NIGERIA: Academic union threatens indefinite strike

Nigeria's Academic Staff Union of Universities has already held two one-week 'warning strikes' to press a range of demands, including an improved salary scheme and reinstatement of 49 lecturers who were dismissed many years ago. But the demands have been ignored so now the union has threatened nationwide indefinite action - and in response the government, concerned that another strike could jeopardise fragile peace on campuses, has warned that lecturers who participate will not be paid.

A decision to embark soon on an indefinite strike was taken at an emergency meeting of the national executive council of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, or ASUU, held in Nigeria's federal capital Abuja recently.

One of the major bones of contention is the dismissal more than seven years ago of 49 lecturers from the University of Ilorin (Unilorin). The government believes that since the case has reached the Supreme Court, the verdict should be awaited so as not to fall foul of the law.

But the ASUU disagrees. Its president, Sule Kano, said the "unjust" sacking of 49 colleagues violated an agreement with the federal government. "But the government does not appear to have the courage to admit such a mistake. The court case was just a later development. In fact, the ASUU has no case in the Supreme Court. The ASUU has been patient for over seven years on this matter."

Another point of disagreement is funding. Although there are ongoing negotiations between the ASUU and government to review the salaries of academic staff, union leaders feel they need to be fast-tracked in order to reach a conclusion.

There appears to be a serious breakdown in communication. Both sides are now focusing on the impending strike. While ASUU leaders are bent on going ahead with industrial action, the government is equally determined to use all resources at its disposal to prevent it.

Minister of Education Dr Igwe Aja-Nwachukwu recently summoned an emergency meeting of the vice-chancellors of Nigeria's federal universities with a view to breaking strike action.

"The plan by ASUU to go on strike is needless and selfish," the Minister declared. "The union has no reason to continue to hold the country to ransom over the 49 sacked Unilorin teachers. We have discovered that the Unilorin case has become an ego thing for ASUU. We learned that at least 20 of those sacked lecturers are presently working elsewhere. The federal government is determined to move the education sector forward, and to henceforth prevent disruptions."

Between 1993 and 2008, universities in Nigeria were closed for nearly 36 months owing to various strikes called by the ASUU. It can safely be said that this was not in the best interests of higher education in Nigeria. The 'no work, no pay' rule still stands, said Minister Aja-Nwachukwu, and will be applied if lecturers embark on a strike.

Vice-chancellors at the meeting agreed that further disruption of academic activities needed to be prevented. But they are not convinced that the government has the political will to implement its 'no work, no pay' directive, based on its previously ambiguous position.

Professor Emmanuel Nwanze, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Benin, said university heads should be empowered to deal with matters on their campuses. In 2007, just as his university was due to begin semester examinations, the ASUU went on strike. The university asked academics to sign a register committing them to continue working - and only 19 out of 988 refused to sign. The examinations went ahead.

"We stopped the salaries of the 19 who refused to sign our register. But what happened? The government later told us to pay everybody. Our campus will not stand by the decision to go on strike because of the Unilorin 49... the matter has become political. We agree that there are problems in the system, but closing down universities because of the Unilorin issue is not the right thing to do," Nwanze said.

Professor Chinedu Nebo, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN), also regretted the government's contradictory stand: "No academic staff of UNN participated in the last one-week warning strike declared by ASUU. Our university was the first to break the national strike last year, and at that time only 50 academic staff joined the strike. However, in the end the government directed that we should pay them, and some of us are still being castigated over the matter," Nebo declared.

A strike by the ASUU might not be obeyed by most of its members for two reasons. First, stopping salaries would hurt lecturers and their families because the union does not have strike funds to cushion the impact. Second, some big branches of the union have been suspended because of their failure to comply with strike directives issued last year.

The National Association of Nigerian Students has appealed to the government and ASUU to resume negotiations. A strike would impact negatively on students, said association official Effiong Okon: "We are pleading with both parties to resolve their differences amicably. When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers," he said.

I am a student of Abia State University Uturu.I want to comment on the aspect of the lecturers' union demand for increment of salaries. I dont think this is the right time for the ASUU to put such pressure to our federal government.We all know quite well about the global economic crisis that affected Nigeria.I belive that they should have waited for this global economic crisis to end before acting and not going for a strike. This will have an effect on the students and create a bad name for Nigerian education.This does not have to be so. I pleade with the union not to embark on strike.

Joseph Daniel