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ASUU'S MORAL BURDEN

By NBF News
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THE sparks are still flying on the controversial strike action embarked upon by the Academic Staff Union of Universities in state universities of the South-East since July 2010.  For obvious reasons, the situation should not be allowed to linger.

A meeting point ought to be reached between ASUU's demand for salary parity with federal universities and the position of the affected state governments that their income profile compels a modification of the demands. In this regard, the development in Anambra State where the state government has offered a sixty percent salary increase and ninety percent increase in subvention to the state university should be seen as a way forward.

In an atmosphere of frosty industrial relations, overzealous actors are wont to confuse and compound issues. In the present dispute, uninformed observers have been heating up the conflict with unguarded and exaggerated claims. Matters too have not been helped by the posture of the national leadership of ASUU which has tended to view the issues largely from the prism of labour activism.

Indeed, it has been argued that labour is on the exclusive legislative list in the 1999 Constitution and accordingly state universities are bound by the Federal Government-ASUU 2009 Agreement. This is a narrow view of a complex matter. The said 2009 Agreement does not constitute a legislation and therefore cannot be binding on states. And even if it was backed by an act of the National Assembly, there is yet another fundamental dispute.

Education is on the concurrent list, so where goes the constitutional right of states to university enterprise?

Legal rights aside, the South-East governors merely pleaded that owing to low revenue profile, they would not be able to implement the pay parity with federal universities being demanded by ASUU.

It has been contended that the ability of states to pay and upgrade facilities was a major consideration in the Federal Government-ASUU negotiations. Who made this determination? What criteria were used? How many governors were involved in the negotiation? Would ASUU accept it if another organisation were to define its interests at a summit it had not participated in?

The incongruity of redefining a Federal Government-ASUU Agreement to embrace states is not lessened by the argument that states had representatives at the negotiations. These representatives merely consisted of four odd pro-chancellors and chairmen of governing councils of state universities.

But even more interesting is whether these 'representatives' participated as observers or parties to the contract. Let us even presume that they were duly mandated to monitor the negotiation. Was the Agreement ever ratified by the state governments? As ASUU knows, international conventions do not become binding on a country until they are ratified by municipal law.

There is another effort to hang the Agreement on the states on the premise that accreditation does not have different standards and that there should be a common standard for Nigerian universities. We thought the enforcement of accreditation standards was the business of the National Universities Commission. Is it now ASUU's prerogative? In any case, it is utopian to talk of uniformity of standards. No two universities anywhere in the world stand on the same pedestal. It is even more controversial to advocate such stringent conformity in an area where the federal and state governments have concurrent jurisdiction.

And whenever it seemed that public opinion was going against ASUU, the trump card which suggests that the Agreement is not just about salaries is brandished. Certainly, it sounds lofty to portray the industrial action as a struggle for proper funding of universities. While we are at it, let us also talk of proper funding of primary, secondary and other forms of tertiary education. This is the only way of determining the due and fair allocation to be made to university education. Regrettably, ASUU's present stance on funding gives the impression that other tiers of education are not significant.

Some commentators have sought to blame Anambra State governor, Peter Obi, for ASUU's walk-out on the reconciliation meeting of October 17, 2010 at Enugu, citing the governor's decision to conduct proceedings in Igbo as the cause. According to the critics, the governor by this singular act turned the issue into a tribal affair. If the strike has been ethnicised, ASSU made it so. Why was the strike restricted to the South-East whereas other state universities across the federation are yet to implement the Agreement? Who conceived and declared a regional rather than national strike?

It is shocking that the same South-East zone that is adamant on pay parity with federal universities is the last on revenue allocation table. National revenue receipts from January to June 2010 published by two national Newspapers of November 8, 2010, showed that the South-East received the least allocation of N99 billion; South-West N166 billion; North-West N168 billion; North-Central N116 billion; North-East 119 billion while the South-South received N386 billion. The South-East zone of ASUU cannot feign disinterest in the above statistics which represents a dominant trend.

A path has been opened for the resolution of the strike with the sixty and ninety percent increases in salaries and subvention respectively which the Anambra State government committed itself to as far back as November 9, 2010. A glimpse into the background to this development is important. This breakthrough emerged from the mediation of civil society leaders comprising religious leaders, traditional rulers, serving and retired justices and other distinguished citizens, chaired by the Obi of Onitsha, Dr. Alfred Achebe. It was this non-partisan assembly that directed the aforementioned increases after reviewing the submissions of the two parties. And yet, ASUU has refused to call off the industrial action.

Clearly, it is myopic to go to a negotiation and expect to win on all counts without some concessions to the other party. If ASUU will not settle for what has been offered, then it has three alternatives. The universities would have to generate the balance of what they are demanding through consultancy services and other fees. ASSU could lead the struggle for an upward review of the revenue allocation formular in favour of states.

Alternatively, ASUU should get the federal government to take over state universities. The society cannot indulge ASUU indefinitely.  No one should blame the Anambra State government if it moves to wield the big stick.