What Next As Jonathan, ASUU Meeting Fails to End Strike?

In this report, GEORGE AGBA examines failed attempts by the federal government to call off the prolonged strike action by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU); he argues that with the last attempt on Monday by President Goodluck Jonathan himself almost crashing, there seems to be no end in sight for the four months gridlock that has crippled activities in the nation’s universities.

Nigerians are yet to come to terms with the reasons an all-day meeting such as the one between President Goodluck Jonathan and leaders of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) would end without any headway on the gridlock in Nigerian universities. At the meeting, the president’s disposition towards his colleagues was that of comradeship, laced with sanguinity. Armed with this positive temperament, Jonathan walked briskly into the conference room that Monday afternoon with determination.

As he moved round the conference table to exchange pleasantries with the ASUU delegation as well as leaders of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC), the president did not conceal his firm resolve that the strike must come to an end. He told the leaders of ASUU, the NLC and the TUC that everything about the strike must have to end with the meeting.

After a warm embrace, he told ASUU President, Dr Nasir Isa Fagge: “My president, all the problems will be over today, all our children must go back to school”. When he got to the NLC president, Abdulwahab Omar, Jonathan shook hands with him passionately and said, “My president, with you around today, there will be no problem. Our agreement is signed, sealed and delivered”.

The meeting started at 2:45pm on Monday and lasted for 13 hours. The only break the meeting had was at 6:30pm when members of the ASUU delegation came out and strolled down to the white 18-seater Toyota bus that brought them. For 15 minutes, they sat down in the vehicle conferring with one another before returning to the first lady’s conference room to join members of the federal government delegation.

When the meeting came to an end at about 3: 35am yesterday morning, Journalists who kept vigil all night long at the first lady’s wing of the presidential villa for the meeting to end had already written a draft of their story background suggesting that the strike has been called off. In their calculation, the meeting which did not come to an end just the way the four months old strike itself has stubbornly lingered, could not have been a failure.

But all hopes were dashed when ASUU president came out of the meeting to announce that it ended up with just a message from the federal government to their members. Fagge’s buoyancy which was palpable at the commencement of the meeting gave way for diffidence when he was confronted by journalists for an interview on the outcome of the meeting. “Well, we have had a lengthy meeting with Mr. President, rubbing minds on how best to address the problem of university education in this country. We now have a message from Mr. President that we are going to take to our members and we are expecting that our Members will respond appropriately to the message of Mr. President”, he managed to say.

Asked whether it was likely that the striking lecturers were going back to the classroom after the meeting, Fagge said, “That is up to our members”. When asked to disclose the message he said he was taking to members of the union, he said, “No, I can’t tell you. It’s not for you”. But when pushed to comment further whether the ASUU delegation was impressed with the message from the president, Fagge resistibly said: “Don’t put words into my mouth. Our members will determine that”.

Speaking for the federal government, Labour Minister, Chief Emeka Wogu noted, however, that the message the ASUU leaders were taking to their members would definitely ignite hope in them to the extent that they just might not need to come back to see the president before calling off the strike.

He said; “They (ASUU leaders) are going back with a message to their members. The message is a message full of high expectations and hope. Our prayer is that they come back and come back with positive outcome. They might not even come back to meet us; they might take decisions there that would meet their expectations. The offers we made are the ones they are taking in line with the 2009 agreement. The issues that led to the strike are issues contained in the 2009 agreement and we did not go beyond the agreement”.

Now that the academic body has failed to call of the strike after meeting with President Jonathan himself, what hope for university students in Nigeria? Initially, it was Benue State Governor, Gabriel Suswam who was negotiating with the union on behalf of government. When it appeared as if the governor’s team could not produce any fruitful result, Vice President Namadi Sambo declared in September that he was now in charge of negotiation with ASUU in the federal government’s bid to end the ongoing industrial action which has claimed one full semester of the academic calendar.

Monday’s meeting was the very first in which President Jonathan confronted the striking teachers. That same Monday, Senate President, David mark had held a meeting with the university teachers, but only black smoke was said to have come out of the meeting which held before that of the president. Now that the federal government’s team led by the president himself has also failed to reach a compromise with the union, undergraduates in the country could as well begin to gird up their loins for a very long stay at home.

