THE strike action by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has become one of the most embarrassing pointers to the collapse of the fabric of trade disputes in Nigeria. Last week, at a time when all hope was on the union calling off its almost seven-month strike, it once again declared an indefinite strike. ASUU said it resorted to this measure to signal the total breakdown of negotiations between it and the government.
It will be recalled that the lecturers have been on strike since February 14, 2022. It is so unfortunate that Nigerian public universities have been under lock and key for this long, with parents and their wards, students of the universities, left at the mercy of the uninspiring face-off between the disputants. We say uninspiring face-off because we are left to wonder what the actual bones of contention are, with the two sides often speaking without clarity and leaving the public bewildered. In 2020, ASUU was on strike for nine months. As things stand today, all that Nigerians see is muscle-flexing between the union and the Federal Government, with this taking a huge toll on the future of students, many of whom have become social nuisances on account of their boring stay at home.
Whatever is the disagreement between ASUU and the government needs to be urgently addressed so that the future of students, which is already in jeopardy, would not suffer a worse fate. The question to ask is, if the youth are indeed the future of Nigeria, is that future in limbo now? It is obvious that the FG-ASUU dispute is the proverbial case of two elephants in a duel: the Nigerian people and the university system are the ones bearing the brunt of a mortgaged future, collapsed system and an endangered country.
We are aware that ASUU always presents its strikes as a struggle to save the public university system from the legendary inaction and deliberate poor attention by the government. This, it says, is largely caused by the fact that most of the people in government have their children and wards in universities outside of Nigeria. The argument is that there has been no resolve on the part of those in government to address problems in the public university system in Nigeria because they are not directly affected by such problems. If or when the issues affecting public universities are presented in this way, it would not be problematic for the public to key into ASUU’s struggle for better funding of the university system and how to realise this in the face of the government’s intransigence. But when ASUU now adds the issue of the government not implementing agreements reached with government panels and committees on wage improvement, many people would see its action as more of a basic welfare struggle than a general struggle to save the university system.
Of course, ASUU could argue that proper remuneration will ensure the revitalisation of the universities by ensuring that university teachers do not get lost in the brain drain syndrome, moving to other societies that pay their university teachers better. However, the issue of inadequate remuneration does not affect only university teachers alone. The union of the most enlightened members of the Nigerian society ought to, for instance, seek to lead a general struggle for proper remuneration given the report that up to 25 states in the country are not even paying teachers the new minimum wage of N30,000 per month. With primary and secondary school teachers in Nigeria not adequately and appropriately paid and motivated to perform their tasks at their levels, what magic would adequately paid university teachers perform with poor products from the secondary schools who would eventually be under their tutelage? The good university system that ASUU says is its goal cannot be achieved by its unending strikes if its cusp is increase in only university lecturers’ own remunerations. The other question that remains to be asked is this: what quality of university graduates does ASUU want to give the country after students are made to routinely stay at home for upwards of months and years because of its unending strikes?
The truth is that successive governments in Nigeria carry the major blame for the deterioration in universities and the university system. However, ASUU cannot continue to point to the concessions it would get at the end of long months and sometimes years of strike to rehabilitate universities as enough proof of the usefulness of its so-called patriotic strikes. It must also count the cost of the incalculable damage the strike actions do to the psyche and lives of millions of students. Strike actions in universities have caused considerable damage. They have had deleterious consequences on the university system, perhaps even more than the evil of abandonment of funding by government. The time has come for ASUU members to come to terms with the general and diverse consequences of strikes rather than simply presenting them as actions meant to help the rest of the Nigerian society.
The government and ASUU should find a way of resolving this impasse and urgently too. While the government claimed to have resolved all issues between it and the union, except the demand to be paid for work not done during the period of the ongoing strike, ASUU denied this and went ahead to state that lecturers should be paid salaries during the pendency of the strike. As the lecturers, many of whom are experts in labour relations, would testify, the cost of strike expected to be borne by workers who embark on it should be lost wages and salaries. This is in order to persuade their employers that they are serious about their demands. It is certainly not the fact, for instance, that a railway worker must have suffered personally because he/she was not able to operate a train during a strike.
We do not think it is right to go on strike and get paid at the end of the day. The Trade Disputes Act is clear on this. While the right by workers to embark on strike is part of their fundamental human rights as enshrined in and guaranteed by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999, (as amended), Section 42(1)(a) of the Trade Disputes Act (TDA) provides that where any worker takes part in a strike, he shall not be entitled to any wages or other remuneration for the period of the strike. ASUU definitely would have to revisit and recalibrate the way it goes about struggling for improvement in the university system if it wants to continue to receive the support of the public. It should not inflict deep pains on students and their parents through unending and increasingly unpopular strikes for which it expects its members to be paid.
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