It has obviously become fashionable for Nigerian university unions to use strike to resolve any industrial dispute. Recently, the Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions (NASU) and Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) threatened to embark on an indefinite strike from February 5, 2021 if the Federal Government failed to address their demands. Hopes that the issues would be resolved were dashed last Tuesday when the meeting between the Federal Government and the Joint Action Committee of the unions ended in a deadlock.
The unions had embarked on a 14-day warning strike last October. Last January, they embarked on a three-day nationwide warning protest over government’s failure to honour the Memorandum of Understanding signed with them on October 20, 2020. They are disappointed that out of about eight issues, the government has partially resolved only one.
The grouse of the unions include the disparity in the sharing formula of the N40 billion earned academic allowances between them and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), non-payment of arrears of the new minimum wage since April last year, the issue of the problematic Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System (IPPIS), and poor funding of the universities.
Others are teaching staff alleged usurpation of the headship of non-teaching units, non-payment of retirement benefits to former members, non-constitution of visitation panels to universities, and delay in the renegotiation of FG/NASU and SSANU 2009 agreement.
In July 2009, the three registered trade unions in Nigerian universities, namely ASUU, SSANU and NASU had embarked on an industrial action that paralysed teaching, research and administration in the universities. The strike by ASUU then had its origin in 2001 when both the union and the Federal Government failed to sign a negotiated MoU which hinged on improving working and living conditions in Nigerian universities.
In March 2020, ASUU embarked on another strike that paralysed the universities. The grouse of ASUU was the non-implementation of the past agreements it had reached with the Federal Government. The introduction of IPPIS into the university system, better funding of the universities and welfare of members were also some of the contentious issues.
The rot in the tertiary institutions also bothered the union. Part of the rot include inadequate and overcrowded lecture halls, dilapidated hostel facilities, outdated library facilities, poor and inadequate facilities, such as interactive boards, good laboratories, clean toilets and good source of water. Last December, ASUU called off the protracted strike that made the universities lose one academic calendar.
It has become imperative to note that the Nigerian public university system has suffered enough disruptions. We cannot just come out of a protracted strike and threaten to embark on another one. It doesn’t portend good for the varsity education system. It is uncalled for. Oftentimes, the unions achieve little or nothing with the strike. They come out worse than they were.
Part of the problem is that there is this trust deficit that is so pervasive in Nigeria. Sometimes, government can be very stubborn and easily renege on agreements it reached with the unions. And if it is not keeping to its agreements with the unions, we can’t ask them to keep quiet.
What should bother both the government and the university unions now is that strikes lead to some negative consequences for the students and the entire university system. During the last one by ASUU, some students suffered depression, frustrations, domestic violence, rape and even death.
Besides, strikes have affected the quality of our varsity graduates. Our institutions are now rated so low abroad because of undue disruption of teaching and learning. Sometimes, Nigerian students seeking admission for postgraduate studies abroad are subjected to unnecessary tests to ascertain their academic fitness. This is partly why some parents now take their children to private universities and some universities in neighbouring West African countries.
All varsity unions should evolve pragmatic strategies to resolve their industrial matters. Strike should always be their last option. They should go into negotiations with the government instead of issuing ultimatums. Also, they should be realistic in their demands because times are hard. Government resources are quite limited now. They should also understand that the Minister of Labour and Employment will need time to meet with relevant stakeholders before taking action. This means that the two weeks ultimatum given to the government is not enough.