Varsity strikes: Unions angry, unrelenting

By Cosmas Omegoh

Some union leaders have  said that the strikes in the universities are fuelled by Nigerian politicians and thieving civil servants, accusing the former of being an “insincere,” bunch constantly frittering away the nation’s resources.

The politicians, they maintained, have their hands on the cookie jar,  funnelling money off to train their children in universities abroad, while abandoning the Nigerian university system to die naturally.

Politicians stealing money 

One of the angry unionists, Comrade Ilyas Bello Abdul, the outgoing national chairman of Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) said: “We are pained each time we hear politicians and civil servants stealing humongous sums of money. We have heard the N170 billion alleged to be missing from the Accountant General of the Federation’s office. There are thousands of such pilfering going on.”

Govt toss us around

Comrade Abdul who accused the politicians of being the remote reason the strikes linger noted that it happens “because of their sheer indiscipline, and lack of concern for the citizenry. Not because Nigeria does not have money to resolve these things; we have enough money to fix our education sector.”

Also Comrade Kehinde Ajibade, chairman, Non-Academic Staff Union of Allied and Educational Institutions (NASU), University of Lagos chapter, pointed out that the ongoing strike provides the brightest chance to have their demands met, unsure of what the next government after President Buhari would do.

“We at NASU and SSANU, do not enjoy staying at home, neither do we want to destabilise the universities. None of that!

“But if we don’t get what belongs to us now, once a new president comes in May 2023, he will tell us to give him a year to study our agreement with previous governments. He will claim that he has never even heard about our agreement before. You know our people, and that is very unfortunate. So, we cannot wait till 2024. We cannot afford that. So, we insist the government should do the needful now.”

Comrade Ajibade said that no one should blame the unions for the constant strikes that have plagued the universities.

“To tell you the truth, the majority of those in government are not showing interest in returning the students back to school because all their children are schooling abroad. Nothing concerns them about the welfare of Nigerian universities because all their children are enjoying good education overseas.

“Now, all the money that is supposed to be invested in Nigerian education system is being taken away to boost other countries’ economy. How right is that?” he queried.

Present govt insincere

On his part, Comrade Abdul insisted that “the government is not sincere. What they are after is the 2023 election. They don’t have our time, and that is unfortunate. It is more unfortunate that the current leadership has refused to place high premium on education.”

He says it is so because “our government is not showing concern about the strike.

“Look at how they are struggling, conducting primaries, and jubilating all over the place. It is all because their children are overseas. And they say ‘if they like let them not reopen the schools.’”

He, therefore,  urged the public to “cry to the government and not to people who are fighting to ensure that things are done right.”

He is unhappy that “instead of accusing the government of being insensitive to the plight of the citizens, some people are turning to the university stakeholders who are protecting the system.”

He declared: “We are not insensitive.”

The system over the years

Over the past two decades, the Nigerian university system has experienced great turmoil of tremendous proportions, always ridden with crises. No academic calendar stays the same to the end. All the time, the system is buffeted by gales of strikes; all the unions are holding it by the jugular, forcing it to harvest unwanted bagfuls of strikes. Sometimes, it is the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) squaring off with the government. On other times, it is either SSANU or NASU or all. Of course, there is the National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT). Each one has its own handful of issues to present.

Recall that ASUU had since February 14, 2022, sustained a long-drawn strike which has left the students at home. Negotiation after negotiation with the government had yielded no dividends.

The Federal Government lately assured it would “spend about N34 billion on the ongoing payment of minimum wage consequential adjustments on education sector workers with effect from 2019.”

The Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige said that from the largesse, ASUU would get N23.5 billion, the polytechnics N6 billion while the Colleges of Education would receive N4 billion.

It was on that basis that discussion aimed at ending the intractable crisis was initiated.

ASUU National Chairman, Prof Emmanuel Osodeke early in the week tersely told our correspondent that they were working to end the crisis, while the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) was reviewing all the payment platforms presented to it.

NITDA was mandated to test three payment platforms: the government’s Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System (IPPIS), ASUU’s University Transparency Accountability Solution (UTAS) and NASU’s Universities Peculiar Personnel Payroll System (U3PS).

It would be recalled that on March 7, 2022, the Federal Government set up a seven-man panel headed by Prof Nimi Briggs, the pro-chancellor of Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Ndufu-Alike, to interface with ASUU, with a view to ending the lingering crisis.

