December 26, 2018

ASUU Strike and National Interest

There is a national tragedy that is yet to be fully acknowledged as such. That is the culture of strikes, something that has become a recurring feature of our tertiary education. Now, a candidate gains admission to study for four years, for instance, and ends up spending five or more years.

That is beginning to look normal. If this situation is not frightening, what then is? However, being a die-hard optimist, I have chosen to search for light even when darkness appears impregnable. Luckily, I found it the other day. Contrary to media reports that Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) officials stormed out of a meeting with government, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, announced that the two parties had actually agreed on the implementation and work plan of the reports they had separately prepared.

No doubt, hope can be seen on the horizon. Since members of ASUU suspended their academic responsibilities in the first week of November 2018, negotiations with the federal government have been ongoing as well. That shows progress.

The cheapest thing to do is heap all the blame for the present predicament on university teachers. Some critics have dismissed them as unpatriotic, unreasonable, irrational, saboteurs, selfish. But some Nigerians argue that all they are doing is to insist that the agreements the union had entered into with former and current administrations be honoured.

The demands, few of which are being implemented, include the payment of fractions and non-payment of salaries, earned academic allowances, failure of government to release the operational license of Nigeria University Pension Management Company (NUPEMCO), an organisation that is meant to administer pension fund for the staff of Nigerian universities.

Others are the inability of the federal government to implement the provisions of the 2014 Pension Reform Act as they relate to retired professors and their salaries, and the exclusion of university staff schools from being funded by government.

Ordinarily, that is not too much to ask for. Agreements, resolutions and treaties at whatever level are not meant to be broken at will. Especially if they are products of consultations and negotiations held at the highest office in the land, they should command currency and respect, like the one in November 2013 presided over by ex-President Goodluck Jonathan which produced one of the key documents ASUU now uses in its arguments.

In attendance at the occasion and serving as official witnesses was the leadership of both the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC). Perhaps in engaging those other critical labour groups the government at the time had hoped to showcase its seriousness to tackle the perennial face-off frontally. Sadly, the outcomes have so far not justified that presumed intention.

No doubt, government being a continuum is a valid viewpoint any day. The administration of President Muhammadu Buhari is, therefore, expected to bear the liabilities inherited from its predecessors gracefully.

A closer look at that 2013 Aso Villa outing, however, should elicit some sympathy for the Federal Government that is now saddled with leading the way in solving this protracted problem. It was agreed then that funds be made available to revitalise the nation’s university system within six years, beginning from 2013. One trillion and three billion naira was the sum set aside for that purpose.

Unfortunately, since the first tranche of 200 billion naira was disbursed, the rest of that pact has not been kept. Legally, ASUU has a good ground to be aggrieved. But legalism alone should not be applied as the basis for social engineering and cohesion, no matter how compelling. Whenever the spirit of the letter runs contrary to what is on paper, other factors must be considered.

Some posers require answers some pondering here. What was the state of the country’s revenues at the point of that agreement? Were the figures and terms even reasonable to begin with? Can the nation’s coffers at the moment carry the weight of the financial obligations of government towards ASUU? Even the critics of this administration must be aware of the disadvantaged position of our current finances compared with those under previous regimes.

It is on this note that ASUU should see reason. Clinging onto earlier agreements in the face of the harsh economic realities is not realistic. Granted that education is, arguably, one of the most critical aspects of national life; there are other equally vital components that require enormous resources.

The point here is not about the legitimacy of their demands, clearly not in doubt, but the feasibility of meeting them. Having millions of students loitering at home is a huge social risk. We even have something else to worry about. Only some days ago, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), declared that the lingering disagreement would affect its operations as students of federal universities constitute 70 percent of the ad hoc staff for the forthcoming general election.

According to the body, campuses ought to be in session at least one month before the polls. That means this has also become a serious, urgent national security issue.

Every well-meaning Nigerian citizen must lend his voice to what President Buhari told the Convocation of Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Ndufu-Alike Ikwo, not long ago: “I urge ASUU to suspend its ongoing industrial action in the overall national interest. This administration is not unmindful of the fact that funding for education may not be adequate largely due to lean resources and other competing national needs.

I want to assure Nigerians that we will continue to do the needful within the limited available resources. These fresh minds represent our hope for a better future as they are expected to invest their time and intellectual resources in the development of our nation and the world at large. The Federal Government of Nigeria is determined to provide the requisite environment for teaching and learning in the university system… Universities have critical roles to play in nation building.”

By Stanley Chidi Ebube

Ebube, Public Affairs Analyst, writes from Abuja