By Farooq A. Kperogi
People who have read me in the past few months know that I am unambiguous in my support for ASUU’s 6-months-plus-old strike even though I am personally affected by it because I have siblings and cousins that I support financially in Nigerian universities.
While the strike is justified and deserves the support of all who give a thought to higher education in Nigeria, the leadership of ASUU appears to be squandering the goodwill it has earned from most Nigerians over these past months.
It has now come to light that ASUU and the federal government have achieved a resolution of their differences on most of the issues that propelled the strike but were deadlocked only on the ASUU leadership’s insistence that its members be paid for the six months that they’ve been on strike, which the federal government says violates spirit and letter of the Trade Disputes Act.
Minister of Education Adamu Adamu told journalists on Thursday that “all contentious issues between the government and ASUU have been settled except the quest for members’ salaries for the period of strike be paid, a demand that Buhari has flatly rejected.”
It would be compassionate if the government would pay ASUU members for the period they have been on strike, but the government has no legal obligation to do so. Section 43 of the Trade Disputes Act is unequivocal in insisting that striking workers are not entitled to their habitual remunerations for the period that they cease to work.
This sort of “no-work-no-pay” law is almost universal, and it’s not unreasonable. While strike is a legitimate and legally protected instrument to protest against unfair practices by an employer and to negotiate better conditions of service, employers are not obligated to compensate workers for the period that they withhold their services in the service of their industrial action.
ASUU president Emmanuel Osodeke’s response to the federal government’s “no-work-no-pay” position was rather petulant. “He is joking,” Osodeke said. “If they fail to pay, we will not teach those students; we won’t make up for that period. We will start a new session. We won’t conduct examinations; we will start a fresh session totally.”
Well, that’s unwarranted, unearned cruelty against innocent students who have, for the most part, supported this strike against their own self-interest. This cruelty becomes even more intolerable and unjustified when you take into account the fact that none of the children of the government officials ASUU is fighting is enrolled in any public university.
In fact, in spite of the propaganda against ASUU members, the children of most ASUU members attend public universities. So, is Osodeke saying ASUU will spite and kill the dreams of even the children of its members because the federal government has chosen to implement a legal but hurtful industrial policy that is observed all over the world?
All over the world, when unions go on strike, they do so with no expectation that they will be paid for work they withhold. They recognize that they may not be paid for the period that they are on strike and therefore make contingency plans for this, often in the form of paying members from union dues or other sources for the duration of the strike.
That’s called having the courage of your conviction. To go on strike, demand to be paid for work you didn’t do while on strike, and then threaten to hurt lowly, susceptible subalterns that did nothing to you because you’re not paid for work you didn’t do is scorn-worthy cowardice, not to mention reprehensible cruelty.
If workers get paid every time they are on strike, as ASUU members used to be, the spirit of self-denial that strikes are supposed to symbolize is defeated. Strikes become no more than a lazy, exploitative, temporarily inconvenient way to save money. It’s a temporary inconvenience for a deferred gratification.
In other words, by superciliously insisting on being paid for work that is undone, ASUU strikes are being unwittingly presented as fraudulent money-saving enterprises at the expense of students and their guardians. It renders ASUU vulnerable to the (unfair and incorrect) charge that its members just arbitrarily decide to go on strike to force the government to unintentionally save money for them.
I have heard some ASUU members say that they deserve to be paid because although they don’t teach during strikes, they conduct research and render community service. That’s a mendacious, self-serving argument. Strike means cessation of all work in protest against unacceptable conditions of service. Lecturers who are conducting research and rendering community service but not teaching are not on strike; they are participating in what is called go-slow in British industrial relations.
“Go-slow” is a form of industrial protest where workers deliberately slow down their productivity, come late to work, or only perform small parts of the work they are contractually obligated to do in order to hurt the profits of their employers.
Go-slow doesn’t exist in Nigeria except as a slang term for traffic jams. You are either on strike or you are not, and if you’re on strike you’re not bound to be paid for the period you’re on strike. That’s Nigeria’s law.
But Osodeke told the Punch that the law doesn’t apply to ASUU members because they’re exceptional people. “Lecturers are not doctors that once life is gone, it can’t be brought back,” he said. “For lecturers, we can still resume where we stopped and still teach them and make up for lost time. But for us, if they fail to pay we won’t make up for the lost time. We won’t go back to fill backlogs…. If they want to do ‘no work no pay,’ we will also do ‘no pay no work.’ If they won’t pay the backlog, we won’t teach the backlog. We are not like other workers. He doesn’t know what he is saying.”
Forget, for now, the insufferable conceit in Osodeke’s unsupported and unsupportable claim of ASUU exceptionalism. He underplays how much the strike has maimed the hopes and dreams, and even life, of students and parents.
I know a number of students who are depressed to the point of being suicidal because of the strike. I know female undergraduates who are now torn between getting married and abandoning their studies and waiting out the strike.
I have worked with students who, in anticipation of their graduation this year, applied to graduate schools here in the United States, took the GRE and passed, and were accepted to schools and programs of their choice but whose admissions have been rescinded because they haven’t graduated and have no transcripts to present. That’s some type of academic death. There’s nothing ASUU will do to give back to these students what they’ve lost as a consequence of the strike.
It’s cruel to so casually dismiss the untoward consequences that the strike has had and continues to have on students and their families who happen to come from the lower end of the Nigerian social scale. The lack of empathy and self-awareness that the ASUU president betrayed is deeply disturbing.
But it gets even worse. The ASUU president also revealed in a statement that ASUU is the brain behind the federal government’s insensitive decision to tax everyday Nigerians on phone calls, text messages, and Internet data plans.
“One of such recommendations is the tax on cellphone and communication lines,” the statement he signed says. “Ironically, the Federal Ministry of Finance, Budget and National Planning recently announced its readiness to implement ASUU’s recommendation, as a revenue source, but not for education, without acknowledging the Union!”
A union that takes pride in letting the world know that it opposes tuition fees in federal universities is bragging about suggesting to the government to impose taxes that will make information and communication technology out of the reach of many poor and young people!
Of course, people who pay attention to this issue like I do know that ASUU’s claim is accurate. It was former Minister of Communication Adebayo Shittu who, in 2016, sponsored a bill in the National Assembly to increase taxes on phone calls, text messages, and internet plans. It was abandoned in the aftermath of mass outcry.
I support ASUU and its mission to salvage the Nigerian university system from total decay. I recognize that were it for the doggedness and often painful sacrifices of its members, there wouldn’t be a university system to speak of today.
But I think ASUU is now stepping outside the bounds of reason and fairness by insisting that it must always be paid for the period it’s on strike. In doing so, it is proclaiming to be above the law.
The continuation of this strike is no longer justified. It’s now cruelty, hostage taking, and emotional blackmail rolled into one. I hope enough ASUU members realize this and prevail on each other to call this strike off in the interest of students—and ASUU’s own reputational capital.