Come Saturday May 14, it will be exactly three months since the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has called its members out of their duty posts, and there are no signs that they will be resuming soon.
The union had on February 14 commenced a four-week industrial action before announcing a roll-over on March 14 for another two months.
On Friday, the minister of labour and employment, Chris Ngige, said his team would meet the union’s representatives next week to continue the dialogue.
But on Saturday, ASUU president, Emmanuel Osodeke, told PREMIUM TIMES that his union was yet to receive an invite for any meeting.
Mr Osodeke also discountenanced the possibility of a suspension of the industrial action soon, saying the union does not speculate but acts based on “facts available on the ground.”
ASUU has consistently demanded improved welfare for its members through the renegotiation of its agreement entered with the government in 2009, as well as the immediate deployment of the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) in replacement of the Integrated Personnel Payroll Information System (IPPIS) as payment platform for its members.
ASUU is also kicking against the proliferation of state-owned universities and demanded a review of the law governing the establishment of universities.
Apart from ASUU, other university-based workers’ unions are currently on strike for similar demands.
The unions, which are categorised as non-academic staff are the National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT), Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) and Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions (NASU).
Labour minister speaks
Speaking at a meeting with NAAT on Friday, Mr Ngige said he met with both SSANU and NASU earlier in the week.
He said he will meet the leadership of ASUU next week with a view to ending the strike.
“As a conciliator, I manage you people in measured steps. That is why I want to take all of you holistically and I ask for your cooperation. When I finish with you today, I will continue with ASUU next week. I have done NASU and SSANU yesterday and they were happy. I want you people to be happy as we leave here,” the minister was quoted to have said in a statement by Patience Onuobia, the acting head of press and public relations at the ministry of labour and employment.
The minister assured that the government was tackling all the disputes in the education sector holistically.
He, however, insisted that some of the issues causing the crisis are economic. He said they border on money and welfare, including old arrears and 2009 renegotiation of conditions of service.
He noted that his job is to negotiate and facilitate reconciliation between the union and the education ministry, which he described as the striking workers’ employer.
Mr Ngige said; “My job is to prepare an agreement after conciliation on what you have agreed with your employers, the Federal Ministry of Education, put timelines and monitor them, to see whether the results will be there.
“I believe that if we talk frankly to ourselves, knowing fully well that the economy is not good and that you should have money that can take you home. With an open mind, we will arrive at something. Once we arrive at something, It will be done.
“We don’t have to cry over spilt milk. Let us look at your issues to see the ones we can handle immediately, the ones we can do in the medium term and the ones we can do in the long term. There are certain ones that are over and above me that are not in my hands to do.”
The minister also commented on what he termed rivalry among the university workers’ unions. He said none of the four prominent unions could work effectively independently of others.
“Everybody is important in the university system,” he said
He added that the multiple industrial disputes in the education sector could have been averted “if the unions in the sector took advantage of his open door policy like the health unions, which culminated in the peace currently enjoyed in the health sector”.
“If you are from any union, you don’t need to book an appointment to see me. The doctors started using that advantage, and JOHESU also did the same. That is why the health sector is quiet. But the education unions don’t take advantage of my open door policy,” he said.
Education ministry decries persistent strikes
Meanwhile, the newly appointed permanent secretary for the education ministry, Andrew Adejo, said while the government agrees that workers should enjoy better conditions of service, consistent industrial actions were worsening the situation.
He said: “In 2000 when this agreement was signed, N400,000 was equivalent to $3000. Today, that N400,000 is less than $400. Because of this consistent trend, we are reducing productivity in the economy. So, the things that will help us to generate more money to meet these demands have been taken away.”
Why crisis may linger
Since the constitution of another agreement renegotiation committee by the education minister, Adamu Adamu, under the leadership of a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, Nimi Briggs, ASUU has refused to honour the invitation to the committee’s meeting.
The union’s president, Mr Osodeke, said the draft document of the renegotiated agreement reached with the defunct Munzali Jibril-led committee in May 2021, should be taken sacrosanct by the government.
Speaking with our reporter on the phone on Saturday, Mr Osodeke said; “We have finished the negotiation. It’s the same thing they want us to renegotiate again. So, as a disciplined union, ASUU will not have two different negotiations.”
Asked if the union will honour the invitation of the labour minister during the week, and if the meeting could lead to the suspension of the strike, he said it depends on what the government brings to the table.
“It depends on what they are coming with. Until they come with something, we wouldn’t know what to expect,” Mr Osodeke said.
While ASUU has consistently refused to participate in the new renegotiation efforts, Mr Ngige has said it is impossible for the government to implement that document.
He added that ASUU cannot force the document on the government as none of both parties signed the draft.
In his reaction, Mr Osodeke said; “We have not done any negotiation with Mr Briggs-led committee because we are not supposed to do. They are supposed to come and tell us what they have done with the negotiation we have done before. That is what we expected them to come and tell us”.
But on Saturday, when PREMIUM TIMES contacted Mr Briggs, he declined comments on the negotiations.
“The matter is before the honourable minister, so there is nothing to answer. The ministry of education will handle it the way they deem appropriate,” he told our reporter in a telephone interview.
Meanwhile, the spokesman for the education ministry, Ben Goong, said it takes two parties to negotiate and that “if ASUU has not joined, you cannot negotiate by yourself”.