March 12, 2018

The non-academic staff strike in universities

All three non-academic staff unions – Non-academic Staff Union of Universities (NASU), Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), and National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT) – which form an umbrella for junior and senior non-academic staff in the nation’s universities and research centres are currently on strike. Indeed they have been on strike since December 4 last year over what they termed Government’s failure to pay their earned allowances. By and large the proprietor of the universities and research institutes, the Federal Government, has ignored the striking workers. As a result, the Bursary and Administrative sections, technicians/engineers in the Works and Services Unit, and Hospital/Health centres of the university system have withdrawn their services.

Perhaps because the strike has not totally paralyzed academic activities in the universities, an atmosphere or impression of normalcy has been conveyed to the public. The truth is that thousands of support staff in the universities are currently locked in battle with the Federal Government and the universities are operating at half capacity. Also some of the academic institutions have been completely shut down. While on a visit to Ethiopia recently, in answer to a question on the strike, the President was reported to have said that he was not aware that the non-academic staff were on strike. This is certainly embarrassing. It shows that the Presidency has not been fully briefed about the situation in universities. It also shows poor coordination in the corridors of Government. This may account for the nonchalant attitude of the Federal Government to the nearly ninety-day strike.

The unions have argued that the Federal Government failed to honour a commitment to paying them the same earned allowances that were paid to academic staff late last year. In their view by allocating N23 billion to ASUU and a paltry N4.6 billion to the other unions, the Government has shown itself to be ‘irrational.’ This seems to be the source of perennial conflicts in the university. Should non-academic staff whose services are essentially not part of the core mandate of the university system be allowed to disrupt academic programmes because their academic counterparts received certain allowances? Why have the other unions continued to see themselves as rival unions to ASUU? What right do the unions have to violently disrupt power and electricity supply to the campuses? What is the place of a huge labour force, higher than the number of academic staff by a ratio of 4 to 1 in the universities? Does this not unduly spike overhead costs in the system?

These are some fundamental questions the Federal and State Governments must answer in charting a course for the future of university education in Nigeria. The main mandate of the universities is research. For this academics and students are core. Support staff in administration and technical services who have been brought into the universities should not be allowed to overwhelm the system by sheer numbers. Sadly, resources, which are meant to fund research and teaching are deployed to paying salaries and paying allowances of non-essential staff. This is unacceptable.

It has been reported that some union leaders have mobilized their men to disrupt power and water supply. By the rules of engagement duly entrenched in our laws, while workers have the right to withdraw their services they do not have the right to tamper with electricity or control of water pipes. Any union that does this is guilty of illegal acts and should be firmly dealt with by the university administration. The Governing Councils are hereby encouraged to strengthen the hands of the Vice Chancellors so that they may deal with the situation with firmness. Vice Chancellors are to show strong leadership by protecting the sacred and time-tested values of the university system. They should not succumb to mob mentality or pander to the threats of extremists who tend to overreach themselves in the name of activism.

We call on the Federal Government to promptly listen to the striking workers and provide an answer as quickly as possible to their requests. This is not the time to play the ostrich. Peace and harmony should be restored immediately. As long as discussions and negotiations are ongoing the unions are likely to be amenable to a quick resolution. The striking workers belong to unions, which are recognized by law and should be treated fairly according to labour laws. It also bears reiteration to say that if in the course of pursuing their rights as unions they break the laws of the land they should be brought to book and ensure that nobody makes a mockery of the system.