The Federal Government has said that demands by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) to be paid salaries for the six-month strike period is stalling its negotiations with the union.
ASUU went on strike on 14 February, first as a warning; but it entered it seventh month last Sunday. It embarked on the action to press home some demands, including call for the government to implement the Memorandum of Action on funding for revitalisation of public universities, which was signed in December 2020.
Other demands included Earned Academic Allowances, renegotiation of the 2009 agreement and the deployment of the University Transparency and Accountability Solution, among others.
But distrust has been at the heart of the dispute. Over the years, government had made promises which the union accused it of reneging on.
Education Minister, Mallam Adamu Adamu said on Thursday that the government wound not concede to ASUU’s demands to be paid the backlog of salaries withheld within the period.
ASUU however said, through its President, Prof. Emmanuel Osodeke that the core of the failure to reach an agreement during the latest meeting of the disputing parties was the proposal made to the Nimi Briggs-led negotiation committee, which was presented by the government in a “take-it-or-leave-it” manner. He said that the proposal was against the principle of collective bargaining, as “no serious country in the world treats its scholars this way”.
In June, the Federal Government’s renegotiation committee, which is chaired by the Pro-Chancellor of Alex Ekweme Federal University Ndufu-Alike, Emeritus Professor Nimi Briggs, met with ASUU leadership on Monday in continuation of the renegotiation of the FGN-ASUU 2009 agreements with the four university unions, which are all currently on strike.
Adamu told State House correspondents in Abuja on Thursday that five of the striking university-based unions would return to work within the next one week, whereas ASUU’s remain uncertain.
He denied receiving a two-week ultimatum from President Buhari adding that he successfully concluded his work one week after meeting the President on 18 July.
The Minister explained: “The President never gave me any deadline. I promised that I could do it within the shortest possible time. And for your information, one week after that pledge, I had already finished my job because I had given all the six unions the offer made by the government, and I want to tell you, in principle, all of them accepted it. The only exception was ASUU that gave me two other conditions, which I told them would not be acceptable to the government.
“Let me seize the opportunity to commend ASUP (Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics). ASUP were on strike. But at the time I was given this (negotiation) responsibility, they were threatening to go back. So, I called ASUP, and I made them withdraw the threat and they agreed.
“The next I met were the College of Education Academic Staff Union, they are on strike already. I gave them the offer, and this is a final offer. And they accepted it. But you know the mechanism of acceptance, they will not just tell me, okay, the strike is called off. They have to go and tell their unions. And that is what is happening with NASU. I met NASU and SSANU. And they have accepted but they need time to go and tell the unions. The last group I met was NAAT.
“So, I can tell you within the next one week, these five unions will call off the strike. But I cannot say the same for ASUU because what they’re asking is, they can accept this offer if the federal government will agree to pay the salary for the month they have not worked. And I told them the federal government will not. All contentious issues between the government and ASUU had been settled except the quest for members’ salaries for the period of strike be paid, a demand that Buhari has flatly rejected”.
Adamu also argued that ASUU should bear the liability of compensating university students for the time wasted, not the Federal Government.
According to him, if the students are determined to get compensated, they should take ASUU and other striking unions to court and claim for damages incurred over the strike period.
“Who do you assume will compensate the students? The federal government? No. Probably you should take the leaders of striking unions to court to pay them. Yes. Probably the court will award damages and then we’ll see how they pay”, he said.
On the part of ASUU, the union said the latest meeting on Tuesday was deadlocked when the government proposed a Consolidated University Academic Salary Structure to ASUU.
“At the commencement of the renegotiation of the 2009 FGN/ASUU Agreement on 16 March 2017, both the Federal Government and ASUU teams agreed to be guided by the following principles as their terms of reference which includes, reversal of the decay in the Nigerian university system, in order reposition it for its responsibilities in national development”, the ASUU statement reads.
“Government’s surreptitious move to set aside the principle of collective bargaining, which is globally in practice, has the potential of damaging lecturers’ psyche and destroying commitment to the university system. This is, no doubt, injurious to Nigeria’s aspiration to become an active player in the global knowledge industry.
“Rejecting a salary package arrived at through collective bargaining is a repudiation of government’s pronouncements on reversing ‘brain drain’.
“The Munzali Jibril-led renegotiation committee, submitted the first draft agreement in May 2021 but government’s official response did not come until about one year later.
“Again, the ‘award’ presented by the Nimi Briggs-led team came across in a manner of take-it-or-leave-it on a sheet of paper. No serious country in the world treats their scholars this way.
“Over the years, particularly since 1992, the union had always argued for, and negotiated a separate salary structure for academics for obvious reasons.
“ASUU does not accept any awarded salary as was the case in the administration of General Abdulsalam Abubakar. The separate salary structures in all FGN/ASUU agreements were usually the outcome of collective bargaining processes.”
Osodeke said the government imposed the ongoing strike action on them and has encouraged it to linger because of “its provocative indifference”.
He said the major reason given by the government for its “miserly” offer, which was paucity of revenue, was not tenable.
“This is because of several reasons, chief of which is poor management of the economy. This has given rise to leakages in the revenue of governments at all levels”, Osodeke said.
He continued: “There is wasteful spending, misappropriation of funds and outright stealing of our collective patrimony.
“ASUU believes that if the leakages in the management of the country’s resources are stopped, there will be more than enough to meet the nation’s revenue and expenditure targets, without borrowing and plunging the country into debt crisis as is the case now.
“At the commencement of the renegotiation of the 2009 FGN/ASUU agreement on March 16, 2017, both the federal government and ASUU teams agreed to be guided by some terms of reference.
“ASUU, however, expressed regrets that the former reneged on its side of obligations and agreed in the agreement.”
The union asked the Federal Government to return to the draft agreement of the 2009 FGN/ASUU renegotiation committee, whose work spanned a total of five and half years, as a demonstration of good faith.