Can CONUA stabilise Nigeria’s shaky university system?




ASUU President

On Saturday, October 5, 2019, the 41-year-old Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) split with the creation of a new union, the Congress of University Academics (CONUA). In this report, SAMSON BENJAMIN and PAUL OKAH look at the circumstances surrounding emergence of the new union, its implication, as what becomes of the once powerful ASUU.

Lecturers from five universities in the country recently announced the formation of a parallel union, the Congress of University Academics (CONUA) at Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife, Osun state.

The lecturers, who unveiled the new union, are from the Federal University, Lokoja, Kogi state;  Kwara State University, Malete; Ambrose Ali University Expoma, Edo State;  Federal University, Oye-Ekiti and Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife.

Addressing journalists during the first stakeholders’ meeting of the new group at OAU, National Coordinator, CONUA, Dr Niyi Sumonu, explained that the new group was formed because of the need for new approach in handling issues affecting universities across the country.

Sumonu said the first mandate of the new union was to ensure a stable academic calendar in order to improve quality of education in the country’s ivory towers.

 “For standard of education to be very high, we need a stable academic calendar.  We need to be able to predict academic session.  We need to have innovation which is difficult without continuity.

“We also need to be in tune with modern realities.  Our union will approach the matter of engagement with all stakeholders in an engaging manner to have a common ground for moving forward,” he said.

Pro govt stand

Similarly, Dr Sumonu, who said they have been working on the idea underground for three years, added that that the new union would not follow the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) old combative and antagonistic style of unionism against the federal government.

“Our union is not anti-government, if government and by extension, administrators of universities are doing well, we will let the world know and we will quickly knock them, provide alternative constructive criticism and take them to task where they are not doing well.

“We will not wait for them to make mistakes before we intervene. We have vision and will provide ahead what can be done to have better results. If that is done we are sure we will have a better way to move forward.

“Members believe we should have alternative ways of solving problems. Members have been contributing very well to the finance of the union. When we fulfil and do all that we need to do, financial constraints will be forgotten.

  “We have been at this for over three years in Ife.  We have been waxing stronger and members from other universities have been experiencing what we experienced here, hence, the decision to come together to form a national union,” Sumonu added.

Redefining academic unionism

Also, the National Publicity Secretary of the new union, Dr Nwoke Earnest, told journalists that another key objective of the group was to “redefine academic unionism in Nigeria and is not ready to take issue with any union.”

He explained that CONAU would prefer to proffer solutions to issues before they become problematic, adding that the essence of forming the group was to enhance interaction with the educational system without being confrontational but through a synergy that would involve all stakeholders.

ASUU reacts

However, reacting to emergence of the new group, the National President, ASUU, Prof. Biodun  Ogunyemi, said  some lecturers  who were sanctioned by the union about two years ago had decided to kick against the sanctions by forming a parallel group.

Ogunyemi said, “I don’t know that group that they are talking about. What happened at OAU was that there were some people we sanctioned two years back; those people that acted contrary to the letters and spirit of our constitution. We sanctioned them and they decided to kick against the sanctions.

“Some of them agreed to serve the punishment and they have since rejoined the union. But those who do not want to serve the terms of punishment are now saying they will join forces with some individuals who have issues with the union.

“As far as we know, that is what they have been trying to do and we have been on that for about two years now. What I know is that whether in Ife, Oye Ekiti or Lokoja, we know that some vice-chancellors are encouraging rebellion against the union. Particularly in Oye Ekiti and Lokoja, we have issues with their VCs because of the way they are running their universities.

“ASUU has had reasons to complain publicly about the high-handedness of the VCs. Those VCs expectedly will want to take it out on the union and encourage that kind of rebellious attitude.”

Like ASUU like NLC

In a chat with Blueprint Weekend, the Publicity Secretary of Academic Staff Union of Polytechnic (ASUP), Akanu Ibiam Federal Polytechnic, Ebonyi state, Ukegbu Chibuzo, accused the federal government of creating divisions within the ranks of ASUU in order to cut down its powers.

“Government seems to be using this bait to arm-twist ASUU. Because ASUU is a very strong union that always pushes government to the wall of submission to its demands.

“Recall that this was same script that played out in the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) where we had the Ayuba Wabba faction and the other faction led by Joe Ajaero. Divisions in groups like ASUU are always to the advantage of the Government.

“So, those who say it was done by Government may be right to a greater degree. This government has this very feature of factionalizing groups it sees as a threat to its anti-people policies,” he said.

Faction’ll deplete ASUU

Speaking to our correspondent, the National President of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), Comrade Danielson Bamidele Akpan, warned lecturers in the country against factions.

The students’ leader described splitting of the lecturers as a poison that would affect the entire Nigeria’s educational system.

He said, “It is demoralizing to note that a possible split rears its ugly head in ASUU. Allowing your Union to split will deplete your strength and renders you voiceless. Your ever vibrant critical stance on anti-masses policies of the government will soon become irrelevant.

“We need to remind ASUU that if the ugly discord persists, oppression of academic staff will thrive and germinate fast like a seed planted by an Angel from heaven.

