Law is an ass, idiot, and an insane blind woman with a sword, ready to swing in any direction. Like a pregnant woman of those days when nobody could predict the sex of the fetus but today’s technological advancement has invalidated this maxim. The complexity and limpidity of the law have created a dreary concern to many whenever a judgment is to be pronounced. The regimented and conservative court procedure with its perceived supreme power has distanced the common man from the court, which is opposite to the adage “last hope of the common man”. Self-esteem and superiority complex of the law practitioners, the lawyers further compound the misunderstanding of the law by the generality.
I remember when a lawyer was assigned to teach us a topic “company’s law” as part of a course called “Engineer in Society” in my undergraduate days, one of his first statements was “I am sure you are aware that we lawyers are ‘learned people’ while all of you are educated people”. We were silent as we lacked the argumentative capacity to challenge his audacity. We all gazed at him with a big question mark, what is the difference between learning and education?
As I made an effort to learn more about the law and how the court dispenses judgment, I stumbled on a story written by an ace columnist of the 1980s, the late Bashir Bello Akko, the Editor of a rested Hotline, Kaduna-based Magazine. Paraphrasing the story, a judge in his bedroom through a window watched a street brawl that resulted in the killing of a man, he saw the killer and the victim without the knowledge of other people. The case was brought to his court framing a different person for the killing. He was at liberty to transfer the case to another court since he knew who did the killing or allowed the case but not to allow his earlier knowledge of the case to interfere with the judgment. He chose the latter and allowed the lawyers to argue their cases for and against.
In the end, the prosecuting lawyers presented stronger arguments that led to the conviction of the accused, invariably a wrong person for the crime. Judges pass judgments based on convincing reasoning, shreds of evidence, witnesses, laws, inferences, and similar technical jargon skillfully presented by lawyers. The only simple and predictable case in court is the one with an offense (civil or criminal) freely confessed by the accused person. All others are as difficult and unpredictable as they could be.
It is on this premise; I view the legal judgment passed by the National Industrial Court of Nigeria (NICN) as not an absolute solution to the FGN-ASUU imbroglio. I remember the court requested the parties to settle the case out of court before pronouncing the judgment. The legal tussle could not be a permanent solution to addressing the FGN-ASUU wrangle.
We may recall the issues involved in the dispute were clear and simple; in the year 2009 FGN willingly signed and sealed an agreement with ASUU. The 2009 agreement was reinforced by the Memorandum of Understanding and Memorandum of Action signed by both parties in 2013 and 2020, respectively.
Since then, two different negotiation committees at different times were set by FGN. The first committee was that of Prof. Munzali, an erudite professor, gentleman, and educationist to the core. The committee painstakingly negotiated with ASUU for several uninterrupted months and turned in a comprehensive report, which contained all-inclusive recommendations to finally and permanently resolve challenges in the university system in a sustainable manner. Instead of accepting the report for implementation, FGN set up a new negotiation committee under Prof Brigg, Emeritus Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology without due regard to Munzali’s report. ASUU was hesitant to meet Brigg’s committee but prevailed by the voice of reasoning.
Brigg’s committee did an excellent job and turned in a beautiful report. However, the hawks in FGN led by the supposed conciliator, the former labor minister, Dr. Chris Ngige were not interested in the amicable resolution. While negotiation was going on, Dr. Chris was always firing salvos in the direction of ASUU to create a more unreconcilable situation and anxiety. In the end, FGN jettisoned both reports with their recommendations leading to a stalemated situation.
The stalemate attracted the intervention of the speaker, Hon. Femi Hakeem Gbajabiamila. The Speaker held a series of stakeholders’ meetings including meeting with former President, Muhammadu Buhari. In one of the meetings, he had with ASUU, the Union presented its case, the major problems responsible for the decay in Nigerian universities and proffered solutions including “how and means” of sourcing the funds with negligible financial pressure on the government.
The speaker was convinced that the government should give listening ears to ASUU for an amicable solution to the dispute. When these meetings were progressing toward a common understanding, Dr. Chris Ngige rushed to court, which forced ASUU to suspend the strike and wait for the judgment.
Last week, the judgment on FGN VS ASUU was made with mixed feelings as neither the FGN nor ASUU was 100 percent victorious. The 29-page judgment provides the legality of the ASUU strike and the illegality of imposing IPPIS as a salary payments platform for the university workers among other issues.
Disappointedly, the Nigerian media was awash with the “juicy” news of “no work, no pay” insinuating that the FGN was right in denying the strikers their salaries. It was like the media was happy that ASUU was “dealt” with, forgetting that “no work, no pay” was not among the original issues of contention. Instead of media to support ASUU’s struggle against the decay and progressive degeneration of the university system, the Union was being castigated. For the avoidance of doubt, the judge said FGN is legally right not to pay the arrears of salary to the strikers at the same time he quoted paragraphs 951, 953, 954, and 956 of ILO, which opposed punishing the strikers.
These ILO paragraphs stated, “Imposing sanctions on unions for leading a legitimate strike is a gross violation of the principles of freedom of association”. Furthermore, “No one should be penalized for carrying out or attempting to carry out a legitimate strike”. And again “Penal sanctions should not be imposed on any worker for participating in a peaceful strike”. Thus, in my layman’s view, denying the salary payments of the strikers is tantamount to “imposing sanctions”, “penalizing a legitimate striker” and “penal sanctions on workers participating in a peaceful strike”. I stand to be corrected.
Nevertheless, it is high time for the new government of President Tinubu to act beyond the legal judgment. President Tinubu was not unaware of the issues involved in the FGN-ASUU dispute. He promised during his electioneering campaign that he would end the perennial ASUU strike for the betterment of the university system. Now is the time to take the right step towards ending the strike by engaging ASUU leadership for genuine reconciliation. Tinubu has an FGN-ASUU peace maker in his team, Right Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila as his Chief of Staff. A perfect team to make ASUU strike history. I am sure Gbajabiamila would want to conclude what he started during Buhari’s regime. Can President Tinubu extend an olive branch to ASUU? May God guide him with wisdom to do so, amen.