The Nigeria Labour Congress and the Joint Action Committee, comprising the Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Allied Institutions and the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities, have said their planned protest in solidarity with the Academic Staff Union of Universities will hold as planned.
The labour unions said they were not aware of any security report by the Department of State Services that advised against the rally, insisting that their protest in solidarity with ASUU over its six months old strike would hold on July 26 and 27.
ASUU had on February 14, 2022 embarked on a nationwide strike over the failure of the Federal Government to honour the agreement it reached with the union in 2009. The issues in contention include the delay in the release of the revitalisation fund for the universities, adoption of the University Transparency and Accountability Solution as the preferred payment platform for the university system and the payment of earned academic allowances to lecturers.
Despite the series of meetings between the Federal Government and the union, the issues have yet to be resolved, prolonging the strike and prompting the intervention of the NLC.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, on Wednesday, declared the proposed nationwide protest illegal, saying the NLC had no dispute with the government.
Also on Thursday, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige, cautioned against the demonstration, saying he received a security report from the DSS that the rally might be hijacked by hoodlums.
But responding to Ngige on Friday in an interview with Saturday PUNCH, the Head, Information and Public Affairs, NLC, Mr Benson Upah, stated that the congress was not aware of any security report by the DSS.
He noted that the rally was a symbolic gesture to pressure the government to resolve the five-month ASUU strike, adding that the union’s rallies were always peaceful and that participants had always conducted themselves in a peaceful manner.
He said the police were aware of the protest and would be expected to provide security during the exercise.
He said, “First and foremost, none of our rallies have ever been associated with violence; Nigerians can attest to that. We have always been peaceful; we will ensure we are not implicated. We will carry out our duty as usual.
“I’m not aware of any directive sent to us but I heard the Minister of Labour and Employment saying an advisory came to him, but this will not be the first time such an advisory will be issued.
“Left for the DSS, we will not hold any peaceful rally in this country. At the peak of Boko Haram attacks in Abuja we had our rally. All the rallies were peaceful. I think that is a testimony to our patriotic intention, our organisational capability, our vigilance and the voice of appreciation from Nigerians and we appreciate all of that. We have been able to conduct ourselves reasonably well.”
The NLC spokesperson clarified that the organised labour was not going on strike action but a rally where labour leaders would speak on the issues at stake.
He added, “Let us also take note of the fact that this is not a strike action but a peaceful rally. It’s a symbolic gesture so people should understand and know the difference. The police are welcomed. When we are holding rallies like this, we invite the police, not to seek their permission, because the law says we don’t need their permission and that we have been automatically granted the permission.”
Responding to the statement by the government that the education minister was not given two weeks to resolve the ASUU crisis, Upah argued that this means the government was not interested in a quick resolution of the crisis.
He noted, “It’s an open ‘cheque’ such that even if it takes till 2023 there is nothing wrong. So, you see why it is necessary for a rally as a platform for people to speak publicly to the issues at stake.
“In a situation like this, what I expect the government to say, given the increasing anxiety, is that the Ministers of Education and that of Labour and Employment are hereby given the mandate to resolve the issues in 48hrs. That would have been more consoling.”
Speaking at a press conference in Abuja on Friday, the NASU General Secretary and spokesperson, SSANU/NASU JAC, Mr Peters Adeyemi, and the SSANU President, Mr Mohammed Ibrahim, stated that their members would participate in the rally dressed in their uniform.
Ibrahim said, “For your information, the four unions are affiliated to NLC. We pay our dues, it is not free. So we enjoy all the rights and privileges of NLC membership and therefore when the issue became intractable, we took this matter to NLC and being our umbrella body, NLC took certain steps, one of which is if the previous meetings did not yield any fruit, then there will be a protest rally.
“This rally is organised by the NLC and we will be there and our members will appear in our uniforms.
“Since the law enforcement agencies have been informed, we expect that they will give us protection. We expect that they will make sure that certain groups will not have access to where we are. So, it is not our duty to say this is how we will prevent others from coming. We will not allow ourselves to be used by any politician.”
When contacted on the insistence by the labour unions to go on with the protest, the Force Public Relations Officer, Muyiwa Adejobi, did not respond to inquiries about the issue as calls to his phone rang out. He had yet to reply to a text message on the issue as of press time.
Meanwhile, the JAC has cautioned the Federal Government against the salary disparity between the teaching and non-teaching university workers, adding that the crisis in the sector may worsen if the government fails to resolve it.
‘ASUU should soft-pedal’
The President of the National Association of Nigerian Students, Mr Sunday Asefon, has pleaded with ASUU to sheathe its sword and call off its lingering strike for the sake of students who have been at home for six months.
Asefon, who spoke in a telephone interview with one of our correspondents, explained that students were eager to return to school to complete their academic programmes, which initially suffered setbacks on account of the Covid-19 pandemic.
He however praised the union’s leadership for championing the cause of the Nigerian university system.
He said, “If ASUU calls off the strike today, I can assure you that by tomorrow, all our universities will be filled. We are ready and we are tired of staying at home. The strike has really affected Nigerian students academically.
“Those doing research cannot do that and those who could have graduated and moved on to the next level of their lives and careers are not able to do so. Those who felt that by now, they should be serving their country as members of the National Youth Service Corps are not able to do so.
“A lot of fresh students were meant to come into the university, but the universities were closed. So, the joy of getting admission into the university has been cut short.”
Asefon recalled that in 2021 when schools resumed after the lockdown occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic and the strike by the union in 2019, lecturers rushed to bridge the gap but that it was unfortunate the strike commenced again.
He added, “This strike has got to a point where ASUU needs to get what it wants. It will be fruitless to be at home for over five months without making a mark, but ASUU also needs to look at areas where it should soft-pedal and sheathe its sword for the sake of the students. The only news students want to hear now is that the strike has been called off.”
Speaking in an interview with Saturday PUNCH, the National Financial Secretary of ASUU, Prof Ade Adejumo, told Saturday PUNCH in an interview that it was out of place for tertiary institutions to remain underdeveloped while funds were being siphoned by self-centered politicians.
Adejumo said the demand by judges for an upward review of their salaries to N10m where a professor’s current earning remained below N500,000 was an indication that the government did not place priority on education.
He added, “This speaks to how Nigeria views academics. In a country where a professor goes home with less than N500,000 and judges are fixing their salary for N10m per month.
“It shows what is going on in this country and it justifies what the union has been saying that our take-home pay presently can no longer take us home.”
He said the crisis would not have lingered this long if the government had sincerely sat down and addressed the issues.