NIGERIA: Disagreements prolong strike

The strike that has paralysed Nigeria's public universities for eight weeks is yet to be resolved. The government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) have adopted uncompromising positions, prolonging industrial action that has angered students. The government has put in play the age-old strategy of weakening opponents using a divide and rule "No work, no pay" plan.

At the heart of the current disagreement are principles of collective bargaining during a dispute. The government wants the union to suspend action during negotiations while the union believes negotiations can be concluded with the strike continuing.

In an effort to win over public opinion, representatives of the federal government and leaders of the ASUU have advanced reasons for the prolonged closure of public universities. While the media 'war' is being waged the other unions involved - the Senior Staff Non-Academic Union (SSANU) and Non-Academic Staff Union (NASU) - are keeping quiet. By tradition, they will call off their strike action once there is agreement between government and the ASUU.

Under the Education Miscellaneous Provision Act of 2007, governing councils are the employers of all university staff. With the new act conferring autonomy on each university, negotiations and recommendations from a 2006 government-union agreement - still to be put into effect - should be sent to all councils of federal universities for ratification and implementation.

This is the government's legal and political interpretation of the situation as explained by Gamaliel Onosode, leader of its negotiating team. Onosode said his negotiating team, under the new law, could only make provisional draft recommendations to federal universities.

The federal government, he argued, cannot constitutionally impose any obligations regarding state universities on state governments. "It is a pity that express transitional provisions were not included in the laws to take care of the transition from one legal regime to the latest legal position," he said.

Professor Julius Okojie, Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission and also a member of the government negotiating team, lamented that each time there was going to be a break-through, the ASUU came up with "other extraneous issues".

Okojie said the last agreement between the government and unions had been stalled for two-and-a-half years because the ASUU repeatedly questioned whether the government negotiating team had a mandate.

The ASUU, for example, had insisted that 49 lecturers dismissed from the University of Ilorin should be reinstated before negotiations could resume. Okojie claimed the ASUU's refusal to suspend the strike while continuing with negotiations compelled the government to call the process off.

Professor Ukachukwu Awuzie, National President of the ASUU, rejected the reasons put forward by the government to discontinue with negotiations. He said decentralised collective bargaining was not acceptable to the union.

On the implications of the negotiations for state universities, Awuzie said in the past all negotiated agreements recommended minimum benchmarks for the entire Nigerian university system.

"Establishing minimum levels in any agreement is justified because Nigeria operates a single university system accredited by the National Universities Commission, a single standard of entry administered by the Joint Admission Board and a flow of academic staff throughout the system."

Behind the arguments and interpretations, University World News can advance the real reasons for the intransigence of both parties. First, the federal government is not willing to go beyond a 40% pay rise for academic staff, 40% for non-academic senior staff and 20% for junior staff.

Negotiations are underway for a review of salaries in the private and public sectors. At the end, the wage bill will rise for all employers. "If government gives in to the demands of workers in the tertiary education sector, workers in other sectors will make similar demands. The current economic and financial meltdown cannot accommodate such demands," said a senior official of the federal Ministry of Finance, who did not want to be named.

The ASUU has another dilemma. There are more state than federal universities. Therefore the union's strength lies in the state universities and the current ASUU national president is from a state university.

State chapters of the union have consistently complained that each time negotiations are concluded at the federal level, they have to engage their state governments in another round of negotiations.

If the ASUU accepts the federal government's interpretation of collective bargaining, it will weaken the union and create three parallel trade unions - for federal, state and private universities. "At the end of this strike, ASUU may gradually lose its cohesion", said the chairman of a local chapter of the union, who also preferred not to be named.

A decentralised, weaker ASUU is indeed gradually emerging. There are already four salary differentials in the university system: federal, private universities, state universities in Niger Delta, and Lagos State University.

Meanwhile, authorities in federal and state universities said that from the end of August, salaries will be paid only to staff who sign an undertaking that they are willing to return to work.

The situation in Nigerian universities is indeed unfortunate and I am in agreement with the UWN publication of this news. If our universities are rated low among others around the world and if our graduates become half-baked because of these incessant breaks, no government should break anyone's head for such deficeiencies.

I wonder how we will be able to produce competitive graduates and have our universities rated well in the midst of all these unnenessary strike actions which constitute avoidable imbroglo. It is a national tragedy for those in the management of our resources, especially finance, to think of how little will be spent from the yearly budget so as to have much left to share at the end of the year.

This is what we have been seeing and has been a stable strategy in corrupt practices among public office holders in Nigeria.

The 40% pay rise for academic and non-academic staff and 20% to junior staff will further widen existing gaps and this disparity will heighten industrial unrest. I hope those in goverment will desist from their sense of lordship over the rest and do the right thing rather than destroy our public institutions for their own and that of their cronies to flourish.

The bodies that are negotiating with government are not those mentioned in this article alone: we have another one called NAAT (National Association of Academic Technologists formerly Association of University Technologists of Nigeria-ASUTON) which represent the entire population of university technologists across disciplines.

It is only in a place like Nigeria that desires technological growth but plays down the roles of technologist that could produce the much needed industrial growth especially those from the university system.

A friend asked if my vice-chancelor was worth more than 22milion Naira per annum and I, a professor, was just worth 3.9million per annum, how could you expect me to put in my best in such a system? This explains the implications the Nigerian goverment's proposal for pay rises.

Olubodun Olufemi