ASUU Strike: Between court ruling and search for amicable resolution

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The National Industrial Court of Nigeria (NICN) has ordered the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) to suspend its seven months strike and return to the classroom, but the lecturers swiftly rejected the ruling and are planning to file an appeal, dashing the hope that the university students will soon return to the campuses to continue learning, CHIJIOKE IREMEKA writes.

Three days ago, the National Industrial Court of Nigeria ordered the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) to suspend its seven months of nationwide strike and return to classrooms in the interest of the students, but the union rejected the ruling, indicating that the end is not yet in sight for the face-off between the lecturers and the Federal Government.

The presiding judge, Polycarp Hamman, gave the order on Wednesday in a ruling on the Federal Government’s application for an interlocutory injunction against the ASUU strike.

The government’s counsel, James Igwe (SAN), had filed the application seeking a restraining order to stop ASUU from continuing the strike pending the determination of the suit initiated through a referral by the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige, against ASUU.

In line with the suit, the judge dismissed ASUU’s objection filed by the union’s lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN), where he prayed the court to discharge the government’s application and instead grant an accelerated hearing of the main suit.

But the judge held the same position as the government that irreparable damage was being done to the lives of students who have been rendered idle by the strike, adding that granting the union’s prayer would only cause additional damage to the ambitions of the young Nigerians.

According to the judge, the Trade Dispute Act prohibits parties from engaging in an industrial action when the dispute has been referred to the industrial court, the Industrial Arbitration Panel (IAP) or when a conciliator has been appointed.

ASUU’s lawyer had argued that the affidavit filed by Ikechukwu Wamba, a legal officer in the Ministry of Labour and Employment in support of the application should not be admitted as the deponent was neither a member of the university community nor part of any meeting held with the union. But the judge also disagreed with him, explaining that Wamba as a legal officer and a member of management at the labour ministry has access to the official documents of the negotiations and is in a position to offer legal advice to the minister.

The judge also disagreed with Falana’s submission that the government has not made necessary moves to curtail the strike since it commenced on February 14, 2022, saying that pieces of evidence from meetings with the government, which began days after the strike and lasted till September 1, proved that negotiations had been ongoing. He, therefore, hence ruled against the union.

But ASUU rejected the ruling on Thursday and said its lawyer was already filing an appeal and stay of execution of the judgment. The union sued for calmness among its members.

In a statement signed by its Lagos Zonal Coordinator, Dr. Adelaja Odukoya, ASUU quoted the National President, Prof. Emmanuel Osodeke, as saying: “Our lawyer is filing an appeal and stay of execution of the judgment.”

Earlier, at a parley with the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila in Abuja on Tuesday, Osodeke, who was accompanied by ASUU executives, had said that the court could not compel them to back down.

Osodeke likened the action of compelling the union to call off the strike to a scenario where a court order would compel a medical doctor to treat a patient, expressing dissatisfaction with the conduct of the Mallam Adamu Adamu-led Ministry of Education.

He described the seven-month strike as symptomatic of the level of decay in the university system. He claimed that the ministry never invited ASUU for a meeting on how to end the strike, instead, the union was threatened with a provocative ‘no-work-no-pay’ policy.

Osodeke, who maintained that ASUU remains blameless over the closure of the public universities, warned that the institutions, which account for over 95 per cent intake of students, face the risk of depreciating to the level of public primary schools within the next couple of years.

The Speaker, who expressed concern over the impact of the strike on students, urged the aggrieved lecturers to shift grounds in the interest of the country’s educational sector, assuring them that the House would interface with President Muhammadu Buhari to find short-term and long-term solutions to the challenges besetting the sector.

“We have to see how we can close this chapter. We all know the issues. But we are here for solutions and the way forward. We will do all we can constitutionally. We are all on the same page. Our students need to go back to school. The question is how do we get this done? There has to be shifting of grounds and moving closer to the centre. It’s about to give and take,” he quipped.

The Guardian learnt that Gbajabiamila’s intervention led to the suspension of the protest over the ASUU strike by the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), which paralysed socio-economic activities around Murtala Muhammad International Airport in Lagos.

The suspension of the strike, which would have continued the next day (Tuesday) saved the day as the protest had already subjected travellers and motorists to hardship as traffic gridlock was experienced in different parts of the state. Multiple flights were rescheduled, while some passengers missed their flights due to the blockage of the road leading to the airport by the protesting students.

Also, the students had earlier vowed to continue the protest after Monday in Lagos and even extend it to the seaports to demand an end to the seven-month ASUU strike.

Gbajabiamila promised to meet with the Minister of Education, the leadership of ASUU and other stakeholders over the lingering strike, while the students awaited the outcome of the meeting before deciding on their next line of action.

