By Chijioke Uwasomba
Strike is an organised work stoppage by a body of workers to enforce compliance with demands made on an employer or a group of employers. It is usually a form of protest to force recalcitrant employers to respect the value of labour and accord the latter its rightful place taking into consideration the historical exploitative relationship between labour and capital.
In organisations or countries where the principle of collective bargaining is not respected by the employers of labour, the tendency for workers to employ the strike option is very rife. Workers with deep class consciousness and a strong capacity to understand the intriguing manipulations of their employers always exercise their democratic right to fight industrial injustice and dictatorship.
The implication of the above is that the character of states and the nature of employers determine the frequency of work stoppages in a country or in an industry. Experience has shown that societies that are under-developed with an accompanying irresponsible leadership go through all kinds of strikes and industrial crises with their deleterious consequences on the people.
This is because, as usual, the ultimate sufferers of these strikes and industrial conflicts are the ordinary people and other victims of the society including the striking workers. Apparently, because of the hypocritical nature of the society the striking workers who ought to deserve the sympathy of the public at all levels become derided and dismissed as agents of destabilisation. In most cases, the issues that would have led to the strike are ignored by commentators who in their exasperation would want the workers to go back to work .Some do not even want to know “who is right or wrong”. All they want is industrial peace.
Quite a lot of people have responded to the on-going strike of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). There are three broad categories of people: Those who are in support of the union; those who are opposed to the strike and even strikes in general and those who are playing the Ostrich game. This piece is meant for all the three categories of people. It is true that strikes by their nature are disruptive and that the university lecturers’ strikes have been too frequent. The immediate question is: Why does ASUU always embark on strike?
In answering this question, it will be important to look at the whole gamut of ASUU/FGN relationship over the years since the coming into being of ASUU. ASUU grew out of the Nigerian Association of University Teachers (NAUT) which was formed in 1965. Those who formed ASUU in 1978 felt that NAUT was more like a “middle class fraternity” which did not have the much needed vigour and orientation suitable for the development of Nigeria’s university system in particular and education in general.
Nigeria’s post-colonial state had been hijacked by the Military and allied forces who mismanaged the oil boom of the period. The freedoms of the people had been eroded; education at all levels was not getting the required attention; the oil boom, instead of catalyzing the development of the country became ironically a source of under-development and real curse to the nation. It was in the midst of these contradictions and disenabling environment that ASUU emerged as an intellectual force to challenge the powers-that-be and offer a credible alternative for our country.
Universities by their nature are democratic institutions hence they are opposed to any manner of imposition either from within or without. The 1978 Uthman Mohammed Commission Report which took away the disciplinary functions of the Governing Councils of Universities provided a litmus test for ASUU. This was because the government of the period in question used the report as a basis to direct some University Governing Councils to dismiss certain members of staff from their posts without giving them fair hearing. In 1980, ASUU declared a Trade Dispute with the Shagari government, making the issue of autonomy an important matter.
ASUU also fought Shagari’s government following Justice Balonwu’s Visitation Panel Report which had directed the Council of the University of Lagos to remove six senior members of the academic staff from their jobs. Given the nature of its mandate, ASUU fought the federal government under Alhaji Shehu Shagari in 1980 and 1981 on issues bordering on funding, salaries, autonomy and academic freedom, Brain-drain, the survival of the university system in particular and the direction of the country in general.
Throughout the Military era, ASUU waged a lot of struggles revolving around conditions of service; funding; university authority/academic freedom; the defence of the right to education; broad national issues such as the anti-military struggles; actions against privatisation, SAP and other neo-liberal policies of the government including the World Bank’s attempts to take over the Nigerian University system through its $120 loan under the regime of Babangida.
It should be recalled that ASUU had battled the Buhari/Idiagbon regime’s policy of retrenchment of workers and freezing of wages; gave support to the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) and the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) when they went on their patriotic strike to rescue the deteriorating health services in Nigeria in 1984. ASUU, through strikes, also supported the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) to protest the brutal murder of the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) students by Mobile Policemen in 1986. Again, in 1987 and 1988 the Union was in the trenches. The Union fought the illegal dismissal of its president, Dr. Festus Iyayi and others in 1987. It participated fully in the 1988 general strikes occasioned by the effects of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) which the Babangida government had imposed on the country.
The earlier Elongated University Salary Scale (EUSS) which the government was to implement was abandoned. ASUU was banned but the academics organised themselves under the platform of Universities Lecturers Association (ULA) and it was under this platform that the anti-World Bank Conference to resist the Babangida regime’s attempt to obtain the $120 million loan from the World Bank was held at OAU, Ile-Ife, in 1990.
The failure of the FGN in 1991 to negotiate with the union led to the 1992 strike which was declared on May 14, 1992 but was suspended a week after in deference to an IAP order that the strike should be immediately suspended. Although the IAP ruling compelled both parties to the negotiating table, the government did not resume the negotiation and this pushed ASUU into resuming its strike on July 20, 1992.
