ASUU abusing the right to strike

By Levi Obijiofor

 Wednesday, 19 September 2012

There is something demonstrably wrong with the leadership of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). On Thursday, 30 August 2012, ASUU leaders encouraged their members to go on a one-day strike over the reappointment of the incumbent Vice-Chancellor of the Rivers State University of Science and Technology, Professor Barineme Fakae, by Governor Chibuike Amaechi of Rivers State, in his capacity as the Visitor to the university. That decision should never have triggered a nation-wide strike by universities affiliated to ASUU. The matter should have been dealt with by the courts.

ASUU’s decision to go on strike was irresponsible, injudicious, thoughtless, hurried, and provocative. The basis for the strike was flimsy. It was a mindless decision that turned students in other universities into direct victims of an administrative matter that had nothing to do with assisting them to achieve their learning objectives. Similarly, parents were drawn unwillingly into a meaningless dispute that was not aimed to enhance the quality of education available to their children in the universities.

As an administrative issue that involved the improper or legitimate reappointment of the Vice-Chancellor of a state-owned university, the matter could have been resolved administratively between the state government and the local ASUU branch of the university. It is unthinkable that ASUU would go on strike at a time when the foundation for academic and research quality development in Nigerian universities requires teachers to commit to higher quality of university education. In the global assessment of tertiary education institutions, Nigerian universities have performed worse than their counterparts in other parts of the world. ASUU leaders must put an end to their combative and unproductive attitude to labour disputes.

Nigerian universities were established to advance teaching, learning and research, and to contribute to community service. These noble goals cannot be attained when union leaders adopt militant and disruptive strategies that regularly undermine the core objectives of the universities. How does anyone justify the so-called warning strike by ASUU on the inexcusable ground that the Rivers State Governor promised not to reappoint Professor Fakae but later changed his mind or that the governor failed to follow due process? Regardless of the soundness of the reasons that may have informed the governor’s decision, ASUU should never have used a strike as a weapon to encourage industrial disharmony in universities.

ASUU leaders must be careful about how they misuse their right to strike. The right to strike is a widely recognised entitlement but it is not a flag that must be waved recklessly by overly excited or drunken union leaders every time there is a disagreement with the government. Academic staff of universities must be led by responsible leaders who understand that there is a time for everything. Every time is not always the best time for industrial strikes. The dispute between ASUU and the Rivers State Governor is a local matter that can and should be resolved at the local level. If the local chapter of ASUU at the state-owned university is unable to deal with the issue, the national leadership of ASUU could be invited to negotiate on behalf of the local branch.  

The threat by ASUU to go on a prolonged strike if the reappointment of the Vice-Chancellor of the Rivers State University of Science and Technology was not rescinded or resolved in its favour is a worthless warning. Strikes by ASUU have become something of a meaningless bazaar in the Nigerian public space. No year passes by without some sort of strike interrupting academic calendar in many universities. I cannot see how disruptions to academic programmes would help university teachers and students in Nigeria to achieve higher benchmarks in teaching and research comparable to what obtains in other universities across the world. As the Punch argued last Wednesday (12 September 2012) in an editorial on the crisis of leadership in ASUU, “It is perhaps only in Nigeria that professors prefer the trenches of labour unionism to the pursuit of academic excellence.”

ASUU leaders seem to believe that an effective union is one in which the leaders bury their heads in the sand, unmindful of the realities and challenges of their environment. That is union management by stealth. A dependable union will always weigh the interests of its members, as well as the welfare of its stakeholders against prevailing circumstances. ASUU has demonstrated over the years that it is a selfish body that cares little about the academic interests and wellbeing of the students it claims to serve. In this particular case, university students and their parents were turned into fall guys in an unwarranted labour dispute.

Frequent strikes tarnish rather than dignify the image of ASUU. A responsible organisation should be brainstorming to find solutions to serious problems that have held back Nigerian universities from attaining international standards. The problems are well known. They include dilapidated infrastructure, science laboratories that breed rodents, libraries that excel in holding stock of obsolete books and journals, lack of innovative teaching practices among academic staff, as well as reluctance by staff to engage in quality research and publications that will boost the image of their universities as centres of excellence in research. These are by no means all the problems.

As I argued in a previous essay, I am not against industrial action by ASUU, as long as there are justifiable grounds for their action. If, for example, a strike is designed to improve the quality of teaching and research, if the strike is aimed at creating an environment where academic staff can advance knowledge, and if the strike is calculated to draw federal or state government’s attention to the crumbling state of facilities in universities, I would be in the forefront of supporters of the strike. In this instance, however, ASUU leaders shamelessly engineered their members to go on a one-day strike on the basis of a useless excuse.

I have an unencrypted short message for ASUU leaders. Dispute resolution is an art. When union leaders lack crucial negotiation skills, they are bound to lead their members into dark alleyways in which militant and mechanical responses are justified as appropriate. The art of good union leadership is to know when to strike and when to call off a strike. ASUU leaders have demonstrated a flagrant lack of negotiation skill. It is that missing element that has exposed the incompetence of the union leaders.

Public perceptions of ASUU have worsened because many people view the organisation as a body that easily latches on to industrial conflict to disrupt university academic calendar. That image has rubbed off badly on university teachers and students who are seen to be more interested in strikes and violent demonstrations rather than show interest in activities that promote teaching and learning and research.

If ASUU is committed to improving the quality of university education, if it wants to win the hearts of stakeholders in that sector, it must replace its unruly style of unionism with responsible union leadership. It must negotiate vigorously but openly with the government and the private sector to upgrade science facilities and other much needed infrastructure in the universities. For example, decrepit science laboratories must be refurbished and fitted with state-of-the-art technologies.

Additionally, academic staff members who abandon their teaching and research tasks in pursuit of self-centred secondary objectives must be punished. Staff members who sexually harass female students must be disciplined. Staff members who are involved in undergraduate student admission rackets must be dismissed outright. Students who are actively involved in criminal activities of any kind (cheating in examinations, financial fraud, membership of cults, and so on) must be rusticated.

The quality of teaching and research in universities can never be enhanced under these circumstances. ASUU should be in the vanguard of a general struggle to reclaim Nigeria from the cruel hands of buccaneers who have plundered our national resources, including those who have dragged university education backward. In this context, ASUU must go beyond its core objectives to lead in the battle to transform the nation. It must not see itself as an organisation that advances the interests of its members and the student population. It should also cater to the needs of all Nigerians.

Edward Bernays, generally regarded as one of the founders of modern public relations, said that organisations live and die by the way they relate with their internal and external publics. While ASUU may relate very well with its internal publics, it has struggled many times to cultivate a good relationship with its external publics, comprising the government, the education ministry, the National Universities Commission, parents and the general public.

In general, ASUU has positioned itself as the champion of academic excellence in universities. That role description sees the organisation as the official representative of academic staff of universities, including also its role as the unofficial babysitter of university students. Unfortunately, how ASUU portrays itself has been largely at odds with how the public perceives it. Many people see ASUU as an erratic organisation that promotes industrial conflict and therefore thrives in situations that privilege instability.


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