That there is no love lost between the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the federal government is not in doubt and for obvious reasons. One of them is the 2009 agreement between the two parties. Yet, since the reconstitution of the government’s negotiation team, it appears many steps have been taken backward and ASUU is – again – threatening fire and fury, writes Head, Education Desk, IYABO LAWAL.

“A responsible government respects agreement,” one placard had read. Another one had urged: “FG don’t kill education and ruin the lives of university workers and future generations!”

With those placards in hand and dressed in academic gowns, members of Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) went to town in protest. The longstanding distrust between the union and the Federal Government (FG), has once again been brought to the fore as the gown is asking the government to remove Dr. Wale Babalakin, as the chairman of the Government Renegotiating Team for the 2009 agreement with the federal government. In Nigeria’s education sector it does not rain but it pours.

For almost 10 years ASUU and the FG have held each other by the jugular until a moment of truce came when Babalakin was appointed in 2017 to renegotiate an agreement reached between the two parties. However, as of August 2018, the academic union has begun singing a new song: ASUU wants Babalakin out of the renegotiation room.

Babalakin’s rejection was part of the resolutions at the end of ASUU’s National Executive Council at the University of Calabar ( UNICAL) that “anything can happen”, if the government failed to remove him. However, the renegotiation team thought that the call is uncalled-for. It restated its trust and confidence in Babalakin.

Addressing journalists at the end of the meeting at UNICAL, the union’s National President, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, described Babalakin as a stumbling block in the renegotiation process.

“You will recall that in January, 2017, the NEC meeting of ASUU held at Bayero University, Kano, welcomed the reconstitution of government renegotiation team to enter into renegotiation of the 2009 ASUU/FGN Agreement, which was long overdue. The renegotiation commenced in March, 2017. At the inauguration of the committee, the Minister of Education declared that he expected the renegotiation exercise to be completed within six weeks. Since then, for over 14 months, our union has had series of negotiation meetings but it has been a fruitless exercise,” Ogunyemi explained.

He argued further: “The chairman of the Government Renegotiating Team, in the person of Dr. Babalakin has constituted a stumbling block in the process of the renegotiation. He has arrogantly exhibited ‘I-know-it-all’ attitude and also conducted himself as a judge instead of a negotiator. With unwarranted arrogance, he has disregarded the cardinal principles of collective bargaining, deliberately slowed the process and made mockery of the core tenets of industrial democracy. He has arrogated to himself the power to decide matters that should be collectively debated, analysed, and agreed upon by the two parties.

“He has also consistently attempted to substitute core constitutional provisions of Nigeria on education, including university education, by market principles of trading in and purchasing higher education, putting Nigerian children in debt peonage in order to acquire higher education. This situation is not acceptable to the union.”

Such were the weighty allegations levelled against Babalakin. According to the union, many entreaties to make Babalakin “see reason and return to the path of collective bargaining and respect for the constitutional provisions on education” were unsuccessful.

The renegotiation team in a statement by Prof Olufemi Bamiro, Prof Nimi Briggs, Mr Lawrence Mgbale, Prof Munzali Jibrin and Dr Wale Babalakin, said the views communicated by Babalakin were the collective views of the team which were arrived at after an extensive debate.

“The team insisted on the resolution of issues based on accurate data and verifiable information. The team believes that government should increase its funding of education.

“However, the team notes that based on the cost determined by the National Universities Commission ( NUC) of above $3, 000 per student, per course, per annum, which has been accepted by ASUU, it will require about N1.8tn to fund university education alone, taking due cognisance of the level of enrolment of students.”

It added: “This amount of money exceeds the total capital release made under the 2017 budget of the Federal Government. The team does not believe that the government is in a position to provide this amount of money in a sustainable manner for the length of time required to turn around the educational system in Nigeria.”

To the Babalakin-led team, university education requires a robust funding from diverse sources and not from the government’s treasury alone. The team also observes that the position has been supported by the National Council on Education which confirmed the need to fund education from sources other than the government treasury, including an education bank and student loan scheme.

It is little wonder that the team is, therefore, “of the opinion that if the choice is between free education and good quality education, the team prefers the latter”.

Stakeholders in the education sector are worried that this issue may again take a dangerous turn if the government play the deaf to ASUU’s cry for the government’s immediate reconstitution of “its team” to conclude the renegotiation of the 2009 agreement.

