By Damola Kola-Dare
The Federal Government and Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) have been in a long-running battle since March over the demands of the union. Students have been at the receiving end. However, observers wonder if there are no other alternatives or strategies ASUU can employ than resorting to strike to make government accede to its demands.
On 24 March 2020, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) embarked on an indefinite strike over the failure of the Federal Government to keep to the 2019 Memorandum of action between them. Apart from that, the union and the government have also been at loggerheads over the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System (IPPIS).
The Federal Government’s insistence on the implementation of the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) in the payment of university lecturers’ salaries and allowances has not gone down well with the union leaderships which insist that it would erode university autonomy. ASUU proposed a home-grown payment platform, the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) which they believe guarantees university autonomy. The union is waiting for the government to conduct an integrity test on UTAS.
On the IPPIS issue, ASUU coordinator of the Lagos Zone, Prof. Olusiji Sowande, said: “The issue of enrolment into the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System (IPPIS) was deliberately introduced by government to draw away the attention of the public from the insincerity, lack of interest and disregard for the education of the teeming Nigerian youths especially university students. In addition, it is in the course of the strike and the lockdown due to COVID-19 pandemic that the salaries of our members in Federal Universities were withheld by government under the guise that members did not enroll on IPPIS. It is disheartening that a government that should uphold the truth, fairness and justice has become repressive, oppressive and blackmailer of its own citizens.”
As of now, ASUU and the government have not reached any concrete agreement on how to end its over seven months strike. The union faulted the Minister of Labour, Dr Chris Ngige, for saying in an interview, that six out of the nine demands by the union had been met by the government. The National President of ASUU, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, asked Nigerians to see which of their demands that had been met by the government. “As far as we are concerned, nothing has been delivered to our members and our members don’t want empty promises. Let us take the issues one after the other. The withheld salaries of our members which is between four and eight months have not been paid. If paid, accounts of our members would have been credited. Same goes for Earned Academic Allowances, yet to be paid. Visitation Panels have not been constituted for the universities. If that is done, Nigerians would have heard the names of panel members as announced by the government. The proliferation of universities by state governments has not been addressed. The renegotiation of the 2009 Agreement has not started, the 2019 Memorandum of Action is not yet implemented,” he said.
On the threat by the Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige that the government could deploy labour laws if no agreement is reached by the two parties soon, Ogunyemi insisted that the union would never feel threatened. He said: “We are ready for discussions if they invite us. The onus of universities reopening soon lies with the government. We go to meetings we are invited to.”
However, a lot has been said on the efficacy of industrial action and its attendant negative effects. Lecturers have said they could not go back to the classrooms on empty stomach, yet students continue to be on the receiving end.
Dr Dele Ashiru, the Chairman ASUU, University of Lagos branch, was of the opinion that the union could explore other options, yet the government was unyielding. He suggested, for example, that the union set up a lobby team, approach traditional rulers upon advice, but all didn’t work. “Concerning other options than strike action, what do you do when the government appears decided to destroy public universities? We explored other options but government remained adamant. We were asked to lobby. We set up a lobby team. It did not work. We were asked to approach traditional rulers we did. Some even asked us to go and beg the wife of President but we said we can’t do that. As intellectuals, we are open to other options and suggestions,” he said.
Former ASUU Chairman, University of Ilorin (UNILORIN), Dr Taiwo Oloruntoba-Oju believes before resorting to strike, union leaders must have exhausted all other strategies to persuade government to act. “My experience is that no union leader wants to embark on strikes if they can help it, and that they usually do so only as a painful last resort. This means that they must have exhausted all other possible options or strategies to persuade government to do the needful. Those strategies include: sensitization, dialogue, offer of cooperation or even assistance, involvement of stakeholders including state and national assemblies, royalty, clergy and what have you; lobbying, involvement of the media, adverts, involvement of international labour and governmental organizations, and then, patience.
“Sometimes even when the rank and file members of a union have been agitated for long and are already fed up, the union leadership may still continue to appeal to them and to hold off patiently in the hope of averting a strike action. Beyond all that there is nothing else that they can do – all options have been exhausted,” he said.
Oloruntoba-Oju insisted that the only antidote to strike action in the university sector is good governance and responsiveness to the burning issues in the sector. Mr. John Mba, a lecturer at the Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu State, noted that dialogue couldn’t have worked out with the current administration. He said that dialogue couldn’t have worked because of those we largely have in our government. “The government of today is not ready, they don’t even value education. Don’t you know how unrepentant our government is from their indifference about the education sector? How else do you review a government’s interest in education apart from their budget?”
Lending her voice to the issue, a parent, Mrs. Bimpe Oluwamo said since strike has been seemingly ineffective, if students organize a protest just as the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) has threatened, perhaps government would do the needful.
“Besides strike, the one other thing I know that can be done is a protest. If students can come together and face the government, it may prove to be effective. Enough of the delay! They are just toying with the future of our children. Their children are abroad enjoying quality, uninterrupted education, and here we are in Nigeria struggling,” she said.
Oye Daniel, a Mechanical Engineering student of the Federal University of Technology, Akure was of the opinion that there was no other strategy anyone could use to make government act. He said: “In a situation where ASUU could go on strike for months and students are home and the government could not bring a lasting solution to the crisis, I don’t think there is any other way government can soft-pedal.”
Another student, Omotunde Shittu of the University of Lagos, noted that no matter the efforts of ASUU, it is only when government stops paying lip service to education that sanity can return to the education sector. “If only the government can stop its non-chalant attitude towards the education sector, then any threat or moves by any group or association would be fruitful, but for now, no matter what the union tries to do, the government remains the major player,” she said.