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Gbajabiamila’s ASUU burden

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Certainly, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila played uncommon role in seeing to the suspension of the eight months strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities, (ASUU). Though the National Industrial Court (NIC) had ordered the union to go back to classes, Gbajabiamila and his colleagues were quick to give hope to the striking teachers that mutually acceptable grounds could still be reached on some of the issues in dispute.

A number of meetings were subsequently held between the union and the House leadership on the one hand; the presidency and the House on the other. The meetings inspired so much hope after the court ruling that even the counsel to the union, Femi Falana, publicly expressed reasonable confidence that its outcome would yield positive results in the overall interests of ASUU and students.

Equally upbeat at the prospect of the new engagement to resolve the “no work, no pay” debacle, the speaker had after a meeting with President Buhari said “the House has done its part to end the months long ASUU strike and Nigerians will hear the outcome of the deliberations from the President”. That raised hope.

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But the president was yet to be heard before ASUU announced suspension of the strike; acknowledging the efforts of President Buhari and well-meaning Nigerians including the speaker of House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila. That perhaps, was indicative of the level of confidence they had on the outcome of the meetings they had with the house leadership on behalf of the government. ASUU president, Emmanuel Osodeke showed that much while commending the speaker when he said, if those in charge of education and labour had handled the matter the way he did, the strike would not have lasted more than two weeks or so.

That was the mood of the union as it looked forward for the payment of the backlog of salaries of member withheld during the period of the strike. But this optimism was jolted when Falana called on Gbajabiamila and all those who pressurized ASUU to call off the strike to mount similar pressure on the government to implement all the agreements reached with the union. He gave no details of those agreements. But behind the call lay the suspicion that all was not well with the agreements brokered by the House leadership.

The payment of October salaries ‘pro rata’ was all needed to prove conclusively that nothing really changed as the government was bent on extracting a pound of flesh from the lecturers for daring go on strike. That may have been the foreboding signal Falana got before his exhortation. And he has been proved right.

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ASUU has complained bitterly that her members are being treated as casual workers by the manner of that salary payment. And this has again stirred up a crisis of confidence between its members and the government. For a group that has been without salaries for eight months, it was not funny receiving partial payment for work done.

This prompted an emergency national executive committee meeting of the union to take a position. Though the union has ruled out another round of strike, it feels sufficiently betrayed that all the assurances that its members would be paid backlog of their salaries were after all, a subterfuge to get them back to classes in the face of the court order.

And if the government could not pay then fully for their services in the month of October, further hope of getting the eight months arrears would amount to an exercise in wishful thinking. So what was the benefit of the intervention of the House leadership? Was the speaker really sincere in his dealings with ASUU or he got betrayed by those on whose behalf he engaged the union? How did things get out of hands such that the union failed to get any reprieve on the issue of salaries?

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These searing posers beg for reasonable answers given reports that, the speaker said during the negotiations there was no need to sign any agreement on the promises he made on behalf of the government because it was all about trust.

So where is that trust now? That is the burden Gbajabiamila will have to live with for now. The speaker was not under any compulsion to wade into the ASUU crisis as it was not really within the purview of the National Assembly. But he must have been spurred by the effects of the lingering strike in the face of the inability of the labour and education ministries to find mutually acceptable solutions to issues in contention.

Unfortunately, the turn of events has begun to raise questions as to whether anything was really gained from that intervention. It was nonetheless good he intervened. But such intervention will only have meaning if it is a marked improvement on the status quo. That has failed to happen.

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Apparently to save his name, Gbajabiamila was quick to issue a statement in which he sought to give hope to ASUU that decisions on issues to the strike are getting appropriate hearing. He spoke on increased allocations to the education sector in the 2023 Appropriation Bill, the progress in UTAS/IPPIS payment systems and their intention to organize a National Summit on Tertiary Education. Though some of these are not anything new, the speaker’s plea for calm is noteworthy in view of the bad blood generated by the salary payment pro rata.

But he must have disappointed many when he sought to justify the contentious pro rata salary payment thus, “the executive’s position that it is not obligated to pay salaries to lecturers for the time spent on strike is premised on the law and government’s legitimate interest in preventing moral hazard and discouraging disruptive industrial actions”.

The legal dimension on “no work, no pay” is nothing new. That was the basis for not paying the lecturers during the strike. It is not also in doubt that the government has very strong aversion to strikes. These positions were there before the intervention of the House leadership. It is preposterous to turn around and deploy them as justification for not getting any concession from the government on the lecturers’ salary payment.

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The speaker’s claim that interventions have been made to explore the possibility of ‘partial payment to the lecturers and he looks forward to a favourable consideration by Buhari who manifested desire to what is prudent and necessary to resolve all outstanding issues’ is full of sound and fury but signifies little. The mind-set of the government has already been exposed by the partial payment of the October salaries and reasons to justify it.

The government has taken a position. That seems to have foreclosed any hope of partial payment to the lecturers. The president has had sufficient time to take a decision on the issues presented to him by the House leadership. If after all these, he approved the pro rata payment, what is there again to repose hope on?

The impression is that of a government bent on playing for time with the agenda of throwing the union under a moving bus for daring to go on strike. It may have been buoyed by the ruling of the NIC which ordered ASUU to resume classes. But that is not all there is to issues of this nature. Viewing the crisis from the prism of a zero sum game misses the point and could prove counterproductive.

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We are dealing with human beings; intellectuals for that matter. Yes, the court can compel them to go back to classes. But the same courts have no way of getting the best out of them. A highly demoralized, hungry, frustrated and unmotivated teaching force is all that is needed to finally decapitate the university system in this country.

It is doubtful if that is what the government wants of our university system. The government has also registered two other university unions to possibly supplant ASUU. Their effect on labour harmony is a matter of conjecture. The posturing and temperament of the government may provoke another round of crisis with devastating effects on the future of this country. We shudder at such prospects.

A responsive and patriotic leadership would go beyond legalism; muster the necessary will to save the university system from the precipice into which it is irretrievably headed. The law on ‘no work, no pay’ should be made to wear a human face. After all, the lecturers are already covering up for lost grounds.

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