By Darlighton Anule

I HAVE always sensed that the dissonance between obstinate patriotism and arrogance of will, may eventually lead to blackmail over who takes the blame for the prolonged ASUU industrial action.

This feeling is not aided by a seeming rivalry and connivance, laid bare by the discordant accounts of the meeting between the President, his ministers and heads of relevant agencies over the strike.

Some of the headlines were: “Buhari Orders Ngige to hands off negotiation”, “Minister of Education Requested Ngige to hands off Negotiation”, “Buhari didn’t ask me to hands off talks with ASUU”. Then, came a parody of what ought to be an unambiguous, a tell-all readout from the presidential spokesperson about the meeting.

Why the statement was skewed to create an impression of a misunderstanding is best known to the author. It was even better to allow Nigerians speculate than leave an innuendo that pitches the Education Minister, Adamu Adamu, as an antithesis to his Labour and Employment counterpart, Senator Chris Ngige.

The reports in a section of the media which silhouetted Ngige, look more like a planted insight or a promoted editorial mischief. That the Education Minister was quoted by the Premium Times as saying he abandoned ASUU negotiation the very day Ngige raised in the Federal Executive Council, that once an industrial dispute snowballs into a strike, it becomes the prerogative of the Ministry of Labour, draws more curiosity.

I thought that such deliberations in the Federal Executive Council are classified and hidden from the public. Sections 3 and 4 of the Trade Disputes Act, Cap T8, Laws of Federation of Nigeria, 2004, clears every ambiguity on the handling of industrial disputes, hence render impotent, this assertion that suggests a hijack of his responsibility. 

These sections of the Trade Disputes Act on apprehension state that whenever a union and its parent ministry, in this case ASUU and the Ministry of Education, fail to resolve a dispute and it ends in strike, the matter migrates inevitably to the Minister of Labour for conciliation. Here, ASUU declared a dispute with the Ministry of Education and both couldn’t resolve it.

The union consequently went on strike on March 14, 2022, effectively paving the way for transmission to the Minister of Labour and Employment, who acting under section 17 of the Act apprehended the strike at the conciliation meeting, held March 1, 2022. The section also says that once the matter is apprehended, the union shall call off strike while negotiations go on.

But Nigeria is not governed by laws , otherwise ASUU wouldn’t still be on strike. The idea of hijacking the ASUU negotiation is, therefore, not factual, in fact baseless. Such misconception arises because government officials don’t read and do not to ruminate on what they dish out to the public. Our press has also been overtaken by untidy and shallow reporters, incapable of little research on beats.

If the presidential spokesman had shed light on this simple procedure, this embarrassing suspicion of infighting would have no place. Had the Education Minister also handled the dispute with ASUU successfully, the union would neither have gone on strike nor the matter migrate to the Ministry of Labour. It is a cycle we saw in 2017, 2018, 2020, 2021 and now 2022. 

Also, a clear understanding of sections 9 and 14 of the Trade Disputes Act nullifies claims that the Labour Minister was asked to hands off negotiation. It explains that when he is unable to settle a dispute, he will either transfer the matter to the Industrial Arbitration Panel or the National Industrial Court of Nigeria. The question will now be why he didn’t migrate this case. My experience in labour activism is that a matter as critical as the current ASUU/FGN imbroglio which straddles the artery of national progress will prove counterproductive at both levels.

First is that the Federal Government is dealing with intellectuals whose willed inflexibility nears outlawry. ASUU is no ordinary union you can coerce, especially under democracy. The other is that the sensitivity of the matter and the overriding need to give it a closure for sake of posterity towers above other considerations. Hence, migrating it backwards in de novo, is the best option.

In simple terms, the matter goes back to the Ministry of Education for fresh talks and where it fails, the Ministry of Labour will wade in once more. Overall, Ngige’s pitfall traces to his stubborn patriotism. Those close to him would have warned him that obstinate nationalism of the Great Zik of Africa whose apostleship he claims, is time-worn, hence not the right oars to paddle safely along Nigeria’s windy rivers of intrigues and mischief.

Ngige’s matter with ASUU revolves around his unbending devotion to perfectionism where others would ordinarily skate along. It is also about the untrammeled patriotism of an Igbo in high public office, often an orphan who must seek fastidiousness to avoid being sacrificed. Ngige wants everything done the right way, no short cut. He wants the 2009 agreement negotiated in such a manner that government can implement. He doesn’t want a bogus agreement like it was in 2009, an agreement for sake of agreement that has led to this current impasse. He is over-protective of the Federal Government finances as if they belong to him. He insists Federal Government can’t pay N1.9m monthly to a professor. \

That education currently takes nearly 40 per cent of the federal salaries. This is the departure point with ASUU and perhaps, others who don’t like his style. ASUU which has always been comfortable with Ngige, eulogising him for pushing their cause and for living an example in having all his children in public university at home, suddenly made him an enemy.   

ASUU leadership mutters preference for Adamu who would wink at what Ngige would scowl at. Any surprise it accuses Ngige of standing in their way to Udoji awards! ASUU President, Emmanuel Osodeke’s text of press conference on July 19, 2022 made no pretences about this at all. Just as Adamu declassified FEC deliberations to make Ngige a fall guy, Osodeke squealed that Ngige asked ASUU in one of their meetings to picket Education Ministry. The tone of his revelation exposes back stage politics.

But there is nothing wrong in asking a union to picket the office of its employer instead of a debilitating strike, after all, the NLC has picketed Ngige, even blocking his house with a 40 feet petrol tanker.

But let me ask as an aside: if Professor Osodeke read that statement before going to press, for I observed over 35 grammatical and typographical errors. Is it part of the failure of the revitalisation fund? The standard has fallen so regrettably. Ngige should squarely take the blame for misconstruing Nigeria’s finances for his.

Breathing down the neck of ASUU with lessons on dwindling government resources, citing ability to pay as key in collective bargaining, even in the face of longitudinal corruption, conjures an imaginary grinding axe between them. The rejection of 300 per cent pay rise by Muzali Committee did not go down well with ASUU. Rejecting the 180 per cent by Nimi Briggs is adding salt to injury. Perhaps Ngige should have tanked in and let the roof fall on the succeeding administration.

But even at that, the urgency he accorded the Briggs Committee says a lot. Unfortunately, his six weeks time-frame was elongated to three months by the Education Ministry. Earlier, the Munzali report gathered dust also at the Ministry of Education until it became moribund, with Ngige kicking. Let Ngige also take the blame. In deed, at the meeting of March 1, 2022, the newly posted Permanent Secretary of the Education Ministry, profusely apologised for the laxity of his ministry over the years.

He admitted that the ministry wasn’t attending meetings and pushing issues as it ought to. It was at the opening session before the press exit. Ngige should also take the blame.

The industrial action won’t last long if concerned parties treat it with dispatch. From absenteeism to under-representation at meetings, Nigeria’s bureaucracy is culpable somehow. Ngige has been sighted at the Accountant General’s Office following up payment to ASUU because officers would sleep over it.

He also advised ASUU to create the office of a secretary general and deputy who can do the leg work that Professors might find deigning at the ministries and relevant agencies. Now that the matter has reverted to Education, let’s see how it also resolves the issue of payment platform where UTAS and UPPPS are at daggers-drawn, even in the background of seeming government’s reluctance to ditch IPPIS.

Anule, a labour activist, wrote from  Abuja.

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