By Lateef Dada (Osogbo)
Dr. Niyi Sumonu is national coordinator, Congress of University Academics (CONUA). In this interview, he spoke about efforts to get the union registered so as to provide regular and uninterrupted academic calendar. He posited that industrial action has done more harm than good and the method should be changed. Excerpts:
What is delaying the registration of CONUA?
Actually, I feel the Federal Government through the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment is in the best position to respond to that.
But I wouldn’t want to let the question pass without saying that, CONUA was fortunate on August 8, this year, the Minister of State for
Labour and Employment, Festus Keyamo, did say in television interview that CONUA has fulfilled all requirements for registration. We are fortunate because that was the first time we will hear from the officer of the Federal Government that all that is needed has been fulfilled by CONUA since four years ago CONUA applied.
For that reason, I call on the government to expedite action on the registration of CONUA because freedom of association is enshrined in the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended. It shouldn’t be because the minister also mentions further that they don’t want to be seen as the one breaking ASUU and trying to paraphrase. They shouldn’t because of another group of people deny us our fundamental human rights.
But there are insinuations that the government is using CONUA to divide ASUU. How true is this?
I find that allegation very laughable on several points. First, except it was the government that is coordinating, tele-guiding that other academic union. If it is a government that is tele-guiding them, then I will agree to that insinuation. To my mind, at best, it is a rumour.
Second, the union expelled academics and they attempted to humiliate academics. We have been called all sorts of names in this university for example where it started at OAU here. Sometimes we have been called impostors.
Very recently, you heard the national president of that union calling some universities quacks. So as adults, all academics in our universities would not be less than 18 years of age. The constitution recognises that once you are 18 years of age you can take some decisions on your own. It is insulting to us.
Professors among the youngest and us even the graduate assistant in terms of position among us to come up with that kind of narrative. We interrogated issues and decisions they took. Precisely, February 12, 2018 and we decided to form another union. It is our decision. It is not being tele-guided by anybody.
Third, if it is tele-guided by any government, they should have registered us before now. We have been on the registration for over four years. We take nothing from the government.
Why are your members not going back to class?
At no time did CONUA declare a strike. That is not to say that we are invariably saying that there are no problems in the universities.
There are problems anywhere and everywhere. Universities are not immune to it.
We only believe that the usage of a strategy of industrial action has delivered more headaches than good for all stakeholders, including the lecturers that go on strike. It also hurts the progress, achievement and the growth of the universities among other things. We believe we should explore other methods for driving home our demands.
That said we’ve not been able to continue to carry out our statutory duties because students in our various campuses have been asked to vacate the universities, precisely when the non-teaching unions declared their strike.
What is your position on this unending ASUU strike?
If you look at the history of strike by academic unions in the country, there are two major opinions as to when it started. One opinion said it started in 1981, the other said it started 1974/75.
When you look at the two, you will point to one thing, that we’ve been using the weapon of strike for 40 years upward.
That is the common thing between the two schools of thought as to when it started. When you look at it on two fronts, when you use a method, no matter how potent that method is, when you overuse it, it becomes a problem.
Also, when you evaluate the effects it has on the system, the negative effect surely outweighs the positive ones. When you then use a method and you are at liberty to evaluate it and you can see that the negative effects outweigh the positive ones, as academics, as thinkers, as intellectuals, what you then do is just look for other methods to press home your demands.
I want you to look at that period either 74/75 or 1981, there have been different forms of government – democracy, military and so on – and they have been responding in the same way. Intellectuals need to think out of the box, to even extend it to think as if there is no box so that you can always get what you want for the system to run.
Are you saying strike is not part of your strategy?
Simply put, strike is not going to be part of the strategies with
which we want to engage the government. This is because all stakeholders will feel the negative impact. It is not because we lack infrastructure so to say, solely.
It is not the sole reason that is not making our universities in this country rank along with their peers in the international community.
Part of the reasons could be adduced to the open-and-close nature of our universities. Students will come in and they won’t know when they are going to graduate.
As it is today, some students don’t even know when they will come in.
Having evaluated the negative effects of most of the strikes, we are of the view that it is not the best method. We are in a democracy we can deploy other methods; mostly, discussions and negotiations.
When you come to that negotiation with the kind of stakeholders, you don’t come in with a fixed mind. You don’t come in as you are in an ego kind of clash. We want to believe that kind of discussion, that kind of atmosphere will give us some kind of win-win, get what we want and the university system will not also suffer.
Has the issue of formula for sharing of earned academics allowance been resolved in OAU?
The earned allowance is peculiar, universal to federal universities in this country. It is simply put as a result of excess work done by academics in terms of workload concerning student/lecturer ratio, in terms of the number of scripts you grade and so on.
An average person can only do a certain number of students in terms of grading their script and in terms of teaching. Earned academic allowances come from the fact that you carry a kind of overload.
At Obafemi Awolowo University, the last time was around November/December 2021. It became an issue because our friend on the other side, (that’s the way I love to refer to them), felt that allowance is not meant for other academics who do not belong or who do not subscribe to that union.
We say, from our understanding of how the earned allowances work, we said to them that it’s for academics, it’s not for a particular union, and that became an issue. Eventually, it was resolved in February 2022.
