Abuja — Though Nigeria has supported the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU’s, unnecessary and thoughtless eight-month strike, the dust has yet to settle. Life is returning to the campuses, but only just; academic tranquility can be felt. Hardly were the classrooms thrown open before lecturers began another round of chapter protests, this time, over the pro rata payment of their October salaries.
Some boycotted lectures. Students’ unions were also enlisted in the protests in some universities. The conflict appears to be ongoing, much like a dormant volcano that is not yet extinct. The formula of resistance has only changed, though some of the disputes now lie in the province of the courts.
Another strike could be fatal, as it could earn ASUU the big hammer. It has already run afoul of Section 37 of the Trade Union Act, which requires every union to submit its audited account on or before June 1 every year. The strike was thoughtless ab initio. The Federal Government “walked the walk” in restoring glory to the system in 2021, spending N93 billion on allowances and revitalisation.
It also cleared a backlog of nine months allowance caught by no-work, no-pay of 2020. This was an enormous demonstration of goodwill many thought would influence ASUU to a new direction, it ironically turned an oxygen for another strike. The strike was unlawful before the law. Education is an essential service in the contemplation of section 7 of the Trade Disputes Act , Cap T 9, mandating unions to give 15 days prior notice for strike.
The February 14, 2022, strike didn’t comply with this. The strike ought to have been called off also upon apprehension on February 22, 2022, in line with Section 18 of the Trade Disputes Act. The union hurt the law and the law took its course. It took the National Industrial Court to force ASUU back to work.
Nigeria lost wholesomely from the exercise and ASUU, worse off, wounded. It lost its monopoly of academia unionism with the registration of CONUA and NAMDA. Even as it ran to the patronage of the House of Representatives, it took nothing home different from what the Labour Minister had tabled eight months earlier. Why the strike, then?
In spite, ASUU has skillfully used victimhood to reverse its infidelity to the labour laws, hence, turning the Federal Government, especially the Minister of Labour, Senator Chris Ngige, the aggressor or “agent provocateur” as ASUU itself alleged. What proves Ngige hates ASUU than play a victim?
Allegations that his children are schooling overseas, that he walked out on ASUU, he painted ASUU black before the Federal Executive Council, that government didn’t parley with ASUU while the strike lasted”, among others, are all false and attempts to square a circle. Hence, the torrents of pot-shots on the Minister, some calling for his sack. In ASUU’s feral chant of being oppressed, the aim is to escape being an unadorned loser.
But at the centre of what ASUU sees as victimisation is the law rather than the minister. It is the steely determination to apply the law in a laissez-faire society. That is the sin of Ngige and that is why ASUU is against him. From the sidelines of deep knowledge in productivity measurement and labour standard, the allegation of bias by ASUU against him holds no water.
The strict implementation of the provisions of the Trade Disputes Act and Trade Union Act hitherto treated with levity is the root of the grouse. There is nothing illegal in allowing the labour laws to take their full course, where the tripartite and tripartite-plus dialogue could not provide a solution to the grueling strike.
The National Inter-religious Council led by the Sultan of Sokoto and President of the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, couldn’t resolve the impasse. ASUU also paid no heed to the presidential committee led by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation and the Chief of Staff to the President.
Even the parent Ministry of Education, which attempted a fresh negotiation, moved no needle. It is unthinkable, therefore, that the Minister would allow a total collapse of the university system due to the unbending disposition of its employers. All the steps Ngige took in putting the strike on the back foot accord properly with the law and align with the conventions of the ILO.
Such dispassionate implementation of laws, which was lax under previous ministers, would surely attract criticism. And it sure takes political will to apply sections that invest the minister with punitive powers, such as the withdrawal by the Registrar of Trade Unions, the certificate of any union on account of non-rendition of annual audited accounts as contained in Section 37 of the Trade Union Act mentioned above, of which ASUU is allegedly in default since 2018.
Another issue is the pro rata deduction from salaries for the period of the strike, which is available worldwide. The Nigerian academics are wrong that this is peculiar and punitive, and that it is an attempt to casualise them. In the United Kingdom, a three-day strike results in a three-day quantum pay deduction from the emolument!
That is as serious as that. The unions take responsibility of reimbursing their workers from a special strike fund for the pro rata deduction from salaries. It is majorly for this reason that strikes do not last long in such climes, since the purse of the unions can’t sustain long action. But in Nigeria, workers declare action for as long as it fits their whims.
Pro rata pay is actually part of no-work, no-pay, contained in section 43 of the Trade Disputes Act, Cap.T. 8 Laws of Federation of Nigeria. It has been invoked on Joint Health Sector Union, JOHESU, in 22018 as well as on ASUU in 2020 and National Association of Resident Doctors in 2021. The only difference is that government reversed itself in clemency on ASUU in 2020.
But this act of magnanimity neither renders this law defective nor in perpetual abeyance. Having sat as the Executive Director of the African Regional Labour Centre, ARLAC, as well as on the board of the International Association of Labour Inspection with headquarters in Singapore, labour had at different congresses agreed that no-work, no-pay is implied by Convention 87 of the ILO that grants employees right to strike and the employer, the right to withhold payment.
At another level, it is the wrong interpretation of Section 17 of the Trade Disputes Act, Cap. T8, LFN, that made ASUU accuse the Minister of taking the union to court. Transmitting a dispute to the National Industrial Court is the next stage in a collapsed conciliation and arbitration process. As it is, Section 17 ties the hands of the Minister by providing he should, within 14 days of the collapse of talks , transmit the dispute to a higher body, which is either the Industrial Arbitration Panel or the National Industrial Court.
In fact, Ngige was in breach of the law by delaying the transmission from 14 days to 8 months. And you can see that the National Industrial Court became the tiebreaker, the last straw that broke the camel’s back, otherwise , ASUU would still have been on strike. Having said this, it is reasonable that the federal government re-consider its position on “no work, no pay,” as it did in 2020.
It has become harder to live in Nigeria today than it was under COVID-19. The prices of goods and services have taken to the sky, and the pervasive poverty did not isolate the academy. The peculiarities of the academic system also come into focus as lecturers cover the lost periods.
But such goodwill by the government should be reciprocated by ASUU by refraining from incessant strikes, which is contrary to the spirit and provisions of the International Labour Convention No. 144, which strongly encourages social dialogue and joint consultation among the tripartite labour constituents and to which all parties in Nigeria have subscribed by way of ratification.
It is important that embarking on a strike be a collective decision of the generality of the membership of the union, as provided in Section 6 of the Trade Unions (Amendment Act) 2005, and not left to a handful of the union’s leadership. Unions are expected to conduct a ballot to determine if the majority of registered members are in support of a contemplated strike.
You can see that lately, because the majority of the ASUU members did not vote in favour of strikes and were not carried along by their leaders, the action turned unpopular. This was why this group of members decided to leave to form parallel unions in CONUA and NAMDA. The prolonged ASUU strike is uncalled for because it was not mainly targeted at the employer but at the interests of a wider community of workers and their families, who lost a lot as a result of the strike.
Since education is an essential service established and required for the common good of society, one expected ASUU leadership to exercise restraint by not prolonging the strike. The government has indeed been very magnanimous by not proscribing and prosecuting ASUU and its leadership, for which they are liable in terms of the provisions of the Trade Disputes (Essential Services) Act, Cap. T9, LFN, 2004. The time is here for a new beginning.
Neburagho, former Director, Productivity Measurement and Labour Standard, Ministry of Labour, and former Executive Director of the African Regional Labour Administrative Centre, ARLAC, wrote from Abuja