By Gabriel Dike & Benjamin Babine, Abuja
Nigeria’s educational system is no stranger to strikes and several other industrial actions. However, lately, the number of strikes by various university workers’ unions has been alarming, thereby pausing the academic growth of many students.
The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), on December 23, 2020, announced the suspension of its nine-month-long strike, which began in March 2020, after several negotiations with the Federal Government from which the latter approved N40 billion for the payment of earned allowances, amongst other demands agreed upon.
One would think that it would mark a beginning of rejoicing for students, but the development was greeted with agitation from the three other university workers’ unions: the Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions (NASU), Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) and the National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT).
Despite last-minute efforts by the Federal Government to stave off the impending strike by the non-teaching staff unions, the workers kept to the treat as their members, on Friday, February 5, 2021, began an indefinite strike to protest the non-implementation of their demands dating back to 2009.
Before the strike, members of SSANU and NASU staged a three-day protest nationwide, from January 12 to 14, with a view to drawing the attention of stakeholders to the issues a stake, seeking redress.
The leadership of the Joint Action Committee (JAC), in line with the democratic tenets, sought input on the decision to embark on strike after the three-day protest from the various members across branches. The resolution from the branches was overwhelming and it conveyed the disenchantment of members over the sorry state of affairs, indicating that 90 per cent of NASU members nationwide voted for strike,10 per cent against industrial action, while 83 per cent of SSANU supported the strike, 11 per cent were against it, and 6 per cent were indifferent.
The major bone of contention was the sharing formula of the N40 billion earned allowance approved by the Federal Government. It had allegedly been approved that 75 per cent of the money would go to ASUU while the other unions would share the remaining 25 per cent. Expectedly, this sparked outright revolt from the other unions.
Some of the complaints were about government’s handling of the sharing formula for the N40bn earned allowances; the unions also expressed grievances over a memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed with government, which they claimed the government did not adhere to. NASU and SSANU had previously embarked on a 14-day warning strike, between October 5and 19, 2020, to protest a number of issues bordering on the welfare of members.
The warning strike culminated in the signing of the MoU on October 20, 2020, between representatives of the unions and the federal government. The leadership of the unions, in a press briefing on January 22, 2021, disclosed that only one of eight demands had been “partially met” by government. This, alongside the sharing formula of the N40b earned allowance, according to them, was the major reason they were going on strike.
Speaking on behalf of the unions, the NASU general secretary and spokesperson for JAC, Prince Peters Adeyemi, said: “The ongoing industrial tensions in the Nigeria university system stems from the failure of government to respect collective bargaining agreements entered into with JAC of NASU and SSANU.”
Non-academic unions’ demands
“Out of eight of the issues, only one has been partially resolved, while the other seven have not been attended to by government, three months after the MoU was signed,” he said.
One of the eight on the MoU was: Inconsistencies in IPPIS payment for which the unions proposed its own payment platform called University Peculiar Personnel and Payroll Payment System (U4PS). Other issues were: Non-payment of earned allowances, unpaid of arrears of national minimum wage, delay in renegotiation of Federal Government/NASU-SSANU 2009 agreement, and unpaid retirement benefits of former members.
Also, they complained about teaching staff usurping headship of non-teaching units in violation of conditions of service and establishment procedures, neglect and poor funding of state universities, and absence of visitation panels for universities.
Speaking about the IPPIS, Adeyemi said: “Our joining IPPIS was in good faith and with an understanding that it would capture the peculiarities of the university system. Sadly, since enrolment of our members onto the platform, we have experienced many anomalies and irregularities in salary payments to our members. Some of our members have not received salaries since enrolment about a year ago, while some statutory allowances were also not paid to deserving staff.
“Third-party deductions such as union dues and cooperative societies’ contributions were muddled up. The confusion caused by IPPIS has led to our demand that it should be stopped as a payment platform for NASU and SSANU members and as such we have also designed a payment platform called the U4PS.”
