Strike called off, but ASUU’s labour issues unresolved

Members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) in Nigeria are expected to return to their classrooms at federal universities following the union’s announcement on 14 October that it was suspending its eight-month-old strike.

The strike was called off on the back of rulings by the National Industrial Court and the Court of Appeal earlier in October that ordered academics to resume work, pending the determination of a substantive suit the federal government instituted against the union.

Professor Emmanuel Osodeke, the president of ASUU, warned while speaking to a local television station on 16 October, that lecturers are so broke they may find it difficult to fund transportation to their various institutions due to the non-payment of their salary arrears. This further accentuates the doubt that academic activities may not be able to commence immediately.

He said: “In the past, every lecturer lived on campus and you could trek to your office, but these days, many lecturers live 20 to 30 kilometres from their offices. How will they pay for their transport to work?

“We expect the government to pay the money [salary arrears] so that these people will go back to work while we are negotiating about the other issues. We suspended the strike hoping that the government will do the needful and by tomorrow (17 October), if the universities are open, hopefully, the lecturers will go back to work.”

Osodeke said although the union’s demands have not been adequately met, the decision was taken in deference to recent interventions by President Muhammadu Buhari, the Speaker of the House of Representatives (Nigeria’s lower law-making institution), Femi Gbajabiamila, and other “well-meaning Nigerians”.

For ASUU, the issues in contention include funding for the revitalisation of public universities, dealing with earned academic allowances, the proliferation of public universities, demand for the University Transparency and Accountability Solution as a platform for paying university staff, instead of the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System preferred by the government.

“While appreciating the commendable efforts of the leadership of the House of Representatives and other patriotic Nigerians who waded into the matter, the national executive council of ASUU noted with regret that the issues in dispute are yet to be satisfactorily addressed,” Osodeke said in a statement.

“ASUU[’s] NEC resolved to suspend the strike action embarked upon on 14 February 2022. Consequently, all members of ASUU are hereby directed to resume all services hitherto withdrawn with effect from 12:01 on Friday, 14 October, 2022,” Osodeke said.

However, the ASUU president did not specify the extent to which the ASUU’s demands have been met, including whether the government has backtracked on its ‘no-work-no-pay’ stance.

Ultimately, the decision to suspend the protracted strike despite the government’s failure to satisfactorily address the issues, has cast doubt on whether there will be a seamless continuation of academic activities as lecturers return to classrooms.

Questions about no-work-no-pay

“To be very honest, the zeal to work is not really there,” said Professor Muhammad Bunza, a senior lecturer who teaches African literature at the Bayero University, Kano.

For a start, Bunza said, the government must pay all the salary arrears to restore the lecturers’ commitment to teach students.

He said: “We are now waiting to hear more from the government. We were denied our salaries [for eight months] and we thought the government was no longer interested in the discussion with the ASUU. Now that they are willing again, we will see what happens.

“I don’t know if the government has agreed to pay the salary arrears, but when ASUU suspended the strike, we had to abide by its directive. I just hope the government will accede to the lecturers’ demands in the near future.”

Christian Nweke, a professor of psychology at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Anambra State, expressed fears similar to those of Bunza, citing the ‘no-work-no-pay’ policy as a major issue standing in the way of smooth post-strike academic programmes.

“The government has withheld our salaries for eight months. ASUU has taken the right decision [by suspending the strike] because of the students, but the government doesn’t care,” he said.

Asked if the government will honour the agreement it reached with the union now that the strike has been suspended, Nweke said: “It is uncertain.

“But, if this government does not, we hope the next administration will take it up,” he added.

Students’ mental health

Thousands of students, who have been sitting at home, have been eagerly anticipating the strike’s end.

There have been concerns over the effects of the prolonged industrial action on the mental health of the students, some of whom have reportedly contemplated suicide.

“We [students] are very happy ASUU has suspended the strike and we can now return to school,” said Shamsudeen Umar, the president of the students’ union government at the Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto State.

But Umar is worried over another possible ASUU strike in the near future if its demands are not met.

The union has embarked on a strike 16 times since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999, spending an accumulated period of about four-and-a-half years on strike.

“We are appealing to the government to do the needful. The Nigerian constitution categorically specifies the role of the government in providing quality education for the citizenry.

“Our appeal to the government is to honour its agreement. The lecturers will not hesitate to embark on another strike if the government fails to grant their demands,” Umar said.