By Owei Lakemfa
Lecturers in our public universities are so absorbed in their national strike which is in the sixth month that they have not observed the unique contributions of President Muhammadu Buhari to industrial relations practice. Ironically, it has been serving or retired generals that have made the most fundamental contributions to the practice of relations between employees and employers.
As a child while learning how to read, I stared at a photograph on the front page of a newspaper. It was some people with property and children. Help came from one of the elders around who helped me to decipher the caption. They were university lecturers and their families packing out of their official quarters. The General Yakubu Gowon regime had sought to break their industrial action by asking the lecturers either to return to work or pack out of the campuses.
General Ibrahim Babangida thought a unique way to resolve the industrial disputes with the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, was simply to proscribe the union. He did so on August 7, 1988 and August 23, 1992, but the challenges of the universities and lecturers did not, as expected, disappear.
General Sani Abacha built on these by not only proscribing unions, including the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, but also financially crippling others by stopping their check-off dues.
President Muhammadu Buhari had made his own unique contribution to industrial relations praxis in using hunger as a weapon by not paying the lecturers. The hope that with hunger, they would scamper back to classes has not materialised. By the way, this approach to resolving industrial disputes is not uniquely Buharian; what is new is the appeal by his government to parents of university students to en-masse beg the striking lecturers as the solution to the current crises.
The primary reason government gave for this is that it would not borrow money to meet the demands of the lecturers. Wow! Really? First is that the Buhari administration is the most indebted in contemporary times. While the country’s debt under President Olusegun Obasanjo was $2.11 billion in 2007, with President Yar’Adua adding $1.39 billion and President Goodluck Jonathan adding $3.8 billion, President Buhari took our debts from $7.3 billion in 2015 to $28.57 within five years. As at 2021, he had borrowed N17.06 trillion Naira.
A lot of this money was borrowed to fund budget deficit which arises primarily from profligacy, including the annual padding of budget by both the executive and the legislature. So government can borrow to fund budget racketeering but not to fund education which is the foundation of development.
But how much really is ASUU demanding? The Minister of State for Labour and Employment, Festus Keyamo, on behalf of the government, told the nation: “The proposal ASUU is talking about is N1.2 trillion…The nation cannot grind to a halt because we want to take care of the demands of ASUU…You cannot allow one sector of the economy to hold your jugular and blackmail you to go and borrow N1.2 trillion for overheads, when our total income is about N6.1 trillion, and you have roads, health centres to build, and other sectors to take care of.”
These claims by government do not relate to the truth and the Minister appears misinformed. First, there is no N1.2 trillion demand anywhere. What is on record is N1.3 trillion and this came, not from ASUU but the Federal Government itself which in 2012 under President Jonathan made its own investigation of the NEEDS Assessment of the universities.
It came to the conclusion that N1.3 trillion would need to be injected to make our universities globally competitive. But government complained of funds shortage and ASUU suggested that N200 billion be injected annually over the next six years and N100 billion in the seventh year. In accepting the ASUU suggestion, the Jonathan government in 2013 released N200 billion to the universities as the first tranche. In contrast, in over seven years, the Buhari government released only N55 billion. These are not monies for ASUU, they were funds released to the universities for their use. So, it is incorrect to claim that ASUU is demanding a payment of N1.2 trillion.
Let us examine the issues in contention and see whether begging, as proposed by government can resolve them. The first is the renegotiation of the 2009 Federal Government-ASUU Agreement. Two quick points to make about this. One: if signed employee-employer agreements are not implemented, then the industrial relations system is endangered. Two: the Buhari government within the last one year, has twice renegotiated this agreement with ASUU and has twice rejected the outcome of the negotiations.
Essentially, the 2009 Agreement affects the lecturers condition of service which despite hyperinflation at an average 16 per cent per annum, has remained unchanged for over a dozen years. The second demand is the implementation of the Agreement the Buhari government signed with the lecturers on December 23, 2020. The third is the demand for funding to revitalise the public universities. The fourth is on the issue of university autonomy, including a payment system that would take the universal uniqueness of the academic profession into consideration. For this, ASUU had helped to designed the University Transparency and Accountability Solutions, UTAS.
The fifth demand is the mainstreaming of the Earned Academic Allowances, EAA, and the payment of same to lecturers of the Obafemi Awolowo University. The sixth is a stop to the proliferation of state universities. The seventh is the release of the White Paper on the Visitation Panel Reports. The eighth is about the victimisation of lecturers in five universities. Some of the ASUU demands have no monetary implications.
So, can these demands be met or resolved simply by parents begging the lecturers? Within the rational human thought process, the answer is no. This being the case, why did government decide on this unique approach to resolving an industrial relations challenge?
This may be traceable to the culture of begging among some people who hope to get the impossible by simply begging. There is a part of the country that advises that what you do with a wicked person is to beg him. So government may be pointing parents to the lecturers as the wicked people who have kept students in public universities at home for about six months. It is also possible that the Buhari government sees lecturers as overgrown babies that parents need to pet by begging them.
On the other hand, all these may be far-fetched as all government wants to do is wash its hands off the strike by blackmailing the lecturers. Whatever be the case, it is important to credit the Buhari government with the introduction of begging as part of industrial relations practice.
Owei Lakemfa, a former secretary general of Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), is a human rights activist, journalist, and author.