JAC said: “Earned allowances are a product of the 2009 SSANU and NASU agreements with government. The first tranche of N30 billion was paid in 2013 through the due process of the governing councils of the universities who disbursed the payments to deserving staff. The second tranche in 2017 witnessed a breach of due process and the payment was allocated from the Federal Ministry of Education at a ratio of 89 per cent for ASUU and 11 per cent for other unions.
“The councils were sidelined while inter-university centres were excluded. Following our protests, an additional sum of N8 billon was released to cater for part of the shortfall paid to our members. In 2019, another tranche was paid using the same wrongful process of allocation from the Federal Ministry of Education and, again, ASUU was allocated 80 per cent and other unions 20 per cent.
“Very unfortunately, a document is in the public space, dated December 24, 2020, and signed by the executive secretary, National Universities Commission, Prof. Abubakar Rasheed, titled: Distribution of N40 billion Earned Allowances to federal universities. It gave directive to the Accountant-General of the Federation that the N40 billion due for release should be made along union lines at the ratio of 75 per cent for ASUU and 25 per cent for other unions.
“More than one year after the implementation of the national minimum wage, the government has not deemed it fit to pay the arrears to staff of universities and inter-university centres despite the fact that other ministries, departments and agencies had been paid. The MoU signed with the Federal Government on October 20, 2020, agreed to compute and process the arrears for payment within a two-week time frame, which government has failed to comply with.
“The JAC of NASU and SSANU had been very circumspect about embarking on a strike. It has never been our style to undertake strikes at the drop of a hat. Sadly, it would appear that our non-belligerent modes of engagement have been taken for weakness and our belief in civil engagement and dialogue has been taken for granted.”
As a result, Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige, on February 2, 2021, held a meeting with the JAC, in a bid to avert the strike. Though the meeting ended in a deadlock, the unions said they would report to their members about the issues discussed before reaching any decision.
At the end of the meeting, a committee was set up to address the concerns of the unions regarding the anomalies in the payment of their members, as well as other issues.
Despite the meetings with government, the unions commenced the industrial action on February 5. Responding to the announcement, Ngige said the strike was illegal and might prompt the ministry to take legal action.
Ngige said: “We will not claim ignorance of the fact that three unions in the Nigerian university system, the NASU, SSANU and the NAAT, had given us notice of strike.
“The first two unions, SSANU and NASU, did that under the umbrella of JAC and, as government, we have moved to apprehend the strike because we just came out from a strike that lasted for nine months that was executed by ASUU.”
Released earned allowance causes ripples
The earned allowance is causing crisis between the non-teaching staff and the universities’ management.
The mandate schedule for payment of universities’ earned allowance, dated January 8, obtained by Daily Sun, read: ‘’You are hereby authorised to debit the Revitalization of Universities Infrastructure Account and credit the underlisted universities.’’
Breakdown of the amount revealed that University of Nigeria, Nsukka, got N2,892,952 billion, N2.1 billion for academic staff and N723,238 million for three non-teaching staff, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, received N2,660,525 billion, N1.995 billion went to ASUU members and three non-academic unions shared N665,331 million; while University of Calabar got N2,345,942 billion, made up of N1.759,45 6billion for teaching staff and N586,485 million for non-academic staff.
University of Ibadan received N2,118,903 billion, ASUU UI members got N1,589,177 billion, non-teaching workers picked N529,725 million; University of Lagos was credited with N1,892,036 billion, academic staff shared N1,419,027 billion, non-teaching workers got N473,009 million; Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, was credited with N1,852,253 billion, members of ASUU got N1,389,189 billion, non-teaching staff received N463,063 million; University of Benin’s share is N2,329,901 billion, and teaching staff pocketed N1,747,426 billion while three non-academic unions got N582,475 million.
Others are: University of Jos, credited with N1,741,607 billion, the UNIJOS ASUU members shared N1,306,205 billion, their non-academic counterparts got N435,401 million; University of Ilorin received N1,526,602 billion, teaching staff received N1,144,952 billion, three non-academic workers’ unions shared N381,650 million; University of Abuja got N831,534 million, its teaching staff received N623,650 million, non-academic unions shared N207,883 million; Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, N850,224 million, ASUU members got N637,668 million, non-teaching workers got N212,556 million; and University of Agriculture, Makurdi, received N986,789 million, its academic staff pocketed N740,092million and three non-teaching unions got N246,697 million.
