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Varsities: Dialogue as casualty

By Owei Lakemfa
I do not know or understand the ways of government.  It appears that everything that involves it must be complicated.  What to the populace seems straight-forward or quite simple, is to government, a complex obstacle course.

For us the ordinary people, dialogue and peaceful resolution of issues is cheaper than conflicts. Government agrees, but would behave as if dialogue and peaceful resolution of issues is not always desirable.

This is the only way I can explain the conflict between the Federal Government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).

Both sides agree that standards are very low in the universities compared to the 1980s and similar institutions on the continent.  They agree that facilities are poor, infrastructure is collapsing and that the universities as fountains of knowledge need better conditions of service to retain good staff rather than allow them brain-drain or migrate to “greener pastures”.

Based on these basic understandings Government about 30  months ago established a negotiating team led by super technocrat and senior citizen, Gamaliel Onosode.

Then Education Minister, Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili, inaugurated the negotiating team and both sides began the collective bargaining process.  At a point, the negotiations were stalled over the issue of the UNILORIN 49.

This was the case of 49 professors and lecturers of the University of Ilorin, UNILORIN who were sacked in 2001 following a national strike called by ASUU.  In resolving that strike, a clause in the agreement signed by the Federal Government and ASUU was that no lecturer in the country would be victimised.

But contrary to that agreement, the UNILORIN Council chaired by former Chief of Army Staff, General Salihu Ibrahim sacked the 49 lecturers, including the leaders of the ASUU branch.

It was in the process of these negotiations that President Umaru Yar’Adua came into office on May 29, 2007 replacing the bullish President Olusegun Obasanjo.  The former promised a new dawn.  In his early days in office, he granted the ASUU leaders private audience.

He wanted to know what the problems in the universities are.  As a former lecturer himself who ordinarily should understand the university system, he wanted to know what could be done to develop the universities and ensure peace on campus.

It was a fruitful meeting, or so it seemed.  The President reached consensus with ASUU on all issues.  A key part of this was President Yar’Adua’s agreement that the case of the UNILORIN 49 which was lying at the Supreme Court should be settled out of court and the victimised lecturers recalled.

The government side which met with ASUU to flesh out the understanding with President Yar’Adua included the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education, the Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC) and political figures like former Commerce Minister, Dr. Aliyu Modibo who was to become Yar’Adua’s first Minister of the Federal Capital Territory.

Unfortunately, the entire document seemed to have been thrown into the trash can by the Presidency, and matters moved back to the Onosode Negotiating Team.

At a point, the ASUU team walked out of the negotiations over the UNILORIN 49. But the Yar’Adua Presidency argued that it is a government committed to the rule of law and would rather allow the UNILORIN case to run its course. The clearly self-serving impression the Yar’ Adua government tried to give was that to settle a matter out of court is to violate “the rule of law”.

ASUU was persuaded to return, and the negotiations were concluded in 2008.  There were three main agreements: Better conditions of service for lecturers including a new salary package.  A second was agreeing on the levels of funding needed to provide basic standards in the university system.  A third is the reaffirmation of past agreements on university autonomy.

On the fourth issue, the UNILORIN 49, there was no concrete agreement.  Following the conclusion of the negotiations, the Government team sought permission to get back to its principals for authority to sign the agreement.  Since the team had periodically briefed government on progress at the negotiations, the Yar’Adua Presidency was abreast of the negotiations.  Based on this, and allegedly to ensure speedy implementation, the President in 2008 sent a supplementary budget to the National Assembly to appropriate funds.

Inexplicably, government in 2008 refused to sign the agreement despite repeated pressures by ASUU. This year after more pressures the Federal Government agreed to formally sign the agreement on Tuesday May 12, 2009.

The Federal Ministry of Education in an invitation sent by Mrs. A.E. Aiyedun of the Department of Tertiary Education told ASUU:  “At the instance of the Honourable Minister of Education, I am directed to inform you of the signing of the agreement arising from the FGN/University based Unions (negotiations)…”.

The leaders of the university based unions, including ASUU gathered at the NUC Auditorium, Abuja, but government did not show up to sign. It was clear that  government was not even interested in signing the agreement, and certainly not in its implementation.

ASUU, feeling it had been conned, met on Sunday June 20, 2009 to commence an indefinite national strike.  The response of government is that it wants to set up an inter-ministerial committee to review the agreement!

Government’s actions endanger dialogue, negotiations and the concept of peaceful resolution of differences.  It is clearly acting in bad faith and is further worsening the state of university education in the country.

Invariably, it is shoring up the business of private universities which leading political godfathers like Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and Alhaji Abubakar Atiku are setting up.

Those who dissipate their energy asking ASUU to “take the path of dialogue” should re-direct their pleas to the Yar’ Adua government to sign and implement the negotiations already concluded with ASUU.

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