Education

Edo: Disquiet over ban of unions in state-owned higher institutions

Legal tussles as ban tears govt, unions apart

 

FACE-OFF

The various staff unions (academic and non-teaching) in Edo State-owned higher institutions of learning are at loggerheads with the state government over the directive banning union activities across institutions

 

˜ ASUU, SSANU, others: Decision arbitrary

˜ Govt to invoke no-work, no-pay

 

There is disquiet in Edo State-owned higher institutions of learning. This is as a fresh face-off evolving between the Edo State government and the staff unions of the various state-owned tertiary institutions has assumed a new dimension that will aggravate the crisis and threaten the relative stability and peace in the state’s institutions.

 

The state government-led by Governor Godwin Obaseki, the Visitor and Moderator of the institutions had two weeks ago banned activities of all staff unions in the institutions, comprising universities, polytechnics and colleges of education.

 

 

The state government, according to the directive issued on the June 5, 2022, suspended the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), Non- Academic Staff of Universities (NASU), Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP), Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Polytechnics (SSANIP), Colleges of Education Academic Staff Union (COEASU) and all other allied staff unions operating across all state-owned tertiary institutions and banned their activities forthwith.

 

The institutions affected by the government’s directive are Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma; Edo State Polytechnic, Usen; Edo State College of Agriculture, Iguoriakhi (where academic activities have been suspended since 2017); Edo State College of Education (with three campuses at Igueben, Afuze and Abudu) and Edo State College of Health Technology, Benin; and except Edo State University, Uzairue, which has not been part of any trade union.

 

The state government also declared to implement the ‘no-workno- pay’ policy on members of any union that embark on any form of    strike or refuse to return to work. ASUU-AAU has been on strike to protest unpaid 17 months’ salary arrears and slash in the staff salary by the state government, the proprietor of the institution.

But, the government’s directive has not gone down well with the unions, which immediately described such a ban as a violation of their fundamental rights as duly registered unions, and vowed to challenge their suspension.

 

The state government’s action, New Telegraph learnt was not unconnected with the ongoing indefinite nationwide strike declared by ASUU, SSANU, which is almost six-month-old, as well as other staff unions, including COEASU that paralysed academic and administrative activities in the university system and colleges of education.

 

The state government, through a statement by the Secretary to the State Government (SSG), Osarodion Ogie, banned the activities of all staff unions operating across all state-owned tertiary institutions.

 

It, however, directed the management of Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, in particular to implement the ‘no-workno- pay rule’ as well as to declare vacant and advertise the position of any staff that refuses to resume work in line with this directive.

 

The statement, which also ordered the immediate resumption of academic and administrative activities in all the institutions, said: “By this notice, academic activities are to resume in all state-owned institutions and all cadre of staff are directed to report to their duty posts immediately.

 

“Students across all state-owned tertiary institutions are expected to resume for lectures as necessary measures have been taken to ensure resumption of academic and non-academic activities. “We have directed the management of the affected institutions to pay all out-  standing salaries immediately.

 

“The management of Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, is hereby directed to implement a no-work-no-pay policy, declare vacant and advertise the position of any staff that refuses to resume work in line with this directive.”

 

Reacting to the development through a phone call, the National President of ASUU, Prof. Emmanuel Osodeke, a lecturer at Ambrose Alli University (AAU), described the governor’s directive, as “provocative and arbitrary,” saying ASUU as a legally registered trade union has the right to operate and even embark on strikes whenever the rights of its members are infringed or trampled upon by the authority/government.

 

Speaking further, the President, who noted that the union had already gone to court to challenge the government’s directive, added: “The union has challenged several of such cases in the court and that the governor will lose at the end of the day, because he and other governors have no power to either suspend, ban or proscribe ASUU and activities on any campus.”

 

While condemning the directive banning the union, the Chairman of AAU chapter of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Cyril Onogbosele, said the state government had no power to ban ASUU’s activities because the union did not register with the state government.

 

He insisted: “ASUU is a legal trade union and has the right to association’s activities in the eye of the law. So, on what basis is the governor banning union activities, because the students protested over strike by the union? Our union is on strike and the university management was duly notified on the strike over the 17-month salary owed the union.

 

“Thus, is Governor Obaseki saying that as a union, we do not have the right to say the government should pay us and we go on strike. What is illegal in the activity that we have carried out? Is strike not recognised by law and used to pressurise employers to address issues in work places?”

Declaring the governor’s order as laughable, Onogbosele stressed that in the eyes of the law, the state government cannot stop ASUUAUU. As a union, ASUU-AAU is a chapter of the national body that is duly registered with a license. “These are the views of the union and the action is condemnable.

If there are issues you have to resolve them with the union and not banning the union activities because you don’t want to resolve the contending issues,” the union leader said. ASUU-AAU had earlier suspended the four-week strike initially declared by the national body on February 14, 2022, citing peculiarities in its system as the local union had been in and out of classes before the national strike over unpaid of 17 months’ salary arrears and the Special Intervention Team (SIT), which took over the duty of the Governing Council.

 

Against this move, the union was forced to embark on a peaceful protest on May 17, 2022, when the Special Intervention Team (SIT) came up with a proposed cut in the workers’ salary.

 

However, infuriated by the long stay-at-home, the students of the university on June 4 stormed the Edo State Government House to demand the reopening of the institution within one week or the government would face mass action by the students.

 

The Vice President of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) (Special Duties), Odiahi Thomas Ikhine, who led the students during the protest to the Government House, stated that they embarked on the peaceful protest to register their displeasure over the ongoing ASUU strike, which according to them, has kept the students at home for almost six months.

