Academics’ union banned over strike on unpaid salaries

As it embarks on an indefinite nationwide strike over what it claims are unfulfilled government promises, the Academic Staff Union of Universities, or ASUU, is reeling from a ban imposed on its local branch based at Kogi State University.

Because the outlawing of any branch of ASUU by implication means proscription of the entire union, the union leadership, including the Nigeria Labour Congress, has mapped out strategies to contest the decree, which includes challenging it in court.

The ban – which was to come into effect immediately – was announced by University Visitor and Governor of Kogi State Yahaya Bello after an emergency meeting of the Executive Council of Kogi State on 19 July in response to a strike by academic staff over non-payment of salaries and lack of funding for teaching and research.

Bello said the decision became necessary as “all efforts to make the academic teachers call off their six-month-old strike failed. I personally undertook a tour of all tertiary institutions in Kogi State with a view to having first-hand knowledge about the problems in these institutions. While others have since returned to work, the academic staff refused to call off their strike action.”

Teachers ordered back to work

He said the government had fulfilled over 90% of the union’s demands and had gone “one step further” by paying all outstanding salaries. He ordered striking teachers back to work, failing which they should consider themselves out of a job.

“I have directed the governing council of the university to ensure that any staff [member] willing to work does not suffer any form of harassment nor intimidation,” he said.

At a later press conference in Abuja, Nigeria’s federal capital, Bello said he had no regrets outlawing the union in the university. “The most important thing is the preservation of Kogi State University … I am concerned about the future of our children and that of the students. As long as we can protect it, I don’t think I have any apologies for proscribing ASUU,” he said.

He told journalists that he had inherited a comatose university and was determined to resuscitate this institution.

“We need to carry out certain surgical operations in order to make the educational sector healthy and robust in Kogi State. Now, ASUU and several other bodies came up with certain demands. Some of these demands pre-dated my administration. And to the best of our judgement, as an administration, we were able to meet about 90% of these demands.

"In a collective bargaining culture, both parties should shift ground. And the way and manner ASUU was going about these demands is more or less like an opposition political party.”

Bello claimed that there were clandestine political forces aiding and abetting academic staff in their quest to cripple the university.

“Apparently, there are certain forces from certain areas that are behind them. We shall deal with them at the appropriate time. As a visitor of that institution, I am empowered to proscribe the union so that we can have a smooth academic programme,” he said.

Job advertisements

The fiat was followed a few days later by an advert placed by the governing council in some of the national daily newspapers advertising staff vacancies in virtually all the academic departments.

In response, several academics in the university and on other campuses have castigated the governor as an “un-serious comedian”.

Dr Wale Suenu, vice-chairman of ASUU at Lagos State University, said there was an acute shortage of academic staff in the university system because during the military era the postgraduate programmes were deliberately underfunded.

“Who would go and teach in Kogi State University where salaries are not regular and teaching and research tools are absent? I agree with my colleagues who nicknamed Yahaya Bello an un-serious comedian”.

Ayuba Wabba, president of the Nigeria Labour Congress, warned that Bello had no powers to ban any union.

“Nigeria operates in terms of the rule of law. Thus Yahaya Bello has no power to proscribe ASUU … Workers have fundamental rights to join unions of their choice as enshrined in the charters of the United Nations and the International Labour Organization to which Nigeria is a signatory.

"It is also the right of Nigerian workers to belong to any union of their choice as contained in Section 40 of Nigeria’s Constitution. The constitution recognises Yahaya Bello as a duly elected executive governor of the state. The same constitution recognises that there are trade unions which are not under the governor’s command. It is an independent entity that cannot be determined by the governor,” said Wabba.

Rights of union members

This was confirmed by barrister Eze Onyekpere who said the ban violates the rights of union members.

“The decision of the Kogi State Governor to proscribe the union has serious legal implications. Since it is the right of workers to come together under one legal umbrella, any suppression of any of the branches of ASUU is a clear violation of the human and trade union rights granted to its members by law … The decision of the governor is … an attempt to send the institution into extinction and in the process jeopardise the future of the students,” he said.

ASUU National President Professor Biodun Ogunyemi urged the governor to rescind the decision, announcing that the ASUU national executive council had ordered the Kogi State University chapter to proceed with the indefinite strike until the ban is lifted. This would be the sine qua non condition for dialogue between the governor and the leadership of the local branch, he said.