Relief as academics suspend five-month strike

Students and parents across Nigeria have welcomed the news that the Academic Staff Union of Universities, or ASUU, has called off its five-month strike. Pressures on President Goodluck Jonathan persuaded him to meet some of the lecturer demands – and academics had also come under immense public pressure to reopen campuses.

But lecturers warned that they could resume the suspended action in the near future if the government failed to implement a newly signed agreement.

Academics have been striking primarily over the government’s failure to implement a 2009 memorandum of understanding that included improved funding for universities.

An initial refusal of the government to endorse a new agreement struck by Jonathan and ASUU leader Dr Nasir Isa Fagge last month, hardened the union’s position.

And academics were angered by a threat by Acting Minister of Education Nyesom Wike to sack all lecturers if they did not return to work. They dismissed as idle talk a ‘warning’ by the minister that the government would advertise for new staff, locally and internationally.

Government actions failed

A range of actions by the government – including refusal to pay the salaries of striking lecturers – did not have the desired effects.

One government tactic was to get the National Universities Commission, or NUC, to call an emergency meeting of the four industrial unions in universities, and vice-chancellors.

There, NUC officials dangled the carrot of a US$1.3 billion funding boost that the government promised public universities as an initial take-off grant to improve decayed campus infrastructure.

According to reliable sources, the ASUU delegation strongly objected to what it called an unwholesome and unacceptable method of dealing with the fundamental crisis confronting the university system.

The ASUU president declared: “We are faced with a moral question here. If we all agree to accept this initial take-off grant without signing a mutually binding agreement, what is the guarantee that the other parts of the agreement will be implemented by the same government that refuses to formalise this agreement.”

He said the ASUU would “never be part of this deceit, which I am convinced will cast a slur on our credibility and integrity”. The meeting ended without agreement.

With lecturers refusing to bow to government warnings, Jonathan’s credibility was at stake.

Diplomatic sources also revealed that when the Nigerian president was in South Africa to attend the funeral of Nelson Mandela, he was asked privately by other heads of state about the reasons for the continued closure of Nigeria’s public universities. They had read of the crisis and the lecturer demands for funds to upgrade higher education.

ASUU actions going forward

On arrival back from South Africa, Jonathan summoned the acting minister to call the ASUU leadership with a view to signing last month’s agreement. The ASUU attended the meeting and read the content of last month’s agreement, with the following highlights:

  • • Government agrees to disburse without delay the promised take-off grant of US$1.3 billion to all public universities.
  • • The 2009 agreement should be renegotiated in the early part of 2014.
  • • Immediate payment of all the outstanding salary arrears of striking teachers.
  • • No victimisation of any member of academic staff.
  • • Setting up a monitoring committee composed of government and the ASUU to ensure compliance with the agreement, especially in the area of the disbursement of funds.
  • • Re-examination of the composition of university governing councils.
The ASUU leadership accepted the agreement, but with reluctance because of the possibility – as before – that the government could renege on it.

At a meeting of the union’s national executive council, attended by representatives of all union branches and held at the Federal University of Technology in Minna, the agreement was formally approved and the strike suspended.

The following resolutions were adopted at the meeting, to ensure successful implementation of the signed agreement:
  • • Branches should report to the ASUU president any breach of the agreement, and ensure its enforcement.
  • • University authorities should be prevented from using the take-off and future funds on projects not tied to teaching and research activities.
  • • Branches should undertake media campaigns to solicit the support of Nigerians for a robust public university system.
  • • Students and their unions should be informed, on a constant basis, of the activities of ASUU aimed at improving teaching and research conditions in universities.
  • • Members of university senates should be sensitised to participate in implementation of the agreement.

Those who attended the meeting had no illusion about the difficulties ahead. They were concerned that the few university authorities that attempted to sabotage the strike would not hesitate to punish – in a subtle manner – those considered ‘hardliners’ during the strike. The ASUU has vowed to fight all incidents of victimisation.

Another looming challenge is a threat by bodies representing junior and senior non-teaching staff to scuttle implementation of a clause in a report by a government committee, which stated that with increasing computerisation on campuses, there was a need to downsize the number of non-teaching staff.

Quoting from Nelson Mandela’s book, Long Walk to Freedom, historian and ASUU branch secretary at Lagos State University Dr Wale Adeyemi said the struggle for a quality university system in Nigeria would be tough and sometimes bitter.

“We shall succeed if not now, certainly in the future,” he said.