By Ibrahim Jibia 

It can be successfully argued that even if the Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige has gone personal in conciliating the dispute between ASUU and the Federal Government, all he has done is the scrupulous engagement  of the relevant provisions of the Trade Disputes Act  and the Trade Union Act to  bring discipline and decorum in labour administration. ASUU it must be stated unambiguously, is fighting a cause that cannot punctured on the scale of patriotism but counterproductive  it must be accepted, are the manner and way it has lately pursued this. Social dialogue was effectively displaced and  social distemper enthroned , degenerating to cross party name calling and “panjandrum,” the Zik of Africa would say. In the midst of  it, was dissension over the place of law in the entire conundrum.    But every progressive and prosperous society  thrives on triumph of laws. In our peculiar clime unfortunately, arguments still abound as to whether the problem of the country  is the inadequacy of laws or the weakness of political authority  to enforce laws despite their shortcomings. And just as the argument goes on,   the quest for a better country where our children will suffer less than we currently face, gives no respite. The Minister of Labour must have chosen to prove there are enough laws in labour statute book to put restiveness on the back foot and  ensure equable production milieu.

But God continues to love Nigeria. While the strike lasted, over two million youths  were dispatched to  loiter at home, adding to the army of unemployed others, whose percentage was put at 34 per cent by the National Bureau of Statistics. This is amidst galloping inflation,  runaway prices of goods and services, amidst terrorism, banditry , kidnapping and armed robbery. Sadly, terrorism  thought to be resident  of the  ungoverned far-flung  national periphery, surfaced in the nation’s centre. Kuje prison was disemboweled, hardened scorpionic elements diffused, still at large.  The chilly Kaduna train attack, became a prized trophy for terrorists, emboldened to even issue  a threat to the President, further staging saber-rattling at Abuja suburb.  Uprising capable of engulfing the entire nation would have snapped with the restiveness in the mass of idle youth population.  

Luckily, ASUU is back to school, but  skirmishes continue between it and government over unresolved issues,  accentuated lately  by pro-rata payment of October salaries to university teachers. Ngige as usual is a constant factor at the receiving end of ceaseless blames.  The no work-no pay protest organized by the University of Lagos chapter of ASUU was a  lead  op-ed  on the bursting thoughts among members nationwide. For the chapter chairman, Dele Ashiru who is as combative  as his President, Emmanuel Osodeke  it was literally  gloves off.   ‘‘Ngige is the agent provocateur; he is the one instigating the government against ASUU. He has inexplicable hatred against our union and that is the reason he turned our struggle to a personal fight.

The allegations are long .  “It was Ngige who poisoned FEC against our union. Ngige started the campaign of no-work no-pay against our union. Ngige dragged ASUU before the court; Ngige wrote Ministry of Finance to stop our salary and made it prorated.  He registered two stinker unions to weaken our union which was against the Trade Union Act. Ngige also wanted our union proscribed by suggesting that we have not been submitting our account. Ngige is out there to destroy public universities.’’ 

  I partly agree with Ashiru. The Minister of Labour is not known for taking prisoners. His antecedent is that  once he is within the bounds of law, all the paws are out. However, the legality  or otherwise of the track he walks  to make ASUU earn its pay,  time-proven tripartite social dialogue having collapsed,  is in focus to prove ASUU or vindicate Ngige.  But there is this saddening news. The crisis in the public universities is festering like a wild fire fueled by harmattan wind. A source I can’t place  right out, had argued that Nigerian universities are hardly in the news for scientific research break throughs or academic excellence. It is always about  doom-scrolling  that  tethers the system to decadence.   Does it shock that only the University of Ibadan and Lagos could make the list of 600 best world universities released  by  the Times Higher Education Global University in 2022? The report further highlighted lack of political will and financial commitment to lift higher education from the doldrums.

