Federal universities in Nigeria are on the verge of important changes to how they are being run and the quality they offer. The Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, has been at the forefront of the trends to transform these universities. The Union reached a broad agreement with the federal government in 2009 in a bid to achieve these goals. Unfortunately, the government has defaulted on this landmark agreement, and in reaction, ASUU has gone on an indefinite strike. This is the fourth month.
There is a large class of Nigerians who support ASUU all the way, especially its strike action. They believe that in the face of a government that breaches its agreements, the best option is to go on strike. But there is also a growing number of people who disagree with ASUU’s methods. They in fact believe that ASUU should get what it demands but they propose a different method other than strike- the law court. I belong to this latter group and here is why.
ASUU has had long heroic years of struggle against past governments that have displayed a rather insensitive attitude towards educational issues in the country. Most of the struggles have occured under non democratic regimes that did not honour civil courts. In adapting to the prevailing trend of those eras, ASUU evolved a retaliatory strike culture which often met with sympathy among the Nigerian populace. The restoration of democratic rule in 1999 was a big relief to most stakeholders in the sector who firmly believed that democracies often created suitable environments for meaningful national growth especially in the area of education. However, much of this hope has been dampened as the strikes seem to have picked up momentum, and become more frequent since 1999.
This is not to throw aside certain indicators and developments which inspire positive hope. I believe that the biggest of these developments, which include the establishment of more universities especially by private entities to absorb young people seeking tertiary education, arrived in form of the UNESCO policy suggestion of devoting 26% of national budgets to education in developing countries. This policy suggestion successfully entered into the 2009 agreement between the Federal Government and ASUU. The 2009 Agreement has come to signify an articulate understanding between the Federal Government and ASUU as to what to expect and do next in creating a viable atmosphere for quality education in our universities.
For me, these developments signalled the passing away of an old era when the only language that ASUU could speak was the language of strikes. The introduction of a publicized agreement signalled a new beginning. A beginning that told a story of two civilized bodies coming together to plan the country’s future in a detailed manner. I believe with all my heart that this agreement had the force of law otherwise ASUU would not have accepted it in the first place.
In democracies the instrument of trust does not necessarily rest in the parties we sign our agreements with but in the legal system that guarantees that pacts must be followed. While there is some responsibility on the part of each party to investigate the credibility of the other before shining an agreement, once an agreement has been made the rest is up to the law of the land to make sure that each party sticks to its part of the bargain.
Did the Union not consider this point? I believe they did. I believe they had a level of confidence in the government back in 2009 when they entered into this mutual agreement. In fact, room was made for a renegotiation of the terms in mid 2012. However, the unfortunate has happened. One time too many, the government has failed to live up to one of its legal obligations by defaulting on the said agreement.
The government, under the law, has no right to unilaterally cancel the first agreement and insist that a new one be made. I believe that there are legal procedures that must be followed before such pacts can be revoked, otherwise, it would amount to a violation of the other party’s trust and a breach of contract. Since the agreement is backed up by existing laws of contract, and both parties are legal entities that can sue and be sued, it is only logical that violations of this legal document should carry legal consequences. I also believe that legal consequences should be decided by a law court.
ASUU should have presented its case in court and it could have received additional compensation for damages. Instead, it chose to act as though its agreement was not guaranteed by laws and a breach could not be justly restored by a court. By going on strike, I believe that it can also be argued that ASUU has voided this agreement. But that is not my argument.
My argument here, since I want to see the kind of reforms the 2009 agreement contain, is that ASUU can definitely redeem the situation by taking the offending federal government to court and resume lectures now. It serves the public interest better.