A fresh industrial crisis hobbling the Nigerian university system is needless and avoidable. After nine-month long paralysis during which students were kept in idle limbo – with high costs to educational standards, national security and indeed the very lives of some of the students – it will be tragic if the university system relapses into another tailspin even before it recovers from the debilitation of the last crisis that it should rather be concertedly weaned from.
Teachers under the auspices of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) had on October 14, 2022 resumed work from the strike they kicked off on February 14 to press demands for better funding of the university system by government, upward review of remunerations of the academic staff and the desired mechanism of their payment, among others. Following botched negotiations with the teachers, government had in early September dragged ASUU before the National industrial Court (NIC) and had succeeded in getting an order directing the striking lecturers back to work. Contesting the jurisdiction of the NIC, the teachers’ union approached the Court of Appeal, which ruled that the teachers first obey the NIC verdict before plying their appeal. Consequently, the union suspended its strike on October 14 and directed members to resume work immediately. Alongside the court process, there were mediatory interventions by stakeholders, most notably the leadership of the House of Representatives.
Since ASUU called off its strike, however, normalcy is yet to return to the university system. This owes largely to government’s decision to pay the teachers only in part for the month of October. A statement by the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment said ASUU members were paid their October salary ‘pro-rata’. “They were paid pro-rata the number of days that they worked in October, counting from the day that they suspended their industrial action,” the statement explained, adding: “Pro-rata was done because you cannot pay them for work not done. Everybody’s hands are tied.” Ministry spokesman Olajide Oshundun also confirmed to journalists that university teachers who did not participate in the strike would be paid their October salary in full as well as their backlog covering the strike period. Academic staff in this category include members of the splinter Congress of University Academics (CONUA) and the Medical and Dental Consultants Association of Nigeria (MDCAN). “What I can tell you authoritatively as a spokesperson is that the policy of ‘no-work-no-pay’ applies. It has not changed because it is a constitutional matter. It is equally recognised by the charter of ILO that when people go on strike, they cannot be paid. So, if CONUA did not go on strike, they’re entitled to their money. But if they participated in the strike, they too will not be paid… I’m looking at it from the point of law,” Oshundun was reported saying.
For their part, teachers on the platform of ASUU are revving for fresh tackle of government over the pro-rated salary issue. ASUU National Chairman Professor Emmanuel Osodeke, last week, said his union planned an emergency meeting to articulate a response. Meanwhile, full academic work is yet to resume in many universities despite ASUU having called off its strike, as teachers are dallying on returning to their duties. Reports said students in many institutions hardly see their teachers in the classrooms for scheduled lectures, and in some cases, they are simply advised to go buy textbooks. Some students, especially freshers who had hoped for intense studies following their respective matriculation, have been disappointed as they hardly see their lecturers. Many retire in frustration to the hostels daily after spending futile hours in the classrooms. Among others, the University of Jos branch of ASUU has expressly directed its members to stay at home indefinitely pending government’s payment of salaries being withheld.
It should be obvious that the industrial crisis in the university system isn’t going to be resolved by either side holding to legalistic grounds. Compromise in the interest of students must be the watchword. The teachers cannot insist on full pay before work as a non-negotiable right; but neither should government hold to the legalism of ‘no-work-no-pay’ – especially since the teachers will be obliged to catch up anyhow on the workload required to produce students for the 2021-2022 academic session. In other words, it should not be a matter of law but of conscience and compromise. The truce terms struck through the Reps’s leadership mediation in this regard should be honoured. Besides, it is tough enough dealing with the industrial crisis as centralised. It might be utterly unwieldy contending with the whims of local ASUU branches. We should avoid that road to Golgotha.