Nigerian government licenses a new academic staff union

In an apparent move to clip the wings of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the Nigerian government on 4 October officially registered a factional lecturers’ union, the Congress of University Academics (CONUA).

The federal government also registered the National Association of Medical and Dental Academics. The Minister of Labour and Employment Dr Chris Ngige, who issued certificates of registration to the two unions, said they would exist alongside ASUU and that they are entitled to all the rights and privileges of unions within the university system.

“CONUA applied for registration in 2018 and cited irreconcilable differences [with ASUU], as it [CONUA] does not believe in recurring strikes as the solution to every welfare agitation,” Ngige told journalists at the certificate presentation ceremony in the capital, Abuja.

“The ministry of labour and employment set up a committee to look into the merit of their application. The committee saw merit in the application and recommended approval for the registration of the association by the Registrar of Trade Unions in 2020.

“But for the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic and the recurring ASUU strike, this would have been done,” the minister said.

A historic moment?

CONUA’s National Coordinator, Dr ’Niyi Sunmonu, who is a senior lecturer at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State in south-west Nigeria, regarded the union’s registration as “monumentally historic”.

He said the registration of CONUA as an expression of trust and pledged to reciprocate by “devoting ourselves unceasingly to the advancement of university education in this country”.

“We will make the details of our programmes available to the public in due course. For now, we are giving the assurance that we would work to ensure that the nation is not traumatised again by academic union dislocations in the country’s public universities,” he said.

But ASUU President Professor Emmanuel Osodeke said CONUA’s registration is “inconsequential”, and that the latter does not pose any threat to the former.

Also, ASUU National Investment Secretary Dr Austen Sado described the launch as “chaotic”.

“When the minister said many more [unions] would come, I am sure that Nigerians ... reasonable people ... are wondering, what is the scheming for?

“I can imagine [that], tomorrow, we will have the Association of Media Teachers of Universities, then the Association of Pathologists ... It’s chaotic,” Sado told local network Channels Television.

“What the minister of labour is doing to unionism in Nigeria is pyrrhic. Whatever victory that is achieved now is a very disastrous victory because it portends danger to the system, not just to academics,” Sado added.

Although Nigeria’s Trade Unions Act states that another trade union cannot be registered by the minister in a sector where a similar one already exists, Ngige countered the argument by citing Section 32 of the Act, which empowers such registration at the discretion of the minister.

Lessons from history

Abdul Mahmud, a lawyer, columnist and former students’ union official, said the government had not learned from history, citing past failures and crises when factional unions were recognised to suppress the mainstream ones.

“CONUA is a single university congress – it is heavily localised to Ife, with about 250 members (out of over 1,600 academics) – and it cannot help [President Muhammadu] Buhari’s cause. CONUA, led by a non-professor, Sunmonu, will change nothing,” he said.

The government’s official recognition of CONUA came amid a protracted strike by ASUU, which has led to the closure of federal and state universities for about eight months.

The strike happened after what ASUU described as the failure of the federal government to honour a set of agreements reached between the two bodies as far back as 2009.

Parts of the union’s demands are increased funding for the revitalisation of public universities, university autonomy, and payment of earned academic allowances and promotion arrears.

ASUU also demands the adoption of the University Transparency Accountability Solution (UTAS) over the government’s preferred Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) as a payment model for lecturers.

ASUU has faulted the IPPIS as anti-university autonomy, but the government is insisting that the payment model promotes transparency and does not hamper university autonomy.

But ASUU argues that IPPIS has never worked in any university system anywhere and that the system shuts the door against foreign scholars, contract officers and researchers needing to be poached from existing universities to stabilise new ones.

On the other hand, CONUA, which broke away from ASUU in 2018, is okay with the IPPIS platform and says it does not believe in strikes as a way of demanding better welfare from the government.

“We only believe that [using industrial action as a strategy] has delivered more headaches than good for all stakeholders, including the lecturers that go on strike. It also hurts the progress, achievement and growth of the universities, among other things.

“We believe we should explore other methods for driving home our demands,” Sunmonu told the local newspaper Sun in an interview in September.

A series of negotiations between ASUU and the federal government has ended in deadlocks, prompting the government to drag the union to court.

In September, the National Industrial Court ordered ASUU to call off its ongoing strike. But the union filed an appeal seeking a stay of execution of the judgment.

On 3 October, Ngige warned ASUU against the consequences of disobeying a court order.

A day later, President Buhari accused ASUU of complicity in corruption in the tertiary education sector.

“Incessant strikes, especially by unions in the tertiary education, often imply that the government is grossly underfunding education, but I must say that corruption in the education system, from basic level to the tertiary level, has been undermining our investment in the sector and those who go on prolonged strikes on flimsy reasons are no less complicit,” Buhari said at a summit ‘Diminishing Corruption in the Public Sector’.