Friday, August 21, 2009

Collapse of FG-ASUU talks

LAST week, the Federal Government of Nigeria, by the action of its appointed agent, the Deacon Gamaliel Onosode-led Committee engaged since 2006 in negotiation with the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), walked out on ASUU negotiators and vowed not to return unless and until the university teachers suspend their strike now in its third month. Said Mr. Onosode "....the government team is not in a position to continue further negotiations with the union until it suspends its strike..." To which the ASUU national President, Prof. Ukachukwu Awuzie, gave the riposte: 'we are not going to call off the strike until they sign the agreement'.

This week, acting through its agency - the National Universities Commission (NUC), the government went a step further in its hard line posture, by directing authorities of the federal universities to enforce a 'no work no pay' policy on the striking teachers in order to, according to the minister of education Dr. Sam Egwu, force the teachers back into the class room.

In effect, an on-going, albeit long-drawn negotiation process has been brought to a dead end by no less an entity than the highest governing authority in the land. Besides, the government seems to want to appear to act firm by wielding the big stick against the weaker party in the dispute. It is quite possible that state governments will follow this unhelpful example. It is wrong for a government to pull out of a negotiation process with a legitimate group of its citizens for whatever reason. It is undignifying and we are disappointed no end; the issue on ground cannot be resolved through such extremism.

Now, it is hard to see what a walkout from the negotiation table will achieve - except to make discussion impossible, raise the stakes and prolong the dispute with even worse negative social consequences. But on the other hand, ASUU cannot possibly keep its members at home indefinitely. The issue in dispute has been reduced by the government to an employer/employee level whereby, ASUU is asked to go sort out its grievances with the respective governing councils of the universities, including such larger and critically important issues as government budgetary allocation, university autonomy and academic freedom, in addition to conditions of service which is a labour matter listed as item 34 in the Exclusive Legislative List of the constitution. But these are policy issues that are, in all honesty, beyond the separate governing councils. They touch on the macro-management of university education. Is it too much for the Federal Government to establish a holistic framework and define the basic parameters and requirements for a functional and globally competitive university education for Nigeria? We do not think so. And is it beyond the government at the centre to also outline the necessary financing details and policy implementation? Again, no, in our considered view. So we think that the Federal Government must assume its due responsibility to lead the way. And this is a key provision in the yet to be signed agreement and it is not cast in stone.

Whatever agreement that may be reached, ASUU's Prof. Ukachukwu Awuzie, is quoted to have said, is for the state governments 'to adopt as they deem appropriate to meet the minimum standards set by NUC for the system'.

It is disingenuous, and a derogation of the process and the issues, to ask ASUU to go and conclude with the respective governing councils a process that originated and has continually been conducted with a Federal Government that largely determines the composition of the councils and ipso facto wields considerable influence. That is the reason for instance that the NUC regulates standards in all the universities - federal and non-federal; that is also why the Federal Government plays a leading role in the formulation of the National Policy on Education.

The governors failed in their responsibility by not offering fresh ideas to resolve the problem at hand. They may be right that in a true federal system, the federal government cannot negotiate with their workers on their behalf. But again, it is less than honest to pick and choose when to adopt this stance. The governors and other political office holders have never spoken against their uniform salaries and remunerations that are fixed by a central body controlled by the federal government, in breach of fiscal federalism.

The hard-line posture of both parties will do no one, not the least our children, any good. Therefore, both must get back forthwith to the negotiating table, shift position, find and implement minimum areas of agreement. Also, ASUU members should, as intellectuals who deal in facts and figures, advance concrete suggestions on how their demands can be realistically implemented. Nigerians are tired of the repetitive display by both sides of a combination of immaturity and abject paucity of negotiating skills.