Public universities paralysed by lecturer strike

Academics in Nigeria have embarked on a one-week ‘warning strike’, shutting down all public universities. They are demanding implementation of agreements struck with former governments for improved lecturer welfare and university funding, among other issues.

The strike organised by the Academic Staff Union of Universities or ASUU was widely supported and there was no teaching, exams or attendance of meetings.

The ASUU had ordered all branches to vote on four strike options – a one-week, two-week or three-week warning strike, or continued effort to bring government to the negotiating table. The vast majority of branches voted for a one-week warning strike.

There was little interest in the dialogue option.

Since the beginning of this year, the union has written several letters to the federal Ministry of Education and National Universities Commission, copied to the presidency, calling for dialogue to seek solutions to problems bedevilling universities. Nothing happened.

On the eve of the strike, when ASUU leaders reached out to some influential members of the ruling party demanding an audience to discuss issues affecting the university system, they were again ignored.

When the strike entered the second day, government intelligence services reportedly told the presidency and education ministry that the vast majority of ASUU members had obeyed the strike action.

Panic set in. News about the strike hit social media and television. Journalists covering the Climate Summit in Marrakech, Morocco, tried to interview Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari about the strike.

He refused to answer but reportedly put in a call to his vice-president, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, to arrange a meeting with ASUU leaders. The Nigerian senate debated the issue and appealed to the union to shelve the strike, but the ASUU refused.

Rationale for the strike

At a well-attended press conference Professor Biodun Ogunyemi, the ASUU national president, explained the rationale for the strike.

He traced its roots to government’s failure to implement 2009 and 2013 memoranda of understanding signed with the ASUU, with a view to ensuring that public universities would gradually be better funded, equipped and staffed, and be able to meet challenges of the 21st century. He listed the union’s demands:
  • • Implementation of the 2009 memorandum, which deals with the welfare of lecturers.
  • • Implementation of the 2013 memorandum, in which government pledged to release US$31 billion a year for five years to revitalise higher education.
  • • Government should exclude universities from the Single Treasury Account, which does not capture categories peculiar to universities, for example foreign and local and sabbatical grants, leave bonuses and retirement benefits, university treasury bills and endowment funds.
  • • The creation of a dedicated university pension administration for staff.
  • • Payment of earned teaching allowances.
State of affairs

According to reliable sources, the government is in a dilemma about how to confront the issues raised by academics.

One option for Buhari is to delegate Mallam Adamu Adamu, the federal minister of education, to meet with lecturers and inform them that the government is broke as a result of a sharp fall internationally in the price of crude oil, the country’s main revenue earner. Agreements signed cannot be implemented as long as financial woes continue.

But sources close to the ASUU said there was a range of possible responses.

“In times of crisis such as we find ourselves, a responsible state must ensure that two sectors of the country do not suffer any set back: health and education,” declared Dr Adewale Suenu, vice-chair of the ASUU at Lagos State University. “Citizens must continue to enjoy health benefits. And citizens must be given access to education at all levels.”

At the press conference, ASUU chair Dr Ndamisa Mohammed Attaahiru, of the Federal University of Technology in Minna, said the strike could have been averted.

He accused the minister of an insensitive attitude and lack of commitment to reversing the dwindling fortunes of the education sector, and of blocking access by ASUU leaders to the president, and called for the education minister’s removal.

When asked how the ASUU might react if government remains indifferent to the demands of lecturers, Attaahiru warned that the union would evaluate the situation and could escalate the strikes from one to two and then three weeks.

“If after three weeks nothing is done, we would go on a full blown strike.”