Lessons of the ASUU Strike: Not Enough for Victory; By Tokunbo Oke

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ASUU members executed and sustained an amazing strike for eight months, most of that time without their wages being paid. The NLC organised a wonderful set of solidarity marches and rallies in all the state capitals at the end of the month of July, 2022, but unfortunately, this was not enough for victory. ASUU members have now returned to work based on a court order and the intervention of the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Sadly, the Union members have little more to show for their amazing months of a struggle than further promises from the Federal Government.

The main lesson of the ASUU strike is that for victory to be achieved in this type of a struggle it requires solidarity across the labour movement and beyond. The strike marks the major issue of funding public education, the Union leaders ought to have worked in synergy from planning to actual execution of such action. The absence of this synergy has remained the major setback to the achievement of victory for important strikes, especially those bordering on increased government funding for public education and health.

ASUU was on strike from 14th February this year and suspended the industrial action on 13th October 2022. During this period members of the Union were not paid their wages as they were last paid at the end of February. As a result of the foregoing, the Union eventually made its strike indefinite from the 29th of August. The trade dispute was over the refusal of the Federal Government to implement the Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) which it signed with ASUU to end the Union’s nine-month strike in December 2020. The MoA included the following demands:

  • Finalisation of re-negotiation of the 2009 Agreement
  • Establishing visitation panels and publication of their results
  • Replace the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System (IPPIS) with UTAS
  • Funding of University and Tertiary Education Sector
  • Earned Allowances for both Academic and Non-Academic Staff of Nigeria’s Universities
  • End the proliferation of state universities without proper funding
  • Payment of lecturers’ withheld salaries since March 2022.

At a meeting with the Premium Times on 19th October, Chris Piwuna; the Vice President of ASUU agreed that none of these demands had been met. Although he accepted that ASUU reached an agreement or at least understanding with the Briggs Committee, but the Government refused to sign that Agreement.

Despite being on strike for a magnificent eight full months, the ASUU strike was mainly waged through their members staying at home, collective bargaining meetings with the Federal Government and the issuance of press statements. The various geopolitical zones of the Union did hold a series of Town Hall Meetings in different states to sensitize the public about the demands and reasons why the Union was on strike, but the Union did not really do enough to reach out to other Trade Unions to explain the importance of the strike to their members. An active strike would have involved ASUU Branches briefing and sensitising their students, the parents and the general public on the core issues underlining their demands and their reasons for the strike. Each Branch of the Union could also have reached out to local Trade Union Branches and the public with regular Town Hall Meetings and to offer speakers to explain the importance of their industrial action.

The wonderful protests the NLC delivered in every state capital in solidarity with the ASUU strike, probably provided the confidence ASUU members needed to agree to the move to an indefinite strike the following month. The NLC protests were a fantastic achievement which Socialist Labour recognised at the time, see: https://tinyurl.com/3vt9jzp4.

However, the NLC also promised to organise a three-day warning strike if the Government did not implement its agreements with the tertiary education Trade Unions within two weeks of their protests. Finally, the NLC was threatening an indefinite general strike to force the Government to fund education properly. Unfortunately, the NLC did not have the confidence to implement these promises and, as a result, the ASUU strike was not conclusively victorious.

Unfortunately, the other trade unions in the tertiary sector called off their strikes in August. This included the Joint Action Committee of the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) and Non-Academic Staff Union of Allied and Educational Institutions (NASU), the National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT) and the Colleges of Education Academic Staff Union (COEASU). The failure of the unions in the tertiary sector to maintain a unified strike would have weakened the possibility of the NLC organising solidarity action.

In mid-September, the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) South-West Zone barricaded roads in Ibadan, Lagos Airport and Ogun and Osun States. Previously in May, NANS had shut-down the Lagos-Abeokuta expressway and in March students in Ondo State had also protested. These protests involving thousands of students could have been extended to more states and be held more frequently if there had been more active support from ASUU nationally and the local Branches.

The ASUU press release announcing the suspension of their strike stated that the: “NEC noted with regrets that the issues in dispute are yet to be satisfactorily addressed.” Before the strike, the Government had previously signed formal agreements (for example at the end of the last ASUU strike in December 2020, a Memorandum of Action was signed) to implement the necessary measures. This time around, the formal agreement has yet to be signed but despite this, the ASUU National Executive Council (NEC) called for an immediate unconditional return to work based only on informal promises from the Government and a court order of the Abuja Division of the Court Appeal.

The Court of Appeal ruled that the lecturers should return to work before their Union’s appeal challenging the ruling against it by the National Industrial Court of Nigeria (NICN) could be heard. This threat associated with disregard for a court order may have encouraged a return to work, however; it must be recalled that most significant strikes by the NLC, for example, in recent years have been held despite similar court orders against the strikes from the same National Industrial Court.

The immediate hope of ASUU members was that President Buhari would allow them to be paid their withheld salaries that had been stopped since the end of February. It has only been informally agreed that these salaries would be paid immediately in two tranches of four months each while the remaining balance will be paid in December. Time will tell whether such promises would be respected and delivered.

The annual budget presented to the National Assembly by the President included N470 billion additional funding for the tertiary sector. This includes N170 billion for salary negotiations and N300 billion for revitalisation of the sector (including N50 billion for the payment of Earned Academic Allowances). The government had previously only paid a total of N50 billion towards the agreed annual sum of N200 billion for revitalisation of the universities since coming to power in 2015.

However, the annual budget for 2023 does not demonstrate an overall commitment to increased funding for education by the Government. The proportion of the budget to be dedicated to education has been reduced from 8% for this year to only 5.3% for the next year. This figure stood at almost 12% when Buhari came to power. These percentages are also well short of the international benchmark of at least 20% of government budgets being dedicated to education.

Buhari promised to achieve this target in his 2015 manifesto and again with a substantial increase at the Global Education Summit in London in July 2021.

As was the case with a number strikes over recent years, the labour movement has not done enough to achieve the much-needed victory for the ASUU strike. The strike was not active enough to galvanise enough public opinion and sympathy. At the point it became activated, with NLC organised nationwide solidarity protests and the pledge to follow up the street protests with a three-day warning strike. There were high hopes for victory for the striking lecturers at that stage, but these hopes were dashed as the NLC could not fulfil its promises. The NLC did not have the confidence to deliver on their promised solidarity strike even though these were necessary conditions for the achievement of greater results, a victory for ASUU and increased funding for public education.

Against the above backdrop, socialists and other Trade Union comrades need to campaign harder to ensure that active strikes, with the necessary labour movement solidarity, are organised in order to achieve their aims. The leadership of ASUU should spearhead the creation of strong synergy across all the Trade Unions in the education sector, including the research institutes who have now been on strike for more than a year. This coalition should work with civil society organisations to organise a massive campaign to ensure that this and future governments fund the education sector properly and to deliver effective solidarity for future strikes in the sector.

This synergy should also produce a framework for political education of Union members as well as students. Such a framework should provide the progressive in-breeding for mentorship and raising of a new generation of left ideological activists among rank-and-file members of the Trade Unions as well as our students. It should also include the need for the Labour Party to be committed to the implementation of the NLC Workers Charter of Demands. Finally, members of ASUU should campaign for a return to strike action if they do not receive at least four months of their withheld salaries by the end of this month, as has been promised by the Government.

Oke writes from Socialist Labour

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