Minister of Education, Mr. Nyesom Wike
•Union: We won’t be intimidated
•IG beefs up security on campuses
Damilola Oyedele in Abuja
The federal government Thursday took the battle to the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) as it ordered its striking members to resume work by December 4 or lose their jobs.
The government, which also pointedly rejected a new set of demands presented by the teachers, who have been on strike since July 1, directed vice-chancellors of all federal universities to immediately re-open their schools for academic and allied activities.
They are also to provide a conducive environment for academic and allied activities that will encourage lecturers ready to work to do so.
But in a swift reaction to government’s orders, which caught the union unawares, ASUU condemned the directive, saying it would not be intimidated to call off the five-month-old strike.
The union had shut down the universities over the non-implementation of the 2009 agreement reached between the government and ASUU aimed at boosting lecturers’ welfare and improving academic quality in the universities.
Justifying its action after months of protracted negotiations between ASUU and the government, the supervising Minister of Education, Mr. Nyesom Wike, told reporters in Abuja that the decision on the back-to-school order was taken after concluding that despite its best efforts, ASUU’s refusal to call off the strike was a deliberate attempt to sabotage efforts at resolving the industrial dispute.
He said the government would not allow the continuous closure of its universities due to the danger posed to the education system and the future of the youths.
“Any academic staff (member) who fails to resume on or before the 4th of December, 2013, automatically ceases to be a staff of the institution and vice-chancellors are also directed to advertise vacancies (internal and external) in their institutions. The National Universities Commission (NUC) is hereby directed to monitor compliance of these directives by the institutions,” he said.
The minister, flanked by the NUC Executive Secretary, Prof. Julius Okojie, and the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry, Dr. MacJohn Nwaobiala, explained that ASUU recently made new demands as a precondition for suspending the strike.
The new demands, which were presented three weeks after the November 4 meeting presided over by President Goodluck Jonathan to resolve the dispute, include: the renegotiation of the 2009 agreement in 2014, with the demand that the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) be made the signatory to the resolution reached at the meeting with the president.
The union also demanded that the N200 billion infrastructure re-vitalisation funds, agreed upon at the November 4 meeting for release annually, should be deposited in a dedicated account and distributed to the universities within the next two weeks.
But Wike described the new conditions precedent as “unacceptable”, adding that the union at the November 4 meeting had already expressed satisfaction with the discussions.
“Even on the issue of re-negotiation, it was the president who said by the time we look at all these issues and you go back to the classroom, there would be a need to look into other issues again. He said so of his own volition. And a general discussion followed that.
“Now ASUU has come back to say that we should put it in part of the resolution that we must renegotiate in 2014,” he said.
He added that the government, even before ASUU embarked on its strike, had already fulfilled about 80 percent of the 2009 agreement, except for the issue of earned allowances and infrastructure funds.
Following the commencement of the strike, the government had released N30 billion for payment of earned allowances and also agreed to release an extra N10 billion to take care of any shortfall.
The sum of N100 billion was also distributed to the universities for infrastructure revitalisation in line with the findings of the Needs Assessment Committee report.
The minister chronicled the events and failed negotiations that have now compelled the government to take the latest step to resolve the dispute with the teachers, adding that whoever is unhappy with the new directive can challenged it at the National Industrial Court.
He said: “We met with ASUU, the president and others, and sat with them for over 13 hours and all issues had been resolved. ASUU insisted we should put the resolution down in writing; that was done and signed by the permanent secretary and sent to ASUU. And they promised that within one week, they would get back to us, only to get a letter now giving new conditions outside what had been discussed and agreed on.
“Mr. President met with them on November 4 and we agreed to improve on funding to the tune of N200 billion yearly, and in the next six years we would have spent not less than N1.2 trillion in revitalising the universities. We were even asked for eight years, but ASUU said no.
“The government has made frantic efforts to ensure the students return to school, but we keep being inundated with one reason or the other over why they cannot do so.
“We cannot continue to see these things happening, we would continue to make sure that all we have agreed to do, government would do. At least on their own part, they have met with the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, then the vice-president, then the president which is the highest level of discussions. If you cannot believe Mr. President, then who would you discuss with again?
“For five months, our children have been at home, and people would assume government is not doing anything. We would do all we have promised, but to now bring fresh conditions is not favourable and is not in the interest of the country. So the position is let us return to the classroom, and if there are new things you think we should discuss, we will.”
ASUU has, however, kicked against government’s directive that its members should return to class by Wednesday or risk losing their jobs.
The union said it would continue with the strike until its demands were met, saying it would not be cowed into submission.
Chairman of ASUU University of Abuja chapter, Mr Clement Chup, told the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) in Abuja that the universities would not be re-opened or the strike called off.
“The strike is still on and we are not going to call it off on account of intimidation. We are not raising any fresh demands, we only gave government conditions to ensure that our members who participated in the strike are not victimised.
“Part of those conditions is that government must settle the salary arrears of our members before we go back to class. We are not in a military era when somebody would just wake up and make pronouncements. ASUU cannot be intimidated. If they want us to call off the strike, they must meet these conditions, particularly the 2009 agreement,” Suleiman added.
However, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) expressed regrets that the government took such a hasty decision without consulting the two central labour unions: Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and TUC.
Speaking yesterday, TUC President, Mr. Bobbi Kaigama, said he would carry out consultations and find out what prompted the decision before making a comment on the matter.
“We would have expected that the labour centres are consulted before such an announcement is made,” he said.
Efforts to reach ASUU National President, Dr Nasir Fagge, proved abortive, as he did not take or return his phone calls.
Also, NLC acting General Secretary, Mr. Chris Uyot, did not pick his calls or respond to a text message seeking a reaction on the development.
In a move to forestall the breakdown of law and order at the universities, the Inspector General of Police (IG), Mr. Mohammed Abubakar, has ordered the immediate provision of adequate security in and around tertiary institutions nationwide.
This was contained in a statement issued by Chief Superintendent of Police (CSP) Frank Mba, the Force Public Relations Officer, yesterday in Abuja.
The statement said the measure was designed to secure life and property in the institutions and provide an enabling environment for lecturers, students and other members of staff to go about their lawful businesses without hindrance.
“The directive is a proactive and confidence-boosting measure designed to ensure that nothing untoward happens in our academic communities,” it said.
The statement directed all command Commissioners of Police to personally oversee the intensification of surveillance in universities in their states.
It ordered them to “take all necessary security measures needed to provide for the safety and security of members of staff and students as well as property within the various campuses”.
It urged lecturers, students and Nigerians within the institutions to remain law-abiding and go about their legitimate businesses without fear of molestation or intimidation from any quarters.