Political commitment and financial will are key operative phrases that may explain reason federal  budget on education dwindled from 11% in 2015 to 5.3%   in 2021 . But while the issue of funding remains cardinal in re-positioning the university system, proper management of scarce resources becomes an albatross in a system accused of corruption. While the report of the visitation panels set up by the federal government, one of the demands of ASUU, gathers dust, guided information reveals high scale misappropriation. The President had raised the issue of corruption in the universities while addressing ASUU in August but the riposte from the union raises doubt as to who is responsible. Since ASUU dared government to release the report and prosecute the bad eggs, the dial back from government raises further questions. Nigeria is a mystery , true! On the other hand , there is hushed allegation that for every one naira released to the universities as earned allowances  , 10% goes to ASUU as a booty for the struggle! Allegations and counter allegations confront each other. And the decay in the system doubles down. 

Anyway, back to the issue of Ngige as agent provocateur of ASUU crisis.

Did he actually  step without the bounds of law to chastise the union using his position as  the competent authority on labour matters? With ASUU on strike  for eight months , rejecting all entreaties even from   tripartite-plus bodies, Ngige looked inwards and frontloaded the elaborate  provisions of the law, tucked away in a country of  laisser-faire to ‘chastise’ the union. Ngige simply scraped around the recess of labour laws  to resolve the  phenomenon that is doom-scrolling the university environment and desensitizing ASUU to the torturing  negativities  of strikes. He simply said No to building a  Potemkin that succumbs to perennial strikes. This is what must have disunited Ngige who used to tug the heartstring of ASUU members. 

Now , the laws. Did you know that education is categorized as an essential service which  under section  7 of the Trade Disputes  Act , Cap T 9, must give 15 days prior notice for strike?  Available records can only recall ASUU complied last with this in 2017. And to keep circumventing this, ASUU claims  its strikes are   roll-overs, which in the purview of the above section has no basis as strike has no other qualifier than being a strike.

 

The similar interpretation of the section 17 of the Trade Disputes Act, Cap T8,  makes   ASUU accuse the  Minister of labour  of taking the  union to court, whereas transmitting a dispute to the National industrial Court is  the next stage in a collapsed conciliation process.  Before further insight into  section 17, let’s upload section 18 which provides that once any union fails to settle dispute with its employer and goes on strike , the Minister acting under the section, apprehends the action by convening conciliation for the two parties. Once  apprehension is in place, the concerned union and the employer goes back to status quo ante bellum. However this is observed more in breach, otherwise , ASUU would have called off the 14 February strike on the 22ndof the same month when the Minister summoned conciliation meeting. This section was a subject of intense discussion at the National Labour Advisory Council which sat in Lagos on March 7, 2022. 

 

As it is,  section 17 ties the hands of the Minister by providing he should within 14 days of collapse of talks , transmit the dispute to the higher body which is either the Industrial Arbitration Panel or the National Industrial Court. That is exactly what the Minister did. In fact he was in breach of the law by delaying the transmission from 14 days to 8  months! Hence, rather than stating incorrectly that Ngige took ASUU to court, it is the union that made conciliation difficult to warrant transmission to the industrial court.  

 

Similarly , the vexed issue of no work , no pay as contained in section 43 of the Trade Disputes Act has rarely been used. The present administration first invoked it on JOHESU in 2018 as well as ASUU and NARD in 2020 and 2021 respectively. That  government later reversed itself in clemency to ASUU leading to the payment of 9months salary under which they didn’t teach in 2020 does not render this law defective or in perpetual abeyance.   It remains the law  implied  by Convention 87 of the ILO that grants employees right to strike and the employer, the right to withhold payment. The pro-rata payment is ancillary to this . Government only decided to stretch the law to its legal limit to exert maximum punishment. If out of 31 days in October, ASUU worked for only 15 days , the pro-rata takes off days work  wasn’t done. Also , the  registration of two new unions,  CONUA and NAMDA whose application according the Ministry was submitted in 2018, claimed personal and group  incompatibility with ASUU and under 43 of the constitution on fundamental freedom as well as convention 87 and 97 of the ILO on democratization of unions sought for registration. The matter will soon be straightened out by court.

