By Tonnie Iredia
It is no longer news that academic activities in public universities in Nigeria have been paralysed in the last 4 months as a result of the industrial action embarked upon by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). With the adverse impact the strike has had on the nation, emotions have taken over and many people are now pleading with the Union to have pity on their suffering students and suspend the strike. Of course, we are all free to favour peace in our campuses but there are a few immediate issues to be noted.
First, can the appeals to ASUU resolve the basis of the crisis? If not, should anyone be surprised to see the issues reopen not far away with another round of strikes? If so, will it be fair for society to blame the teachers for incessant strikes? In other words, anyone that is genuinely interested in the matter ought to first seek to understand the issue at stake now. Whereas ASUU is talking about the non-implementation of a 2009 agreement it reached with government that is yet to be implemented, government’s body language is harping on negotiations and dialogue as if that never happened earlier.
The truth however is that there was a form of agreement. From the records, we know that as from December 2006, ASUU was involved in bitter conflict with the Obasanjo Administration which led to strike action in March 2007. The strike was called off after 3 months because the then in-coming President Yar’Adua promised to resolve the issues at stake. On assumption of office, the Yar’ Adua Government faithfully instituted a technical committee headed by Deacon Gamaliel Onosode to enter into negotiations with ASUU to produce useful agreements capable of facilitating the uplift of the nation’s university system. At the completion of the task in December 2008, certain persons in the corridors of power successfully dissuaded government from signing the agreement until ASUU went on strike in 2009.
Thereafter, implementation became a problem as the same set of government advisers came up with a new argument that it was not the present administration that signed the 2009 agreement. This was followed by letters, threats and warning strikes by ASUU. In 2011, a truce was called following renewed talks between both parties. According to the chairman of the Niger Delta University Chapter of ASUU, Dr. Beke Sese, ASUU “as a noble and patriotic union, decided at its emergency meeting of its National Executive Council held on October 15, 2011 at the University of Abuja, to reconsider its resolve to declare a nationwide strike action, and give government the benefit of doubt, believing fervently that government would fully abide by our signed memorandum of understanding”. The nation was in earnest relieved to learn about the expansion of the Implementation Monitoring Committee to include Federal Ministry of Finance, Federal Ministry of Labour & Productivity, and the Budget Office, to fast track the implementation of the contentious issues in the 2009 Agreement before 22nd November, 2011. This was the premise of the now often quoted memorandum of understanding (MoU).
The purpose of the above historical outlook is to place well-meaning Nigerians in a good position to know the way forward. It is important, for instance, to direct the attention of the Senate to it in view of the interest it has shown in the matter in the last few days so that it does not get tired of appealing to ASUU. Indeed, a statement like if ASUU does not end the strike now, it would lose public sympathy is obviously inappropriate at this point. Another wrong communication at this point is to say that government negotiators did not know their right from their left. If so, why were they selected to negotiate on behalf of government? Who in government selected them? Could it be that government itself was incapable of knowing those who knew their right from their left.
Besides, why did government not disown the negotiators at the point of signing the agreement when it sensed that the negotiations were a Greek gift? Could it be that ASUU hypnotized government as well as its negotiators? It would obviously have been more palatable to hear that the issue at stake is that government has been unable to reach an agreement with ASUU because it finds the demands of the union unbearable. To sign an agreement before disagreeing with its terms, does not speak well of the ‘wisdom after event’ posture of government. Again, it would be useful for us all, particularly posterity, to know the negotiators so that future governments can distance themselves from such people.
In any case, the argument of Peter Esele; President General of Trade Union Congress (TUC) that strike is the only language the government understands is instructive because the first attempt to evolve an agreement was achieved by strike. But for another set of strikes, the agreement would not have been signed. Why won’t ASUU employ strike to induce implementation? Notwithstanding this reality and the provocative way the police has been stopping pro- ASUU rallies while protecting pro-government ones, the teachers ought to listen to well-intentioned Nigerians who have been making appeals to the union. In particular, the powerful speech by Speaker Tambuwal last Thursday that the legislature would consider making further appropriation to resolve the crisis is no doubt quite helpful. In the circumstance, the university teachers should for the sake of society especially their students design a new way of showing their disdain for any government that does not, in their opinion, place priority on education.
For instance, ASUU can adopt the practice in other parts of the world where interest groups make their interests an election issue. If all university teachers and their students campaign and vote against any government that does not devote over 25% of the national budget to education, no one would toy with them. To go on strike on the other hand, in the belief that it is the only language the government understands will bruise innocent stakeholders as is currently happening in Nigeria. ASUU should neither lose sight of its real adversary nor engage in transferred malice.