Part of its terms of reference was to consider the proposed FGN/ASUU agreement, and   renegotiate where possible, the 2009 agreement in realistic and workable terms, and do the same with other unions in the universities.

What ASUU wants

ASUU’s consistent demands had been payment of its members’ Earned Academic Allowance, adoption of their own UTAS payment platform as against government-imposed IPPIS, financing of the revitalisation of public universities, payment of their promotion arrears among other things.

Other strikes that followed

Shortly after ASUU commenced its strike, last February, both SSANU and NASU followed suit. Working under the umbrella of Joint Action Committee (JAC), both unions asked their members to proceed on a two-week warning strike from March 28, 2022. At the expiration of the period, both bodies called for a four-week extension, thus leaving the universities hurting and bleeding.

What SSANU wants

Speaking on SSANU’s demands, Comrade Abdul noted that “there are some areas where our demands align with those of ASUU, and there are other critical areas where we differ.

“There are demands that are peculiar to us such as job description. There are some jobs in the system that are supposed to be done by non-academic staff, for instance, that of the Dean of Students Affairs. There is nothing academic there. It is purely administrative. There are some non-academic areas, which ASUU members are fighting to occupy. And we said no.

“Now, let us talk about the issue of staff school. It is unreasonable that staff travel 15 kms every day because they want to drop your children at school. We have existing staff schools, but the government say they have no business with such schools. Whereas if you go to other government agencies – the Army, Police, government is taking care of such schools. They have primary, secondary schools for the staff children.

“But in our own case, the government says  they will not fund such schools: that they should be treated as private schools. And  the universities say they have no money to run such schools.”

Then he added: “There is also this infrastructural decay in the universities which we want the government to address.

“We have the manpower to tackle pressing national challenges, for instance, COVID-19. We have the personnel whose research can help solve challenges. But they will tell you their laboratories are empty. No medical equipment.”

What NASU too wants

Revealing what NASU wants, Comrade Ajibade said: “We are asking for the minimum wage arrears of nine months. That has been outstanding. We have been agitating for it in the past three years.

“Now, our members cannot return to work because of that. It will be dubious for any union leader to call off the strike this time around.

“We still have issues with the IPPIS payment platform. We have presented our payment platform to them. NASU and SSANU have presented new platforms to NITDA which is currently testing them.

“Currently, we still have outstanding issues like the earned allowance; this is yet to be addressed. The issue of renegotiation of the 2009 agreement we had with the government is still there.

“The NASU and SSANU had an agreement with the government. It was signed and agreed upon that it would be renewed every five years. Between now and then, how many years have passed? We are talking about 15 years.

“Now, I want to say this. The government takes it personal each time we call them to the negotiation table.

“Lately, the government through the Chief of Staff to the President, Prof Ibrahim Gambari, started a process to resolve our grievances. That was why two weeks ago, our national leadership, and those of other unions were invited to the Aso Villa by President Buhari so that the issues would be resolved. That was very good, and we appreciated him for even showing interest in inviting our leaders.

“But that was not enough. What about the content of our agitation? The government should look at that to ensure that most of our grievances are addressed before we return to work.”

Why SSANU/NASU extended strike by four  weeks    

Speaking on the extension of the strike,  Comrade Abdul revealed that “if we want to go on showing empathy to the students we will not get it right. We will continue on the same old path. It is like when your vehicle is faulty, and has some balancing problem, and you continue managing it. When it will eventually collapse, it will cost you much more than what it would have cost you if you had attended to it in good time. That is the way I can explain the situation.”

Strike painful

Abdul said that “no one likes strikes. I have two boys in the university (ABU) right now. They are at home.

“But if we continue to show empathy, the system will collapse. And now, the situation is like if that is how the government wants it, let it continue like that. But we might get to a point where we will not be able to manage anything anymore.”

Future of strike

According to Ajibade, “our conclusion in Abuja last week is that NASU and SSANU under the umbrella of Joint Action Committee, asked them to do the needful before we embark on an indefinite strike.

“Prof Gambari has started well. So we gave him one month to resolve all our grievances.

“After this one month and nothing happens, we will go back to our members who called for the strike. We will sample their opinions, and take a resolution. If they want to go back to work, we have nothing against that. If they want the strike to continue we will do that.”

As for SSANU, Abdul echoed similar sentiments saying: “We have what we call National Executive Council (NEC). We always meet from time to time to review the situation. At the expiration of the four-week duration, we might have to come together to decide whether to give another extension or to suspend the strike. When things become critical, we might put them to vote.”

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