In this report, Head, Education Desk, IYABO LAWAL writes that the key to ending the strike embarked upon by universities’ non-teaching staff unions lies in the willingness and readiness of the federal government to keep its promises and honour agreements reached with the non-academic groups.
They shook one another’s hands with their faces beaming with superficial smiles. In some cases, they let out muffled laughter. A few of them exchanged banters. Some others looked worn-out as they clutched some paper-filled files tucked in their armpits. Some headed straightaway to where their vehicles were packed.
That was last September.
Some few days to the end of that month in 2017, the federal government held an eight-hour-long meeting with members of the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), Non Academic Staff Union (NASU) and National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT) to suspend the strike they had embarked on.
Following the conclusion of that meeting, the SSANU President, Samson Ugwoke had said, “A three-page agreement was signed and endorsed by all of us. We are taking our document and we will make our pronouncement soon.”
The Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige, said both parties had reached a consensus, which would be passed to the union executive members for deliberation.
“Based on this conclusion, we all agreed that the Joint Action Committee (JAC)) will consult its organ with a view to calling off the strike as soon as possible,” Ngige had said.
That meeting, as far as the ongoing strike of the non-teaching staff of universities are concerned, was unsuccessful.
“It is therefore sad to report that over two months after the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed, the situation that warranted the strike in September remains the same. Nothing has changed. In line with our decision to review the position after a month, we note most painfully, that none of the matters that prompted the strike action has been addressed.
“Rather, it appears that the government through its officials have decided to orchestrate an evil plot to factionalise the universities, cause disharmony and disaffection within the system, thereby destroying the emerging industrial peace we have been witnessing in recent times,” the unions had said.
Various unions of the non-academic staff in Nigeria have accused the government of not being open to agreement. That did not start today.
In 1999, the non-academic unions presented a memorandum to the federal government to press home their demand for improved terms and conditions of services that would correct the problem created by the National Minimum Wages of Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar on Elongated University Salary Scale (EUSS) in favour of the civil service salary table. The EUSS was re-styled as the Harmonised Tertiary Institutions Salary Structure (HATISS).
To find a lasting resolution to the impasse, the National Association of Nigerian Students would want both parties to “shift grounds.”
According to the NANS President, Aruna Kadiri, the warring parties must shift grounds to preserve the future of students. He also had a word of warning for the government.
“We are urging the Federal Government as a matter of urgency within 14 days to do the needful for JAC (SSASNU, NASU and NAAT) to suspend the industrial action. Failure to comply with our demands will lead to mass mobilisation of Nigerian students and union leaders to occupy the streets of Abuja. We are also urging JAC to shift ground so as to see a final solution to the impasse, as when two elephants fight it is the grass that suffers.
“We also want to appeal to the leadership of JAC to look into institutions that have peculiar cases which are about to start exams and backwardness in academic calendar and temper justice with mercy. Institutions that are about writing exams are now under threat by non-teaching staff of such institutions. That is why we are pleading with the government and the unions to shift ground,” Kadiri said recently at a press conference.
The way out of the lingering crisis, according to the non-academic staff and other stakeholders is for the government to show integrity and honesty in keeping its own promises.
The perennial face-off between the non-teaching staff and the government had resurfaced in January 2017 when the JAC embarked on a five-day warning strike because of the Federal Government’s failure to implement the 2009 agreements with the unions.
The Joint Action Committee of the unions, speaking of the inevitability of the strike then had noted that the industrial action was necessary to make the government take action to fully implement the 2009 FGN/Non-Teaching Staff Unions Agreements it reached with the unions.
“The university system is challenged by poor governance and administrative lapses which need to be addressed holistically. There is poor funding of our universities, shortfall in payment of staff salaries, increasing corruption in the university system,” the unions had told the federal government.
Also listed among the problems that required the attention of the government was the problem of inadequate physical infrastructure and abandoned projects, which the unions said reduced the capacity and output of their members.
Other areas they mentioned the government has neglected were the problem of lack of adequate teaching and learning facilities, which have reduced the productivity of workers and the non-payment of earned allowances being product of the 2009 agreement.