Those students who have been into menial jobs to raise money to assist their parents in sponsoring themselves should redouble effort now that there is enough time at their disposal. Those availing themselves the opportunity provided by the strike to catch some fun should not grow weary in idling away their time yet. The general fear, however, is that the situation should not become a fertile ground to produce criminals and other forms of deviants out of the helpless students whose educational future is now appears to be bleak. An idle mind, they say, is the devil’s workshop. With last Monday’s meeting ending in stalemate, there seem to be no option left, apart from yielding sheepishly to the whim and caprice of the lecturers, the contention that granting their demands would be inimical to the nation’s economy notwithstanding. To be fair with him, President Jonathan has employed every skill of persuasion to convince the striking ASUU to reconsider their stand and return to classrooms. On October 19, 2013 in Ado Ekiti where he had gone to commission the College of Engineering Complex in the Afe Babalola University (ABUAD), Jonathan pleaded passionately with the lecturers to go back to the class room for the sake of the students.

Pleading with the ASUU members to forget whatever the grievances they might have, as keeping students out of school for four months is unpatriotic, Jonathan said, “I once again appeal to the entire membership of ASUU to pause and ponder on the adverse effect of their action on the future of the vibrant youths of this great nation. The collective destiny of tens of thousands of tomorrow’s leaders should not be held hostage to vagaries of labour disputes. As long as we are humans, as long as we are a developing society, this labour dispute must come up.

I always says that even in the developed societies, we hear about labour dispute and there is no society, even the most developed that has provided the facilities for every worker. Our security services, the Police, the Armed Forces, Navy, Air Force and para-military, intelligent services are also operating in an environment that is not the best. If all of us should go on long strike because our environment is not optimum, then, definitely we can never get the Nigeria of our dream. So, let me use this unique opportunity that I am interfacing with our future leaders, our students, to plead with ASUU members.

“If it is a genuine strike, keeping students out of classrooms for almost four months, by that they have demonstrated to everybody that they have a case. And if the strike is motivated by some other interests, they have also achieved that by keeping students out of schools for more than a semester” he added.

The President who emphasised that the freedom of association and the right of workers to go on strike should not be abused and used to the detriment of the nation stated: “I believe that labour has the right to go on strike, but in that strike, any action taken must be built on patriotic zeal. In as much as you can go on strike, you must be patriotic to our country. No matter how and what you feel about Mr. President and the federal government, I plead with ASUU that for the sake of our students, they should resume classes”.

President Jonathan assured that government will continue to work with all Nigerians to build a better country for all and future generation. He noted that as long government had shown commitment to improving the qualities of infrastructure in the universities and the operating environment, ASUU should reconsider its stand. He noted that if students of private universities could get their Degrees within three and half years as witnessed in ABUAD, “it is unacceptable that students of public institutions are kept for extra one or two years”.

Minister of State for Education who also doubles as supervising minister, Barrister Nyesom Wike also appealed to the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) to shift ground the way government has done by offering a good amount of what its members are demanding for. He reminded the academic union of universities that the problems they are seeking federal government to address had been there for the past 20 years and as such cannot be resolved in a couple of months. He also advocated for financial autonomy for universities, saying the problem confronting the university system borders on over dependence on federal government in terms of sponsorship of the institutions.

The minister said, “Yes we agree; ASUU is making some demands that would have improved on what we have in the universities. But government is saying ‘in as much as we agree with you, these problems had been there for over 20 years cannot be solved within two to three years. It is not possible’. And they should appreciate what government has done. Mind you, the fund that government is releasing has nothing to do with the ted fund. So, if you put all together, you will find out that government is now spending at least N200billion to N300 billion every year, apart from the normal federal budget.

“So, people should appreciate this; let nobody begin to play politics with it. The point is that we must understand that government has done very well in accepting that what we have in the universities is not what is supposed to be. Having accepted that we have taken the next step; we have provided a certain amount of money. Let’s start with that; government has promised that by next year we will improve on what we have given. I thank that is the way we must go”.

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