By Isaac N. Obasi
Historically speaking, the strike statistics of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) are usually frightening in both frequency and duration. The duration of ASUU strikes appears to impact more negatively on the reputational status of our otherwise highly respected ASUU members than even the incessant nature of the strikes. In terms of frequency (starting from the first ASUU strike of 1980), we can count a total number of 16 national strikes excluding warning strikes of shorter durations. This figure also excludes the first ever strike by Nigerian university academics under the umbrella of the Nigerian Association of University Teachers (NAUT) which occurred in 1973.
However, in terms of duration, the picture is more scary to members of the public, and more damaging to academics in reputational terms. For example, ASUU had: (a) 7 months strike in 1996; (b) 6 months strike each in 1994, 2003 and 2013; (c) 5 months strike each in 1995, 1998, 1999 and 2010; (d) 4 months strike in 2009; (e) 3 months strike each in 2002, 2007 and 2011; and (f) 2 months strike in 2001. This picture shows that on the average of the number of declared strikes (using these figures only and excluding both warning strikes and the earlier national strikes of 1980, 1981 and 1988), the duration of any declared ASUU strike, is 4.6 months. This is a bad record for both our public labour relations’ managers as well as our academics. Something has been fundamentally wrong. Strategies on both sides are not good enough to drastically reduce the number of strikes in the past 37 years (counting from 1980).
This article is not in any way condemnatory of ASUU strike at all, because historically speaking, strike has been the only language successive governments understood. The article rather condemns the mismanagement processes that consistently produced long periods of strikes. Indeed, its essence is to appeal to ASUU rank and file this time around to change this scary strike duration history. As it is now, the current strike announced by ASUU President, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, on Monday August 15, is already on the usual trajectory of a long national strike if nothing unprecedented happens. For example, by the time ASUU leadership consults the rank and file this week, and gets back to the government on the negotiation table, we would have lost two weeks or even more. To me therefore, the ASUU rank and file is the important factor that holds the key to changing this trajectory.
I argue with all sense of humility (as a long standing scholar of ASUU-FG conflict), that there is now an emerging strike resolution window which is unprecedented in the history of ASUU-FG conflict and negotiations. For the first time in this history, a serving honourable Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, openly declared very frankly that the federal government did not fulfil its part of the bargain with ASUU. This sincere and open confession of failure (uncharacteristic of past ministers on that seat), opens to me a new window to a quick resolution of this on-going ASUU strike. More importantly, this is a spirit that allows for constructive engagement necessary for reaching a consensus in any collective bargaining engagement. Again, this cooperative spirit de-escalates rather than escalates the conflict. It is a spirit that facilitates mutual trust and compromise on the bargaining table. Furthermore, this is the spirit that enables negotiation to proceed in good faith. Compare this spirit with the known historical uncooperative spirit that starts with the careless political statement namely that ‘the Federal Government cannot meet ASUU demands’ (some past governments added ‘unreasonable demands’). This posturing usually escalated the conflict by making it more political than managerial. For example, in his reaction, presidential spokesman Garba Shehu had already taken this position by stating that what ASUU was demanding was bigger than the entire appropriation for the Ministry of Education this year. In the past, it was this discordant tone that escalated ASUU-FG conflict, created stalemates and kept the strikes going for too long.
Historically, the federal government usually politicized, mismanaged and escalated ASUU strikes rather than addressed the substantive issues at stake, all in an attempt to cover its failure. Fortunately, this time around, this appears not to be the case with the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, and to a reasonable extent Dr. Chris Ngige, the Minister of Labour and Employment. Ngige’s initial position that the strike is illegal got mellowed down, as he has been working on the side of de-escalation of the conflict. Furthermore, the Minister of Finance, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun, as well as the honourable Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Abubakar Malami, have all been cooperating to resolve the issue. Again, members of the National Assembly who have always had a history of being very cooperative in resolving ASUU strikes have so far not disappointed.
All these demonstrate that only those adding value in making the duration of the strike short, are the ones talking and managing it, unlike in the past when every minister, other government officials and rented crowds, would be disparaging, demonising and blackmailing ASUU leadership and the rank and file, all in an attempt to cover their failure to implement the agreement with ASUU. To me, this is a window for a quick resolution of this current conflict.
I argue again that this strike could be one of the shortest national strikes in ASUU history depending on how the ASUU members vote when the leadership consults the branches on the offers made so far to ASUU by the government. I restate from hindsight that a window to resolve this strike is already open and I plead that nobody should close it. So far, the two ministers of Education, and Labour and Employment have categorically stated what the government can do now and what it cannot do. Historically too, this is also unlike in the past when government officials spoke deceitfully, sometimes, contradicting or even denying what those negotiating on government’s behalf already agreed on the bargaining table. This time around and luckily enough, these two ministers have categorically listed what the government has already agreed to implement and what it has not agreed to implement. My plea is that the rank and file of ASUU should accept these offers in the spirit of the collective bargaining principle of give and take.
This acceptance is not a sign of weakness, and it does not mean that the other demands are lost. The spirit of give and take promotes mutual trust and institutionalises a future workable collective bargaining process, rather than the repulsive tendency that a hardline posture foists on the relationship. I suggest that the national leadership of ASUU should explore new vista of opportunities within the instrumentality of collective bargaining on how to go about resolving areas of differences with respect to the operation of the Treasury Single Account (TSA) and the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS).
Prof. Obasi, of the Department of Public Administration, University of Abuja, did his Ph.D thesis on ‘ASUU-Government Conflict…’, in 1991.