- A union puts its interests ahead of those of the nation
Once again, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has chosen to show itself at its very worst. With Nigeria and the world in the middle of an existential struggle to overcome the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the union has turned its two-week warning strike into a total, comprehensive and indefinite industrial action.
Its justifications are depressingly familiar: the Federal Government’s refusal to honour the agreements reached in the 2009 FGN-ASUU Agreement and its insistence that lecturers in federal universities enroll in the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System (IPPIS).
There is little doubt that ASUU does have genuine grievances. The provisions of the 2009 agreement were accepted by the Federal Government after extensive negotiation, and its refusal to adhere to them cannot be justified in any way, especially given the union’s willingness to renegotiate. After meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari and the Minister for Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige, it was also agreed that the union’s alternative payroll software would be integrated into IPPIS.
Government’s implementation of its needless threat, not to pay the February salaries of academic staff of federal universities who did not enroll on IPPIS, forced the hands of ASUU. It was wrong for the federal government to take precipitate action in the midst of negotiations, and especially after the union’s meeting with the President on the issue. This repeated preparedness to renege on agreements is at the heart of much of the labour unrest in the tertiary education sector.
But ASUU cannot escape its share of responsibility for this lamentable state of affairs. The union is guilty of three missteps: the presumption that it can dictate to the employers the manner in which its members are to be paid, its selfish insistence on embarking on an industrial action in the middle of a national emergency, and its stubborn resort to strikes in spite of their increasing impotence after decades of continual application.
While the union can legitimately object to perceived lapses in IPPIS, it cannot tell the Federal Government which payroll software it is to utilize in paying its members. The fact that it has proposed an alternative cannot change this reality. Stubbornly refusing to enroll in a system which already has most of the nation’s federal civil servants on it only entrenches widespread notions of ASUU as arrogant, selfish and entitled.
ASUU’s timing of its strike declaration did it no favours, either. The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown almost all other issues into perspective as the world struggles to contain and overcome the most serious medical emergency of the 21st century. It was in recognition of this that the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) suspended its industrial action on March 20. In contrast, ASUU chose to embark on an indefinite strike, clearly demonstrating that it had determined to put its own concerns ahead of the nation’s collective interests.
The union’s resort to industrial action also shows that it has run out of ideas. Doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results has been famously defined as virtual insanity, and it is surprising that an association of highly-educated university teachers has been unable to comprehend this fact.
Like similar ASUU strikes in the past, this latest iteration will follow a well-worn trajectory: it will initially be ignored by government, well-meaning outsiders will then attempt to intervene; meetings will subsequently be called; a new agreement will ultimately be hammered out; the failure to implement its provisions will precipitate the next strike.
ASUU is at a crossroads. Its tactics lack effectiveness. It is being challenged by a rival union. The COVID-19 crisis has neutralized the disruptive power of its latest strike. Its image has been tainted by growing perceptions of its alleged self-centredness, arrogance and avarice. If it does not evolve, it will decline into virtual irrelevance.
It is time for the union to change direction. The first thing it should do in this regard is to call off its strike in recognition of the health emergency the nation is facing. It should seek the immediate inclusion of its members on IPPIS while insisting that the system’s shortcomings be resolved within a specified period. The union should then undertake a comprehensive reconfiguration of its tactics with a view to identifying and deploying more effective instruments with which to fight its cause.