Public analysts are of the opinion that the government is using delay tactics to renege on its promises on the renegotiation of the 2009 FGN/ASUU Agreement and September, 2017 MoA. The 2019 general election is just around the corner. It is not clear how an ASUU strike can damage the chance of the government in that poll.
What is clear is that ASUU has sounded the alarm bell and it would be unwise if the government did not take heed on time.

Following up on their call for the removal of Babalakin, the union in September reiterated its call that the FG should urgently open renegotiation on the 2009 agreement to avoid industrial disharmony.

It will be recalled that after the 2009 FGN/ASUU agreement, there was a provision for the renegotiation of the agreement every three years. It is unfortunate that it was in March 2017 that the first renegotiation

was held. Yet, that meeting, according to ASUU broke down since May 2018 because of “deliberate tactics adopted by the leader of government team to scuttle the renegotiation.”

The Babalakin’s team was accused of rooting for funding of education via diverse sources with the proposal for the establishment of ‘education bank and students’ loan scheme’. To ASUU, that suggestion is a deliberate effort to commercialise public universities and an incentive for private universities to thrive and ultimately deny children of poor Nigerians access to university education.

Some scholars have urged the government to seize the opportunity and reconstitute the renegotiation team before ASUU bares its full fang. They argued that the union can be devastatingly militant if it chooses to – by embarking on a nation-wide strike.

The issues for renegotiation are non-implementation of components of the 2017 memorandum of action, non-release of over N1 trillion arrears or revitalisation fund owed public universities from 2014 to 2018. Others include non-release of the forensic audit report on earned academic allowances and non-payment of arrears for 2009 to 2017, failure to mainstream the payment of earned academic allowances into the annual budget.

ASUU also wants the government to resolve the issue regarding the unpaid arrears of shortfall in salaries in universities that have been verified under the presidential initiative, on continuous auditing.

On July 1, 2013, ASUU embarked on a nationwide industrial strike over FG’s refusal to implement some components of the 2009 agreement, which include the academic earned allowance, funding and development of infrastructure.

Fourteen days into the strike, a meeting involving the Senate, the Federal Government and the leadership of ASUU on how to resolve the crisis ended in a deadlock. In order to demonstrate commitment to the implementation of the recommendations of the Needs Assessment Committee to Nigerian Universities – one of ASUU’s demands  – the FG constituted the Implementation Committee with the then Governor of Benue State, Gabriel Suswam as the chairman.

On August 1, another meeting between ASUU and FG’s representative, Suswan, ended with no resolution as the union insisted on the total implementation of the 2009 agreement. Nineteen days after, another meeting was held on August 20 between the two warring sides; no truce was reached. Following that the FG met with pro-chancellors and vice chancellors of federal universities. At that meeting, N30bn was announced as being released for earned academic allowances; N100bn for the provision of infrastructure on campuses of 61 universities covered in the needs assessment report.

That announcement did not placate ASUU, as the union accused the government of insincerity. In frustration, the FG threatened its employees with the “no work-no pay’ policy. As the crisis deepened and began to embarrass the government, the then Vice President, Namadi Sambo, took over the discussion with ASUU. Still the union was not ready to shift ground in a meeting with the vice president.

The crisis got to its climax when then President Goodluck Jonathan on November 5, had a 13-hour meeting with ASUU in conjunction with representatives of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC).

Some success appeared to have been achieved as ASUU on November 23 told the government before calling off the strike that it should pay the four-month salary arrears owed varsity lecturers, N200bn for infrastructure development should be deposited with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and that non-victimisation clause be included in a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to be signed by both parties.

That demand did not go down well with federal universities’ pro-chancellors, calling for the immediate re-opening of the universities. In cahoots with the pro-chancellors, the supervising Minister of Education at that time, Nyesom Wike, on November 28 gave a one-week ultimatum for ASUU to resume work or be given the sack.

On December 11, the FG and ASUU eventually reached a compromise to end the months-long strike. This was sealed by the signing of a MoU on the implementation of all resolutions agreed on between Jonathan and the union.

“The MoU was signed in the presence of five vice chancellors, the then  Executive Secretary of National Universities Commission (NUC), Prof. Julius Okojie, erstwhile Executive Secretary of Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund), Prof Mahmood Yakubu ASUU and the FG has been resolved to the satisfaction of the parties,” a seemingly pleased Wike had said.

At least, between 1999 and 2013, ASUU had gone on strike for 36 months – a grim reality that the government wants to turn into a forgotten past. In line with the United Nations Educational, Scienfific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO’s)  declaration, scholars have urged the FG to progressively increase education budget annually to 26 per cent. It is yet to be seen how responsible and responsive the government will prove to be before things totally fall apart.