The Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) was among the university base trade union that went on a protracted strike. Its National President, Comrade Muhammed Ibrahim, in this interview with CHRISTIAN APPOLOS, explains the root cause of the strike and why funding tertiary education and stop strike seems impossible in the sector.
What was the main cause of the industrial disharmony between Federal government and the university base trade unions in 2022?
For us in SSANU, that is Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities 2022 was the most challenging year because it saw to the breakdown of discussions between us and government, as early as March in that year.
Everything that has to do with instability in Nigerian high institutions especially in the universities dates back to the 2009 agreement which government signed then to implement; to better the lots of workers in the universities across all the four university base unions: SSANU, NASU, ASUU and NAAT. And we celebrated signing of that document because government promised to see to the fruition of the agreements.
One important aspect of that agreement was that it provided for a be reviewed after every three years so that realities on ground will prevail over certain issues. There were some things that were also time bound: some allowances that were to be phased out, as soon as they were paid.
But 13 years down the line, we were struggling to implement the 2009 agreement. The question of reviewing it after every three years, it’s even out if the question because by now we would have reviewed that 2009 agreement like three or four times, but it never happened.
Until last year, 2022; after a lot of pressure, meetings upon meeting discussions, lobbies and so on, government finally saw reason to do what is called integration of renegotiation committee. Government inaugurated the NImi Briggs’ Committee that was to renegotiate with the unions, but they ended up only attending to one union and even the one, nothing came out if it because government rejected the report.
SSANU had few meetings with the NImi Briggs Committee and we hit a dead end and the Committee could not continue when we got to talking about review of wages, new salaries and allowances. Government came with a fixated mind of fixing a certain amount in the name of review, and that is not collective bargaining. In the labor parlance when you say collective bargaining, it means you bring your idea I bring my own we negotiate on the table and agree at a middle course. But when you come with a fixated mind and say look, take this or leave it. It cannot be said to be a collective bargaining.
So they came and threw something on us and fortunately all the four unions rejected. Since then in the last six months, we have not met with them. And we realized that they’re also handicap. Because it is only when they are given the go ahead, that they will call meeting.
So 2022, like I said, lots of challenges. And in March, precisely, SSANU as a union, after a series of meetings that could not bring out anything. Because prior to 2022, we had signed MOU with government in October 2021. It had a two weeks timeline but it never saw the light of day. We had another meeting in December 2021. Nothing happened, we had in January 2022, nothing happened. So we gave notice and said since the law permits us to withdraw services in the name of protests, we are giving you ultimatum but as usual nothing happened. So precisely on the 27th of March, we declared our strike.
So when the thing became problematic and ASUU, NASU, SSANU and NAAT went on strike government decided to start looking for us to meet. And when we met with the Minister of Education with his people, we thought there is a new song now because they are our employers. We felt that this time around whatever we signed with them was going to see the light of the day.
We signed and we gave them a timeline of two months. That was in August. We suspended our strike precisely August 24. That was when we resumed and before then, government had implemented the policy of no work no pay. So they stopped our salaries for months. We didn’t get May, June, July and August.
We resume end of August with the understanding that between September and October all that we have agreed with government and the Minister of Education was going to be implemented by today. And most of the content of the agreement we signed for immediate implementation are about things we have signed two three years ago. Like payment of the arrears of the allowances, issues surrounding usurpation of duties by the academic staff, taking over most of our jobs in the universities, in pseudo committees and a lot of other violations of our own work ethics. Now it’s been months yet nothing came on board.
In a nutshell 2022 part from thanking God that we were able to survive it because so many people have died. I can tell you, it was a most challenging year. Because as a union we lost so many members to ill health, terminal ailments and some were frustrated owing their inability to access medicare because salaries were stopped, and we appealed to government but it like it fell on deaf ear. The government never cooperated.
Be that as it may, we’re in 2023 and we are hopeful especially since this is going to herald also a new administration.
Again, we pleaded with this present government that is on his way out that they must not exit on this framework of non adherence to agreements, non fulfillment of promises made because it’s going to be a disaster. You will leave the stage when everybody’s angry with you. It will tell a lot on you.