 It can be successfully argued that even if the Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige has gone personal in conciliating the dispute between ASUU and the Federal Government, all he has done is the scrupulous engagement  of the relevant provisions of the Trade Disputes Act  and the Trade Union Act to  bring discipline and decorum in labour administration. ASUU it must be stated unambiguously, is fighting a cause that cannot punctured on the scale of patriotism but counterproductive  it must be accepted, are the manner and way it has lately pursued this. Social dialogue was effectively displaced and  social distemper enthroned , degenerating to cross party name calling and “panjandrum,” the Zik of Africa would say. In the midst of  it, was dissension over the place of law in the entire conundrum.    But every progressive and prosperous society  thrives on triumph of laws. In our peculiar clime unfortunately, arguments still abound as to whether the problem of the country  is the inadequacy of laws or the weakness of political authority  to enforce laws despite their shortcomings. And just as the argument goes on,   the quest for a better country where our children will suffer less than we currently face, gives no respite. The Minister of labour must have chosen to prove there are enough laws in labour statute book to put restiveness on the back foot and  ensure equable production milieu.

 

 But God continues to love Nigeria. While the strike lasted, over 2 million youths  were dispatched to  loiter at home, adding to the army of unemployed others, whose percentage was put at 34% by the National Bureau of Statistics. This is amidst galloping inflation,  runaway prices of goods and services, amidst terrorism, banditry , kidnapping and armed robbery. Sadly, terrorism  thought to be resident  of the  ungoverned far-flung  national periphery, surfaced in the nation’s centre. Kuje prison was disemboweled, hardened scorpionic elements diffused, still at large.  The chilly Kaduna train attack, became a prized trophy for terrorists, emboldened to even issue  a threat to the President, further staging saber-rattling at Abuja suburb.  Uprising capable of engulfing the entire nation would have snapped with the restiveness in the mass of idle youth population.  

 

Luckily, ASUU is back to school but  skirmishes continue between it and government over unresolved issues,  accentuated lately  by pro-rata payment of October salaries to university teachers. Ngige as usual is a constant factor at the receiving end of ceaseless blames.  The no work-no pay protest organized by the University of Lagos chapter of ASUU was a  lead  op-ed  on the bursting thoughts among members nationwide. For the chapter chairman, Dele Ashiru who is as combative  as his President, Emmanuel Osodeke  it was literally  gloves off.   ‘‘Ngige is the agent provocateur; he is the one instigating the government against ASUU. He has inexplicable hatred against our union and that is the reason he turned our struggle to a personal fight.

The allegations are long .  “It was Ngige who poisoned FEC against our union. Ngige started the campaign of no-work no-pay against our union. Ngige dragged ASUU before the court; Ngige wrote Ministry of Finance to stop our salary and made it prorated.  He registered two stinker unions to weaken our union which was against the Trade Union Act. Ngige also wanted our union proscribed by suggesting that we have not been submitting our account. Ngige is out there to destroy public universities.’’ 

 

 I partly agree with Ashiru. The Minister of Labour is not known for taking prisoners. His antecedent is that  once he is within the bounds of law, all the paws are out. However, the legality  or otherwise of the track he walks  to make ASUU earn its pay,  time-proven tripartite social dialogue having collapsed,  is in focus to prove ASUU or vindicate Ngige.  But there is this saddening news. The crisis in the public universities is festering like a wild fire fueled by harmattan wind. A source I can’t place  right out, had argued that Nigerian universities are hardly in the news for scientific research break throughs or academic excellence. It is always about  doom-scrolling  that  tethers the system to decadence.   Does it shock that only the University of Ibadan and Lagos could make the list of 600 best world universities released  by  the Times Higher Education Global University in 2022? The report further highlighted lack of political will and financial commitment to lift higher education from the doldrums. Political commitment and financial will are key operative phrases that may explain reason federal  budget on education dwindled from 11% in 2015 to 5.3%   in 2021 . But while the issue of funding remains cardinal in re-positioning the university system, proper management of scarce resources becomes an albatross in a system accused of corruption. While the report of the visitation panels set up by the federal government, one of the demands of ASUU, gathers dust, guided information reveals high scale misappropriation. The President had raised the issue of corruption in the universities while addressing ASUU in August but the riposte from the union raises doubt as to who is responsible. Since ASUU dared government to release the report and prosecute the bad eggs, the dial back from government raises further questions. Nigeria is a mystery , true! On the other hand , there is hushed allegation that for every one naira released to the universities as earned allowances  , 10% goes to ASUU as a booty for the struggle! Allegations and counter allegations confront each other. And the decay in the system doubles down. 