 

He called on Governor Obaseki to take a cue from Kogi Stateowned university, where there are no union activities and the academic calendar has been stable and smooth over the years without strikes by any staff union. He said: “In Kogi State University, there is no staff union and the academic calendar is being run to favour the students.

 

A four-year course is a four-year course. There is no strike and the students are  happy. I call on the governor to borrow the Kogi State example in order to put the National ASUU strike to an end at Ambrose Alli University. “We are here today to let you know that we are tired of the whole situation and we are giving the state government one week to take proactive action to ensure that AAU is reopened with lecturers on ground to teach the students. We want all academic activities to resume in full. We will be back in the next one week if nothing has changed.”

Meanwhile, the state Governor, Godwin Obaseki, while addressing the protesting students, assured them that his administration would take all necessary actions to reopen the university amid the ongoing nationwide indefinite strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities. Obaseki, who was represented by his Special Adviser on Media Projects, Crusoe Osagie, said education remains a top priority of the state government, and hence it would expedite action to ensure that the students go back to classes.

 

The governor said: “All that the leader of this protest has said today is in line with what the Edo State government wants to do for the students of the institution. We have a challenge as the hand of the government is tied to some extent due to the activities of the various unions. Most institutions, including AAU have staff unions and easily join strikes declared at the federal level.

 

This is not in the best interest of the students and lecturers. “Incessant strikes have become a problem in our higher institutions. Our proposition as a government is that at some point our lecturers should put the interest of the students above their personal interest. We believe that the reason they, ASUU, sit at home during the strike is that at the end of the day, whether they teach or not, they will be paid, and this is wrong.”

 

“We call on university lecturers and other categories of workers in the university to come together and make a decision in the best interest of the students because the government is willing to support the institution with the resources it needs to run it successfully.” Obaseki further noted: “Lecturers should realise that the education of the students is more important than their unionism.

 

The government is working on other steps to be taken to help the students come out of this problem. I urge them to come together to allow the students to learn instead of being on strike.”

“I assure you that the one-week ultimatum given will be adhered to by the governor as he will take steps and actions needed to get students back to school. I want to appeal to you that when the government takes its decision, the students should rise up in support of the government so that lecturers will abide by the decision of the government,” Osagie said.

In his remarks, the Speaker of the state House of Assembly, Rt. Hon. Marcus Onobun, said the ongoing strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities has deprived Nigerian children of the desired quality university education. Speaking through the Director, Office of the Speaker, George Aitumun, during the 2022 Democracy Day Essay Competition, tagged: “Democracy and the Nigerian Child,” Onobun expressed regrets that “Nigerian child has been surcharged since independence in 1960.”

 

“Our children have been at home now for months. The academic calendar has been disorganized and distabilised and it will never remain the same,” he lamented. He, therefore, called on stakeholders, including ASUU and other staff unions, and the government to agree with a view to resolving the issue at stake in order for the students to return to school and continue their academic works.

 

But, in a new twist, ASUU-AUU had last Tuesday dragged the Edo State Governor, Godwin Obaseki before the National Industrial Court in Benin, the state capital, over the suspension of all staff union activities across all state-owned institutions of higher learning, including Academic Staff Union of Universities.

 

Other defendants joined in the suit, marked: NICN/BEN/40/2022, and filed by Kingsley Obamogie, Esq on behalf of the Chairman of ASUU-AAU, Dr. Cyril Onogbosele, and the Assistant Secretary, Dr. William Odion, as claimants, are the Edo State government, the Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice of the state.

 

The Claimants (ASUU), among other prayers, are asking the court to determine “Whether upon the correct interpretation and construction of Section 40 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) and Section 35(3) of the Trade Union Act. Cap. T14, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004, the Defendants are not bereft of power to suspend or prohibit trade union activities in Ambrose Alli University (AAU), Ekpoma.”

The Claimants also sought a declaration that the order or directive of the defendants for the suspension of trade union activities in Ambrose Alli University (AAU), Ekpoma, is unconstitutional, illegal, null and void.

The union is also seeking a declaration that the defendants have no power whatsoever to interfere or meddle with the Claimants’ exercise of their rights, as members of a registered trade union, and the Academic Staff Union of Universities to engage in trade union activities at the Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma.

 

In the suit, the Claimants are also seeking an order of perpetual injunction restraining the defendants, their servants, employees and/or agents from or interfering with or intermeddling in the Claimants’ exercise of their fundamental rights to engage in trade union activities at the Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma.

 

 

Worried by the government’s action, the Joint Action Committee (JAC) of the Senior Staff Association of Nigeria Universities (SSANU), Non-Academic Staff of Universities (NASU) and National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT) has also frowned over the ban or suspension of union activities in the state institutions.

 

The JAC Chairman of the university, Tom Onofua, however, bemoaned the action of the state governor for banning the activities of the various unions, insisting that “it is unconstitutional for Governor Obaseki to suspend legally registered trade unions, comprising of SSANU, NASU, NAAT and ASUU in the university.”

 

Now, like ASUU, the unions told New Telegraph that arrangements have been concluded to seek legal means to challenge the state government’s directive, as the JAC had already instituted a court case against the government for suspending legally registered trade unions.

 

The Joint Action Committee Chairman of the non-teaching staff unions, said: “We have mobilised our lawyers and by the end tomorrow, June 18, 2022, our court action against the Edo State government would have been completed.

 

We see the suspension as unconstitutional for a governor to suspend duly registered trade unions in the university. It is illegal, unconstitutional and arbitrary, and we must pursue this to a logical conclusion.”

 

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