This also means Nigerians have appealed to the striking lecturers to reconsider renegotiation with the Federal Government to end the strike in the interest of the students who are currently wasting away on the streets and engaging in all manner of social vices as a result of idleness.

The Guardian also learnt that already, many of the protesting students have lost at least one academic year in the course of the ASUU strike.

Some stakeholders said that while the Federal Government should respect its agreement with ASUU, the striking lecturers should reconsider their position and renegotiate based on what the government would be able to shoulder, as the country has been running budget deficits for some years.

As they decried the way the Federal Government is handling the crisis rocking the tertiary education sector, especially seeking a court order to strangulate ASUU over the industrial action, the stakeholders appealed to the university teachers to renegotiate based on the government’s ability to pay.

The leadership of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) and the Education Rights Campaign (ERC) also rejected the judgement of the industrial court, describing it as a ‘black market’ judgment the Federal Government got against ASUU.

According to NANS National Public Relations Officer, Giwa Temitope, “the judgment betrayed equity, the government shouldn’t have dragged ASUU before the industrial court in the first place.”

He said the only solution to the lingering strike was for the government to meet the demands of the union, which it willingly entered into.

“As an association, NANS is disturbed to read the news of the judgment because we believe that it is not right. Ordinarily, the Federal Government should not have dragged ASUU to court. We want to state categorically that the court cannot force ASUU back to the classroom.

“As it stands today, we maintain that the court has not resolved the problem and we reject the ruling in its entirety. The court could have directed the FG to pay rather than directing lecturers to go back to classrooms,” Temitope said.

Also, the Southwest Coordinator of the association, Emmanuel Olatunji Adegboye, said: “The fact that they had to drag ASUU to court is a signal that this government cannot handle crisis. And we want to state categorically that the court cannot force members of ASUU back to lecture theatres.”

National Coordinator of ERC, Hassan Soweto, described the court verdict as unfair and shameful, saying it is a confirmation of his belief that the judiciary is simply an arm of the apparatus of the capitalist state, just as the police and the army.

He called on the leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) to declare a 48-hour nationwide warning strike in reaction to the court order.

“At this stage, all we can say is that our solidarity with ASUU on its resolve to fight for adequate funding of public universities remains unshaken despite the court order.”

In a recent editorial, The Guardian declared that on the lingering strike, which might have arisen from egoistic power-play between two divisions of the elite that undermines the common good and from the lack of political will to manage trade disputes, the weight of culpability rests more on the Federal Government.

“The two instances give substance to the blame – One is the arrogant and somewhat punitive invocation of the ‘No work, no pay’ rule on striking workers as well as the threat to proscribe ASUU. The other is the encouragement given to hirelings within the academic unit to pen and disseminate derisive missives against their fold.”

Legal experts said the government couldn’t ban ASUU or any trade union for that matter.

“To attempt this, the government will have to amend the relevant chapter of the constitution, which in Section 40 guarantees the right to form or belong to a political party or trade union. The government will also have to withdraw its ratification of the African Charter on Human and People’s right as well as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention that guarantees the freedom of association and the right to organise.

“Even if the union can be proscribed, it is ill-advised to do so because it will neither result in the resumption of academic activities nor solve the problem of incessant strikes.

“Furthermore, by invoking the tactless ‘No work, no pay’ principle, the government seems oblivious of the costly socio-economic and political implication of such an action. It would mean that academics would cancel the backlog of responsibilities of the preceding session and start on a clean slate.

“It would suggest abandonment of duties hitherto waiting to be undertaken. Undoubtedly, that would be calling for a fresh crisis from students. Moreover, the staff of research institutes, who are themselves academics in their own right, have been on strike for over a year and are still earning their salaries.

“So, it raises the question of the moral and legal justification in applying the ‘No work, no pay’ rule for a category of government workers and denying others,” the editorial reads in part.

On the ills of the prolonged ASUU strike, Sunny Awazie from Umuahia, Abia State, said a responsible government must prioritise the development of the educational sector and ensure that her citizens acquire quality education to speed up rapid development, economic growth and technological advancement.

Regrettably, he noted, public universities have assumed solitary status due to the sine die strike by ASUU.

“On February 14, 2022, university dons across the country down tools due to non-payment of financial entitlements, imposition of Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) and inadequate funding of universities, among other demands.

“While ASUU on one hand holds the government responsible for the prolonged strike due to its inability to sign renegotiated agreements to end the strike, the government on the other hand views ASUU’s demands as a tempest in a teapot. The back-and-forth posture adopted by the government over the strike further portends its insincerity of purpose and action to resolve and end the protracted strike.

