ASUU strike as subversion? By Waheed Odusile

At the end of a very bad week, politically, for Mr. President, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan made matters worse when he described the on-going strike action by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), as an act of subversion.

The president’s comment came on the heels of an order by the supervising Minister of Education, Nyesom Wike that university teachers must resume work tomorrow or consider themselves sacked. While calling on the management of the universities to re-open the schools, Wike had accused ASUU of intransigence and sabotage.

Sabotage, subversion, these are strong words that are often associated with military governments or dictatorships, and the usage of such words by a supposedly democratic government for a mere industrial action by aggrieved workers does suggest a hardening of position by a government that is either jittery or losing control and wants to reassert its authority by the use of force.

The ASUU strike now in its 6th month has divided Nigerians down the middle. While one half is sympathetic, the other seems to harbor no sympathy at all for the university teachers. I belong to the latter group, but the way and manner the Federal Government has been handling the issue of negotiation with the union, especially the crude words of Wike and the unguarded (unfortunately) comment of Mr. President has sharply swung the pendulum of sympathy in favour of ASUU.

The lecturers have suddenly emerged as heroes fighting for a better higher education system in Nigeria as against (in the belief of some) fatter remunerations, and the Jonathan administration as a bunch of unreliable negotiating partners.

Failure on the part of government to implement the 2009 agreement it had with ASUU led the lecturers to go on strike on 1st of July and after another round of negotiation on how to implement the 2009 agreement, this time involving Mr. President, the lecturers are saying they have not seen anything to suggest government was committed to this new agreement and therefore would not return to work. But the Jonathan’s camp is saying it has done enough to convince the striking university teachers that the government is serious this time around and should on the strength of Mr. President’s words/assurances, have gone back to work.

It is the rejection by ASUU of these mere verbal promises/assurances by the president that the minister is calling sabotage and Jonathan is describing as subversion. Now tell me where is the sabotage or subversion here? Once beaten as they say, twice shy. The Federal Government had promised ASUU in the past and failed, even with signed agreements, so what makes this verbal agreement different from previous ones? Was it because Jonathan was involved?

If President Jonathan had wanted his words to be taken serious by ASUU, considering the recent history of failed promises to the union by government, he should have matched his words with immediate action and now leave ASUU with no other option than to call off the strike. But with a Federal Government that is lacking in integrity, nobody will take the president’s words to the bank.

Worse still, we don’t even know the full details of the 13-hour meeting the president had with ASUU, so blaming the union and calling its action subversive is not the issue. Besides, such a hard line position by the government and the unguarded utterances of both the minister and (unfortunately) Mr. President show a poor understanding of the issues involved and the enormity of the problem(s) at hand.

By ordering the authority at the universities to sack any lecturer that failed to resume work by the December 4 deadline, does the minister, Nyesom Wike know the number of people that are likely to be involved? If he sacks them where is he going to get their replacement from? Does he even know the number of academic staff in Nigerian universities? What is the position of the law on sacking and rehiring? Is it true that if you sack and rehire one or more, you must rehire all? I think the supervising minister of Education, a lawyer, should go and read the position of the law well on this his sack and rehire order and should also try and understand the limits of his powers.

When you give the job of a carpenter to a tailor this is what you get. It is easier to blame the minister for his motor park approach to the ASUU strike, but when the president is speaking the same way as his minister on a matter as sensitive as getting our universities back and running, then you know the kind of thinking that goes on in the inner circles of government.

Note that Wike’s argument after lambasting the lecturers was that after meeting for 13 hours with the president, the union still couldn’t take his words as enough assurance/guarantee of government’s commitment to implement all the agreement reached. “I have never seen anywhere in any country where you sit down with Mr. President (to negotiate). That is the highest level of discussion. If you cannot believe Mr. President, then who else will you believe?” He said.

This comment was somehow echoed by the president in Yenagoa last Friday when he said ASUU leadership had shown utter contempt for his person and office (by their refusal to call off the strike), noting that never in the history of Nigeria has the president sat through a labour dispute meeting, the type of which he had with the lecturers’ union.

Now you can smell ego and pride here, and to some extent, a bit of arrogance. That the minister said it first and it was reechoed by the president was an indication that that was the talking point agreed at their caucus meeting. Now you can imagine the quality of discussion at that level and the caliber of people that lurk around the corridor of power in Abuja.

Well, maybe it is not right for the president to sit through such a meeting, since whatever was agreed at a lower level of authority, say ministerial, with ASUU will still come to his table for approval. But having decided to drag his person and office into that negotiation with ASUU, he should have known that failure to implement agreement reached immediately or as and when due will rubbish both his person and office. He should not be offended but he called for it. If he had given effect to the agreement reached immediately, the blame would have been on ASUU now if the strike was not called off immediately.

Labour is by nature supposed to be selfish, so, if ASUU is being selfish, then it is just behaving true to type. It is not lack of respect for the president or his office, it is just the way trade unions are, always careful with and distrustful of authorities, especially in negotiations, irrespective of who is on the other side of the negotiation. They would only believe when they see agreements being implemented.

The president, being a member of ASUU at one time, though not a unionist should have known that threat is the last thing you issue to unionists, it makes them stronger. So the threat of sack of lecturers as directed by Wike will not work, it will only make ASUU more popular. President Goodluck Jonathan should stop listening to the Wikes of this world, they are his worst enemies. The Gulaqs, the Ogiadhomes, he knows them, they are misleading him. ASUU is not subversive. Even though I don’t often agree with them, the lecturers are no saboteurs. They are patriots, looking at Nigeria from a myopic point of view.

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