A season of strikes

This is a season of anomie: virtually everything that could go wrong have gone wrong in the country. The combined effects of pervasive and worsening insecurity and absence of industrial harmony in some key public sector organisations such as education, health and judiciary pose a veritable threat to what remains of the already tenuous governance in the land. The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) reluctantly called off its over one-year-old strike less than two months ago. The Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP) is currently on strike demanding the implementation of a new salary scheme for polytechnic lecturers. The National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) also declared industrial action over the government’s alleged disrespect for the agreement it entered into with the association, though key stakeholders were successful in persuading it to bring an end to its almost two-week-old strike.

Worse still, few days ago, the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) declared that the state governors were committing an impeachable offence by refusing to allow financial autonomy of the judiciary according to the provisions of the Nigerian Constitution. It is unclear which associations or workers unions will declare industrial action in the immediate future but there is palpable discontent amongst private and public sector workers across the land. There is the temptation to construe the deluge of workers’ strikes within the context of sabotage or a deliberate attempt by some individuals or groups to cripple governance in the country, but the truth is that all the striking unions and associations have legitimate demands that are rooted in prior agreements with the government or extant laws of the land.

The veritable issue has always been the lethargic and somewhat lazy approach and disposition of the government to nipping potential industrial crises in the bud. Governments at national and sub-national levels have a penchant for deluding themselves that issues they fail to address comprehensively will simply disappear or that those with whom they enter into agreements will never insist on the implementation of such accords. Government is seldom proactive: it often allows situations to degenerate before running from pillar to post to avert crisis circumstances. It is reputed for not acknowledging, let alone responding to letters by unions; that has often made unions to resort to declaration of strike as government has unwittingly demonstrated over time that industrial action is the only language it understands. And true to type, government usually sets up committees after strike has been declared and that is why the country is in a mess.

This sloppy disposition to resolution of industrial crisis is not peculiar to the present administrations at the state and federal levels. However, the present administration at the federal level is particularly not proactive. It is very slow at following procedures and processes, not only on industrial relations matters but also in other areas of governance. For instance, it took the administration about half a year to constitute its cabinet in 2015 and when it was eventually formed, there was nothing extraordinary about its composition to warrant the needless delay. Only few days ago, the immediate past Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, was relieved of his appointment which had lapsed two months and three days earlier.  And the nauseating platitude given for the extension of Adamu’s tenure was that the process for the selection of his replacement was yet to be concluded, as if the date of his retirement was officially unknown or that his replacement was going to be sourced from outside the police force.  That is the kind of official tardiness which the government has extended to the sensitive precincts of industrial relations.

There is no doubt that some workers’ unions and associations have their excesses and often capitalize on the negative public perception of government to pressure it to enter into agreements that may be difficult to implement in practice. But why should government make itself prone to the generation of negative acuity by members of the public, and why does it enter into agreements it is unwilling or will be unable to implement? Truth be told, some of the agreements that the Federal Government has signed with workers’ unions may be very difficult to implement given the country’s dwindling revenue profile, but those are the subsisting agreements. And if reviews have become imperative in the light of the reality on the ground, the party seeking variation should come out clearly with incontrovertible grounds for such re-evaluation.

No party is permitted to take unilateral action overtly or by subterfuge. The current spate of workers’ strikes in the public sector is not just embarrassing; it is also deleterious to the economy that is already tottering. And to reverse the ugly trend, the government has its job cut out for it: it must shelve its seeming lackadaisical disposition towards governance, work hard to earn the trust of citizens, including workers, and develop proactive and potent mechanisms for nipping industrial crisis in the bud.

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