By Owei Lakemfa
The country heaved a sigh of relief on Thursday, October 13, 2022, as the eight-month strike by academics which shutdown the public universities was suspended. Days before the suspension, many Nigerians were in a jubilant mood as all indications were that the agreement midwifed by the House of Representatives was acceptable to Government and the lecturers national body, the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU.
But some, like me, were a bit sceptical because during the strike, we detected moves that gave the impression that there are powerful but shadowy elements that do not seem to want an end to the crisis.
Even when there were quite positive signals from Government that the agreement brokered by the legislators was acceptable, and ASUU leaders also expressed optimism, we prayed that no spanner would be thrown into the works. This almost happened as the academics held ballots on all campuses to vote on the agreement as presented by House Speaker, Honourable Femi Gbajabiamila.
A red line for the academics was the payment of their salaries withheld for nine months. Surely, only a few would assume the academics would return to teaching without their wages and expect normalcy and progress on the campuses. I think it was when Gbajabiamila got President Muhammadu Buhari’s consent on the salaries, he openly expressed optimism that the strike was at an end.
The agreement was that half of the withheld salaries will be paid when the academics resume classes and the balance by December 2022. However, when the ASUU National Executive Council, NEC, met, the communication it received from Government was not in tandem with the agreement. The latter hinted at paying only a percentage.
There were debates on whether it was wise to suspend the strike in the face of a seeming breach even before the ink on the agreement had dried. However, those who pointed out that the National Assembly is the guarantor of the agreement and that it would be wiser to get back to Speaker Gbaja’ and let the Assembly get the Presidency to honour such an open commitment, won the day. Consequently, the academics decided to suspend the strike.
Speaker Gbaja’ in reaction to the suspension, made a pledge in that direction: “I am confident that the House will endeavour to ensure that the Federal Government keeps its commitments to the union and universities.”
In my analysis, what I think played out was a last ditch effort by some shadowy figures to derail the process. Those who have followed the trajectory of the strike and various moves by government, would agree that this is not a conspiracy theory. That is not the first agreement to be spiked since the strike started.
The Presidency had invited respected academic, Professor Nimi Briggs, to lead a team with the mandate to secure a workable agreement with the academics. When this was achieved and it reported back, some elements in Government began a campaign of calumny against Briggs and his team. It became so bad that the team had to come out in defence of itself and its integrity.
So why would Government sabotage itself? It is because what is called Government can be complex. Sometimes, the interests of the government are different from those of the country. In many of such instances, Government tries to bend the nation’s interests to conform with its own, giving the impression that it is working in the interest of the people and that as representatives of the citizenry, what is good for it, must be good for the people.
There are also times the interests of some in government may not be the interest of the government. But if such persons are powerful, they try to bend government interest to conform or align with their parochial interests.
To me, these are the possible reasons why rather than bring the strike to a quick end, unnecessary and diversionary tactics were employed which only prolonged it. These include diatribes, dragging in the courts, attempting to proscribe ASUU and registering quislings and minions in academic gowns as leaders of ghost unions that are visible only to some in government.
The resolution of what seemed an intractable problem that cost eight months of our universities academic life, was itself simple. The first is including N300 billion in the 2023 Budget for the revitalisation of universities. This is quite salutary and would hopefully be implemented.
By this, I do not doubt the National Assembly passing it since it is an agreement it negotiated, which means it has undergone its scrutiny. But will the funds be released? What I think is that even if the Buhari Presidency foot drags, the new administration to be sworn in on May 29, 2023 is likely to release such funds.
The second agreement is the release of N120 billion for salary enhancement. Although this is not a major raise, the hope is that it would be higher than the 35 per cent wage increase unilaterally imposed on the academics.
A third agreement is the release of N50 billion for earned allowances. Given the fact that the University of Lagos alone is owed a cumulative N9 billion earned allowances, the amount is small. But it is appreciative.
The fourth agreement that Government will release the White Paper on its Visitation to some universities, seems basic and in the best interest of the country. Government had for reasons of accountability, on its own, set up Visitation Panels to probe some universities. Except for the complexity that government is, how can the demand of the academics that the White Paper of the probe panels be released, be a debatable matter? How can a demand that the right thing be done be a contentious issue warranting a strike?
Speaker Gbaja’ made three memorable sentences in reaction to the end of the strike: “It is regrettable that this strike action happened in the first place. It is even more unfortunate that it lasted as long as it did. We must make sure it never happens again.” This should be the prayer of all patriots, but the prayer should be further extended: may rogue elements not succeed in igniting a new strike on our campuses. Ameen!
The country also owes a lot of gratitude to the Chairmen of Council and the Committee of Vice Chancellors, CVC, who I know worked tirelessly to get the strike resolved. We should give heed to the CVC’s submission that between Government and ASUU: “Trust issue arises from the fact that the Federal Government will agree on issues that have caused the strike and make a commitment to pay or deliver…then they implement that position onto a point and they go to sleep.”
May government not go to sleep when it should be active on duty. Ameen!
Owei Lakemfa, a former secretary general of Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), is a human rights activist, journalist, and author.