“The consequences of incessant ASUU strikes are enormous and a clog on the wheels of quality education. First, graduates produced may not compete favourably with those from the sane academic climes at the global pedestal. The students could constitute a nuisance as ready tools for social vices and conduits to deviant behaviours such as drug addiction, thuggery, robbery, cultism and illicit sex.

“Academic Calendar is prolonged hence students do not graduate in good time. Sadly, government officials saddled with the responsibility to ensure adequate funding, and seamless academic programmes in citadels of academic have not been resolute.

“While Nigerian students continuously wallow in abject academic decadence, the wards of our governors, minister and other political officers study abroad at the expense of taxpayers’ money. This is worrisome and must be nipped in the bud.

“Conversely, the series of a parley between government and ASUU had ended in a logjam. Going forward, the government should show the sincerity of purpose to meet their demands. As a step in the right direction, the government should pay the backlog of six months salaries owed to the lecturers while negotiation continues.

“ASUU, on their part, should sheathe their sword and shift grounds for the sake of the students now at home for over seven months,” Awazie said.

Phil Salami, said: “Why is it difficult for the government to genuinely negotiate with ASUU. Three times government has negotiated with ASUU and three times they have repudiated the draft agreement. Why should anyone blame ASUU if it refuses to waste precious time and resources negotiating with this unserious government?

“I think this is what decency demands. Not signing some mutually deception-laden agreement like the government did under Goodluck Jonathan’s watch in 2009 and never did anything about it till he left in 2015. If ASUU really wants to bargain for something much better, they should make Nigeria’s academia a productive one.”

The Federal Government earlier said it would not sign any other agreement it cannot implement. Minister of Education, Adamu revealed this position in Abuja during a meeting of pro-chancellors and vice chancellors of federal universities held at the National Universities Commission (NUC). 

Adamu said President Buhari warned the government’s team involved in the negotiation with ASUU against signing an agreement that government would not be able to fulfil.

ASUU has been on strike for nearly seven months, since February 14, over the alleged unfulfilled deals. Among the lecturers’ demands are better funding and equipping of public universities and an increase in remunerations. But Adamu said the Federal Government could only afford a “23.5 per cent salary increase for all categories of the workforce in federal universities, except for the professorial cadre which will enjoy a 35 per cent upward review.”

He also said N150 billion would be provided in next year’s budget for the refurbishment of the federal universities, with another N50 billion for the payment of outstanding academic staff allowances.

The minister said the meeting of the heads of universities, convened at the instance of NUC, became necessary and urgent due to certain misconceptions and misinformation in the public domain regarding the ongoing strike by ASUU.

Adamu told the pro-chancellors and vice chancellors: “Not only is our interaction today (September 6) necessary, it is also urgent to clarify the misrepresentations and draw your attention to the facts, which you, as managers of our universities, ought to know by virtue of your assigned duties.

“It is, indeed, one of your statutory duties to negotiate with your workers on matters of their welfare and conditions of service. Current industrial action in our public universities started on February 14, 2022, when ASUU commenced a two-week warning strike over the non-implementation of agreements reached between the government and the union.

“In all, we have been doing, our guide has been the directive of Mr President, that while the unions should be persuaded to return to work, the government should not repeat the past mistakes of accepting to sign an agreement it will be unable to implement.”

The Guardian observed that just like other public institutions and infrastructure, tertiary education is gradually slipping into the all-too-familiar neglect and decadence, thus suggesting that the consistent stalemate is a calculated attempt to run tertiary education aground. Yet, addressing the problem must transcend lamentation.

While the government, academics, students and parents are urged to contemplate long-term solutions to crises in the tertiary educational system, concerted efforts must be made to end the strike and bring back students to the campuses. In this regard, Nigerians should be conversant with the bone of contention.

Contrary to news circulating, ASUU’s grouse transcends salaries, it is also about honouring agreements and demonstrating capacity for leadership. To this end, the Federal Government should sign and implement the Nimi Briggs Committee re-negotiated agreement. Additionally, it should deploy the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) as the payment platform in the university system in line with the directives of the president.

On its part, the stakeholders urged ASUU not to prolong the strike further so as not to diminish the public image of Nigeria’s education system for which they seek improvement.

As reports have indicated, the toll on the country’s human capital is very huge, with both younger academics and students from middle-class families leaving the country in droves.

“ASUU should be innovative about expressing its position. Notwithstanding its elitist nature, it should deploy popular public relations techniques that would enable the average citizen to understand its situation and aspirations. Its audience is too insular and its outreach too limited.

“Besides, both parties must come to the negotiating table with the intention of solving problems and not winning arguments. The government’s party must come down from its high horse and recognise that government is a service platform and not the patrimony of any group of persons,” The Guardian’s editorial of September 13, 2022, read.

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