Lecturers fight court ruling that ordered them back to work

The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has appealed and filed a stay of execution of a ruling by Nigeria’s industrial court after it ordered an end to the union’s protracted strike. The judgment, on 22 September, appeared to have worsened the ongoing conflict between the federal government and the dissatisfied union.

Ruling on an interlocutory injunction filed by the federal government, Justice Hamman Polycarp of the National Industrial Court ordered the lecturers to end the more than seven-month old strike immediately, pending the determination of a substantive suit the government filed against the industrial action.

The union, in its notice of appeal, said it was totally “dissatisfied with the [court] decision” and maintained that the trial judge “erred in law and occasioned a miscarriage of justice when he decided to hear and determine the respondent’s [federal government’s] motion for an interlocutory injunction when he knew or ought to have known that the substantive suit was not initiated by due process of law”.

What academics want

Academics want the government to implement a renegotiated 2009 agreement it reached with the union, including the release of NGN1.2 trillion (more than US$2.8 billion) for the revitalisation of public universities, payment of outstanding allowances, better working conditions and the adoption of the University Transparency Accountability Solution as payment platform, as opposed to the integrated payroll and personnel information system which has resulted in irregularities in salary payments.

In August, the government announced the approval of a 35% salary increase for academics in the professor cadre and 23.5% for other categories of the workforce at federal universities.

It also pledged to give the universities NGN150 billion in the first quarter of 2023 for the revitalisation and NGN50 billion for the payment of outstanding allowances, but said lecturers would not be paid for the period they are on strike.

But the union turned down the offers, accusing the government of not showing commitment to the agreement over the years. It also insisted that salary arrears must be paid on the grounds that lecturers would work extra hours to make up for the missed lectures.

Ruling ‘worsens situation’

The court pronouncement has since set a new tone for the strike. The lecturers feel insulted by the government’s attempt to coerce them to suspend the strike and vow that a battle line has been drawn.

“The directive was ill-conceived and not in the best interest of the nation. Rather, it is going to worsen the situation,” a senior lecturer at the University of Ibadan, Oyo State, Professor Oluwafemi Oluwadare, told University World News.

He said: “The strike may linger longer than expected if the government cannot address the issue amicably. The directive is nothing but arrant nonsense because the students will be at the receiving end.”

He said that “a serious government” would not put the education of citizens at risk “if it actually values education”.

“The government says, ‘no work, no pay’. This stance is a crazy way of using hunger to fight the lecturers. There are insinuations that, when the lecturers are hungry, they will prostrate [themselves] before the government. This will never happen.”

The ASUU chairman at the University of Ilorin, Professor Saliu Ajao, said the ruling did not come to the union as a surprise, claiming that the government is bent on taking any measure to prove a point and have some sense of victory.

“But the truth is that it has boomeranged. If they understand that they are dealing with intellectuals, they will know that coercing lecturers back to class will never work. This has further demonstrated that the government has never been sincere in the negotiation with the union, hence the rush to the court. It is a marathon and we have just started. We will see how long their deceit will take them,” Ajao told University World News.

What if the ASUU appeal fails?

On what would be the next line of action if the appeal court declines the stay of execution and insists lecturers must resume, Ajao said the union would explore all other available options.

He said: “I think any judge should be wary of granting an order that will be difficult to effect. Are they going to commit all of us to prison if our members refuse to go back to work? If you ask us to go back and we do, and lecturers are not motivated to teach, what will happen to the volume of knowledge given to students? It becomes a waste.

“The government should look at the consequences. We are in a democracy. Even the military regime tried it in 1992 when it proscribed the union; it never worked.”

A law lecturer at the University of Benin, Edo State, Professor Ikponmwonsa Omoruyi, expressed disappointment at the turn of events, noting that the government has chosen “a very long and unproductive route” by taking the ASUU to court.

He said it is wrong for the government to believe the court ruling will stand when the union is still aggrieved and has the right to appeal.

Omoruyi said: “The government truncated the process of negotiations and went to court because they believe that the court belongs to them. It is going to take a longer time to resolve, except the government toes the path of negotiation. The matter may eventually get to the Supreme Court, and that takes time.

“It is quite sad the government is destroying higher education, especially public [institutions], using the instrumentality of the court. This is a strike that was not even necessary in the first place if the government had fulfilled the agreement it reached with the union.

“You can’t beat somebody and tell the person not to cry. The ASUU went on strike because the government has not done what they were supposed to have done for several years.”

A senior academic at the University of Jos, Plateau State, Professor Patricia Lar, said it is worrisome that the government would jettison dialogue, lamenting that the ruling encouraged it to shy away from its responsibilities to develop public universities.

“It is not good for academia to be closed down for this long, but if we have gone this far, let’s go all the way and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Higher education should be the think tank and lighthouse of a nation; it should be the pool that the government turns to for solutions. But, by using the federal might, the government is strangulating it after muzzling it. It means they really want to kill it,” she added.

Students kick against judgment

The National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) also rejected the ruling, which it described as a “black market [backdoor] judgment”.

In a statement signed by the national public relations officer of NANS, Giwa Yisa Temitope, the association faulted the government’s decision to take the ASUU to court, saying the action showed that the authorities lacked the will to explore alternative dispute resolution.

The statement reads: “As an association, we feel disturbed to read the news of the judgment because we believe that it betrays equity. Ordinarily, the federal government is not meant to have dragged the ASUU to court.

“But the fact that they had to [do so] is a signal that this government cannot handle the crisis. And we want to state categorically that the court cannot force members of the ASUU back to lecture theatres.

“As it stands today, with that court judgment, we maintain that the court has not resolved the problem and we reject the judgment in strong terms. The court could have said that the federal government should go and pay rather than say that lecturers who are on strike should go back to classrooms.

“We were expecting the court to have understood that lecturers are on contract for personal service, hence they cannot be compelled to render a service they don’t want to render.

“The only remedy to this strike action is for the federal government to accede to the demands of the ASUU which the government willingly entered into with them, and properly fund education,” according to the statement.