Protracted industrial conflict at the Benue State University, Makurdi has compelled the Governing Council to invite intervention from those it calls stakeholders. In a 5-page appeal which specifically mentioned the people of the State in relation to prevailing on industrial unions of the university “to give peace a chance and return to work”, Mrs Catherine Terlum Bur, the Acting University Registrar as well as Secretary to the Council also asked all striking unions to consider the interest of the state in general but particularly that of the students and their parents. She wants them to suspend the strike actions.
Benue State University, Makurdi has been in stasis since April 27th, 2017 when members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, (ASUU) went on strike. Three unions which make up the non-teaching staff, namely the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT) and Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions (NASU) embarked “on a total and indefinite strike action” the following week but proceeded by a warning strike. Since then, the conflict management system has been unable to put Humpty Dumpty together again.
The key issues in the conflict with ASUU, going by the list in the Council’s appeal, include Heavy Tax Burden; Contributory Pension Scheme; National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS); Amendment of Benue State University Establishment Law; Accumulated Leave for Academic Staff; Payment of Earned Academic Allowances (EAA); and Payment of Salaries. For the non-academic staff, the single issue conflict is the school authority’s failure to pay arrears of their Earned Allowances (EA).
But, invoking “the present economic circumstances that have made it extremely difficult to pay even normal salaries” as a major reason for the unionists to call off the action at this point, Mrs Bur also drew attention to how the strike action was without any official notice to the university. The statement traced some of the grievances underpinning the breakdown of relations to the 2009 Agreement entered into by the various university unions with the Federal Government of Nigeria. But while all other grievances have been resolved, according to the statement, that of Earned Allowances (EA) has remained a sore point. This, she said, is, however, not peculiar but an issue even in Federal Universities.
The statement credited the Governor Samuel Ortom administration with halting the accumulation of EAA/EA at BSU by commencing a monthly payment of N85,000.00 to Professors/Readers, N65,000.00 to Senior Lecturers and N45,000.00 to Lecturers I down to Graduate Assistants irrespective of what each person may actually have been entitled to get under the Agreement. This arrangement which is said to have started since July 2015 to date has consumed a total sum of N1,300,980,000.00 and is argued to demonstrate the extent to which the administration has bent over backwards to support uninterrupted academic activities at the University.
Council recalled the initiative of the Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council in meeting with the leadership of unions immediately after commencement of the strike, prompting a letter to the governor/Visitor on May 5th, 2017 on plausible ways forward on each of the grievances. This, it said, was aborted when ASUU-BSU rejected the entreaties following a congress meeting on May 9th, 2017. And even as the state is struggling to pay salaries of other categories of workers outside the BSU, said the council statement, the Samuel Ortom administration has placed the University on first line charge in payment of salaries.
Asserting the collective heritage and a viable institution of learning in the North-Central Zone of the country that the university is, Council points at the possibility of it loosing an academic session if the strike continues and how this would result into other unintended consequences such as admission losses and non-mobilisation of final year students for the next batch of NYSC, among others.
It argues how even Federal Universities on behalf of whom the FGN entered into the 2009 Agreement with ASUU have not yet implemented the EAA/EA component of the Agreement, saying no Nigerian public University has done as well as BSU on the matter of EAA/EA. It concludes that the unions are blackmailing the government and are playing dirty politics with the university but that the Benue State Government had opted to close its eyes and gone ahead to pay salaries to the university even for the period of the strike.
Contact with the Branch Chairman of ASUU at Benue State University in Makurdi was not possible before posting time but Intervention understood that two issues that have made compromise impossible are the health insurance and pension scheme issues although it was also learnt that owning academics at Benue State University has been the graveyard of most governors in the state historically. In the last election, academics mobilised against the PDP candidate in the local areas and the outcome was a foregone conclusion, Intervention was told by a more neutral voice in the on-going tussle. That is because the Gabriel Suswam administration was owning academics. His conclusion is “If you want to sink politically in this state, owe academics”.
While his thesis provides food for thought, there is the point about the current strike action shutting down the only functional industry in the entire state – the Benue State University. All other industries have folded up since. The strike action might thus be tearing at the soul of the state much, much beyond not being able to mobilise finalists for the next NYSC batch as the Council noted to the more fundamental issues of loss of morale and even exodus. Benue State University is one of the few universities in Nigeria where one finds up to 10 professors on the ground in a single department, none of them a recent professor.
Against this background, Council’s strategy of taking the case from the campus to the court of public opinion could be a master stroke as well as it could backfire. One plausible response is where Benue State’s club of ‘Senior Citizens’ hold an emergency meeting to look for the money or do something sharp. Such a move could make the appeal strategy a master stroke. The worst case scenario is if the salary backlog gets the people to whom the appeal is directed to join ranks with the academics for joint actions to press for payment of such backlog. There is no knowing what the outcome of the appeal would be even as some observers commend the council for remaining engaged with the striking unions, no matter how turbulent.
The overall assumption is that the time has come for the Benue elite to work with the state government to insulate Benue State University not only against budgetary volatility but also make it a merit centre. The university was established in 1992 by the late Governor Moses Adasu.