Jonathan and the violation of agreements with workers, By Erasmus Ikhide

Protesters

How do we explain that federal government is unable to fulfill an agreement that was signed in 2009.

The earliest accounts of strike actions are found in the Old Testament, although dates are uncertain, as are the result. In the Genesis 11: 9 workers building the Tower of Babel quit their project after God (Yahweh) decrees that people will have many languages other than one. In Exodus 5: 7, another form of strike is apparently recorded when Pharaoh tells Hebrew brick makers they will not receive more straw from him and must keep producing “bricks without straw”.

That is exactly the same decree President Goodluck Jonathan is reeling out to all the striking unions in Nigeria: “work without enhancement”. Certainly, this is not the best of times for the President. The seemingly clueless government is grappling with typhoon of industrial actions left of right and right of centre. The gales of strikes perfectly match the saying in my part of the world that “if the drum deadens its feelings to the hammering effect of stick, it must certainly bear the pounding impart of stone.

You will agree with me that these strikes are overdue. The downward educational slide is such that will create panic amongst followers of these mushroom institutions as to whether the leadership of this nation mean well for the citizens. Shamefully enough, none of the nation’s university ranks amongst the best 30 universities in Africa!

An international online Universities and Colleges ranking directory (www.4icu.org) has published its current top 100 Universities and Colleges in Africa. The top 10 on the list are universities in South Africa and Egypt while other universities from Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Ghana, Morocco and even Sudan lead favourably against six Nigerian Universities that appear on the directory’s ranking.

The six Nigerian Universities are the University of Ibadan at 32nd position; University of Ilorin, 34th; University of Benin, 40th; Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife, 44th, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, 62nd and; University of Jos, 70th. No Nigerian private university or college made the list. With these findings, no one needs sorcerers or stars gazers to know that our universities and colleges are breeding grounds for mediocrity and incubation of illiteracy.

Strikes take place in order to put pressure on the State or other authorities which is a response to unsafe conditions in the workplace, in most cases. Apart from being a clarion call that creates a national emergency, it also serves as a means of educating the public about a country’s economic system. In order words, strike is a continuation of collective bargaining by other methods as much as war is a continuation of diplomacy by other methods.

The Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, NUPENG just ended its three-day warning strike which jolted the Presidency to its bone marrow over plethora of unkept agreement it entered into with the oil union to maintain and build new refineries, rehabilitation of old roads and building new ones across the country for easy transportation of petroleum products in the absence of rail system amongst many other demands. NUPENG is also championing the removal of the petroleum minister, Diezani Alison-Madueke, who epitomises corruption and incompetence in that sector. NUPENG’s warning strike so terrified the federal government that they quickly caved in and opted to meet their demands as soon as possible. They however remained adamant, after the meeting, saying they will still shot down the oil sector if government did not fulfill its promises after 60 days.

On its part, Petroleum and National Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria, PENGASAN has threatened to embark on strike if government chooses not to honour and address the ultimatum issued by them. As we speak, Nigerian Union of Teachers, NUT is still on strike in some states across the country for similar reasons. Strike action has always been a permanent feature of labour relation when workers feel their situation to be intolerable and exploitative.

Now, in what could be described as a near collapse of the nation’s tertiary education sector, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) is now in the second week of its indefinite strike action. The ASUU strike is the newest cart in the bandwagon of industrial actions in the sector. Nine weeks ago, the academic and non-academic staff unions in Nigerian Polytechnics, under the umbrellas of Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUPS), Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Polytechnics (SSANIPS) and Non-Academic Staff Union (NASU), embarked on a nationwide indefinite strike, over what they termed Federal Government’s insensitivity to their plights.

ASUU’s Chairman of the University of Lagos, UNILAG chapter, Karo Ogbinaka, told reporters that the action was as a result of the Federal Government’s failure to honour the Academic Earned Allowance (AEA) which formed a component of the 2009 agreement the government signed with the union. His words: “The allowances include; excess work load, high carriage of student per lecturer, responsibility allowance ranging from administrative responsibility borne by lecturers: for example, as head of department, deans of faculties, exams officers, course advisers and supervision of theses. The highest any lecturer gets from this allowance is N12, 500 per month. The truth is that since 2009, no lecturer has been paid any allowance apart from the salary.”

He explained that when this non-payment of allowance was brought to the notice of the Federal Government, government authorities said that they forgot to include it in the current budget, pleading to make amends in subsequent years. The situation has, however, remained the same since 2009. Before the commencement of strike, Mr. Ogbinika noted that the union had several meetings with the Federal Government on this issue.

“We went ahead to give them warning strike and they never did anything to avert the industrial action,” he said.

“We had series of interaction with the Federal Government at the national level, but to the dismay of ASUU, the Federal Government recently came with a new position that they can’t pay more than 50 per cent; an amount that has been reduced to 80 per cent by the union. Between December and January 2011, the union suspended its industrial action over ASUU/FG agreements. Within the period, the union had series of meetings with the Federal Government.”

The conscious awakening from the striking unions are commendable and should be lauded by anyone who wants Nigeria to catch up with other nations across the globe that are pursuing MDGs target for total education. We need to encourage the striking unions. If care is not taken, President Goodluck Jonathan and his minders will sink the nation’s ship. The same people who tell us that Nigeria has a robust and strong economy are the ones telling us that from October, 2013 the government may have problems paying workers’ salaries/­allowances. Why would government be unable to pay wages as from October if the economy is robust and healthy as Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, the Minister of finance and the supervising Minister for economy claims? Something is definitely wrong somewhere.

Now this: how do we explain that federal government is unable to fulfill an agreement that was signed in 2009 with stakeholders in the tertiary institutions four years down the road? Nigerians are not amused with the level of abysmal performance of students in their examination and other academic endeavours. How then do we achieve our goal as a nation to enter the club of 20 leading countries in the world when education – one of the yardstick for measuring the standard of any successful economy – is virtually none-existent?

The unions are sending the right messages to the arm-twisting and Iron Curtain President that it is better to face actual business of governance than to be entangled in the politics of brinkmanship and stone walling. It has become clearer, even to the doubting quibblers that President Jonathan is far from possessing the right attitude or the panacea to the nation’s litany of problems. Any hope for the country? These industrial actions are taking place in an administration where the sitting President is a former teacher.

Erasmus writes from Lagos, Nigeria

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