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Sunday, 8 December 2013

ASUU Strike: As FG Loses Another Opportunity to Earn Trust

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By applying sack threat to try to end the university teachers’ strike, the federal government may have bungled a golden opportunity to earn public confidence, writes Vincent Obia
After his recent rash pronouncement that striking members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities must return to work or get the boot, Supervising Minister of Education Nyesom Wike has had a lot of rationalisation to do in the court of public opinion. He alleges that his action is prompted by the presentation of “new conditions” by the university teachers after their meeting with President Goodluck Jonathan on November 4 and resolutions adopted.
ASUU denies that charge, insisting it is only seeking an authentication of the same resolutions reached with the president, apparently, in the light of the federal government’s propensity to renege on agreements.
But neither Wike nor the Presidency has been able to mention any new demands brought up by the lecturers other than their insistence on safeguarding the promises made by the president during their negotiation.
Since September 11, when the calm, thoroughbred educationist, Professor Ruqayyatu Rufa’i, was removed as education minister, the more politics-obsessed Wike has taken the clear lead in the Jonathan administration’s seeming determination to use strong-arm tactics to end ASUU’s five-month-old strike.
On November 28, Wike gave the lecturers till December 4 to resume duty or risk dismissal from their various institutions. The ultimatum was later extended to December 9, perhaps, in view of the burial ceremonies for the late Professor Festus Iyayi, which commenced December 4. Iyayi died on November 12 in an auto accident on his way to an ASUU meeting in Kano in connection with the strike.
This ultimatum has sparked debate – and perhaps, also, confusion. While Wike struggled to justify the deadline, which he gave at a press conference in Abuja, as provoked by allegedly new conditions brought by ASUU, Jonathan tried to deny any impression that the government was actually behind the attempt to order university teachers back to work. The president tried to pass the buck to the vice-chancellors and pro-chancellors of universities.
A closer look at the so-called fresh demands by ASUU shows that they border on the question of mistrust.
Part of the resolutions at the November 4 meeting between ASUU representatives and the federal government’s delegation led by Jonathan was a commitment by the government saying, “All the provisions in the extant agreement/MoU for the revitalisation of the university system shall be fully implemented as captured in the 2012 Needs Assessment Report.”
ASUU had commenced an industrial action in July to press home its demand for the implementation of a 2009 agreement reached with the federal government on ways to revive the country’s increasingly moribund public university system. As part of efforts to implement the agreement, the federal government made a commitment on that November 4 to provide a six-year funding for the university system to the tune of N1.3 trillion, beginning this year with N200 billion and, then, N220 billion annually until 2018.
On the issue of the lecturers’ earned allowances, it was agreed that an implementation monitoring committee shall confirm the extent of disbursement from the N30 billion already released by the government for the purpose. The federal government undertook to pay the outstanding balance for the period 2009 to 2012 after the report of the verification exercise by the committee, as well as put in place a feasible strategy to normalise the payment of earned allowances in the university system. And they want the capturing of the usual non-victimisation clause in a document specifying its agreements with the government.       
ASUU simply wants these resolutions reached with the federal government to be made more authentic with the signature of a high-ranking government representative. They feel the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, as the chief law officer of the country, is in a reasonably good position to sign the agreement on behalf of the federal government.
The reason for the union’s fears is not very far-fetched. Memorandums of Understanding with ASUU had been signed in the past by permanent secretaries and other officials on behalf of the federal government, which later disowned such documents. ASUU’s request for greater validity of its agreements with the federal government was an opportunity for the government to prove its sincerity and preparedness to emerge from a history of untrustworthiness.
But the government bungled the chance to burnish its image. It cast further doubt on its commitment to the implementation of the negotiated settlement with ASUU, which border on addressing the rot in the public university system.
Jonathan told a political clan meeting in Yenagoa penultimate weekend that the lecturers were no longer engaged in an industrial action but a rebellion. His remarks suggest that the lecturers had no reason to continue their strike after meeting with “the highest authorities in the land.”
Under normal circumstances, such argument could be considered. But under the abnormal circumstances in which the federal government enters into agreements it does not intend to respect, the sentimental argument by the president simply does not hold water. The whole strike issue has been brought about by the federal government’s refusal to honour a 2009 agreement it had signed to fund the public universities.
If the government ever intended to honour the latest agreement with ASUU, signing a document to authenticate the agreement surely would have been the best way to demonstrate it to try to get the trust of the union. Earning this trust is the defining challenge of the government in its relationship with ASUU.
But the government has deliberately returned its relationship with the university teachers to a past of mistrust, a past any serious government would love to leave behind it.
Unfortunately, the problem of distrust has, again, taken centre stage in the relationship between the federal government and ASUU, and this is sure to find a wider audience among the populace, as the citizens watch the current twists and turns.
Wike must appreciate that the basic issue in the ASUU strike is not about sound bites, it is about superintending the search for a sincere and lasting solution to the decay in the public universities.

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