By Gbemiga Ogunleye
Sometime in May when the Academic Staff Union of Universities extended its three-month-old strike by another three months, I weighed in on the matter, describing the move as unconscionable, considering the fact that the Union was “dealing with people who are either stone deaf or genuinely unreasonable.”
Of course, my appeal to both feuding parties to see reason so that our students could return to their campuses fell on deaf ears.
I still find it difficult to believe that a government battling insecurity on all fronts and all over the country could feel comfortable when its most virile population, the leaders of tomorrow, are compelled to be at home for over seven months as a result of its inability to resolve a strike by the country’s university lecturers. To say the least, it beggars belief.
What does the ancient wit say? The idle mind is the playground for the devil. How does one reconcile the fact that the government not only finds it difficult to comply with the agreements it willingly entered into with ASUU but also that the government tore to shreds the reports of the committees it set up to negotiate with ASUU.
ASUU too has its share of the blame. It smacks of an ego trip and unbridled arrogance to declare an indefinite strike. Does the interests of the students no longer matter? Why would a union of intellectuals adopt a do-or-die attitude over an industrial dispute? After all, there is wisdom in the saying that he who runs away from a fight lives to fight another day.
In my view, ASUU had two windows of opportunities to suspend the strike. The first was when university undergraduates, under the aegis of the National Association of Nigerian Students, took over the fight from their lecturers and embarked on a series of protests: blocking major highways: Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, Ibadan-Ife highway, to mention but a few.
ASUU, should have, in my view, grabbed that opportunity with both hands to suspend the strike “in the interest of the country and for the strike not to result into unintended consequences and not to expose our beloved students to danger”. That way, it would call off the strike with its head held high.
Another opportunity came on September 21 via a court ruling, when the National Industrial Court ordered the lecturers to return to the classroom. The Federal Government at its wit’s end, had dragged the union to court. Justice Polycarp Hamman, who gave the order, agreed with the government that irreparable damage was being done to the lives of the students rendered idle by the ongoing strike. The judge cited examples of the National Youth Service Corps and employment in Nigeria’s Armed Forces, where age is a requirement for participation and employment. He also pointed out that the Trade Dispute Act prohibits parties from engaging in an industrial action when disputes have been referred to the Industrial Court, the Industrial Arbitration Panel or when a conciliator has been appointed.
Instead of obeying the order of the court and appeal the judgment, ASUU has gone on appeal and refused to obey the court’s order. According to the union, it has not only filed an appeal against the judgment of the National Industrial Court, it has also filed a stay of execution against the order of the court.
I hope ASUU is listening to its lawyers and I hope its lawyers are giving the union sound legal advice. Even a lawyer fresh from the Law School knows that an appeal doesn’t operate as a stay of execution. A stay of execution first has to be argued and granted by a court before a party can rely on it. Our appellate courts have, in a plethora of cases, clearly stated that an appeal is not synonymous with a stay of execution.
Perhaps a case which stands on all fours with the ASUU case is the 1986 case of Governor of Lagos State versus Ojukwu. What are the facts of the case? The Lagos State Government had appealed a judgment of the Court of Appeal which asked it to restore Ojukwu to his residence at 29, Queens Drive, Ikoyi (just like ASUU is appealing the judgment of the National Industrial Court ).
The Lagos State Government also filed a stay of execution of the court ruling (just like ASUU has also done against the ruling of the National Industrial Court asking it to call off its strike). In a unanimous judgment by all the five judges of the Supreme Court, they lambasted the Lagos State Government for its disobedience of the order of the Court of Appeal.
Justice Kayode Eso, bless his soul, who read the lead judgment, had this to say: “I think it is a very serious matter for anyone to flout a positive order of a court and proceed to taunt the court further by seeking a remedy in a higher court.” Eso also described the non-obedience of the court order as “executive lawlessness”.
His learned brother, the erudite Chukwudifu Oputa, while agreeing with Eso, also added: “The court system cannot be maintained without the willingness of parties to abide by the findings and orders of a competent court until reversed on appeal. This presupposes that no party and no court of subordinate or even coordinate jurisdiction can say: ‘I DO NOT LIKE THE ORDER MADE AND I WILL NOT OBEY IT.’”
Justice Oputa also touched on the issue of stay of execution. I quote his Lordship: “Ordinarily, any court has a discretion to grant or refuse stay of execution pending an appeal but this is a discretion that must have to be exercised both judicially and judiciously, bearing in mind the equal rights of the parties before it. Normally, therefore, a court will not deprive a successful litigant of the fruits of his litigation.”
Democracy is anchored on the rule of law. The court, it is popularly said, is the last hope of the common man. If you ask me, I would say, the court is the last hope of everyone. It is an acclaimed principle of law that all court orders must be obeyed by all. Failure to do so is an invitation to lawlessness, anarchy and even violence.
Yesterday’s very powerful men who had the world at their feet have been known to be saved by the power of the court. He who goes to equity, the saying goes, must go with clean hands. Karma is real.
Those who trample on the orders of the court today can’t be heard complaining of the non-obedience of a court order tomorrow, when the shoe is on the other foot. Tomorrow will always come. My advice to ASUU is to obey the order of the court immediately, by calling off its strike and continue to pursue its appeal.
*Gbemiga Ogunleye, journalist and lawyer, writes from Lagos