We are still hopeful that before this government leaves in May something miraculous will happen by a government agreeing to pay the backlog of salaries withheld, released our allowances and ensure that all other teams that we have had agreed with them will also see the light of the day. That’s our prayer.
On a serious note, I want to draw the attention of government and its officers that education remains the key factor in development. There is no way a country or a society or anybody can develop even as a human being if you are not educated. So you must make available education, quality one for that. After to your own people and it has to be education beyond the primary and secondary.
All our government officials today are beneficiaries of very sound educational system at the tertiary level, they enjoyed it. And that is what made them what they are. But today you can see that public universities have become so terrible in the sense of bad infrastructure in our universities, low staff morale, teachers are not remunerated well, they are not paid as a when due. admin staff are not paid well and facilities in our universities such as hospitals, classrooms, laboratories, continue to remain a challenge. Is either they are inadequate or where they are adequate, they are not fully functional. You cannot even see where they are adequate in public universities in Nigeria. And we are urging government that is on his way out not to leave with this image. This is our prayer.
Why do you think government is seemingly displaying lackadaisical attitude to implementing agreements reached with unions and funding especially tertiary education very well?
Well, with all due respect to those in government. I will say that government lackadaisical attitude is a clear case of misplacement of priorities. What makes the advanced world different is two things: education and health facilities. Security another important thing. So you can say three things.
If you have good healthcare and education system, and your security is intact. All other things can just fall in line. It becomes disturbing when you see government officials, whom I have referred to as people who’ve benefited from a working system before and now they’re in charge and they don’t care. Our Public Officers have their children in private institutions, whether within or out the country.
I have once had to say that for us to correct where we are now. There should be a deliberate attempt by the National Assembly to enact a law that will say; for any person to holds public office, especially political: counselor, local government chairmen, commissioner, permanent secretary, minister, Ambassador, their children must be in public institutions and they must patronize public healthcare (public hospitals) and any attempt to violate this you should be shown the way out.
AThis will be the fastest way of restoring glory to where we have lost it. This should also include myself as a president of a trade union. I should be made to do that. Even though I’m already doing it: all my children public school. But anything outside this it will be a story of deception. It will be a story of comedy because what they will be saying in public is different from what they are doing I their private life. Let the president, governors, ministers and everybody have their children in public schools in Nigeria.
When we were in university for goodness sake. I had studied with the children of presidents; Abacha, for example. His children were in University of Maiduguri. We were with the children of ministers, Emirs and highly placed government officials, we were in the university with them.
If you look at what is happening, the government officials are the one even establishing more and more private universities and government knows. And it gives them a license. You are holding in a public office and you are running a private university. How on earth will you put in your best to ensuring that public universities function in high standard.
So there is misplacement of priority by government, one. There is deliberate attempt to continue to widen the gap between the poor and the rich. And this is what is happening.
What can trade unions do differently to get government fulfill or implement agreements in oder to prevent strike, especially long strike as we witnessed in 2022?
SSANU as a union, we are not strike happy trigger people. We hardly go on strike because is populated by administrators, people who work to oil the engine of the system. Whenever you hear SSANU going on strike, we must have been pushed to the wall or they must have put their kneel on our necks and we are looking for bright breath.
However, globally, strikes are tools in the hands of workers to fight for their right. So, strikes are legal weapons available for workers anywhere in the world. So, stopping strikes will be a bit difficult. In fact, it’s not even possible. It will be impossible.
However, strikes should be embarked upon when it becomes necessary. We don’t strive on every small issue because you as human beings, you definitely will have cause to have misunderstanding even in your own house. So but then, government, as employers of labor should be available to discuss issues, show understanding and willingness to help their workers access good renumeration, good working atmosphere and facilities and equipment because without this, definitely, it will be a continuous battle.
So if government doesn’t want strikes, it knows what to do. But for us as workers, and like I say in SSANU, we’re not strike mongers. We only go on strike when we are pushed to the wall. But strikes are legal weapons, is a product of law. ILO Convention provides that workers can go on strike.