• Saturday, June 22, 2024
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New unions in universities: In whose interest?

New unions in universities: In whose interest?

With the unimagined unfolding event this Tuesday of the registration of two new university-based unions by the Federal Government, the seven-month strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has taken a different turn, amid controversies, and fear of pitching new unions against ASUU.

The development seems to dash the hope of the angry parents, their undergraduate children, who are rusting away in idleness for seven months now and running.

With the emergence of the Congress of Nigerian University Academics (CONUA) and National Association of Medical and Dental Academics (NAMDA), the two new unions, many are worried over the intention of the Federal Government, the magic the unions will perform and the fate of ASUU going forward.

As a helpless widow said on hearing the news of the two unions, “If that will open universities and get my two sons back to school, let’s support it because my sons are my future and their being at home for long is my biggest worry than their tuition fees.”

According to Emele Onuh, former senior lecturer in the Department of Environmental Science, Federal Polytechnic Oko, Anambra State, the registration of the new unions is the worst damage the Federal Government has done to the education sector.

“You don’t resolve a crisis by creating a bigger crisis. The two unions are pro-government, so what happens when this administration goes, universities will be closed because it will be strike upon strike. The Federal Government should not have divided the ranks of ASUU, rather resolve the issue,” he admonished.

Onuh, who is now a traditional ruler in Bende, Abia State, noted that the Federal G Vovernment once tried the divide and rule system with polytechnics, but failed because the polytechnic union then was fighting for common interest and also saw the divisive move by the government earlier and countered it.

“The president is accusing ASUU of corruption, how would he say that when government officials are looting us dry in Abuja, is there a poor senator or hungry senior civil servant in Abuja? If their reward is here, ASUU reward should be here too. Pay for universities to open and save us from impending insecurity,” the royal father said.

Read also: FG breaks ASUU, registers 2 new university unions

But Anele Oguezi, an associate professor at Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Ebonyi State, is already counting the cost of the development.

He is worried that despite the high rate of university dropout in recent time, and Nigeria having the highest rate of out-of-school in Africa with about 10.5 million children aged 5-14 years, according to UNICEF data, the Federal Government still does not see sense in resolving the seven-month ASUU strike, instead it has created a bigger monster.

“What the government has done is to polarise university unions, weaken their uniform bargaining power and leadership to its advantage. What will happen going forward is that when ASUU announces strike, Congress of Nigerian University Academics (CONUA) and National Association of Medical and Dental Academics (NAMDA) will not join. Imagine having 100 teachers, 30 embark on strike, 30 stay at work, while another 40 are on the fence. In all these brouhaha, the undergraduates, the parents and the country pay the cost of idleness, with high insecurity, poorly baked graduates and a much more polarised society,” he lamented.

He foresees a situation where the three unions will be on each other’s neck over issues a unified union would have solved and that will make each union a weapon for government or vested interests to achieve selfish objectives.

One unanswered question for Samuel Onikoyi, a Nigerian researcher and academia in Belgium, is “will the two new unions forfeit their seven-month salary arrears, as ASUU is insisting on the payment before calling off the strike?”

“Over here, universities are revered and are no-go-areas for politicking and nobody toys with the stakeholders because it is in the universities that focused citizens are raised and the future of the country is planned. Nigeria should give priority to the funding of universities, less interference in their affairs and also hold them accountable for the funds they receive.

“So, creating other unions will not improve funding and welfare of university lecturers, it will not result in less interference by government or stop future strike,” Onikoyi said.

Considering the proliferation of the union as a negative development, especially at this time, Onikoyi lamented that the concern should be for the welfare of students, who are losing out daily in the government versus ASUU quagmire.

“You are creating more unions and pitching one union against the other. But you forget that when the teacher is not happy, the student will learn nothing. Nigeria’s education is in bad shape, we are ridiculed across the world for our poor standard of education and government should give priority to whatever will boost our ratings, even if it is meeting ASUU’s demand. If senators earn that much, civil servants steal that much and politicians fail to deliver on campaign promises without remorse, why not give lecturers the little they demand?” he said.

On the merits or otherwise of the new unions, Onyedi Ifeatu, a senior lecturer at Nnamdi Azikiwe University Awka, said the negative impacts of the development outweigh the positive, if there is any,

“What has happened is a palace coup and it will create more confusion in the education sector. Is the government telling us that one cannot speak his mind or ask for his right again? Government plans to cage ASUU and by so doing, further disrupts the system, leaving our quality poorer because I see epic battles between ASUU and the rest of the unions in the future that will keep university gates closed longer than you have ever seen,” Ifeatu said.

For most concerned stakeholders, especially parents and undergraduates, the new academic unions are in the interest of the Federal Government, which seems insensitive to the consequences of its divisive action rather than meeting the demands of ASUU for the strike to end and university gates to be opened after a long forced holiday.

Donald Ende, a lecturer in the department of Sociology, Benue State University, Makurdi, said: “The recent development concerning the registration of new academic bodies is a regrettable mistake. The failure of the Buhari-led government to implement ASUU’s demands is strictly as a result of political interest. This money is there for the purpose it is meant for but misappropriation will not allow its implementation.

