2023: Nigerian public universities mark another year without ASUU strike

The year 2023 leaves another good footprint in Nigerian public universities as the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) ensured a hitch-free academic year.

It is the third for the nation in eight years.

The union went on strike five times in five years under the immediate past Federal Government headed by former President Muhammadu Buhari.

The group was on strike in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2020, and 2022.

Every strike declared by ASUU crippled Nigerian public universities as all academic activities were suspended, and students were sent home.

In September 2022, The ICIR reported how the union had gone on strike for over 600 days under Buhari.

The ICIR reports that ASUU often downed tools over unmet demands by the Federal Government, including a 2009 agreement with the lecturers, which the government failed to implement. 

Because of the incessant strikes, many students grow beyond the 30 years required by law for graduates to participate in the mandatory National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). Growing beyond this age disqualifies them from the programme.

Some students who are supposed to spend four or five years running their degree programme spend up to seven or eight years, which causes a waste of time and resources.

ASUU’s strike since 2016

The union suspended work for 58 months (nearly five years) since 1999 when Nigeria returned to democracy.

Notably, during the administration of Muhammadu Buhari, university lecturers went on strike for 669 days, marking the highest number of days of industrial action by the union under any President.

For instance, in November 2016, the union was on strike for one week. The association went on another strike on August 14, 2017, and suspended the action on September 18.

Another strike by the union began on November 4, 2018, and ended on February 7, 2019.

In 2022, the lecturers downed tools for eight months – from February 14 to October 14.

Unlike when striking workers were paid for the period they were on strike, the government vowed it would not pay ASUU for the period it was on strike in 2022.

At the end of October – two weeks after they resumed work – ASUU members received a half-month salary, which the government described as ‘pro-rata.’

The union’s president Emmanuel Osodeke condemned the ‘pro-rata’ payment to its members and accused the government of an attempt to reduce Nigerian academics to casual workers.

He said the half payment  “is not only an aberration but a contravention of all-known rules of engagement in any contract of employment for academics the world over.

“Paying academics on a pro-rata basis, like casual workers, is unprecedented in the history of university-oriented labour relations and (the union) therefore condemned this attempt to reduce Nigerian scholars to casual workers in its entirety.”

The union has since demanded that the government pay its members’ backlog.

In what some Nigerians described as a ploy to weaken the union, the Federal Government registered ASUU’s splinter group – the Congress of Nigerian Universities Academics (CONUA).

The government promised to pay CONUA for the period the period lasted, but it didn’t pay the workers for all the months.

A year after the strike, in October 2023, President Bola Tinubu approved the partial waiver of the “No Work, No Pay” order instituted against the lecturers.

Tinubu, in a statement released by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Ajuri Ngelale, revealed that the waiver “will allow for the previously striking members of ASUU to receive four months of salary accruals out of the eight months of salary which was withheld during the eight-month industrial action undertaken by the union.”

The Usmanu Danfodiyo University, ASUU branch chairman, Muhammad Nurudeen AlMustapha, a Pure and Applied Chemistry professor, explained that the government had not yet paid them a dime from the eight months withheld salaries.

“Nobody paid us a dime. And the evidence is there; we have done the work stopped during the strike. We have dealt with those sessions. Students have graduated, another set after that one has graduated, and we all forced ourselves without a holiday to ensure we fix those work.”

Speaking on the protracted face-off between ASUU and the Federal Government, AlMustapha explained that although the Tinubu administration ordered their removal from  Integrated Payroll and Personnel information system  (IPPIS) – a move he described as a welcome development – he noted that the issue of IPPIS was not a major issue.

He highlighted that the 2022 strike by lecturers aimed to push the government into negotiations beyond their 2009 demands, such as renegotiation and other related issues.

We asked the government to see why they must come to the negotiation table because the agreement signed by the government is binding on the two parties, that every three to four years, that agreement needs to be renegotiated. So that agreement ought to have been renegotiated since 2013, and we have been following government after government.

“So IPPIS essentially wasn’t the major issue. But it was an issue to bring distraction by the government, and in the end, we were taken to court and then forced to go back to class. We did our work, but our eight months salary was withheld,” he said.

Issues in the 2009 agreement the Federal Government signed with ASUU include funding for infrastructure and research in the universities, payment of outstanding arrears of Earned Academic Allowances (EAA), the release of an agreed sum of money for revitalising public universities (federal and state), addressing proliferation and governance issues in state universities, settling promotion arrears, the release of withheld salaries of academics, and payment of outstanding third-party deductions.

On whether this present administration is working to avert another strike and meet the lecturers’ demands, AlMustapha said taking ASUU off the IPPIS is a good way to start and expressed hope that litigations initiated by the government would be settled out of court.

“A strike wouldn’t have arrived if the government was doing what it was supposed to do. We suffered the most when we were on strike. Many people believe ASUU is synonymous with strike, but it’s just a last resort for us. We are the only workers that once you’re employed, you must return to school and update your qualifications.

“And look at what happened last year. Imagine a worker’s salary withheld for eight months. What kind of suffering is that? We suffered what people can’t imagine, and the people we are trying to protect now begin to castigate and insult us. That’s some of the students.

“Now, look at what’s happening in universities. Look at how school fees are being increased, and people are now crying. This is what we foresaw that we were consistently calling on the government for because we knew education is expensive.”

He also noted several court cases initiated by the government against them, adding that some of those cases were just personal cases between them and the former Minister of Labour, Chris Ngige.

“For us, if this government is serious about it, there are issues that can be resolved out of court. Some judgments have been delivered, for instance, the issue of IPPIS and the autonomy given to the universities to recruit without recourse from the Heads of Civil Service interference.”

He, therefore, appealed to the government to consult relevant stakeholders before announcing any development. 

Students elated, hope for undisrupted sessions

As the universities witness an uninterrupted year in 2023, some students who spoke to The ICIR were delighted over the development and hoped that ASUU would have no reason to embark on strike in subsequent years. 

One of the students,  Mazeed Oyeleye, a final year student of Economics at the Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, explained that 2013 marked the first year he had completed three semesters since he gained admission into the university and at a point affected his full concentration due to the incessant strike.

“The feeling is inexplicable. Throughout my years in the university, I have not seen a year where we weren’t forced to stay out of school because of the strike. I need to say that these strikes took a great toll on my concentration in school. I’m well aware of how much time I’m supposed to spend in the university and was protesting against the extra time.

“But this year has been amazing. We are completing three semesters within one year for the first time since I got into the university, and it fills me with a great level of optimism. It has helped me regain the morale to approach my studies with renewed energy.

Another final-year student of the Federal University of Technology, Minna, Abubakar Abdulrasheed said it was good to see that the union and the government were ensuring academic stability to avert further strike, hoping it will continue that way.






     

     

    “The government is actually responding to the union’s demands that have always been responsible for the strikes. That is ensuring a smooth academic calendar and activities. My school ran three semesters this year and even used e-learning for the new batch of freshers to bridge the strike-affected backlogs.”

    Also, Uthman Ahmad, a 200-level student at the University of Abuja, told The ICIR that in early 2023, he was in 100L and would be in 300L early next year due to the stable academic calendar.

    “It’s a great opportunity for us not to witness another strike this year. The earlier one caused a lot of problems to our academic calendar, which we are just balancing now.

    “I feel okay if this continues and the Federal Government make a suitable budget and investment in our educational sector to avert future industrial action.”

    Usman Mustapha is a solution journalist with International Centre for Investigative Reporting. You can easily reach him via: [email protected]. He tweets @UsmanMustapha_M

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