Deadlocked talks keep campuses closed for four months

Public universities in Nigeria have been shut since 2 July by crippling industrial action by members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, or ASUU. The main grouse of academics is the government’s failure to fund various formal agreements aimed at revitalising the public university system.

Despite several attempts by the state to break the strike, the vast majority of academics have remained committed to their demands.

However, the central government is making subtle moves, appealing to academics to call off the industrial action “in order to protect the interests of the suffering students”, most of whom are supporting their lecturers’ fight for improved teaching and research environments on campuses.

Reasons for strike action

In a press briefing on reasons for the strike, ASUU President Dr Nasir Isa Fagge affirmed that in a January 2012 Memorandum of Understanding, the government promised to stimulate the process of revitalising the university system with an initial sum of US$621 million for 2012.

This financial commitment was to be built upon, into an annual sum of US$2.5 billion over the following three years (2013-15).

Fagge revealed that government set up its own committee, the Needs Assessment Committee, to determine exactly what would be done with the funds anticipated according the agreement.

By coincidence the National Economic Council, comprising national leaders and executive governors of Nigeria’s 36 federal states, approved a report by its technical committee that found that about US$5 billion was needed to revitalise the public university system in the short term, translating into an annual intervention fund of US$2.5 billion over two years.

Fagge said he regretted that government had not demonstrated sincerity in tackling the problems of public universities.

“What has emerged is that government never intended to implement any of these important documents, while publicly and privately assuring ASUU and the country to trust it and to believe that, for once, it was determined to address the decay and the rot in universities.

“Its true intention, all along, was to take the country and ASUU for a costly ride. Therefore the indefinite strike must continue until government addresses these issues.”

Funding the agreements

Dr Sylvester Akhaine, a political science lecturer at Lagos State University, pointed out that if government officials, whose role was to scout for funds, had carried out their responsibilities since the first agreement with academics was signed in 2009, the industrial action would not have occurred.

Making detailed references to the 2009 and subsequent agreements, he described how they might be funded. He stated that ASUU had made useful recommendations and government officials had gladly accepted them at the time.

In addition to asking the government to allocate a minimum of 26% of the annual budget to education – the UNESCO benchmark – ASUU went ahead and identified sources of funding. These funding sources included:
  • • The Education Tax Fund, to be amended to the Higher Education Fund, for effective rehabilitation and repositioning of tertiary education institutions.
  • • The Petroleum Technology Development Fund, to be utilised for research, training and development of academic staff.
  • • Patronage of university services by federal and state agencies for quality consultancies on the basis of due process.
  • • Attraction of funds from alumni associations through direct funding, endorsements, bequests etc.
  • • Private sector contributions including voluntary agencies and philanthropic individuals.
ASUU suggested that government could goad the private sector into making voluntary financial contributions to Nigerian universities through tax relief and other means. The union suggested that the private sector also be encouraged to engage in research collaboration with universities and in commercialisation of research results.

“According to reliable sources, all these proposals were accepted but not implemented,” said Akhaine.

The twin tactics of carrot and stick were deployed by the central government to break the determination of striking academics.

In the second month of the strike, the government instructed vice-chancellors to commence a policy of ‘no work, no pay’. Some vice-chancellors complied. Others said that they were awaiting directives from their governing councils.

The government also sent out ‘informal warnings’ that the check-off dues of the union might be stopped, with a view to cutting off the financial muscle of the strikes.

All these tactics failed.

Negotiations with ASUU

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan reportedly instructed former Colonel Sambo Dasuki, the national security adviser, to meet informally with ASUU leaders to appeal to the union to call off the strike.

At the meeting, ASUU leaders urged Dasuki to prevail upon the president, who is the ‘visitor’ to all federal universities, to ensure that adequate funding was provided for tertiary education.

They reminded him that the strike was not about the salaries of academics. They passionately tried to convince the national security advisor that the 21st century required a knowledge-driven and digital economy.

“It is only countries that invest massively in education and training of citizens that will be reckoned with in this global world,” said Fagge. “Nigeria has the human resources and what she needs is to invest financial resources in human capacity. South Korea is an example that Nigeria should emulate.”

Touched by the ASUU presentation, Dasuki promised to convey the message to President Jonathan.

The president then instructed Vice President Namadi Sambo to meet with ASUU leaders. The first meeting was deadlocked. A second meeting was larger and included some former and serving vice-chancellors, and again focused on the funding of agreements.

The vice president affirmed that government would allocate US$1.3 billion in the 2014 budget, and that the same amount would be included in subsequent budgets in the next three or four years “until the universities are brought to world-class standard”.

He revealed that his administration had increased “funds for the payment of earned allowances of university staff” from US$187 million to US$249 million.

At the meeting the vice president and his entourage pleaded with ASUU leaders to call off the strike then and there. However, the union leaders were bemused, to the bewilderment of the government delegation.

Fagge informed them that the ASUU operated according to democratic principles: “It is only the congresses in the branches that can deliberate on your proposal…[and] that can call off this painful strike. We shall go back to our congresses and we shall get back to you soon,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Nigeria Labour Congress has warned that it would call its members to industrial action if the government failed to commence implementation of the agreements. The House of Representatives urged the government to send in a supplementary bill on funding of the agreements and they would approve it.

The latest reports from the branches of ASUU indicate that the academics have rejected the vice president’s proposal. Meanwhile, the campuses remain closed until further notice.