ASUU strike: Coordinating stakeholders’ efforts to resolve contending issues

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The fear that another strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) that may linger to further disrupt the University System in Nigeria has set in, is much in view before Nigerian students, who have been left out of class-rooms following the commencement of a one month warning strike, last month, on Monday 14th, February, 2022.

Recall that the threats of ASUU to protest breaches by the Federal Government to honour its demands, eventually culminated into an actual industrial action on Monday, 14th, February, 2022, following a resolution of the National Executive Council (NEC) meeting of the Union. The outcome of a marathon meeting by members of the union’s NEC held at the University of Lagos titled, ‘NEC for NEC’ saw the academic professionals  declaring a “comprehensive and total” strike, slated to last for about a month.

Following terms, the President of ASUU, Prof. Emmanuel Osodeke, at a press conference addressed on Monday had said the strike, which takes effect from Monday, February 14th, 2022, would last for an initial period of four weeks, arguing that while the union tried to avoid the strike, the Federal Government’s  unresponsiveness to the union’s demands to implement the Memorandum of Action (MoA) it signed with the ASUU in December 2020, was responsible for the decision. In its grievances, the Union had described as unsatisfactory the claim of the Federal Government’s on the payment of N30bn Revitalisation Fund and N22.5bn Earned Academic Allowance as a significant  progress in implementing the MoA the government reached with the Union. According to ASUU, the subjects that formed the MoA is largely pronounced than the said sum. Subjects of concern in the MoA include “Funding for Revitalisation of Public Universities; Payment of Earned Academic Allowances, Withheld Salaries and Promotion Arrears; Renegotiation of the 2009 FGN/ASUU Agreement; Inconsistencies in IPPIS Payment and University Transparency and Accountability Solution.”

The fear that the subjects of contest informing the strike may clog-up to record a similar experience in 2020, which saw an industrial action lasting for nine months, March-December, is a possibility brewing trouble in the academic climate. February 23rd, 2022, the Federal Government had boasted that the ongoing strike by ASUU would be called off soon, claiming it was taken aback by the renewed action which the university lecturers embarked on.

Against the Federal Government’s flaunting posture, ASUU has a number of times, insisted that the suspension of the strike would depend on the government’s readiness to meet its demands, particularly as it concerns the adoption of the University Transparency and Accountability Solution, (UTAS), which has remained a top subject of contest between the contending parties, as of the system of payment platform to adopt for the University system.

At a conciliation meeting with the Union on February 23rd, 2022, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige, had said the government was flabagasted by ASUU’s decision, which he argued negated the assurances it gave through the Nigerian Inter-Religious Council (NIREC) led by the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar and the Chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Rev. Supo Ayokunle. Ngige, who was in Botswana for the meeting of the African Regional Labour Administrative Centre (ARLAC) when ASUU declared the warning strike, was quoted: “I sincerely thought ASUU and the Ministry of Education would have resolved the issues, which hopefully are not major areas of dispute, warranting industrial action. To my surprise, I came back, and the strike is still on. Be that as it may, it is the mandate of my Ministry to apprehend industrial disputes wherever they occur and we have apprehended this. From this negotiation, we are having today (February 23rd), ASUU will appreciate that government means no harm. This is because even if there are still lapses in implementation of agreement, they are not such that will lead to industrial action. To that extent, we have to do everything possible to resolve this. But I must tell you that on the government side, they were  taken by surprise because before then, NIREC met with you, ASUU, and reported to  the President. Having met with you and having given the details of their meeting with you, we sincerely hoped we won’t again take this route of industrial action. So, the government side is taken by surprise – Ministry of Education, Ministry of Finance and all are taken aback. It is my mandate to apprehend industrial disputes and this has been apprehended, so we can discuss, and later expand to what is called tripartite plus meeting, involving members of NIREC who are top religious and traditional rulers, we cannot push aside. And that is as soon as we are done and agree on issues here.”

However, ASUU has maintained that the claim of seriousness by the Federal Government as to ending the strike is not genuine. ASUU President, Professor Emmanuel Osodeke, in his speech, at a conciliatory meeting with the Federal Government had blamed the later for the ongoing strike, alleging that apart from not implementing the 2020 Memorandum of Agreement (MOA), the government also failed to convene the regular implementation monitoring meeting as agreed. ASUU has insisted that calling off the industrial action depended entirely on the Federal Government’s readiness to honour subsisting agreements, as members of the Union were determined not to shift ground until their demands were met.

An alarm raised in the quarters of the House of Representatives on February 23rd, 2022, at plenary, urging stakeholders in the education sector to close ranks and call-off the ongoing warning strike in the interest of students has not yielded desirable result. The lower chamber of the National Assembly had called on the Ministry of Labour and Employment and  ASUU, to adhere to the clauses and provisions of the previous Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and the Memorandum of Action (MoA) between both parties. In his motion, titled “Urgent Need to Address the Frequent Strike Actions by the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU,”  Lawmaker, Member representing Dunukofia/Anaocha/Njikoka Federal Constituency, Anambra State, Hon. Dozie  Nwankwo,  had lamented the consequences of such industrial action stating thus: “The benefits and advantages of the demands of ASUU on the overall interests of Nigeria’s public  institutions and the well-being of the personnel which includes funding for the revitalization of public universities and signing and implementation of the renegotiated 2009 FGN- ASUU Agreement, among others Shortly after the last horrendous experience by Nigerians, a one-month warning strike by members of ASUU has commenced, with effect from February 14, 2022, despite all previous efforts to resolve  the contending issues.  Such efforts include that of the speaker, House of Representatives and other stakeholders, including members of the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council, NIREC.