That same January, the unions also mentioned the issue of the Nigerian University Pension Management Commission, (NUPEMCO) to resolve the problem of university staff pensions, the non-implementation of the National Industrial Court (NIC) judgment on university staff schools and the non-implementation of the negotiated career structure for technologists, CONTISS 14 and 15.
But it is the earned allowance that is causing hullabaloo across the nation’s universities at the moment – more than 12 months after the five-day warning, pushing JAC to direct SSANU, NASU and the NAAT to embark on a total strike making it difficult for some universities to conduct exams for students – the institutions that are able to do so with the aid of ad hoc workers.
A couple of days ago, the striking workers at the University of Lagos (UNILAG) had moved to disrupt the planned convocation ceremony of the institution by shutting down the central generator and also refused to pump water for the use of the university community.
The action of these workers forced the university to postpone the convocation ceremony while arrowheads of the protest were arrested by the police. This further drew the ire of the striking workers who accused the vice chancellor, Prof Oluwatoyin Ogundipe of ordering the arrest.
But Ogundipe who exonerated himself from the arrest met with the union leaders and urged them to allow reason prevail.
He said, “I am no longer comfortable with the way the entire thing is turning out as your actions sometimes are capable of inciting our students. Let us try and show some respect for each other because the way you are going about this whole thing, such as locking up of the medical centre and other acts are mounting pressure on the management.
“Be that as it may, I want to assure you that none of your members will be intimidated as long as this strike lasts. I shall be going down to Shangisha where your members are detained for their immediate and unconditional release,” Ogundipe had said.
NAAT’s Chairman, Mr Sulaiman Lawal while expressing regrets over the turn out of events on campus said their anger was premised on a student’s pronouncement on live television that the impact of JAC strike was not being felt.
“That singular action indicted the JAC of UNILAG which propelled the national leadership to send some members to monitor and ensure total compliance of the strike. These are all part of the reasons why we are protesting,” Lawal explained.
But while UNILAG was forced to postpone its planned convocation, some other institutions like the University of Ibadan (UI), University of Ilorin and University of Benin (UNIBEN) as well as University of Porthacourt have since resumed academic activities while some are conducting exams for students without the usual support and service of the non-teaching staff, an action which has raised questions on the role of non teaching staffs in the university system.
Speaking on the bone of contention – the earned allowance – the unions claimed that what they got was too meager compared to what ASUU received, complaining that the government failed to explain how the N23bn Earned Allowance was shared between ASUU and the non-academic staff.
Chairman, SSANU, UNILAG chapter, Kehinde Ajibade, justifying the strike action said, “The Federal Government is not sensitive enough to tackle our problems. How can the government give two per cent of the N23b to non-academic staff? UNILAG’s case is the worst. We were all given N23m as earned allowance. We have been robbed and we totally reject that.”
Meanwhile, a source in SSANU, who craved anonymity, explained that representatives of the Federal Government at the various meetings held with JAC confirmed the government’s mistakes in the sharing of the allowances among the workers’ unions.
The source said: “The Federal Government acknowledged its mistakes but we were told to be patient and that as soon as sufficient money is raised our members would receive the owed allowances.
“However, we cannot take the Federal Government for its words because of the past records. So our members would not resume until the Federal Government fulfills the pledge. And nationwide, we would ensure that the strike is effective.”
But, while responding, an official of the Federal Ministry of Education, who also craved anonymity, described as unpatriotic the position of the unions that the government cannot be taken for its words.
The source said that the sincerity of Federal Government to address this crisis is not in doubt, saying in due course, the strike will be called off.
“Government is committed to resolving the crisis and no one can doubt that sincerity of purpose. I am sure that they know this; they may only want to be economical with the truth. There has been no government with this kind of passion to reposition the education sector for good.”
As the strike action continues, the question on many people’s lips is: why does the government have to make policies if it is not ready to provide available resources to implement them?
If the government continues to renege on its promises to the non-academic unions, the end may be the total crippling of the education sector and the disillusionment of Nigerian youths who spend many years seeking admission and many more years in school because federal government’s failure to keep its part of the bargain with the non-academic staff of universities across the country.