What the university did was to set up a committee to look at the claims of the individuals and do calculations on the claims. They paid members concerning the verifiable claims. Since that time, I do not think there is any problem. Though there are still some pockets of issues that deal with a large number of people which we are taking up with the university.
What makes CONUA different from ASUU?
In terms of module Operandi, as a union, that’s where we have a difference. Another area is that members that formed CONUA in 2018 were part of that other union before.
But there were issues that eventually rose. They found out that those issues were true and through which they met out punishment to officers that were found culpable. They said, even though we agreed with you, in their document, we have a document to back that up.
A report by a committee of trustees of that union agreed with us in almost all areas. Over 90 per cent of the issues raised were indeed true. They met out punishment to those officers; only to say that the method with which we call attention to, the infractions of those officers was wrong and that method they said was the formation of the caretaker committee.
For that reason, we were expelled from the union. As free citizens of this country, we felt we should operate under Section 40 of the Constitution to fully associate. That is why we explained the way unionism should be practiced in this present age and time.
If you don’t move with time you are likely to be left behind. We feel we should do things differently. I will give a couple of examples may be one here. To this day, the traditional media outlet is not the only way of disseminating information to the public. Social media is having a potent power concerning the dissemination of information even though some citizens abuse it.
But what I want to bring out here is that a union needs to move. Any organisation, any human being needs to move with time especially good terms of time. For example, in our union, since we started we have been operating a social media handle.
We are also operating a website where we can have feedback from people. All our activities are documented on our website. So the area of difference is concerning how unionism should be practiced. As free citizens of this country, there should be democratisation of unionism on our campuses and everywhere so that everyone will have a sense of belonging on how things should be run.
So, a member frustrated or not satisfied with a union should have the
opportunity to join any other union?
That is the reason we are calling on the government to democratise academic unionism. It will afford people the opportunity to operate freely. Our academics have independent minds. That is the essence of our callings.
You carry out research and you are convinced. You come out to the public, even concerning giving seminars, to prove your point to support what you believe. Then, you take a position on those things you believe in.
There are insinuations that many of your members in other universities
have returned to ASUU. Are you aware of this?
They are at best insinuations and he who alleges should be the one to
prove. At best it is a rumour to us.
What is the strength of CONUA?
We are strong. We have presence in about 17 universities. Of course, the numerical strength varies from one university to the other. That has to do with the lack of registration.
But we believe once people are sure that the government will protect their interests by
granting us registration, all these variables will change.
Do you support the purported move to proscribe ASUU?
We are in a democracy. Democracy recognises freedom of association and it is specifically enshrined in our constitution. As a union, we will frown at autocracy within a democracy. That autocracy concerns the unilateral proscription of any union or any organisation.
If there are issues, government should bring through an instrument of democracy concerning legal actions. So, it is only a court of law that can make pronouncements. Unionism is a product of the constitution. Is only the court of law that can interpret that constitution.
It won’t be cheering news in a democracy, so we frown at it. What happens to anyone today can happen to us tomorrow. I want to treat it as a rumour. I do not think government will go through that route considering the kind of experience we had in their hands. If they want to do that, they should have done it concerning our registration by fiat.
We applied in 2018 for crying out loud around April/May. The letter was dated April 30 and was submitted the first week of May 2018. I do not think and I will not want to encourage any democratically elected government to go through that route. It is about setting the country ablaze.
If your union is eventually approved, can you vow that it will ensure
academic stability in the universities?
It is part of our aspirations. We believe in that strongly. We believe that when you democratise, if you give people freedom to freely associate under academic unions in the university, then we will achieve an uninterrupted academic calendar. We need that to start with as a country.
We need that to stabilise our country and keep our youth engaged meaningfully. Of course, we will continue to fight government concerning the improvement of our welfare. We believe with goodwill, we will get those things. We need to have an uninterrupted academic calendar. That is one of our cardinal points.
With the delay in giving approval for registration, what is the future of CONUA?
We believe that government will do the needful very soon. Of course, when we evaluate issues as events unfold, we will take certain decisions in line with democratic principles to press home our rights.
CONUA has a bright future. We are not going to fold up. Democracy grants us the right of association. It also grants us that when you ask for something legitimately and there are some dillydally, we can also take some democratic tools to press home our demand. But we haven’t reached that yet.
There was a time when ASUU declared a strike and CONUA members were attending classes, particularly at OAU. Is the disagreement between CONUA and ASUU not affecting students?
That disagreement came because our friends on the other side don’t want to accord CONUA its recognition probably because it has not been registered. Once that registration is through, the tide will change.
Then we’ll need to engage each other from a legal perspective. They will then have to recognise that this group of people cannot be discountenanced. It is a kind of ego trip concerning the way they wanted to treat CONUA. But we hope very soon all those things will be settled. When registration is granted CONUA, then the same way two human beings accord each other respect, two colleagues accord each other respect is the kind of way we are going to operate.
When you see two persons working in the same environment, according each other respect, what they need to do is to cooperate to achieve goals. The areas of disagreement will then be discussed. For example, the NLC and TUC, is it affecting the country negatively? The answer, to our mind is, no.