Home Opinion FG/ASUU faceoff: Toying with the destiny of our youth, By Kazeem Akintunde

FG/ASUU faceoff: Toying with the destiny of our youth, By Kazeem Akintunde

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The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) will, on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, embark on a solidarity protest across the country over the lingering strike embarked upon by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) in a bid to force the Federal Government to honour its agreement with university teachers and other unions in the university community so that varsity students can return to school. 

NLC president, Ayuba Wabba, has said that the two-day protest would be total, as both federal and state government offices, including banks, the aviation sector and other government parastatals would be shut during the exercise while rallies would hold in states across the country.  

ASUU, since February 14, has been on strike over welfare issues and the revitalisation of universities across the country. For over five months now, university lecturers have shunned the classrooms while students are left to roam the streets. Many of the serious boys, in a bid not to waste their time, are learning some form of trade, while some have gotten temporary jobs. The not-too-serious are fully into Yahoo and other illegal businesses while some of the females are fully into part-time prostitution. Rich parents are looking for means to ferry their kids out of the country while the not-so-rich but who can still afford private institutions in Nigeria are enrolling their wards there.

Aside ASUU, other university-based unions, the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), Non-Academic Union of Universities and Associated Institutions (NASU) as well as the National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT) have also followed the path of ASUU over the alleged government insensitivity to their demands.

The Federal Government, under the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari, has done little or nothing to solve the crisis in the education sector. It was when the NLC threatened to call out workers on a solidarity rally that the president woke up from his slumber. There was a meeting between Buhari, ministers and heads of government agencies involved in the negotiation with ASUU where he directed them to fast-track the negotiations and ensure that students return to class within two weeks. 

Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige however, told the world that NLC should not call out workers on solidarity strike as security report from the Directorate of State Security (DSS) painted a gloomy picture of what may happen across the country if Labour carried out its threat.

Information and Culture Minister, Lai Mohammed, also said that it would be illegal for the Labour body to call out workers on solidarity rally as government has no industrial issue with the NLC. 

It is sad that it has to take five months of going back and forth for the federal government to realise the need to solve the crisis in the education sector by finding a permanent solution to the face-off with university teachers. Last year, many universities had to cancel a whole academic session due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the same ASUU strike. If the current strike is not resolved in the next few weeks, another academic session may be lost. We are toying with the destiny of our children and youths, yet those at the helms of affairs do not seem to be bothered. How did we get to this sorry state? What are the issues that need to be resolved but has proven intractable over the years that always leads to strike by ASSU? 

Going back memory lane, the first major disagreement between ASUU and the Federal Government was the issue of reinstatement of 49 lecturers who were sacked from the University of Ilorin in 2008. The union also demanded an improved salary scheme. The strike lasted for one week. In 2009, following an industrial action that lasted for four months, the government of the late President, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua signed an agreement with the union. The agreement, which is popularly referred to as the FG/ASUU 2009 Memorandum of Action, was signed before the union agreed to call off its strike. 

The failure of the government to implement the 2009 agreement subsequently became the base of subsequent strikes over the following years. Due to the failure of the Federal Government to implement the Memorandum of Action that was agreed with the union in 2009, ASUU embarked on another indefinite strike that lasted for over five months. The strike started on 22 July 2010 and was called off in January 2011.

ASUU again moved to paralyse academic activities nationwide in December 2011, because of the 2009 agreement and the failure of the Federal Government to adequately fund universities in the country and implement the 70-year retirement age limit for university lecturers. The strike lasted for 59 days and was called off in 2012. Again, due to the failure of government to review the retirement age for professors from 65 to 70; approve funding to revitalize the university system; increase the budgetary allocations to the education sector by 26% among other demands led to another industrial action. The strike was embarked upon on July 1, 2013 and called off on Tuesday, December 17, 2013. It lasted for five months and 15 days. 

On August 17, 2017, ASUU again declared an indefinite strike over unresolved and contentious issues with the Federal Government. The strike was called off in September. ASUU embarked on a three-month nationwide strike on November 4, 2018, due to the Federal Government’s inaction. The strike was however suspended on the 7th of February 2019, after a meeting between the ASUU leadership and a government delegation led by the Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige, who noted that the government had resolved the eight contentious issues that led to the strike.

