By Prof. M.K Othman
Except for insecurity, the ASUU strike is the most burning issue of the moment. From 1999 when the 4th republic and the current democratic dispensation commenced, to date ASUU had gone on strike 15 times amounting to 52 months with 34 months under the PDP regime while the APC accounts for 19 months, with more days still being counted. All along, some people have been blaming ASUU because of government propaganda using half-truths, half-lie, insincerity, and deceit.
That did not only victimize ASUU but made the ASUU members vanquished while the public university system continued to deteriorate, and private universities flourish and blossom.
However, this time around, ASUU was well prepared before embarking on the strike. instead of the usual “total and indefinite strike”, the strike started as a 4-week warning, an 8-week rollover, and a 12-week continuous rollover with a caveat that ASUU is ever ready to suspend the strike when the government starts doing the needful.
There was massive public awareness of why ASUU has been on strike and attracted public sympathy as attested by the NLC 2-day nationwide solidarity strike. However, the government, in its usual manner, treat the ASUU strike in the most contemptuous style, unbecoming of the responsible authority. The labour minister Dr Chris Ngige, the supposed conciliator did not only side with the government but transformed into an indefatigable aggressor against ASUU’s effort to emancipate the university system.
He restively fires salvos in the direction of ASUU to create a more unreconcilable situation at the expense of the university system. Ideally, a dispute conciliator should build the confidence of the warring parties for an amicable dispute settlement, but Dr Ngige is doing the opposite. Whenever he is seen or heard talking to the press, his statements often create tension, hopelessness and anxiety for both students and university workers.
I wonder how Ngige enjoys unleashing such statements to spite ASUU and other concerned Nigerians his rhetoric verbal assaults are unfitting of a cabinet minister. In his desperation to emasculate and starve ASUU members, he announced the imposition of the “no work, no pay” version of industrial law. Instead of correctly imposing the law, the government violated it. The law states that the “no work, no pay” policy can be activated after 90 days, but this policy was imposed by March, about 30 days after the strike started. In any case, Academicians perform three functions: teaching, research, and community service and during the strike, it is only the teaching that is completely suspended while the other two are skeletal, if not completely performed. For instance, research on experimental crops and livestock must be attended to so also collaborative research projects, academic publications, and community services despite the strike action. So, there is no justification to apply the “no work, no pay” to university lecturers except to use hunger as a weapon of war. Nevertheless, this policy did not work in the past and is not likely to work now because the union uses its antidote “no pay, no work”, which forces the payment of salary arrears as part of the dispute settlement. Additionally, teaching is a continuum, when the strike is over, the lecture resumes where it was stopped until the syllabus is covered, and students will only lose time because of strike action, not the knowledge. However, if “no work, no pay” is strictly applied, students will not lose time but knowledge. This is because if the strike period covers one semester, the lecture will resume with subsequent semester without considering the lost semester, at the end, the graduates will not only be half-baked but will be totally uncooked, unemployable, and below international standard.
Back to the antics of Ngige, he tried to break the strike by insinuating that the medical lecturers of Usman Danfodio University Sokoto have resumed work, he was quoted saying “Sokoto has graduated their medical students, they are reasonable people, they have tested the strike, and saw that it produces no result, yes, they did it the last time. So, today, they have written, that their Vice Chancellor has approved that they are at work. The labour controllers in those states have also confirmed that they are at work and I have advised the Finance Minister and they are processing their payments.”
This was found to be absolutely incorrect. Again, when Prof Briggs’s committee submitted its report on the negotiation with ASUU and other university unions for an amicable settlement, Ngige came out furiously with the insinuation that “there was no agreement between ASUU and the government; that ASUU sat down to fix its own members’ salaries; and that the Union asked representatives of ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) to recuse themselves from the negotiations”. This was after two committees’ draft reports, each of the committees was led by a prominent Nigerian: Prof. Munzali’s committee and Prof. Brigg’s committee.
The reports were submitted at different times, in 2021 and 2022. The first negotiation committee was reconstituted by the government and chaired by Emeritus Prof. Munzali Jibril, who took over the Chairmanship from Dr. Wale Babalakin. The renegotiation took several months of tireless efforts of high-calibre personalities consisting of technocrats and highly rated academics to accomplish. That draft was submitted in May 2021 but was rejected by the same government a year after.
When ASUU resumed strike action, the government reconstituted the second committee in April 2022 under the Chairmanship of Emeritus Professor Nimi Briggs. Similarly, the Brigg’s Committee worked tirelessly with extensive consultations with heads of relevant MDAs and came up with another draft that was submitted to the government. This was what led to Ngige’s insinuation thereby embarrassing the two highly prominent professors and disappointing the entire Nigerians.
Fortunately, the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu who was somehow sidelined had to intervene, and requested Dr. Ngige to suspend action and allow the Ministry of Education to handle the issue. Grudgingly, Ngige stepped aside but continued with verbal assaults to sabotage the settlement. He pitched SSANU against ASUU on salary disparity forgetting that there has always been disparity.
SSANU members are being paid with CONTIS, grade level 3 to 15 while ASUU members are being paid CONUAS grade level 1 to 7. What is the hullaballoo about salary disparity? As the Ministry of Education is making progress, Ngige released his latest salvo, “government has no money to ostensibly address ASUU agitations”.
This offensive is aimed at frustrating any success being achieved between Adamu and ASUU. How Ngige is working hard to kill the university system that made him what he is today, is the most astonishment of the man’s character. The man’s survival as a high-ranking public officer in a democratic system leaves much to be desired. The system can do much, much better.
Proff Othman, a don at ABU writes from Zaria.