“Government had in the past fought and introduced strategies in splitting ASUU but to no avail. Introduction of these premature unions is nothing short of political interest and to add, destabilisation of ASUU and by extension, discarding the public higher institution of learning, therefore paving ways for smooth operation of the private universities owed by them.”

Reacting to the registration, ASUU President, Emmanuel Osodeke, had in an interview described the development as a sinister plan by the Minister of Labour to destabilize ASUU.

“For us, it (the registration) is inconsequential; let them go ahead and open the universities. Ngige is just like a child. That is our response. We have nothing to say to them,” Osodeke stated.

Since the government made the announcement some days, there have been continued reactions across Nigerians including eminent Nigerians, like senior lawyer Femi Falana.

Falana had criticised the government’s decision, saying that under the current labour law regime in Nigeria, “you cannot have two unions or three unions in the same sector.”

According to him, “In other words, within the academia in Nigeria, there can only be one registered trade union that is the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) registered pursuant to the Trade Union Act as amended.

“We are going to have a mushrooming of trade unions, which threatens industrial peace in the country. We cannot have two unions in the university nor can we have two unions in other unions in the country. Politically, it won’t work.”

Some Nigerians who spoke with BusinessDay Sunday in separate interviews said the proliferation of trade unions in the university system may in the long run be unhealthy to tertiary education in Nigeria.

They wondered what gives the new unions assurances that the Federal Government would be sincere in dealing with them after registration.

“The registration of CONUA recently by FG was political because this is not the first time the Union has been seeking government recognition.

“Having too many of these associations most especially when they perceive themselves as rivals would definitely affect the students and academic output.

“It is obvious that the proliferation of the system and registration of this union is never in the interest of the students but to check ASUU,” Lanre Ogunyemi, an educationist, said.

Okunfunwa Oluwatoyin, a pro-democratic activist, said the attempts to checkmate ASUU by the Federal Government portend bad signal to educational development of the country.

According to him, “To me, my honest opinion is that our people, especially the southern elite have fallen to the doctrine of Boko Haram which in simple terms implies that education is forbidden.

“The Northern elite have over the years used ignorance and poverty to control their people. What they simply did was to incapacitate ASUU and ensure that our growth with regards to education is destroyed because education liberates and they do not want such.”

Equally speaking, Adeoye Adelaja, a public affairs commentator, berated the Federal Government for registering the new unions, saying government efforts could backfire in the future of students across Nigeria.

Adelaja added that government’s action was an indication that it was adopting divide and rule to settle the issues with ASUU, stressing that the development could have serious consequences.

According to him, “I condemn the government decision; the decision to take this route after months of negotiations with the union is not the best for government and education in Nigeria, even for the students across public tertiary institutions in Nigeria.

“How many members do the new unions have across the universities? At the end of the day, there could be conflicts of interest among the three unions.

“They should have looked at the demands of the ASUU to be more practical in resolving the problems on ground. I believe their discussion with ASUU aggravated because of government insincerity in resolving the issues with ASUU.”

Dada Jide, media consultant, pleaded that an equilibrium should be reached between the government and ASUU to forestall the disagreement from further aggravating.

According to Dada, “Even with the new unions, if a workable template is not put in place there will be recurrence and we return back to the same point we are trying so hard to evade.

“The best approach should be getting to the root and resolving it once and for all”.

Henry Okeke, a concerned citizen, said: “There is no justification for this prolonged strike nd now duplication of unions. This is what happens when personality traits interfere with official duty, the system suffers. Nigerian students deserve the best just like their counterparts world over.”

Another stakeholder, Olubunmi Mayaki, said: “FG’s recognition of CONUA is an attempt to stifle ASUU. It remains to see how CONUA will operate in the universities without disruption from ASUU. As it is, students are the ones largely affected. To me, CONUA is brought in dead. Even the military couldn’t break ASUU.”

On the implications of creating new unions, Attahiru Jega, a former president of ASUU and former vice chancellor, Bayero University, Kano, said: “There is no doubt about that; that the perception of people like the minister of labour, that ASUU is a very strong union; ASUU is a trouble maker; ASUU is holding the country to ransom and the only thing is to break it. But remember that in 1992, we were under military rule; our union was even proscribed; and yet, because at that point, we had a responsible minister of education, the late Professor Fafunwa.

People like him were able to persuade General Babangida to recognise that what ASUU was doing, their language may sound intemperate, aggressive, but if you put that aside and look at the issues they put on the table, these are in the larger long term interest of the country.

That got into Babangida to even agree (that was a military dictator) to negotiate with ASUU representatives when it was banned and to have an agreement that everybody said was a good agreement that could reverse the process; but unfortunately, an interim government was established under the late Shonekan, Nwabueze became the minister of Education, he reversed the entire thing and we have been in that spiral of strikes and disagreements.”

But justifying the development, ‘Niyi Sunmonu, a lecturer at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife, National coordinator of CONUA, said giving legal recognition to his union by the Federal Government would not only provide alternative perspectives for the achievements of constructive engagement with stakeholders in the education sector but that it would make hitch-free academic calendars possible.

Minister of State for Labour and Employment, Festus Keyamo, in an earlier interview with journalists, had noted that the Federal Government delayed in registering CONUA so as not to be seen as causing division among the university lecturers.