The Nigerian government and the striking Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) are once again in a war of words over the continued shutdown of public universities.
The strike, which began on February 14, has been rolled over and is now in its sixth month.
While ASUU said it is awaiting the government to sign the renegotiated agreements, the government said it has no collective bargaining agreement with the union.
In a statement, the minister of labour and employment, Chris Ngige, said relevant ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) were absent during the negotiation with Nimi Brigs’ committee set up by the ministry of education to renegotiate the 2009 agreement.
The 2009 agreement contains the conditions of service which ASUU wants to be improved.
The statement, signed by Olajide Oshundun, the head, press and public relations at the labour ministry, said ASUU had insisted that these relevant advisory MDAs recuse themselves from the sitting of the Briggs-led committee, accusing them of non-cooperation.
The MDAs, according to Mr Ngige, include the ministries of finance, education, labour and employment; Budget Office of the Federation, National Salaries, Income and Wages Commission, and Office of the Head of Civil Service of the Federation.
He said: “All alone with the Prof Briggs Committee, ASUU started fixing their salaries and allowances to the exclusion of the statutory government ministries and agencies that manage the entire annual finances of government, budget and fiscal policies, and the office of the head of civil service that is in charge of ensuring that public service rules and regulations are not undermined in any condition of service offered to public officers in the universities.”
But ASUU President, Emmanuel Osodeke, denied the minister’s comments when he spoke on Channels Television’s Sunrise Daily on Thursday.
Mr Osodeke said the representatives of the MDAs were present during all the meetings his union had with the Mr Briggs-led committee.
He added that there was no time that ASUU insisted on their exclusion from the meetings.
“We want to challenge the minister to show the minutes where it was stated that their members should be walked out… Let him show where the people walked out or were asked to leave any of the meetings,” he said.
“It is so sad that we’ve gotten to a stage where our children, our young men and women are lamenting at home and the minister of labour is busy churning out fake information and misinforming the public, trying to undermine a union of integrity like ASUU…Nigerians should hold him responsible for what is happening with the strike today.”
Mr Ngige also said there is no existing Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the government and the striking lecturers.
He said what is currently on ground is at best a proposal.
He noted that even when such an agreement is produced between unions and the federal government, it is not the President that signs but the ministries, department or agencies, with the conciliating ministry witnessing.
The minister said the clarification became necessary due to ASUU’s calls on President Muhammadu Buhari to sign an agreement which ASUU “claimed to have reached with the federal government”.
He said: “It is pertinent to note that that Prof Nimi Brigg Committee, just like the Prof. Munzali Committee it replaced, is an internal committee of the Ministry of Education to receive ASUU demands and renegotiate areas of 2009 Agreement while also receiving briefs from the MDAs mentioned above that act as advisers, before making any counter offer to ASUU and other unions.”
Mr Ngige added that the chief of staff to the president, Ibrahim Gambari, and the labour ministry set up an Inter-Ministerial/Agency sub-committee, comprising the affected MDAs under the Minister of State, Budget and National Planning “to quickly look into Prof. Briggs Committee report in June.”
He said the committee found that the proposal will lead to between 109 and 185 per cent increase in the university wage structure.
The minister further said; “The Federal Government will incur an additional N560 billion as salaries alone, on top of the present N412b, less all other allowances such as Earned Academic Allowances and fringe benefits, Teaching Allowance, field trip, responsibility and post-graduate supervision allowances, hazard allowances, which were to gulp another N170 billion.
“In all, the sum of N1.12 Trillion will be needed to pay the salaries and allowances of university lecturers and other staff in the university system. At present, the wage bill of the university staff and their colleagues in teaching health systems gulp nearly 50 per cent of the total federal government staff personnel cost/wages”.
He, however, noted that the Presidential Committee on Salaries and Wages has finished the review of the Prof Nimi Briggs proposal and will shortly submit it to the president.
In response to the statement, the ASUU president insisted that the agreements were a collective bargain.
He also accused Mr Ngige of sabotaging reconciliation efforts by his comments.
“It’s collective bargaining and the position we have accepted, the money we have accepted, is an offer by the government. We have documentation. Whatever was proposed is not from ASUU. We have our proposal but what was accepted by both sides –the Nimi Briggs committee representing the federal government and ASUU–, is the proposal by the Nimi Briggs committee,” Mr Osodeke said.
He added that “the minister who is supposed to be a conciliator is the one trying to destroy the process by instructing the ministry of finance to stop the lecturers’ salaries, among other things.”
On the said increase to be incurred by the government, Mr Osodeke said it is a better spending than the N4 trillion used by the government for subsidising petrol.
He said: “If Nigeria needed just 1.3 trillion naira to ensure that Nigerian universities compete with any university in the world; to ensure we now have foreign students coming to Nigerian universities, to ensure that the universities is such a way that you have e foreign lecturers coming into the system, which one is more important (between this) and spending N4 trillion to subsidise fuel”.
Commenting on the choice of payment platform by ASUU and other striking university-based unions, the labour ministry said fresh tests have been concluded on ASUU’s UTAS and the University Peculiar Payroll Payment System (U3PS) developed by the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) and the Non-Academic Staff Union of Universities and other Associated Institutions (NASU). He said the results will be made available soon.
He added that the tests on IPPIS are still in the works but that all will be concluded in the next one week.
The minister also urged the unions to suspend their strikes and revive activities in the nation’s ivory towers, claiming incessant strikes demarket the institutions.
“Finally, the Hon. Minister will like to use this opportunity to once more appeal to ASUU and their sister university unions, whose complaints had been looked into except the ongoing renegotiation of their 2013/2014 Agreement, to go back to school, knowing full well that these ceaseless strikes de-market our universities and certificates therefrom, while government labours with their leaders to produce a standard pay rise as soon as possible.”