By Frank Ikpefan, Abuja and Chris Njoku (The Nation)
The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) yesterday supported the Academic Staff Union of Universities’ (ASUU)’s insistence on the payment of the withheld salaries of its members as a condition for ending its over six-month-old strike.
The umbrella union said it was unfair for the Federal Government to invoke a no-work, no pay rule on university teachers, who were not the architects of the lingering strike.
Urging the government to “tone down its rhetorics and be more accommodating”, the NLC warned that its threat to embark on a nationwide strike over the lockdown of the universities had not been ruled out.
Head of Information of the NLC, Benson Upah, disclosed the union’s position as students suggested Public-Private Partnership (PPP) as a way of ending the crises in the university system.
Also yesterday, Minister of State for Education Goodluck Opiah advised Nigerians not to allow reports on the ASUU strike to rubbish the gains of the over N3 trillion investment by the Muhammadu Buhari administration in the education sector.
Minister of Education Adamu Adamu had said last week that the insistence of ASUU on the payment of the withheld salaries was stalling negotiations by the parties.
He added that government had met all the demands of ASUU, except the arrears payment, which President Muhammadu Buhari had rejected.
The demands of the union include the provision of funds for the revitalisation of public universities; payment of Earned Academic Allowances (EAA)/Earned Allowances (EA); payment of salary shortfalls; an end to the proliferation of state universities, renegotiation of a 2009 agreement; adoption of University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) as a payment platform for university teachers and payment of non-remitted check-off dues.
Upah, in an interview with The Nation in Abuja, said government should pay the six-month arrears so that the universities, which were shut down February 14, could reopen.
His words: “At a point, having come this far, the government is expected to tone down its rhetorics instead of ramping them up. The government is expected to be more accommodating than it is doing.
“We know that Section 43 of the Trade Dispute Act provides that when there is a strike action, there should be no payment in the period of the strike but it is not an absolute situation.
“When you have a condition precedent that makes necessary the happening or the execution of the sterile action, that provision cannot be invoked.
“ASUU members didn’t wake up one morning and said they were going on strike. The government voluntarily committed itself and reneged on those commitments and for a long time, ASUU members ‘said let us talk, let us negotiate’ and the government kept shifting the goalpost until we are now six months and counting only for the government to say it is going to invoke provisions of section 43 of the TDA. I don’t think that is fair.
“On the practical side of it, do you know that ASUU members have a backlog of activities to execute? If they resume today, there are a lot of activities that if they don’t do, we cannot have a smooth academic progression or activities. It is like coming to start on a clean slate. I don’t think that is fair enough.
“The government is expected to toe the line of accommodation. I do not think the government is ready for full and comprehensive peace in line with its present rhetorics.
“Our position is that the government should pay up the arrears, make a commitment to other demands and let the universities open.”
The labour leader warned that the NLC might make good its threat to embark on a three-day if the talks between ASUU and the government lead to nowhere.
“We have not soft-pedaled. What is going on in the background is that we are in a state of readiness. We are mobilised until there is a firm instruction to demobilise. We didn’t ask our affiliates and civil society associates to demobilise.
“If it becomes necessary, I want to assure you that within 24 hours, we can be back on the streets,” Upah said.
‘Strike should not rubbish gains of N3 trillion education investment’
In Owerri, Imo State, Opiah said irrespective of negative reports about the ASUU strike, there are many good things to talk about in the education sector.
He said: “The Federal Government has done so much in terms of investments in Education. Within the last five years, the Buhari administration has spent over N2.5 trillion in infrastructure alone in the sector.
“No other sector has got that much within the period. I believe the President knows that Education is critical for the development of Nigerians and the country. That is why he is doing so much to develop the sector.”
Opiah hailed the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) and the Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and other Associated Institutions (NASU) for suspending their strike.
Students call for PPP to rescue public varsities
Some students, who recounted losses caused them by the strike, appealed to the government and ASUU to resolve their differences,
They lamented that long stay at home had inflicted permanent injury on them and damage to the education system.
Philemon Kojo, a clinical student at the University of Abuja (UniAbuja), suggested that for the issue to be resolved, ASUU and the government should engage global monetary agencies to access funds or better still, privatise the universities for proper management.
“The education sector should research into solutions that can lead us from a customer economy to a productive economy, for example, vaccine and drug production, electronics, and even energy generation,” she said.
Another student of UniAbuja, Nwachukwu Cletus, said that the government should appoint leaders who will prioritise education.
Cletus also suggested that there should be optimal maximisation of production for universities as they must begin to look inward to “maximise every factor of production at their disposal to contribute to their purse.