By Tonnie Iredia
The strike action embarked upon by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) since July 01, 2013 will probably go down in history as the best ever well-organized action of the union. Although the action lasted longer than many Nigerians envisaged, it is to the credit of ASUU that it was fully ready for business. The union had in fact made it clear that only a complete resolution of the issues at stake would bring the strike action to an end. Hence, it was also ready for any eventuality. Consequently, when the government introduced the ‘no work, no pay’ rule into the game, the union responded by resorting to providing other welfare strategies such as distributing food items, giving out soft loans and cash advances to members to cope with the effects of the policy.
In all, ASUU lived up to its billing, making it obvious that it had sufficient courage and a unity of direction to pursue its goal. Thus, the Dr. Nasir Fagge led National Executive of the union deserves to be commended for its tenacity-a posture which the government itself was to eventually describe as their “patriotic role and commitment towards ensuring that our universities are well-funded, resourced and run like their counterparts in other parts of the world”. However, ASUU alone cannot grab all the credit. Also to be praised, are the interests groups which for the first time in history mobilized for the cause of the teachers, ample public sympathy and support.
What looked like the first impetus came from the National Parent Teacher Association of Nigeria (NAPTAN), which condemned the government for reneging on an agreement it willingly entered into with ASUU adding that what the lecturers were asking for was not “new and out of place’’ The position of the Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT) was that it would “not hesitate to shut down the education system in the country, if the government failed to fulfil or honour the agreement it entered into with the lecturers”. On its part, the Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) threatened to stop distribution of petroleum products across the country if the Federal Government failed to implement the agreement reached with ASUU. Their counterparts at the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE) gave the Federal Government seven days to resolve the ASUU strike or face a total shut down of electricity facilities in the country. All these were averted, but they cannot be wished away by anyone seeking to identify what helped the strike to last longer than usual.
The role which the government officials played in prolonging the strike can also not be overlooked. It was them again who created room for another break down of negotiations after the President had himself personally intervened to resolve the crisis. What happened was that instead of documenting the issues faithfully as discussed and agreed upon with the President to ease implementation, they as usual, introduced their characteristic double-speak otherwise known as ‘mago- mago’ which led to a fresh out-break of hostilities. This confirmed the old allegation that advisers and small men in the corridors of power in a bid to display loyalty to the political masters always fuel the gap between government and the people. If the death of foremost unionist, Festus Iyayi on a journey to attend a meeting of the national executive of ASUU on the subject worsened the situation, the threat of the Minister of Education to the university teachers to resume work on December 04, 2013 or be sacked, completely disorganized the nation.
However, after five months and 10 days of an annual cat and rat game, government and ASUU finally signed an agreement to end the strike a few days ago. With that, Nigerians can now look forward with hope to an end to the ugly incidents of disruption to the nation’s yearly academic calendar. It is a major achievement for which President Goodluck Jonathan deserves to take credit. Indeed, critics ought to take special note of the role of the President in the subject because so many of ‘us’ were in the forefront in condemning government for the strike. As a matter of fact some expressed disappointment that as an academic, the President ought not to have left his old colleagues in the cold. In fairness, these views ignored the personal commitment of Jonathan to the resolution of the crisis such as his meeting with ASUU for over 13 hours. In the past, strike actions involving just one union never attracted the personal attention of the head of government; they were usually left to government delegations.
Thus, this article must record and commend the pivotal role of the President.
It was indeed magnanimous that the Presidency allowed itself to be seen as the side that blinked first in the crisis. That, to our mind, is not a sign of weakness but rather a fatherly act and a sign of wisdom. In earnest, the decision to display the N200billion cheque which certainly allayed the fears of ASUU and gave hope to the teeming student population that resolution was near; the way the President played down the threat by the education minister; the shifting of the resumption deadline in honour of the late Professor Iyayi who was due for burial and the unending official appeals to calm frayed nerves, are all quite commendable. It is to be hoped that future leaders would emulate this right from the onset without first bringing the education sector to a halt for a while, before acting.
Of course, it would have been a different ball game if President Jonathan had borrowed a leaf from the Ebonyi State Governor, Martin Elechi who accused ASUU of sabotage and called for its disbandment. It is surprising that some such autocratic governors who should have held office during the military era occupying critical positions in our democracy. The handling of the outgoing ASUU crisis is one subject where the government of President Goodluck Jonathan showed commendable maturity. It should hold on to the strategy when more unions raise industrial disputes. It is superior to being insensitive.