In 2020, the union initially embarked on a two-week warning strike in March of that year, over the failure of the Federal Government to implement its 2019 agreement and resolution with the union. The strike however lasted for over nine months due to the pandemic and the unresponsiveness of the government to the academic body. It was eventually called off in December 2020, recorded as one of the longest strikes ever. So far, in 2022, the union has been on strike for close to six months, and despite several interventions from pressure groups and protests by students, the union and the government have yet to find a common ground.

The ongoing strike is due mainly to the non-implementation of the 2009 agreement. Already, the federal government has come out to say that it does not have the fund to implement the 2009 agreement with the varsity lecturers. It has, however, set up the Professor Nimi Briggs renegotiation committee and ASUU has, in good faith, had series of meetings with the committee.

Since April 2022, the Briggs renegotiation committee has been meeting with the unions to address the thorny issues in the 2009 agreement. Emmanuel Osodeke, ASUU president, has said that they are yet to hear from the Federal Government on the report of meetings had so far. He said: “Since our meeting with the Briggs committee, the government has not called us for any feedback. All the committee told us was that they are waiting for their principal to respond, that once the Federal Government responds, they will get back to us.”

The thorny issue at stake now is the platform through which university teachers should be paid. While the Federal Government has directed that all government employees should be paid through the IPPIS, the lecturers are insisting that the platform would shortchange most of them, and have gone ahead to develop a separate platform known as University Transparency Accounting System, UTAS. UTAS has been tested by another agency of government and rejected, but the lecturers are insisting on having their way. 

However, the crisis plaguing the university system goes beyond just payment platform. The entire system is bad. Libraries, laboratories, hostel accommodation and lecture halls are in the worst form of degradation. Electricity and water facilities are epileptic in most universities, and in some others, non-existent, forcing students to occasionally spill into the streets in violent demonstrations. All over the place, our campuses are brimming with an explosion in student population, with no plan for expansion. These are some of the challenges that the lecturers want the government to solve. 

Since the ongoing strike action began, the federal government has also stopped paying the salary of varsity teachers on the principle of no-work, no-pay mantra. ASUU is also insisting that its members must be paid before they would call off the strike. 

It is only in Nigeria that employees dictate to employers how they are paid. Is it not an irony that university lecturers that should be in the forefront of our national development are the ones bent on killing the country? If the FG should accede to their demands and have a separate payment platform for ASUU and its members, what stops another body from demanding the same treatment tomorrow? 

While the FG has admitted that there is not enough funding for the education sector just like other sectors, it is also demanding accountability of the little that it has provided. Indeed, there is serious corruption in the university system and this should concern ASUU as well. Much of the little funds that go into the system are brazenly stolen. ICPC did a system check recently, and the result that came out was shocking. In fact, the two worst organisations they mentioned in their report, are the teaching hospitals and our universities. Also, in 2018, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project claimed that there were allegations of corruption in several federal universities relating to the unfair allocation of grades; contract inflation; truncation of staff’s salary on the payroll; employment of unqualified staff; certificate scandal; examination malpractice; sexual harassment; and issuance of results for expelled students to graduate.

Apart from that, many of the lecturers are also afraid of being caught red-handed due to the fact that most of them lecture in two or three tertiary institutions, collecting salaries from both the federal government and some private universities where they also lecture part-time. Again, it is a known principle in labour matters that once you embark on strike, you should not expect to be paid for the duration of the strike. You cannot eat your cake and have it. 

Already, the convener of a civil rights advocacy group, Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria, Emmanuel Onwubiko, has noted that for the recurring industrial actions by the Academic Staff Union of Universities to end once and for all, politicians and government officials must be banned from sending their children and wards to private institutions and in foreign countries. He wants the National Assembly to make laws banning politicians from sending their wards overseas for studies so that all hands can be on deck to resolve ASUU’s lingering crisis. “Nigeria is sitting on a time bomb if ASUU strike is allowed to linger as there are connections between rising criminality and out-of-school students”. 

It is high time both parties shift ground and resolve the lingering crisis in the interest of our nation and our youths who are now suffering unnecessarily due to no fault of theirs. 

See you next week.

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