NANS reacts to strike
In an interview with The Education Report, the president of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), Comrade Asefon Sunday, lamented the industrial action, stating that it would plunge the education sector into more perils. He called on the Federal Government and the unions to think about the future of Nigerian youths.
He said: “Its obvious that it’s going to affect our education system and at least 30 to 40 per cent of each university will be paralysed, if NASU and SSANU are on strike. It will negatively affect Nigerian students. Students have only just started returning to school after almost a year and there are a lot of things to do on campus and there’s no way they can be done with this strike.
“It is the non-teaching staff who handle all registration, they are the ones who manage our portals, even things like turning on the generators, they are the ones in charge. So, this strike will definitely deal a huge blow and set us back more. I want to appeal to the Federal Government, let them see how they can listen to the requests and find ways to meet those requests so that the strike won’t go on.
“The government and labour unions have to find equilibrium where issues can be resolved without industrial action. Nigerian students are always the ones at the receiving end of these industrial actions. Most people have been at home for over one year. For example, at the University of Abuja, students are still in first semester, which started in December 2019. This is February 2021.”
He went further to speak on how the long strike has pushed many students into different social vices, particularly Internet fraud: “They should look at the adverse effect of these strikes on our educational system and our youths. Nigerian students are not happy. It’s as if they are looking for a way to close our universities by all means.
“This country has to sit up and understand that, with the way we are joking with the education sector, we are sitting on a keg of gunpowder. The truth is, the pandemic, ASUU strike and every other thing that has kept people away from school has led more youths into Internet fraud. Any moment from now, we will see a lot of dropouts from schools.
“Imagine a student who had no money before the pandemic and got into Internet fraud, now driving a car of N4 million. How do you want to bring such a student back to school? And tomorrow, when the Internet fraud isn’t going his or her way, it’s either they go into money rituals or armed robbery. We keep complaining about insecurity and investing money to fix insecurity, but if we don’t take our education sector seriously, there will be more insecurity.”
Students and parents’ reactions
Tajudeen Afolabi, a 300 level student of Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, told The Education Report that he expected government to have engaged the leadership of the staff unions in discussions when the two-week ultimatum was issued. He said, after nine months staying at home, students could not afford another forced holiday.
Afolabi appealed to the Federal Government to address the issues in contention to avert a prolonged industrial action, even as stated that many universities were yet to find their feet after the lost academic session of last year, while some have cancelled the 2019/2020 academic session entirely due to the ASUU and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sandra Nwadike, a student of Federal University of Technology, Minna, asked government to implement the demands of SSANU and NASU before things get out of hand, as any new strike would disrupt the academic calendar of universities, thus, forcing students to spend extra years on campus.
“We are battling COVID-19 that has disrupted lectures and now we are faced with another strike. Government should do everything possible to prevent the strike.
“Students can’t stay at home anymore; we want to finish our university education and face the world. SSANU and NASU strike will affect the system, including essential services provided by its members,” Nwadike said.
Mother of two students, Mrs. Funke Olasupo, expressed disappointment that government allowed SSANU and NASU to disrupt the academic calendar of universities and asked why it did not attend to all the staff unions during the nine-month strike by ASUU and also wondered why it has failed to implement agreements signed with unions in the education sector.
She urged government to look into issues such as the problems associated with the implementation of IPPIS, earned allowance, payment of arrears of minimum wage and renegotiation of the 2009 agreement, adding: “Can the university system take another strike? Government ought to have been proactive and tackled all demands at a go rather than negotiating differently with the various unions.”
At the moment, it remains uncertain how long this strike will last and when students will resume their academic pursuits steadily.
However, it is clear that a long-lasting solution is needed in the Nigerian education sector, if the future of youths must be preserved.