We deplore last week’s decision of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) to embark on an indefinite strike at this time and under the prevailing circumstances. The union had some weeks ago issued a notice for a warning strike. Intense negotiations between the union and the government were observable and some of them were reported in the media. The nation was made to understand that the negotiations were proceeding as they should. When the union introduced its University Transparency Accountability System (UTAS), as its preferred compensation platform and an alternative to the Federal Government’s Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS), the country breathed a sigh of relief.
Both sides spoke on how they intend to integrate both systems to ensure that all the concerns of the union were identified and accommodated within the system.
Having refused to enrol into IPPIS, ASUU was then asked to unfurl its much heralded UTAS. And the union astonished its audience by pleading to be given 18 months to develop the UTAS. The union explained that developing the application software would take six months, its alpha testing will take three months, what it calls Beta (experimental stage) will take six months and rounding off the system will take another three months. Apparently perplexed, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige, asked: what happens in the interim? After uncomfortable silence, the Minister said while the government waits for 18 months for UTAS, the union should, in the interim, enrol in IPPIS starting from the middle of March while special arrangements are made to pay February salaries of those who have not registered with IPPIS. The union made no response to this generous gesture.
Now almost all serious negotiations hit roadblocks at one time or the other. They do not end negotiations. What they denote is that the negotiators require added creativity and fresh initiatives to overcome an obstacle. Thus Nigeria was not expecting a transition from a warning strike to an indefinite strike by the union. The country expected a resolution over long-standing issues, including the fabled 2009 agreements which have bedevilled ASUU’s relationship with the Federal Government for years. Besides, the National Assembly had intervened to facilitate agreements, open up logjams, and serve as both an honest broker and a mediator. Everyone, therefore, expected progress, not deadlock.
We had expected the ASUU to approach the issue of a strike with a great deal of circumspection because ASUU, when it concerns strikes, is like a woman with a past. Some facts about ASUU’s strikes in the past are so ingrained in the memory of many Nigerians that they are hard to forget. In the 19 years since Nigeria returned to civil rule in the Fourth Republic, university teachers have embarked on strikes 14 times that saw them stay away from work for about 40 months. The current strike, therefore, is ASUU’s 15th strike in less than 20 years.
There are thousands of Nigerian graduates and former students who lost vital years in their programmes or were frustrated out of their university education due to ASUU’s strikes. Similarly, thousands of parents hold ASUU responsible for the dysfunctional university education calendar in Nigeria, a fact which ensures that thousands of Nigerian parents, including those who cannot be described as rich, have little choice but to strain themselves to send their children abroad. ASUU’s last strike was in November 2018.
Now, there is no accountability for the nearly four years in which the lecturers did no work and this is the probable cause of the union’s incessant urge for strikes. In other parts of the world, when workers go on strike, they don’t expect to get paid for the duration, which is why strikes like ASUU’s are rare elsewhere. So, ASUU seems to view strikes as paid vacations because no government has had the balls to implement the ‘no work no pay’ rule which is taken for granted everywhere else.
The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr Femi Gbajabiamila, is not exactly an elderly man but he spoke with ASUU chiefs like an elder, trying to reason with them. “It is almost embarrassing. The National Assembly is appealing to you for the sake of our children to call this off. Let’s see what we can achieve. It’s a tripartite agreement. Please give us the opportunity and confidence to deal with the situation. Schools are shutting down because of Coronavirus. Let it not be said that we are closing schools because of ASUU strike.” We are on the side of the Speaker. At the same time, we appeal to ASUU to see the need to suspend the strike and dialogue with the government over all pending issues.