“The consequences of the strike are embarrassingly becoming too frequent and with consequences too damning to the education sector as one-month strike is a too much disruption to an academic calendar and too much time for an ‘idle man’ to cause havoc, especially in the present university environment which is infested with cult activities and other social vices. In the present circumstances, claims and counterclaims by both ASUU members and government representatives are not helping the situation because the picture created is not clear. Major parts of the grounds of dispute border on issues like the injection of revitalization funds, payment of earned academic allowance and the likes that are obtainable in other African countries such as Ghana and South Africa. Nigeria is losing revenue through Nigerian students who school abroad, whereas Nigerian universities can be raised to the standards of the best universities in Africa and other parts of the world. All hands must be on deck to avert the strike and to allow public universities to continue with their programmes undisrupted and to resolves such issues dispassionately.”

As pressure mounts over the need to resolve the contending issues, the Federal Government, on Monday, 7th March, 2022, inaugurated a 7-member panel it reconstituted last week to renegotiate the 2009 agreement it had with university-based unions. Minister of Education, Malam Adamu Adamu, who inaugurated the committee in Abuja, tasked the committee to “submit proposed draft agreements within three months from the date of inauguration,” while appealing to the reconstituted committee to “liaise and consult with relevant stakeholders to finalise the position of the Federal Government to the issues in the draft proposed FGN/ASUU Renegotiated Agreement.” Also, the Minister tasked the committee to “renegotiate in realistic and workable terms the 2009 Agreements with other university-based unions.” Also the committee, according to the Minister, was mandated to, “negotiate and recommend any other issue the committee deems relevant to reposition the Nigerian University System (NUS) for global competitiveness.” According to him, it was expected of the Committee to double its “effort towards concluding the assignment and producing a realistic and workable draft agreement that would holistically tackle the challenges confronting the Nigerian university system and reposition it to effectively play its very important role in national development.”

The reconstituted committee led by Pro-Chancellor, Alex Ekweme Federal University Ndufu-Alike, Emeritus Professor Nimi Briggs, as chairman, has its members to include the Pro-Chancellor, Federal University, Wukari, Arc. Lawrence Patrick Ngbale, who represents North East; Pro-Chancellor, Federal University, Birnin Kebbi, Prof. Funmi Togunu-Bickersteth, representing South West and Pro-Chancellor, Federal University, Lokoja, Senator Chris Adighije, representing South East. Also were Pro-Chancellor, Federal University of Technology, Minna, Prof. Olu Obafemi from North-Central; Pro-Chancellor, Kano State University of Science & Technology, Prof. Zubairu Iliyasu, representing North West; and Pro-Chancellor, Niger Delta University, Wilberforce Island, Mathew Seiyefa from South-South.

The re-negotiation of the 2009 Agreements between the Federal Government and the University-Based Staff Unions (ASUU, SSANU, NAAT & NASU) had commenced on Monday, 13th February 2017. The process has however, been constrained with a number of set-backs, dragging the agenda till now.

In its bossy posture, the Federal Government on Monday also urged the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) to prevail on its affiliate, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) to abide by the provisions of the Trade Disputes Act and call off its ongoing strike. At the opening ceremony of the 2022 edition of the National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC) in Lagos on Monday, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige in a statement by the Ministry’s Deputy Director Press and Public Relations, Mr. Charles Akpan, said: “The university teachers are registered under the Academic Staff Union of Universities and are affiliated to the Nigerian Labour Congress but that affiliation is only in name. It is not indeed, because they don’t obey the Labour Act as it concerns conciliation. For example, ASUU declared a month strike and called it a warning strike. It did not notify their employer, the Ministry of Education, neither did they notify me, the Minister of labour that there is a breakdown in negotiation. I know that they had some discussions which were in limbo but I should be notified properly so that I can arrest the breakdown and bring it forward for proper conciliation. Now, I apprehended the dispute in consonance with the Labour Act. They came for conciliation, only for them to go back and continue the strike. This is illegal. The law is that once a dispute is apprehended, everybody returns to status quo ante. The law also says that if I arrest a dispute and the party or parties are not ready to confirm, I should transfer the dispute within 14 days to either the Industrial Arbitration Panel or to the National Industrial Court of Nigeria in line with section 17 of the Trade Disputes Act. But I’m concerned that if we do this suo motu, this will not solve the problem of getting our children back to school outright.

“So, I’m using this opportunity to plead with the NLC to which ASUU is affiliated, to call them to order, make them obey the law, to let them know what the Trade Disputes Act says and as university teachers who are even teaching industrial law, to abide by the law. They should call of that strike. That strike is not appropriately instituted. I have conciliated and made sure the issues in disputes have been decisively been dealt with.”

It has become necessary for all relevant bodies from all angles to, as a matter of necessity, coordinate efforts towards the end of prevailing on the ongoing contest. From the legislative angle including relevant Committees of the National Assembly, as of those bordering on Committees on Labour, Employment and Productivity; Tertiary Education and Services, to executive bodies including the Ministries of Labour and Employment and, Education, down to other relevant stakeholders including Civil Society Organisations, (CSOs), the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council, (NIREC) which has been playing a mediatory role, to work intelligently to facilitate renegotiation processes to distill the grievances of the aggrieved party, ASUU. This is essentially paramount to address the outstanding issues precipitating the ongoing contest capable of degenerating into a looming indefinite strike as experience in 2020, where irreconcilable differences recorded a nine months old strike. The disruptions in the Nigerian University System have grown too wild beyond  tolerable limit. It behooves all relevant parties, particularly the goverment which has been accused of infidelity of breaching agreements to rise to task, towards resolving the contending issues of concern.