 

Anyway, back to the issue of Ngige as agent provocateur of ASUU crisis. Did he actually  step without the bounds of law to chastise the union using his position as  the competent authority on labour matters? With ASUU on strike  for eight months , rejecting all entreaties even from   tripartite-plus bodies, Ngige looked inwards and frontloaded the elaborate  provisions of the law, tucked away in a country of  laisser-faire to ‘chastise’ the union. Ngige simply scraped around the recess of labour laws  to resolve the  phenomenon that is doom-scrolling the university environment and desensitizing ASUU to the torturing  negativities  of strikes. He simply said No to building a  Potemkin that succumbs to perennial strikes. This is what must have disunited Ngige who used to tug the heartstring of ASUU members. 

 

Now , the laws. Did you know that education is categorized as an essential service which  under section  7 of the Trade Disputes  Act , Cap T 9, must give 15 days prior notice for strike?  Available records can only recall ASUU complied last with this in 2017. And to keep circumventing this, ASUU claims  its strikes are   roll-overs, which in the purview of the above section has no basis as strike has no other qualifier than being a strike.

 

The similar interpretation of the section 17 of the Trade Disputes Act, Cap T8,  makes   ASUU accuse the  Minister of labour  of taking the  union to court, whereas transmitting a dispute to the National industrial Court is  the next stage in a collapsed conciliation process.  Before further insight into  section 17, let’s upload section 18 which provides that once any union fails to settle dispute with its employer and goes on strike , the Minister acting under the section, apprehends the action by convening conciliation for the two parties. Once  apprehension is in place, the concerned union and the employer goes back to status quo ante bellum. However this is observed more in breach, otherwise , ASUU would have called off the 14 February strike on the 22ndof the same month when the Minister summoned conciliation meeting. This section was a subject of intense discussion at the National Labour Advisory Council which sat in Lagos on March 7, 2022. 

 

As it is,  section 17 ties the hands of the Minister by providing he should within 14 days of collapse of talks , transmit the dispute to the higher body which is either the Industrial Arbitration Panel or the National Industrial Court. That is exactly what the Minister did. In fact he was in breach of the law by delaying the transmission from 14 days to 8  months! Hence, rather than stating incorrectly that Ngige took ASUU to court, it is the union that made conciliation difficult to warrant transmission to the industrial court.  

 

Similarly , the vexed issue of no work , no pay as contained in section 43 of the Trade Disputes Act has rarely been used. The present administration first invoked it on JOHESU in 2018 as well as ASUU and NARD in 2020 and 2021 respectively. That  government later reversed itself in clemency to ASUU leading to the payment of 9months salary under which they didn’t teach in 2020 does not render this law defective or in perpetual abeyance.   It remains the law  implied  by Convention 87 of the ILO that grants employees right to strike and the employer, the right to withhold payment. The pro-rata payment is ancillary to this . Government only decided to stretch the law to its legal limit to exert maximum punishment. If out of 31 days in October, ASUU worked for only 15 days , the pro-rata takes off days work  wasn’t done. Also , the  registration of two new unions,  CONUA and NAMDA whose application according the Ministry was submitted in 2018, claimed personal and group  incompatibility with ASUU and under 43 of the constitution on fundamental freedom as well as convention 87 and 97 of the ILO on democratization of unions sought for registration. The matter will soon be straightened out by court.

 

 Dr. Ibrahim Jibia is former Director of Skills and Certification , Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment and member, National Labour Advisory Council.                              By Ibrahim Jibia 

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