NIGERIA: Universities reopen after strike

Nigerian universities have reopened after three months of paralysing strikes by unions. Three staff unions signed a memorandum of understanding with the government and called off the industrial action after weeks of complex negotiations. A stumbling block, however, may be a lack of funds to implement the core areas agreed on by the parties because of the country's economic crisis.

One underlying reason for the signing by the ASUU, the Senior Staff Union of Universities and the Non-Academic Staff Union of Universities was to prevent an outbreak of student unrest.

The National Association of Nigerian Students had warned the government that if no agreement were reached with the unions, street demonstrations would take place during the October Under-17 Junior Football World Cup being held in the country.

But the deciding factor in calling off the strike was an agreement to increase lecturers' salaries by 53%, while senior and junior staff would receive 25% more. The increases might prevent the academic drift to the private sector, and encourage Nigerian academics abroad to take up employment in their own country.

Gloria Njoku, an industrial relations expert, said: "Many top universities in North America and Europe are retrenching foreign teachers, including Nigerians. Priority is given to nationals to fill the existing vacancies in these foreign universities.

"This trend further limits the chances of Nigerian and other foreigners getting these jobs. Consequently, the Nigerians diaspora might head home to take advantage of the new salary scales here."

A clause in the MOU changes the retirement age of professors from 65 to 70 and more than 400 professors from various tertiary institutions due to retire next year will now not have to step down. The new salary scale also favours laboratory, ICT technicians and engineers. Under the old salary structures, universities struggled to recruit competent staff in these fields.

One of the difficulties facing implementation of the agreement is its legal interpretation. All parties agreed the memorandum was not legally binding on state universities although the government said it would be implemented by the governing councils of federal universities.

Universities belonging to the states are not bound by the agreement but the oil producing states of the Niger Delta and Lagos signified their intention to implement it.

Other states have yet to comment although if they do not implement the MOU, especially the pay increases, there may be an exodus of lecturers to other universities. Some academic programmes may not then be accredited because of a lack of adequate staff.