From Joseph Atobisi
When everyone thought that peace has returned to our ivory towers after the prolonged strike of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the union is back to the trenches again. This time, ASUU is holding nationwide protest rallies, to express their dissatisfaction with the decision of the Federal Government to pay them from the date that they suspended their last eight-month strike. The countrywide protests, scheduled for lecture-free days, are being held at the branch-level of the union across campuses of public universities.
As a labour activist, I have been monitoring the situation in our citadels of learning since ASUU kick-started the protest rallies, although with bated breath. Given that the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria (as amended) and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, guarantee the rights of citizens to hold peaceful protests, rallies or demonstrations when aggrieved, I have no issues with the decision of ASUU to express their dissatisfaction through the countrywide protests.
However, what I found both incomprehensible and incongruous is the sudden shift in the agenda of the protest from the issue of withheld salaries to the demand for the sack of the Minister of Labour and Employment, Sen, Chris Ngige, on the grounds that he personalised ASUU’s fight with the Federal Government. For me, it is not just enough to aver that Ngige personalised the FG/ASUU imbroglio without adducing an atom of evidence to prove the averment, even though puerile.
More worrisome is that the ASUU protesters calling for Ngige’s sack have been doing so, without deference to the legal conundrum surrounding the withheld salaries. Is it not public knowledge that “No work, No pay” is one of the teething issues for determination in the substantive suit before the NICN? Among other requests, the court was asked to: “Interpret the provisions of Section 43 of the Trade Disputes Act. Cap T8, LFN 2004 titled “Special Provision with Respect to payment of Wages during Strikes and lockouts. Can ASUU or any union that embarked on strike be asking to be paid salary, even with the clear provision of the law?”
The court was also asked to “Determine whether ASUU is entitled to emoluments or “strike pay” during their period of current strike which commenced on February 14, 2022, more so in view of our national law as provided in Section 43 of the Trade Dispute Act and the International Labour Organisation Principles on the Rights to strike as well as the decisions of the ILO committee on Freedom of Association on the subject.”
I cited relevant portions of the court documents above, to buttress the fact that the issue of “No work, No pay” is before the court. Recall that the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment, while debunking media reports on the payment of half salaries to ASUU members, made it clear that “everybody’s hands are tied” on the matter. Hence, any decision taken by the Federal Government without the direction of the honourable court is contemptuous of the court and has grave consequences for the contemnor.
Academics are enlightened people and I need not remind them of the essence of the Rule of Law as broken down into three main concepts by Professor A.V. Dicey in 1885. Notable among Dicey’s conceptualisations is that “no man is above the law and everyone, whatever his condition or rank, is subject to the ordinary laws of the land.” Bearing in mind the fundamental nature of the Rule of Law, Sen. Ngige should rather be seen as treading on the path of law and not personalising the dispute as falsely posited by the ASUU protesters.
The protesters have also been accusing Ngige of destroying university education in Nigeria. This is not only a complete fallacy, but resort to blackmail in a desperate bid by the university lecturers to receive compensation for the eight months they willfully and unlawfully stayed at home. Is it not an irony that the same ASUU which once praised Ngige for having faith in Nigeria’s university system is now accusing him of destroying the same system? Ngige is an alumnus of the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN). His children are products of Nigerian universities. Apart from his biological children, numerous others, under the sponsorship of his foundation, are scattered across public universities in Nigeria. All these facts have been in public domain a long time ago.
The last ASUU strike could have further prolonged but for the proactive and erudite steps that the minister took. In obedience to the Trade Dispute Act, 2004, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, he referred the matter to the NICN for adjudication, when the negotiation between the Federal Government and ASUU failed irretrievably, due to ASUU’s intransigence and uncompromising stance of bullying those involved in the negotiation, including their employers, the Federal Ministry of Education and the National Universities Commission.
Prior to the referral, Ngige in consonance with Section 18 of TDA, 2004, apprehended and conciliated the ASUU industrial dispute twice, first, on February 22, 2022 and some agreements were reached and later brought back for further conciliation on March 1, all the parties that have one thing or the other to do with the ASUU demands, including the Federal Ministry of Education, NUC, the Federal Ministry of Finance, Budget and National Planning (FMFB&NP), Budget Office of the Federation (BoF), National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) and office of the Head of Service of the Federation.
After the second conciliation, what was left was the issue of renegotiation of the conditions of service of the university workers under the principle of offer and acceptance, which by the way, was the pathway of Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) as advised by the Honourable Minister of Labour and Employment.
Regarding the issue of payment platform, the public should not also lose sight of the fact that it was Ngige who suggested that there should be handshake between the government approved platform, the Integrated Personnel Payroll Information System (IPPIS) and the University Transparency Accountability System (UTAS), which ASUU developed. This suggestion was borne out of his belief in creativity and local content in line with Executive Orders 3 and 5 signed by the President in 2019. It is the same suggestion that ASUU embraced in its discussions with the Speaker of House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila after shutting down academic activities in our universities for eight months.
As of the time of writing this piece, the Federal Government and ASUU have returned to the National Industrial Court of Nigeria (NICN) for further proceedings on the substantive suit before the President of the court, Justice Benedict Kanyip Ph.D. The Federal Government made a referral to the court seven months into the last ASUU strike, after its dialogue with the union, failed irreparably. The transmittal of the referral instrument was done by Ngige in accordance with his powers as provided in Section 17 of the Trade Disputes Act, 2004, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria.
Based on the referral which was accompanied by an application for interlocutory injunction, the vacation judge, Justice Polycarp Hamman on September 21, issued an order, restraining members of ASUU from continuing with their indefinite strike, pending the determination of the substantive suit. While issuing the order, Justice Hamman commended Ngige for acting proactively, insisting that the strike inflicted irreparable damage on public university education.
Justice Hamman further lamented that university students had been out of school for eight months in a country where age is considered for employment and enrolment into the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), Nigerian Army, Air Force, Police and other para-military organisations. The order in suit no: NICN/ABJ/270/2022 was upheld by the Court of Appeal, Abuja Division, which also directed ASUU to immediately enter their defence on the substantive suit, as ordered by Justice Hamman, before remitting the matter back to the President of the NICN, Justice Kanyip.
In conclusion, I am of the view that Ngige has justified his appointment for two terms as the Minister of Labour and Employment. Since assuming office as the Minister of Labour and Employment in 2015, his, ministry has successfully resolved no fewer than 1680 industrial disputes, leaving very little job for the Industrial Arbitration Panel (IAP) and the National Industrial Court of Nigeria (NICN). The successfully resolved disputes cut across various sectors, including health, education, aviation, science and technology, judiciary, legislature and others. I will rest my case here for now.
• Atobisi writes from Abuja.