The Federal Government and labour unions on Wednesday clashed over the groups’ refusal to back down on its planned two-day nationwide protests scheduled for July 26 and 27.
No fewer than 40 unions, including the aviation workers will participate in the rally called in solidarity with the striking Academic Staff Union of Universities which has shut down public universities since February 14 over the failure of the government to meet its demands.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, on Wednesday said the protest was illegal since the Nigeria Labour Congress had no pending disputes with the government but the congress retorted that it would go on with the protest, saying the freedom to protest is guaranteed by the constitution.
ASUU had embarked on a one-month warning strike on February 14 to press home its demand for the implementation of the October 2009 ASUU/FGN agreement.
The Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities, Non-Academic Staff Union of Allied and Educational Institutions and National Association of Academic Technologists later joined the industrial action.
In May, the ASUU President, Emmanuel Osodeke, announced the extension of the three-month prolonged strike by an additional three months.
In reaction, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige, said in March that the government had paid over N92bn , including N40bn for earned academic allowances for ASUU and other unions and N30b for university revitalisation as part of the implementation of the agreement reached with the union in December 2020.
The FG also reconstituted a team to renegotiate the 2009 agreement it had with the varsity teachers. The team was headed by Pro-Chancellor, Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Ndufu-Alike Ikwo, Prof Nimi Briggs.
To fast-track the resolution of the crisis, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), Tuesday, directed the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, to resolve the five-month strike within two weeks and report back to him.
In solidarity with ASUU, the NLC on July 17 announced that it would kick off a nationwide protest to pressure the federal government to resolve the crisis in the tertiary education sector.
But addressing State House correspondents after Wednesday’s Federal Executive Council meeting chaired by the President, the information minister, Mohammed, accused the congress of being motivated by partisan interests, saying it was supposed to be “completely insulated from politics.”
He said, “The NLC is not a political party. The NLC can go on strike or protest if the rights of the NLC members are involved. What the NLC is planning in the next few days is about interest. There’s no dispute whatsoever between NLC as a body with the Federal Government.
“Well yes, there’s a dispute between some members of the NLC, ASUU and the federal government, which is being looked into. And NLC itself is a party to the committee that is looking into the solution.
“So, calling out people on street protest; you begin to wonder, what is the motive of the NLC in this matter? But you see here, we do not interrogate what the NLC is doing. The NLC by its own laws cannot even give out pamphlets. And the NLC is supposed to be completely insulated from politics.”
Fielding questions about plans by aviation workers to join the strike in solidarity with ASUU, the Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, said such a move should not be contemplated as it would put lives at risk.
“I’m naturally concerned about this if the aviation union will shut down in support of ASUU. I would say they have no need to. This is democracy. You can push for demands. But in pressing for demands, you should be reasonable in doing so; where lives can be lost because of your own activity. I think it should be reconsidered.
“So, civil aviation workers should not be part of this. We’ve spoken to them and I don’t think they will join because they know that there’s a huge responsibility for lives on their heads.
“I believe that they are very aware of the enormous responsibility upon them in civil aviation and they should continue to see it so and continue to be as law-abiding as we want them to be,” Sirika said.
In a separate briefing, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige, said he had proposed one week to resolve the FG-ASUU faceoff but the education minister volunteered to resolve the issues in two weeks.
He also debunked reports that the President asked him to steer clear of the negotiations saying “the truth of the matter is there is no such thing, it’s just categorically untrue. There is nothing like a hands-off.”
Also, the Federal Ministry of Education described as unreasonable the plans of the NLC to embark on a two-day solidarity protest despite the directive of the President to the education minister to end the lingering strike in two weeks.
Abuja, the spokesperson for the education ministry, Ben Goong, advised ASUU to call off its strike pending the commencement of the negotiations by Adamu.
He stated, “The President has given specific directives and the minister of education has said that he will carry out the president’s directive to the letter. It is a presidential directive and it will happen. Actions have been taken.
“If they still go ahead with the strike then it will be unreasonable. It will be a slap on the face of the president and also on the minister. In fact, we will advise ASUU to suspend its strike pending when the negotiations begin.”
Reacting, the Head, Information and Public Affairs, NLC, Mr Benson Upah, in an interview with The PUNCH, said the government could resolve the lingering strike within three days if it was serious about the crisis, stressing that the union was going ahead with its protests.
He stated, “We’re still going ahead (with the protests). The public action is on the July 26th and then the mega one is on (July) 27th. So, I mean, of what effect will two weeks have on that?
“I am saying that had the government asked the minister of education to solve this problem within two or three days, aha. But he is giving him two weeks, and two weeks will come after our protest must have taken place. Don’t you think so? So it’s like take charge of it.’’
While acknowledging the ultimatum handed down to the education minister, the NLC spokesman argued that nothing had happened to change the proposed rally.
He further added, ‘’If the government wants to end this matter today, I assure you that they will be able to fix it in three hours. Remember when the airline operators planned to go on strike and within hours there was an intervention; remember?
“The summary of what I want to tell you is that nothing has happened for us to change our proposed action. All I know is that we’re going on with our action.’’
Responding to allegation that the protest was illegal, Upah averred that the minister should be worried by the damage caused to the education system by the protracted strike.
He noted, “Freedom of expression, freedom of protest are within the ambit of the law and guaranteed by the constitution; so, he (minister) does not have the power to abolish it.