NIGERIA: Strike paralyses public universities

Industrial action launched in early July by the three registered trade unions in Nigerian universities has paralysed teaching, research and administration.

Private universities are not affected by the action because they do not allow unions to operate.

The unions involved are the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Senior Staff Non-Academic Union (SSANU) and Non-Academic Staff Union of Universities (NASU).

The current face-off between the government and ASUU especially has its origin in 2001 when the two parties failed to sign a negotiated memorandum of understanding articulating the need to improve working and living conditions in Nigerian universities.

Both parties agreed on four things: First, there was an urgent need to reduce the brain drain that is costing Nigerian universities their best academics. It was agreed that lecturer salaries should be increased by about 140% and the high price of crude oil and gas was sufficient to meet the cost.

Second, it was agreed the retirement age of professors should be raised from 65 to 70 years. Most brilliant young graduates today are not interested in pursuing postgraduate studies that would enable them to succeed ageing professors.

They have different ambitions and career agendas, and prefer to dash out of university with a first degree and plunge into the labour market where they hope rapidly to become millionaires.

Third, the government agreed to substantially increase research funding in universities. It also pledged to put pressure on the private sector to earmark a percentage of profits for research.

Finally, the ASUU obtained a promise to enshrine the principle of university autonomy in the agreement.

One of the highlights of the memorandum was selection of vice-chancellors which has been highly politicised. To reduce government interference, it was agreed that university councils be mandated to select vice-chancellors.

Currently councils send three names of potential vice-chancellors to the University Visitor who may select one of them. This has led to unnecessary lobbying and unhealthy politicisation.

The first obstacle to the negotiated agreement was mounted by ASUU when it insisted the dismissal (for striking) of 79 academics at the University of Ilorin should be revoked before it would append its signature. The government refused, pointing out that the case of the fired lecturers was before the courts and it did not want to trample on the rule of law.

The second obstacle was the current global financial and economic crisis which has affected the government's financial fortunes. When new leaders of the ASUU removed the initial obstacle and appealed to government to sign the negotiated memorandum, it was no longer 'enthusiastic'.

Nigeria was in recession. There was less funding for government while the price of crude oil and gas had plummeted and 95% of government earnings are from oil and gas.

After an unsuccessful series of appeals to the government to honour its pledge, the ASUU in frustration embarked on an indefinite strike. SSANU and NASU commenced similar action.

To save face, the government published a communiqué announcing it had accepted implementation of all the clauses in the agreement with the following modification: a 40% increase in salaries for ASUU and SSANU members, and 20% for NASU members, in federal universities only.

The unions responded by rejecting the government's position. ASUU President Professor Ukachukwu Awuzie said the negotiated agreement was concluded on the basis of collective bargaining as enshrined in the trade union act, and that government had to abide by collective bargaining clauses that were binding on both parties.

The President and Vice-president of Nigeria, Shehu Musa Yar'Adua and Jonathan Goodluck, agreed on the principle of collective bargaining. But they objected to the union's position on the basis that signing the agreement in its present form would be unconstitutional because the federal government has no right to impose such agreement on state universities.

Yar'Adua said a central issue was not negotiation of salaries but signing an agreement with ASUU.

"This collective bargaining and the signing of the agreement are against our laws and legal system. ASUU is an organisation with membership cutting across federal and state governments," he said.

"The federal government cannot sign an agreement on behalf, for instance, of Lagos State and Kano State to direct what they are going to pay to lecturers in their own universities. The laws of this country have provided for separation of powers."

To prevent their members from backing out of the strike, the unions agreed to renegotiate and slightly amend the negotiated package on the basis of the status of federal and state universities. The strike is likely to end soon although many states will not be able to implement the terms of an amended agreement for lack of funds.