Levi Obijiofor: ASUU’s latest absurd exercise

by Levi Obijiofor

asuu-strikeRather than continue the game of hide-and-seek, ASUU leaders need to show more maturity. The union does not need the support or advice of students to continue with an unpopular strike that has paralysed and disrupted academic calendar and research activities in the universities.

When Dr. Isa Fagge, the president of the combative Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), claimed that his organisation was continuing its current industrial strike because university students had advised his union to push ahead with the strike, he must have shocked many parents as well as undergraduate and postgraduate students.

In a news report published in the Punch of last Sunday (8 September, 2013), Fagge made the sensational claim that “Our students have come out to say they don’t want us to call off the strike until the Federal Government answers us because they don’t want us to call off now and later we go back to strike again. So, we are heeding the advice of our students.” Why is ASUU leadership, using students as a convenient justification for continuing the strike?

This is an extraordinary assertion that lacks supporting evidence. It is all too easy for Fagge to make an imprecise or generic claim that students have advised ASUU to continue with the strike. Where is the proof? Which students, from which universities offered the advice? When was the advice given? Fagge did not even suggest when, where, and the context in which the students offered the advice. Did Fagge overstate ASUU’s case by using students as the basis for the continuation of the strike? When did students become the chief legal advisers to ASUU?

Does this mean that if the students advise ASUU to call off the strike, that we can expect university teachers to heed the call of their students? This recurring invention of excuses cannot help ASUU in its campaign to attract public sympathy or to validate its reasons for going on strike.

There is something farcical about Fagge’s claim that the ASUU strike is continuing because the students want it that way. That is absolutely outrageous. Perhaps he should be reminded that right from the start, some university students openly criticised the strike. The students did not believe the imprudent strike is in their best interest. On Tuesday, 2 July 2013, The Sun newspaper reported that some students of the University of Ibadan (UI) explicitly conveyed their disappointment over ASUU’s decision to go on strike as the students were preparing for their examinations.

The Sun reported that one UI student recounted how postgraduate students who were preparing for examinations learned suddenly that the examinations had been suspended. The student said: “… we pleaded for the officials to allow us write today’s examinations but they refused, after we have read overnight, burning candles, they put us under unnecessary pressure and suspense”. Another student told The Sun: “Whatever the demands of ASUU and no matter how genuine the struggle is, ASUU should know that strike is not the only solution to the problem.”

The sentiments expressed by these students are in the public domain. Yet that fact did not prevent Fagge from claiming that students want the strike to continue. He even stunned the nation further when he said the ASUU strike was not driven by money. He said: “There are issues and agreement they can implement without money. Why don’t they begin with those ones?” Well, why can’t ASUU tell the government those aspects of the agreement that can be executed with little or no money? In any case, if the strike is not about money, what is the core reason for the work stoppage? This is nothing but doubletalk.

The true test of the fallacy of Fagge’s assertion is whether ASUU would return to work if government starts to implement aspects of the agreement that do not require financial payments to ASUU members? Would ASUU members willingly return to work without fuss if the government starts to implement parts of the agreement that do not require funds? My answer to this question is an unqualified no. ASUU cannot go back to work on that basis because it has boxed its members into a tight and uncomfortable corner. For that reason, it is now trying to shield its members from growing public anger.

Ever since the strike started, ASUU had maintained that it would not compromise on certain aspects of the agreement it reached with government four years ago, particularly those that involve payment of allowances. In fact, in the first week of the strike that commenced in July this year, a chairperson of the University of Lagos (UNILAG) branch of ASUU explained that the union went on strike because the Federal Government had shown total disregard for its obligation to reward university academic staff, under the Academic Earned Allowance (AEA) that was decided as far back as 2009.

The AEA allowances, according to the ASUU branch leader at UNILAG, were for “excess work load, high carriage of student per lecturer, responsibility allowance ranging from administrative responsibility borne by lecturers…, as head of department, deans of faculties, exams officers, course advisers and supervision of theses. The highest any lecturer gets from this allowance is N12,500 per month. The truth is that since 2009, no lecturer has been paid any allowance apart from the salary.” The contentious allowances also include the sum of N15,000 for supervision of PhD and Masters students.

Fagge’s specious claims raise some interesting questions. Is ASUU now willing to abandon the basket of reasons it released more than two months ago as its unimpeachable rationale for going on strike? Based on Fagge’s ludicrous explanation for continuing the strike, one must ask whether the Federal Government has an industrial relations dispute with university students or with academic staff of universities. What is wrong with the ASUU leadership?

It seems to me that ASUU is trying to complicate matters, to set new hurdles that would prolong the negotiation process and make things more difficult for the government to find long-term solutions to the industrial relations gridlock that continues to mess up teaching and research in the universities. Everyday ASUU officials push forward different reasons to justify their refusal to end the strike. Inconsistencies in ASUU position suggest to me that the union leaders are not negotiating with government in good faith.

Rather than continue the game of hide-and-seek, ASUU leaders need to show more maturity. The union does not need the support or advice of students to continue with an unpopular strike that has paralysed and disrupted academic calendar and research activities in the universities.

All this does not imply that the Federal Government has no case to answer in this irritating dispute. As long as the government signed an agreement with ASUU, the government is obliged to implement the agreement. Trying to change the agreement or to avoid responsibility means the government is treating academic staff with contempt. Once an agreement has been signed by two parties, the two sides have the moral obligation to respect the terms of the agreement.

There is no way anyone would believe Fagge’s claim that the strike has persisted because students are against discontinuing the industrial dispute. How does Fagge expect the nation to believe the unproven statement he credited to faceless students? Nigerian university students have an organisation that defends the interests of students. That is the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), an organisation that serves as the champion of students’ welfare and rights. Did Fagge receive advice from the leadership of NANS? His statement flies in the face of verifiable facts. Here is why.

In a report published in the Leadership newspaper of 4 September 2013, NANS president Yinka Gbadebo said after visiting Benue State Governor Gabriel Suswam that the visit was to enable NANS to understand the government’s account of why the ASUU strike has continued. Suswam is the head of a committee set up by the Federal Government to resolve the dispute with ASUU.

Gbadebo explained that NANS had also visited ASUU leaders, the Federal Education Minister, and the executive secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC). He told journalists in Abuja: “… Since the beginning of the strike, there has been so much pressure on us to go into the streets to protest but we don’t believe protest should be the first port of call. All we are told is that we, the Nigerian students, need to protest in order to coerce the government into meeting the demands of ASUU but we want to know firsthand what the government has done to ensure the reopening of our universities as soon as possible.”

In the past, ASUU leaders had manufactured frivolous excuses that they used as a springboard to go on strike. Similarly, ASUU leaders have abused their right to drag their members to strike on flimsy grounds. This is perhaps why the general population has been exhausted by incessant ASUU strikes.

When the government and the public ignore ASUU strike, the students suffer, as much as their parents and the quality of university education. Incessant strikes disrupt academic programmes. Above all, strikes do not ennoble anyone, not even the militant leaders of ASUU or those ASUU members who are committed to the advancement of quality teaching and research in universities. The Punch made an impeccable argument when it stated emphatically in an editorial (Wednesday, 12 September 2012) on the leadership crisis which has dogged ASUU for many years that: “It is perhaps only in Nigeria that professors prefer the trenches of labour unionism to the pursuit of academic excellence.”

 

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Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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