by Onyekachi Eni
First, because the Federal government has never found the courage to enforce section 42 of the Trade Disputes Act which provides for “no work no pay”, strikes translate to extended holidays for lecturers who receive their full pay for doing no work.
Since the formation of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) in 1978, industrial action has remained its primary weapon of engagement with successive governments. In spite of ASUU’s textbook claim that its industrial actions are actuated by public interest, the reality is that ASUU has always manipulated the people’s craving for university education for the ends of higher pay. When ASUU embarked on the current installment of its endless circle of strikes on July 1, this year, the union said the action was warranted by the failure of the federal government to honour the agreement reached with it in 2009.
In the hysteria that followed the industrial action, the federal government made concessions to ASUU to persuade the union to end the strike to no avail. Consistent with its established modus operandi, ASUU has, since the commencement of the current strike, adopted a combination of blackmail, propaganda, public incitement and deliberate misinformation to mobilise public angst against the government. To mask the self-service of its demands, ASUU makes a song and dance of the 2009 Agreement which it claims the federal government has not honoured.
In view of ASUU’s belligerence, concerned citizens are invited to interrogate the issues at stake in the on-going stand-off. While no responsible citizen would advocate that agreements should be made and broken at will, it is crucial to stress that all agreements are subject to existential imperatives. Like other rules of engagement which govern social relations, agreements are meant to serve the mutual interests of the parties to same. Therefore, any law or agreement which works hardship on society is due for alteration; which is why every agreement is subject to the doctrine of impossibility.
When ASUU recites the mantra of government’s failure to honour agreements, it seems to forget the intervening socio-economic variables and the circumstances that gave rise to the agreement. An examination of the chemistry of the 2009 agreement indicates that it was an offshoot of an earlier one between ASUU and the federal government dating back to 2001 which both parties agreed to re-negotiate. The then Minister of Education Dr. Obiageli Ezekwesili, inaugurated the Re-negotiation Committee on Thursday December 14, 2006 with Mr. Gamaliel Onosode as the leader of the government team and Dr. Abdullahi Sule-Kano as the leader of ASUU team. That re-negotiation exercise gave rise to the 2009 Agreement.
By ASUU’s admission, the federal government has implemented part of the agreement while some aspects are outstanding. Among the gains which accrued to ASUU from the 2009 agreement are the bumper emolument of university teachers via the Consolidated University Academic Salary Structure (CONUASS II) and the elongation of the retirement age of Professors from 65 to 70 years among others. Of the unimplemented component of the agreement, ASUU seems most touchy about the earned academic allowances the arrears of which amount to about N93 billion out of which the federal government has agreed to release N30 billion.
Determined to collect the Earned Academic Allowances booty in full, ASUU insists that all the terms of the 2009 Agreement are sacrosanct and inviolable. In spite of ASUU’s propaganda, any wholesale condemnation of the federal government for failure to comprehensively implement the agreement misses the vital point that the agreement is patently inoperable for the reason that it is a product of blackmail and intimidation arising from a poisoned universe of negotiation. By now, it should be clear to the discerning that ASUU uses the prevailing political temper in the country as the barometer for timing its endless strikes. For ASUU, the current political situation in the country obviously presents a fertile climate to strike!
In the mean time, opposition parties will attempt to make political capital out of the strike. In the mix, parents’ frustration on the plight of their wards will rent the air while genuine and fake civil rights groups will seize the moment to jostle for visibility and relevance with some journalists in tow. To sustain the heat, the national leadership of ASUU would direct all its local branches to address press conferences and issue public statements to the effect that government is anti-education. With elections around the corner, many in government would begin to find a nexus between their electoral fortunes and the industrial action. If anyone is discerning enough to condemn ASUU’s underhanded tactics, the union will descend on such person charging that he must have been bribed by government.
Recently, the President of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), Mr. Yinka Gbadebo, let the cat out of the bag when he stressed that over the years, ASUU has used the students as cannon fodder in its fight for better emolument. With public opinion massively stacked against it, the government would back down, accept ASUU’s demands, sign any agreement that will ease the situation and avail it a temporary reprieve.
At this juncture, Nigerians must come to terms with the fact that far from its altruistic posturing, ASUU is chiefly concerned with the welfare of its members. The fact that it is in a position to shape the fate of the students is simply a weapon on which ASUU has leveraged to pursue its agenda of self-gratification. The time has come for the nation to call ASUU’s bluff. The union should be persuaded to abandon its culture of impunity and stop behaving like a parallel government or pseudo-political party. It is now clear that ASUU relishes incessant industrial actions because of the multiple benefits that accrue to its members from same. First, because the Federal government has never found the courage to enforce section 42 of the Trade Disputes Act which provides for “no work no pay”, strikes translate to extended holidays for lecturers who receive their full pay for doing no work. Second, industrial actions usually give rise to improved emoluments for ASUU members on account of which they are minded to go on strike at the slightest provocation.
In recent years, the success of an ASUU President seems to be measured by the number of strikes staged in his tenure. If Nigerians are outraged by the level of corruption and miss-governance among the political class, the case of ASUU is even worse because it is not insulated from corruption in addition to profiting from the anguish of the citizenry. In spite of the consensus that the nation’s university system is in dire need of urgent reforms to address such critical issues as content, manpower portfolio and funding, no one should pretend that the sector is the only one in need of attention.
When ASUU talks about the United Nations’ benchmark of 26% budgetary allocation to the education sector, it seems to forget that the UN takes for granted, the existence of basic infrastructure in member states. At Nigeria’s current level of development, it cannot afford to ignore other critical sectors such as infrastructure, energy, health etc which constitute the drivers of a sound education system. Besides, improved education funding does not necessarily translate to giving the lion share of education budget to the universities. The unpleasant reality is that at present, primary, vocational and technical education are more relevant to the contemporary needs of the nation than university education.
While no one is oblivious of the trajectory between the universities and national development, we still cannot afford to sacrifice other critical sectors to fund the universities. Besides reforming the education sector, all stakeholders must come to terms with the fact that a lot of delicate balancing and trade offs are now inevitable and that the federal government cannot continue to pretend that it can give university education to the citizenry free of charge. It is unhelpful for ASUU to continue to blackmail the nation with the issue of corruption in government and the hefty salaries of political office holders as justification for its outrageous demands.
It is emphasised that no one approves of corruption in government or elsewhere. Regrettably, the universities have increasingly become citadels of corruption for which ASUU members are seriously implicated. Rather than compounding the problems bedevilling the nation through acts of impunity and self-service, ASUU should help to find solutions to them. Nigeria has had enough of ASUU’s tyranny from the ivory tower.
Read this article in the Thisday Newspapers
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.