“Not only ASUU members will feel the heat, protection of human rights in the University system will soon become a fiction on the pages of the book.

“We therefore counsel ASUU to realise quickly that factionalism of Union in the academic setting is a poison plotted in a tea-cup of ASUU that should not be allowed to assume a national face.”

He also cautioned the federal government against causing division among the lecturers, stating: “Government on the other hand, should rather promote unity and cohesion among various trade unions for over all good of the country.

“Resorting to divide and rule will not be productive to the socio-economic development our nation. Government must honour all treaties signed with ASUU with high sense of fidelity.”

NLC sticks with ASUU

Also, the Organized Labour has denied knowledge of any splinter group in the ranks of ASUU, declaring that there is only one ASUU recognized by law.

President, NLC, Comrade Ayuba Wabba, in a media interview said that there have been attempts in the past to use some individuals to cause problems in ASUU but such attempts never succeeded.

The NLC president said, “Such situation (splinter group in ASUU) does not exist. I am aware that efforts have been made to undermine ASUU which has not succeeded.

“ASUU has no splinter group. If there is, let them disclose their names and also which universities they belong to. That (new group) is not something that is known to us.

 “Even in the past during the military era, a lot of efforts including proscription were made but that has not succeeded because this is a union of intellectuals and that is an effort that had been put in place but it had never succeeded.

“ASUU remains one entity and they have continued to work together. No splinter group exists. These are just possibly individuals coming together to achieve a purpose. Many people claim what they are not.

“In this case, ASUU has been there for more than 40 years. It has undergone different challenges and different attacks and it has been able to remain together. There is no splinter group.”

On his part, the General Secretary, NLC, Comrade Emma Ugbaja, said although people were entitled to form a union, the trade union laws specified steps to follow, adding that there was no information available to the NLC that there was another ASUU group in the country.

Also, commenting on the alleged formation, the General Secretary of NLC, Comrade Ugbaja said,” To the best of my knowledge, we are not aware and we have not got any information from our affiliates.

“People are entitled to form a union but the trade union law is clear on the formation of unions. This is a country built on law and running on rule of law process.

“Trade Union is not established by people that are angry with their leadership. If you are angry with the leadership of Nigeria, you don’t form another Nigeria; you go and contest the .”

CONAU won’t make impact

Furthermore, Chibuzo added that CONAU will not be relevant because it will not get the backing of serious minded lecturers in Nigerian universities due its lack of ideological foundation.

 “The new faction would not really be adopted by serious minded Academics who really mean well for the system. This is because CONAU as a body claims to come with the objective of stopping incessant strikes in the public university circle. But is that achievable owing to the variables involved? Where there is infrastructure decay in schools, poor laboratories, poor funding of research etc… Which are the factors that ASUU fights for. What will CONAU fight for?

“Let us not forget that the Nigeria government listens only to confrontational approaches. But this CONAU nuances smacks of a gimmick to kill the ASUU. CONAU will go down in history as one of those factions that emerged, with the objective of disrupting ASUU that never got the light of support from most of the ASUU members across the country.

“Just like the NLC analogy, the real bloc will remain while the budding branch will be plucked off due to dearth of convincing ideological postulations,” he said.

FG vets CONUA

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Labour and Employment has confirmed receipt of an application for the registration of a new university union.

In a media interview, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige, said that the ministry had in April received the application from CONUA to be registered as a new union in the university.

He said the application was awaiting deliberation as stipulated by Trade Union laws, noting that a committee will be set up to define modalities before it would be approved.

“They have not been registered yet. Their application is in the ministry. It has not been treated. We are still looking at their application. I asked a committee to look into it, when we look at the committee’s report, we will know what to do. They submitted it even before I left office initially, they submitted the application in April,” he said.

On whether CONUA would not duplicate the functions of ASUU, Ngige said that would be the duty of the committee.

 “The Union, which started in OAU now has Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, Federal University, Oye Ekiti, Federal University, Lokoja and Kwara State University, Molete as members.

“The union is putting necessary documentation in place for official recognition by the university management and the government,” the minister stated.

ASUU, CONUA open peace talks

Meanwhile, ASUU is said to have begun reconciliatory talks CONUA according to a report in a national newspaper on Wednesday. The report quoted Prof Ogunyemi as having disclosed that, “senior comrades are intervening in the matter and there are people talking to both sides.”

Ogunyemi, who did not disclose the names of the officials involved, said the universities still had the majority of their lecturers in ASUU.

“We have been on this for some time. There are people that are still talking to both sides. I don’t see anything that is abnormal about reconciliation. This is not the first time that some individuals, who are aggrieved either because they were sanctioned or they were sponsored, would decide to create confusion in the fold.

“But with time, we have always come to appreciate each other better. I can give you the example of the University of Ilorin. For how many years, did we have issues with the university? But after 19 years, today we are together.

“It is usually like that. Some may not call it reconciliation but the process of discussion has been on before now. We have those who are mediating. If you go to OAU, the majority of lecturers are in ASUU, even in Ekpoma. There are senior comrades who are wading into the matter.”

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