By Sunday Ani
Thousands of students of the Federal Polytechnic, Oko, Anambra State, on Tuesday, August 24, took to the streets to protest the prolonged strike by members of the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP) of the institution. The local chapter of ASUP has been on strike for the past one month, paralysing academic activities in the institution.
The aggrieved students, who demanded an immediate resumption of normal academic activities in the institution, also accused the institution’s governing council chairman, Mr Kale Kawu, of being the brain behind the prolonged strike.
They alleged that the strike was sponsored by Kawu’s foot soldiers and called for his resignation or immediate removal. They also threatened to mobilise 14 million students nationwide to shut down OKOPOLY if the Federal Government fails to remove the council chairman, insisting that it was the only way to restore sanity in the institution.
The students, who defied the early morning rain, displayed placards with such inscriptions as: “Call off the strike now,” “The strike is sponsored by Kawu Boys” “Remove Kawu now or Blood will flow,” and “One week warning strike now one month old,” among others.
The spokesman of the protesting students, Azoba Ekene Solomon of the Mass Communication Department, lamented that the strike came shortly after the COVID-19 lockdown, thereby further interrupting the academic calendar that had suffered because of the Coronavirus pandemic. He said it has been a frustrating experience for students of the polytechnic and demanded an end to the industrial action.
The Rector of the Polytechnic, Dr. Francisca Nwafulugo, who was caught off-guard by the protest, appealed to the students to remain calm, assuring them that issues of contention between ASUP and the management were gradually being resolved. She said the institution’s management had resolved all pending issues, except arrears of allowances for excess workload, which has been a national issue, not peculiar to the institution alone. She assured the students that the Committee of Federal Rectors (COFER) had taken up the issue with the Federal Government and promised that the polytechnic management was working tirelessly to bring ASUP back to the classroom.
The protest came barely few days after the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), demanded the removal of Mr Kawu. In a letter to the Executive Secretary, National Board for Technical Education (NBTE), dated August 9, 2021, and signed by the National Public Relations Officer, Victor Ezenagu, the students decried “the high handedness and abuse of office” by the new Chairman of the Council, who was also a member of the dissolved Council in 2019.
NANS said students of the polytechnic had been subjected to unending suffering, following the friction emanating from the chairman’s overbearing interference in the daily affairs of the polytechnic, which led to the stagnation of academic activities for the past three months.
The students equally alleged that Kawu has refused to visit the Polytechnic to find solutions to the lingering crisis. “It was reported that the chairman cited security reasons, and reportedly directed the transportation of ASUP members and polytechnic management to Abuja to meet him for discussion,” the students alleged.
Also speaking, the National Chairman of ASUP, Anderson Ezeibe, advised the parties involved – the union, the governing council and the management to come together, and see how to resolve the issues amicably, so that normal academic activities could commence.
“From the information available to me, I want to believe that while the union has been interfacing with the management, I don’t think the same thing is happening with the governing council and that is why the issues have lingered. The union cannot just discuss with only the management; it will require the council to put its feet on the ground because even if the school management resolves the issues, the council can overrule it since it is above the management. So, my expectation is that the council and the Management will interface with the Union and resolve the issues amicably. Why this has not been done in the last one month is what I don’t understand. Is it that the union is not willing to meet with the council and the management, or that the council is not showing commitment to meet with the union?” he wondered.
On the failed efforts to bring the chairman down to Oko, he said if it is true that the chairman refused to visit the institution, then it is very unfortunate because as the chairman of the council, and before taking up the responsibility, he knows that it is part of his duties, since his duty post is in Oko Polytechnic. “So, he should be able to come down to the school when there is a challenge in the school and resolve the matter. If it is true that he has refused to come down to Oko, then it is very unfortunate, and certainly, that falls short of the expectations of a governing council leadership,” he said.
On the issues of workload allowance arrears, he said it is not an allowance that cuts across all the schools because it is not in all the schools that you have excess workload. “So, what should be paid as an excess load allowance should be determined and agreed between the union and the management, and parties are duty bound to respect that agreement. And if there is any reason the content of the agreement cannot be implemented, the management can call for a renegotiation of the agreement. So, the take-off point in all of these is for the parties in the dispute to come together, look at the issues, and reach an agreement,” he submitted.
However, when contacted, Kawu denied instigating the ASUP to go on strike, saying he even begged them not to go on strike when he got wind of the plan. “ASUP went on strike and they gave notice to the Rector that they were going on strike because they have not been paid some arrears even before my council was inaugurated. So, I don’t know how I could have instigated them,” he said.
On the allegation that he refused to visit Oko to resolve the issues, he also said it was not true. He stated that when the union sought an audience with him, he told them he could not grant them the audience at the time until he had heard from the management about the issues. He further stated that after he was briefed by the management about the issues, he fixed a meeting with them for Abuja, lamenting that the union cancelled the meeting at the last minute, citing pressure from the national body.
“I am the chairman of the council and I don’t see anything wrong in fixing the meeting in Abuja. So, I don’t understand why they are saying I refused to come down to Oko? There is the Rector who is overseeing the activities of the school 24 hours, and if the problem is beyond her she would tell me,” he stated.
On the students’ threat to mobilize 14 million students to shut down Oko Polytechnic if he was not removed, he said: “It is the ASUP that is on strike and they are not on strike because of me. Their demands are there and they didn’t write the letter to me. So, why should the students move against me when I am not the cause of the strike?” he wondered.
He said he was even trying to see why they have not been paid and how much that could be paid out of the available resources. “And in this situation, you don’t deal with the union; you deal with the people who know where the money is and how much that is there. I am only trying to see how we can mitigate the problem. So, I repeat again that I didn’t instigate the union to go on strike. They went on strike on their own. They wrote a letter and they have given their demands and it is there for everybody to see,” he said.