischief during the impending electioneering should not be lost on the government.
It is against this background that the government must see the industrial court ruling not as a victory for itself or a setback for ASUU but as a palliative it could use to buy some time to genuinely resolve the crisis. Its efforts now should be geared toward pacifying the teachers with low-hanging fruits to reassure them that henceforth it would act in good faith and with dignity. A first step is to pay the seven-month salary arrears to the university teachers as a token of good faith; then follow up with concrete and irrevocable timelines for the implementation of outstanding MoAs.
ASUU on its part, for the sake of the peace desired by the nation in the education sector, should see the ruling not as an ambush that it is, but as a soft landing for it to accede to the public quest for, at least, a temporary resolution of the dispute. After all, it is he who fights and runs away that lives to fight another day. Every discerning Nigerian knows that this Muhammadu Buhari administration has run out of ideas on how to fix any of our ailments. It is, therefore, of no use flogging it like a dead horse. It no longer feels anything; the evidence is there for all to see.
The university lecturers in obedience to the rule of law should go back to work pending the resolution of their appeal to the higher court. That way, they would gain higher moral ground in the court of public opinion and render bare the serial infidelity of the government to the due process of doing things.
Adebiyi, the managing editor of THISDAY Newspapers, writes from firstname.lastname@example.org