Last week, the Abuja division of the National Industrial Court (NIC), invoked Section 18 of the Trade Dispute Act and, on the back of the national interest of Nigerian students, who have been away from the classrooms since February 14, 2022, due to the industrial action called by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), approved an order of injunction filed by the Federal Government seeking to force the lecturers back to the lecture halls and bring the embarrassing lengthy strike action to an end.
Hinging his judgement on the detrimental effects of the strike to the academic system of the public universities, the NIC judge, Polycarp Hamman, granted the request of the government.
In a swift reaction to the judgement, which implied that the ASUU should immediately return to work, the Union and its counsel, Mr. Femi Falana, SAN, rejected the basis of the injunction granted to the FG, faulted the power of the court to hand down that particular judgement and voiced their determination to not only appeal the judgement, but to also maintain the status quo of the strike. This immediately throws up a plethora of talking points and finger-pointing across the divide.
Some fed-up parents already think the lecturers are inconsiderate, given how long their children and wards have been out of school while others are in solidarity with the lecturers in their demand for improved funding for universities, a review of salaries for lecturers, amongst other issues.
I am certain the issues thrown up by the court’s decision evokes a three-pronged approach (for ASUU, for the law and the courts and for the government). The lecturers and the Federal Government must take cognisance that the law is paramount in this protracted dispute.
For ASUU, while I think it is within the rights of the lecturers to disagree with the court’s ruling and also within their rights to embark on strike when the government reneged on the terms of the agreement they signed, it is however imperative for the lecturers to respect and implement the ruling of the NIC until a higher court rules to the contrary. Illegality cannot be fought with another illegality.
ASUU has over the years enjoyed an overwhelming support from Nigerians, including students for seeking better funding for the federal university system. However, since it called the current strike and resolved not to return to the lecture halls until the government acts in good faith and respects the terms of their agreement, negotiation with the government has broken down and appears to be irretrievable, at least at this time.
Students under the umbrella of National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), last week took to the streets of Lagos to force the government to meet the lecturers’ demands so that schools could reopen.
ASUU has fought many battles with the Federal Government in the last two decades over funding related issues for Nigerian universities and they have rebuffed attempts to sabotage their ranks. As focused as their resistance has been, given the hardship in the country and threats to their pay, should they persist with their strike, it is worth knowing the benefits of staying on the right side of the law, especially when fighting the good fight.
The union wants the best for the universities and the injection of agreed funds will go a long way to help Nigeria get back on track in the improvement of education and academics before we are completely drained of our best brains and left in the backwaters of academic attainment on the continent and beyond. The lecturers themselves deserve better wages and conditions of service, no doubt. Yet, until counsels to ASUU can acquire a stay of judgement against the decision of the NIC judge, the academic staff will be in contravention of the law if they do not immediately call off the strike and return to the lecture halls.
It is true that it might be a temporal resumption before the levers of the law start to turn again with the union’s determination to appeal the NIC judgement, but they will have not only acted in good faith and in reverence to the judgement of a court of competent jurisdiction (which they are challenging), but they will also have the support of the public, the backing of the law and no judge will treat them with contempt in future because they did not treat the judgement of a court in contempt.
They will show themselves to be in the right with the law in their decision to fight the government’s illegality but not by entering into illegality themselves. It will demonstrate that they have no personal angst against the government, no political play in the matter but simply want the best for the universities where they belong.
As regards the law and the court, I defer to Falana’s exposition on why the NIC was not the best of grounds to adjudicate in the dispute between the Union and the government when he noted that there was no precedence for such a case because it is not following due procedural process.
The learned jurist claimed that the NIC was an appellate court for cases that must have first gone through the Industrial Arbitration Panel (IAP). He argued: “There must be meditation, conciliation and arbitration under the law. It was wrong to approach the court. We tried to explain to the court and the court said they would look at that later. We made it clear to the court and submitted more than six cases where the same court warned the minister not to come without originating his case in the IAP if it relates to trade disputes. The court found that this is a trade dispute and that there was no reference to the IAP.
“But the court in its wisdom decided to intervene and the only way you can show your dissatisfaction is to approach the appeal court, which ASUU has decided to do.”
If the government tried to run rings around the system to get a favourable judgement, it ought to have been the place of the judge to insist that procedural processes be respected and send the case to the IAP rather than hear it and deliver a judgement, while promising to deal with that procedural omission later. If that is truly the case, the government will have played into the hands of the union, who will have more ammunition to employ in their planned appeal of the judgement. But until a higher court approves a stay of execution, ASUU must return to the classrooms.
For the government, Senator Chris Ngige, Minister for Labour, declared, “No victor, no vanquished” when he referred to the judgement as a win-win situation for all involved. Speaking after the court’s decision, he said: “The court ruling does not preclude us from going on with further negotiation and consultations. The Pro-Chancellors met Mr. President and made some demands, such as topping up government offers and seeing whether there could be some bailout. Mr. President said in considering it, he will consult stakeholders. So, he is going to consult everybody.”
Ngige also praised the intervention of the House of Representatives, whose Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila, waded into the strike issue, saying: “If they have shown interest now, it is good and wonderful. When they bring that proposal, the Executive will not have any problem. ASUU should also know that this is a step in the right direction. And these things have been promised by the Minister of Education at their last meeting with him. For me, they should do the needful and get back to the classroom.”
The Minister may be giddy with the favourable judgement obtained, but the truth is that the government has not merited the good faith it is asking for. Previous strike actions have been called off on trust that the government will play its part and meet the demands of the union only to renege and force another round of strikes.
There were warning strikes before this prolonged one and there were opportunities for the government to act to avert this, but it failed to do so.
The insensitivity of government representatives, whose children have been graduating from universities abroad, while Nigerian students are wasting away reeks of insincerity while the news is awash daily of massive sums of money either frittered away on frivolities or recovered from thieving public servants.
The fact is that ASUU’s demands on better funding for universities could have been met long ago if the government truly wanted to. That is why it behoves the government to wake up to the high bar expected of it, as the servant of the people, to demonstrate sincerity in relating to unions and all those who pursue the rights of the citizens, whether trade or academic, and do right by them.
Proscribing or deregistering ASUU as being speculated will not fix the rot in the Nigerian university system and the education sector in general.
We all want our wards back in school and an academic system that is thriving and we must do it with respect for the laws of the land. Just like I had written in my previous articles on this matter, I again reiterate that the federal government and ASUU must make a genuine and reasonable funding deal for universities that should be implementable over a decade or two. This way, every interested party or observer is able to keep track of the milestone(s) met as the years pass by.