When a government runs out of ideas

File : ASUU – Government meeting

By Owei Lakemfa

The news went round. The Federal Government and striking lecturers in the country’s public universities organised under the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, were meeting on Tuesday, August 16, 2022. Not a few hoped that the six-month strike by the lecturers would be resolved. But the outcome was as disappointing as the cavalier way the Minister of Education, Malam Adamu Adamu, presented the report of the meeting to the nation.

Also, it does not appear that the Buhari government is dealing honestly with the country on this issue. Let us examine two contradictory claims made at a press conference in the Presidential Palace by Minister Adamu a day after the botched meeting.

First, he said: “All contentious issues between government and ASUU had been settled except the quest for members’ salaries for the period of strike be paid, a demand that Buhari has flatly rejected.” The brazen claim here is that all contending issues between government and the lecturers have been settled except the follow up issue of outstanding salaries accumulated during the strike.

Then the same Minister said: “Just recently, we inaugurated a committee to renegotiate the 2009 agreement with ASUU and related unions in tertiary institutions. We are doing everything humanly possible to conclude on the negotiations.” So if negotiations on the main reason for the strike which is the 2009 Agreement has not been concluded why would the Minister misinform the country that: “All contentious issues between the government and ASUU had been settled…”?

There are at least eight contentious issues by both sides and the Minister could not mention a single one on which there has been an agreement.

As a Nigerian, I feel ashamed that government cannot even tell intelligent lies. For instance, it jettisoned the negotiations by both sides on a new salary structure for lecturers and simply imposed an arbitrary one which ASUU rejected on the spot. How does this rejection constitute an agreement as the Minister claims? Government is aware that even the minimum wage in the country is the product of constitutional negotiations; so, its imposition of arbitrary wages on lecturers would be rejected. In other words, its actions seem tailored to provoke an immediate rejection and then present the lecturers as an unbending bunch.

Then the Minister asked students to take ASUU to court for alleged time wastage as a result of the strike. It is not clear if this was a directive. If so, it is unenforceable. If it were an advice, it smacks of gross irresponsibility. In any religious, educational, skill or cultural system, the teacher is a respectable person worthy of being held in high esteem by the student. So when a Minister in charge of education nudges students to disrespect their teachers by dragging them to court, more so over an industrial dispute with their employers, he is trying to plant a spirit of insolence, anarchism and disrespect among our youths who are the future of our country. I cannot imagine that Minister Adamu would prod his children or grandchildren to take their teachers to court over an industrial dispute. That would be a portrayal of parental deficiency.

But is it really true that it is ASUU and not government that has wasted the time of the students? It took government and ASUU five and a half years to negotiate the 2009 Agreement. Now it has taken at least 13 years to try to get government to implement that agreement. In other words, many of the students affected today by the strike were born during those negotiations!

So, who is responsible for time wastage? Let me accommodate a possible excuse by President Buhari that it was not his administration that negotiated that agreement. True. But government is a continuum. Apart from this, the Buhari administration itself has been engaged in the renegotiation of this lawful agreement since 2017. That was when it established its High Power Renegotiating team led Dr Wale Babalakin which did not succeed in resolving the dispute. Then Buhari set up a new presidential team led by Emeritus Professor Munzali Jibril. This produced a draft agreement in May 2021, but government made no official reaction until a year later when it threw that report out of the window.

Then in April 2022 the Presidency set up a third team with Emeritus Professor Nimi Briggs as Chairman. This team on June 16, 2022 produced another draft agreement with ASUU on which the Presidency is still withholding its ascent. So which side has been wasting the students’ time: ASUU or government?

The matter of salaries withheld over the strike is not a fundamental one. Most employers and governments in the world try to punish workers for going on strike. So although strike is generally accepted as a right, employers try to criminalise it by inserting a ‘No Work, No Pay’ clause in labour laws. The simple practice is that an agreement on payment becomes part of the negotiations leading to the resolution of strikes. There is a standard universal clause in agreements that end strikes, that: “There shall be no form of victimisation as a result of the strike action.” Non-payment of salaries is viewed as victimisation.

Let us also examine government’s claim that it has expended over N2.5 trillion in tertiary institutions in the last 10 years from the Tertiary Education Trust Fund, TETFUND, alone. This may well be true but ASUU asserts that infrastructure on ground does not reflect the expenditure of such a huge amount and that government should set up a judicial panel to investigate this. I do not see how this can be a contentious issue unless as many claim, the fund is a cash cow for those in government. Interestingly, President Buhari had claimed TETFUND was being looted and in 2016, had sacked its chief executive, Professor Suleiman Bogoro. He was replaced by Professor Abdullahi Bichi Baffa who was praised for giving the fund the needed direction. Then one morning three years later, the sacked Bogoro resurfaced at TETFUND bearing a letter showing he had replaced Professor Baffa! TETFUND itself is the brain child of ASUU, but when funds started rolling in, ASUU was side-lined.

To show how disjointed the Buhari team is, its Labour Minister, Dr Chris Ngige, told the country that the President had given Minister Adamu, two weeks to resolve the universities crisis. Weeks later, Adamu told the country that his fellow cabinet minister lied! The Buhari presidency has run out of ideas; it is like an aircraft that has run out of aviation fuel, the solution is not to blame the aircraft manufacturers or the passengers, what is required is simply to refuel the aircraft.

*Owei Lakemfa, journalist, labour activist and public affairs analyst writes from Abuja