I met a young university student the other day and he was in great pains. In obvious melancholy, this Nigerian lad, who is in public university, lamented that two of his friends who got admission the same year he did had graduated, while he is still in school. It is not that he failed any course and, therefore, has not fulfilled academic requirements for graduation. No. It is simply because his academic programme has been delayed by incessant strikes of university lecturers under the aegis of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). His friends who had graduated attended private universities, where there were no industrial actions or academic disruptions.
This student is not alone in this terrible situation. There are millions of Nigerian children who are stuck in universities because strikes by ASUU have derailed their academic programmes and, therefore, extended their stay in school. For the avoidance of doubt, Nigerian universities were shut down for nine months in 2020/2021 because members of ASUU went on strike. This year, the universities were also closed for about seven months because lecturers went on strike. Earlier, in 2019/2020, the universities were shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With such disruptions, Nigerian children in the country’s universities, who are doing courses that should ordinarily take four years to be completed, are spending six or more years in the university before they graduate. To make matters worse, the quality of education these students get is suspect, owing to academic disruptions.
So many things have been adduced for this ugly situation, even though they are one-sided. For instance, the ASUU members are always quick to blame government for lecturers’ incessant strikes. Each time they go on strike, lecturers would cite poor funding of universities by the government as the motivation for their action. They also present the picture of suffering occasioned by poor welfare. However, the role personal interests of the lecturers plays in strikes, which, most times, are at the root of their action, is suppressed. It is becoming apparent that some of the strikes embarked upon by university lecturers were borne out of selfishness, as they did not consider the fact that the students are the ones who paid the price. Lecturers want enhanced salaries. They want to be the only ones using the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) payment system, when other federal government institutions and corporations are using the Integrated Personnel Payroll and Information System (IPPIS). They want to have their cake and eat it.
Shortly after the last industrial action was called off, following the orders of the National Industrial Court (NIC), the lecturers raised issues about the salary they received. They had complained that there was a shortfall in the salary paid and shouted at the rooftops that it was unacceptable. The Federal Government’s explanation that the shortfall came about because it had prorated the salary based on the days the lecturers worked appears to sound Greek to the lecturers and some Nigerians who pander to sentiments. The position of government that it would apply the “no work, no pay” rule for the period of the strike seems a bitter pill for the lecturers. They are invoking sentiments, while overlooking what the law really said.
My recent study of the Trade Disputes Act, Cap T8, and Trade Disputes (Essential Services) Act, Cap T9, 2004, was really in eye-opener as to what happens during strike, vis-a-vis salary payment. Section 43(1)(a) of the Act states: “Where any worker takes part in a strike, he shall not be entitled to any wage or other entitlement for the period of the strike and any such period shall not count for the purpose of reckoning the period of the continuous employment and all rights dependent on continuity of employment shall be prejudicially affected accordingly.”
From the above, the Federal Government is not under any obligation to pay university lecturers or any federal civil servant whatsoever for the months they go on strike. The university lecturers know this. That is why they would not consider the option of going to court to compel government to pay them for periods they do not work. That’s why they would want to use arm-twisting tactics, like threatening to go on another strike, if they are not paid. They are using strike as a tool of intimidation.
The pertinent questions to ask are: Should a worker earn money for a job not done? Does a labourer who fails or refuses to discharge his or her duty deserve his or her wage? The fact that lectures had been paid for the periods they went on strike in the past could just be out of government’s magnanimity, not that they merited it. If, therefore, government decides to apply the law, the decision should be understood for what it is. Inasmuch as some Nigerians would always believe that university lecturers are right embarking on strikes, we should pause for once to interrogate the situation. Has government really failed to listen to ASUU, in the true sense of it? Has government totally ignored the welfare of the lecturers? Have university lecturers actually appreciated government’s efforts, no matter how little?
Agreed that government has not done all that is required in funding university education or taking care of the welfare of university workers, as other workers, is it not true that it has failed woefully to implement the agreement reached to end the 2020 ASUU strike. It is unfortunate that, in the talk about government’s negligence of the universities and lecturers, no member of ASUU has ever told the world that the government paid them fully for the nine months they embarked on strike in 2020. No ASUU member has revealed publicly that the payment was done in three tranches of one current month, plus three months’ arrears. No member of ASUU has also said that government has ever paid anything towards the revitalisation of universities, despite the fact that this has been done since after the 2020 strike. Record shows that government has paid, since after 2020 strike, N40 billion, N15 billion and N30 billion, among others, to take care of some of the things ASUU complained of. ASUU is not talking about it.
On this protracted ASUU-government problem, it is indeed surprising that people always blame the Ministry of Labour and Employment and its supervising minister. If there is failure of government in funding university education or if there is decay in the university system, the blame should be on the Ministry of Education and the minister in charge of it. The Ministry of Labour and Employment has only served in an arbitrator’s capacity, trying to resolve disputes that it has no hand in creating. In the last strike, the Ministry of Education and the minister failed to resolve the matter, but nobody has given the minister of labour and employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, any credit for rescuing the country. It is obvious that the strike would have lingered longer than it did had the minister of labour and employment not invoked the law, and legitimately too.
Ngige relied on the provisions of Trade Disputes Act, Cap T8, and Trade Disputes (Essential Services) Act, Cap T9, 2004, to get the lecturers back to the classroom, while negotiations continued. Section 17(1) of the Act states: “If in the case of any trade dispute of which he has received a report under Section 6 of this Act… then within seven days of the receipt by him of a report under Section 8 (5) of this Act, the Minister shall refer the dispute directly to the National Industrial Court.”
Those who argue that the minister should not have gone to court should know that the law compels him to do so. Those who also think that lecturers shouldn’t have gone back to work, since they appealed the court’s judgment, should look at Section 18(1), which states: “An employer shall not declare or take part in a lockout and a worker shall not take part in a strike in connection with any trade dispute, where, (f) “the National Industrial Court has issued an award on the reference.” This means that lecturers were under obligation to obey the order of the NIC to return to work, even though they appealed the judgment.
All said, I must note that it is not only government that has a role to play in the quest to make Nigerian universities work. The lecturers also have a lot to do in that direction. How they discharge their duty counts. The devotion they apply to impart knowledge to the students counts. The number of hours they put in daily counts. The way they treat their students, in relation to integrity, and not applying sex-for-marks or money-for-marks, counts. The way the lecturers manage resources generated by the universities counts.
The country has had enough of strikes and academic disruptions in universities. ASUU should not be a tool in the hands of those who would want to give a dog a bad name in order to hang it. The union owes the country a duty to join hands with the government and all stakeholders to make the universities better.