ASUU was again banned for the second time on August 23, 1992, but when the government failed in all its tricks to break the strike, it appointed the Owelle Chikelu team to negotiate with ASUU. It was this negotiation with a “banned” union that produced the 1992 agreement on October 3, 1992, which Prof. Nwabueze, the erudite scholar and lawyer, in his legal sophistry described as “an agreement of imperfect obligation”. This agreement, among other things provided for a periodic review of every three years.
The Abacha dictatorship presented a greater challenge to ASUU because of the former’s brutal and tough undemocratic credentials and no wonder ASUU opted to join other patriotic forces to fight to end Military rule. In 1994 ASUU went on strike demanding from the government of Abacha: a re-negotiation of the agreement; the re-instatement of over eighty lecturers sacked at the University of Abuja by the then Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Isa Mohammed and the de-annulment of the June 12, 1993 elections ostensibly won by Chief M.K.O. Abiola.
Another strike was declared in 1996 by ASUU to press its demand for the re-negotiation of the 1992 agreement and the re-instatement of the UNI ABUJA sacked academics. This strike lasted for six months. When the strike was suspended, the Abacha government set up the Prof. Umaru Shehu-led Negotiating Team.
The government wanted individual Councils of Universities to negotiate with the individual branches of ASUU as part of its decentralization of negotiations. This was met with stiff resistance leading the Abacha government into sacking some ASUU leaders including the then National President of ASUU, Prof. Asisi Abobie of UNN through a letter from the National Universities Commission (NUC) to their Vice-Chancellors.
But the Abdulsalami’s regime, as part of its efforts to gain legitimacy, through its Minister of Education, Chief Ola-Iya Oni made overtures to ASUU and re-instatated ASUU leaders who were unjustly sacked by the Abacha junta for their involvement in the 1996 strike and those earlier dismissed in 1984 through Decree 17 of 1984.
On May 25, 1999 the government signed an agreement on percentage increases in the allowances of academics. This agreement was “without prejudice to a comprehensive negotiation at a future date” between the two parties. The Obasanjo regime after much pressures agreed to set up its Negotiating Team led by Prof. Ayo Banjo and the negotiations began on August 28, 2000. The Agreement was to be signed in December 2001.
The FGN did not sign the Agreement as Dr. Babalola Borisade who replaced Prof. Tunde Adeniran as Minister of Education prevented the Federal Government’s Team from signing the Agreement. ASUU rejected Borisade’s moves and resumed its suspended strike. This forced the government to resume negotiations and the subsequent signing of the Agreement on June 30, 2001.
The Government of Obasanjo did not implement the 2001 agreement, prompting ASUU to embark on another strike on December 29, 2002. Obasanjo had wanted to cancel the central bargaining process and to introduce school fees in the university system. He also wanted to take a loan of $68 million from the World Bank to implement a World Bank-sponsored Nigerian Universities Innovation Project (NUSIP). William Saint, the World Bank anchor man was everywhere in Nigeria campaigning for the implementation of NUSIP.
The strike was suspended in June 2003 on the orders of the IAP. The ding-dong between the FGN and ASUU continued until December 14, 2006, when the then Minister of Education, Mrs. Obiageli Ezekwesili on behalf of the FGN inaugurated the FGN/ASUU Re-negotiating Committee under the leadership of Deacon Gamaliel Onosode to re-negotiate the 2001 Agreement which had been due for re-negotiation since June 2004.
The re-negotiation which started on January 23, 2007 was concluded in January 2009. After the grueling two years of negotiation, Onosode said he had not the mandate of his principal to sign the Agreement. This position forced ASUU into another round of strike for four months leading to the signing of the Agreement under Ya’radua.
It is instructive to note that the 2009 Agreement which took many years of struggles to come into being is the basis of the current industrial action as many aspects of the Agreement are yet to be implemented even though the Agreement had been due for re-negotiation since January 1, 2012.
Those who blame ASUU for the frequency of strikes in the university system ought to understand that the constant punctuations experienced in the system are caused by the irresponsibility of the successive governments in Nigeria. From 1978 to date, successive governments have not demonstrated commitment to education and Nigeria’s development as can be seen in their willingness to run after and implement ill-digested programmes foisted on them by their international masters that do not have relevance to the needs and aspirations of the people of our country.
Government willingly enters into agreements with workers after many strikes only to abandon the implementation half way. Government must own up to its responsibility by being sincere with the citizenry at all levels. Government officials who are inebriated with power should weigh the consequences of their utterances. The reported dismissive claim of the Minister of Labour and Productivity, Mr. Emeka Wogu to the effect that the 2009 Agreement between ASUU and the FGN, is unimplementable, if it is true has the capacity of deepening the face-off.
Government officials like Wogu and the NUC Secretary, Prof. Julius Okojie who fawningly and ingratiatingly engage in bizarre displays with a view to currying favours from their boss, are liabilities to the government they serve. Agents like them have made our universities a hot bed of industrial conflicts. Respect to agreements genuinely entered into by government with workers in the university system and elsewhere will definitely guarantee industrial peace and harmony.
Dr. Uwasomba is of the Department of English, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife.