ASUU strike, Ngige, and NANS outburst

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As a labour activist, I read with utmost dismay the press statement issued by the President of the National Association of Nigerian Students, NANS, Sunday Asefon, in which he blamed the Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige for the current four-week warning strike of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU.

On February 14, ASUU declared a “total and comprehensive” strike at the end of its National Executive Council, NEC, meeting in Lagos. The news of another nationwide industrial action by university lecturers dampened the mood of this year’s Valentine’s Day celebration across the country.

Several reasons were given by the union for embarking on the latest strike. They include the failure of the Federal Government to implement the Memorandum of Understanding, MOU, and Memorandum of Action, MOA, signed by the union and the government, the government’s poor commitment to the payment of the Earned Academic Allowances, EAA, the continued use of the Integrated Personnel Payroll Information System, IPPIS; the refusal of the government to adopt the Universities Transparency Accountability Solutions, UTAS, which ASUU developed; and the proliferation of universities in the country.

Besides blaming Ngige for the lecturers’ strike on the grounds that he did not live up to his responsibilities, the NANS helmsman further threatened him to expect an invasion of his office in large numbers by Nigerian students.

Part of the statement by Asefon read thus: “Let me assure the Minister that our protest in his office… was introductory and child’s play in what is to come. We are resolute more than before to ensure we hold the government, especially the Ministry of Labour, responsible for these incessant strike actions…”

Regardless of the numerous grammatical errors in the statement, any critical reader could easily see beneath the tirade, a predetermined agenda to damage the good reputation built by Sen. Ngige in more than half a decade of his stewardship as the Minister of Labour and Employment. Without any fear of contradiction, I will say that everybody up to date with happenings in the labour sector knows that Ngige has never shirked his responsibilities as the chief conciliator of labour disputes in the country.

Being an active player in the International Labour Organisation, ILO, he conciliates all labour disputes brought to his table according to international best practices.

By trying to make Ngige a scapegoat for the ASUU strike, the NANS boss has displayed ridiculous ignorance of labour management.

Having shown that he is uninformed, naïve and intellectually deficient, Asefon needs tutoring on the role of the Minister of Labour as a conciliator in labour disputes, such as the ASUU/Federal Government dispute. I want to begin by making him to understand that the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment is not the employer of the lecturers.

Their employer is the Federal Ministry of Education. If the NANS President had done some research, he surely would have discovered that whenever the lecturers take any matter to their employer, there is always a breakdown of negotiation. It is when there is deadlock or stalemate in negotiation that the Labour Ministry steps in.

This procedure is applicable to all labour disputes both in the public and private sectors. In any case, it is not Ngige’s job to implement agreements emanating from his conciliations. When it concerns workers in the public sector, whether lecturers or doctors or whoever, their parent ministries are expected to implement the agreements in conjunction with other relevant ministries, departments and agencies.

Regarding the ASUU matter, it is important to point out that the December 2020 Memorandum of Action, MOA, signed by the union and the Federal Government assigned no specific responsibility to the Ministry of Labour or Ngige in particular.

Those assigned responsibilities include the Federal Ministry of Education, FME, the Federal Ministry of Finance, Budget and Planning, FMFB&P; Budget Office of the Federation, BoF;, Office of the Accountant General of the Federation, OAGF; and the National Information Technology Development Agency, NITDA.

However, Ngige elevated his conciliation a step further by piling pressure on affected MDAs to discharge their own side of the agreement. Of course, when affected MDAs are not forthcoming, he never hesitates to approach Mr. President.

For instance, when the last ASUU strike (before the latest one) was called off in December 2020, he wrote a passionate letter to the President to approve on compassionate grounds, the payment of eight months’ salary arrears of the lecturers, which the Federal Government withheld for the period they were on strike.

This was not even contained in the agreement signed between the Federal Government and ASUU, but only a gentleman’s agreement. Predictably, our compassionate President granted his request and the Federal Government paid the money to the lecturers in tranches. This initiative was taken by the same Minister who NANS accused of not living up to his responsibilities.

From the information I gathered, the NANS president apart from being a civil servant in Ekiti State equally parades himself as a post-graduate student. Post-graduate students as researchers are expected to have greater problem-solving skills.

In solving a problem, you have to, first of all, identify the problem and the key elements of the problem. You don’t solve a problem serendipitously. If the student leader visited his library before issuing the statement, I am sure he would have directed his blame elsewhere.

A simple background check ought to have revealed to him that any strike by university teachers affects Ngige and his children, the same way it affects ordinary Nigerians. During the 2020 ASUU strike, the Minister was caught in between performing his duties as a very senior government official and playing the role of a concerned parent whose three biological children were in medical schools of three different public universities in Awka, Lagos, and Abuja.

This is besides numerous fatherless and indigent students from all parts of the country that he is catering for under the Sen. Chris Ngige Foundation Scholarship Scheme.

In October last year, ASUU while commending Ngige for sending his children to public universities, described him as a role model for demonstrating uncommon faith in the Nigerian university system.

Therefore, rather than engaging in such intemperate outbursts capable of escalating the already tense atmosphere in Nigerian universities, I expect NANS as the umbrella body of 30 million Nigerian students at home and abroad, to support Ngige to ensure that he sustains his untiring and passionate efforts towards resolving the dispute between ASUU and the Federal Government, in order to return peace to our ivory towers.

I am happy that regardless of the rude and ill-mannered approach adopted by NANS in engaging the Minister, being a father, he still deemed it fit to respond to the statement from the student body via an epistle-like press statement by the spokesman of his Ministry.

Courtesy of this response, we now know that hundreds of billions of naira have been paid to ASUU for the period they were not at work, leading to the invocation of the “No Work, No Pay Rule” as contained in Section 43 of the Trade Dispute Act. We are now aware that N40bn Earned Allowances was paid in February/March 2021.

It is now in the public domain that the N30bn Revitalisation that suffered delay was paid in October last year with another N22.7bn mainstreamed into the 2021 budget and also paid in November 2021 in line with the 2020 agreement. In all, a total of N92.72bn was paid.

Without going into the details of what transpired on the UTA vs. IPPIS imbroglio, we are now aware of the ongoing arrangement of the Minister at putting the matter to rest before ASUU embarked on the one-month warning strike.

Part of the arrangements is asking NITDA and other affected agencies to get ready for a meeting with neutral Information Technology Development experts to assist the Ministry to put the matter to rest.

The efforts being made by the Federal Government to address other grievances of ASUU were sequentially enumerated by the spokesman of the Ministry of Labour. In conclusion, I wish to appeal to NANS to apply more restraint in further interventions on the ongoing dispute between ASUU and the Federal Government.

The strike is an ill wind that blows nobody any good and so, all stakeholders must work in concert towards its speedy resolution.

Ngige and the staff of his ministry deserve commendation for their sacrifices to prevent undue disruption of academic activities in our universities.

The Minister, in particular, has remained proactive on matters affecting ASUU and in fact, all the university-based workers’ unions like the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), the Non-Academic Staff Union (NASU), amongst others. He does the same for other sectors of the economy.

If not for his deft conciliation, aviation workers would have shut down the country’s entire space a week before the ASUU strike. He needs to be encouraged. 

Atobisi, a labour activist, wrote from Abuja.

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