The background facts leading to the current face-off between the Kaduna State Chapter of the Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT) and Governor Nasir El Rufai of Kaduna State are now common knowledge. Narrating them here will be superfluous.
At the receiving end of this face-off are the students, especially the public primary school pupils. Both public primary and secondary schools in the State have been closed since their official resumption date of 8th January, 2018 as a result of the strike or industrial action embarked upon by the NUT. So far, there is no sign that the industrial action may end any sooner.
What and whose interest will the face-off serve?
The Governor claims that the State Government will not compromised on the standard of education; and that no amount of blackmail and intimidation will make them back down. On its part, NUT insists that the issue of the competency test conducted by the State Government upon which the sack of the teachers is hinged must be revisited.
The truth is that everybody agrees that the education sector in the State and the entire country needs serious reforms. The approach adopted by the Governor and the State Government in bringing these reforms is the problem.
Upon being sworn in on 29th of May, 2015, the Governor did not mince words in declaring a state of emergency on the education sector. Unfortunately, the approach he has adopted so far towards achieving these reforms has been inchoate, unserious and seemingly insincere.
He started with the renovations of dilapidated primary schools across the State up to a certain level and stopped midway. Today, we still have uncountable dilapidated schools littering all around, even in the metropolitan township. He followed this up with the School Feeding Programme wherein Billions of Naira were purportedly spent. Today, that Programme is comatose and dead without any success being recorded. He promised to cloth the students with school uniforms and to provide free books to them. These promises, too, are imaginary.
In all these inchoate reforms, the salaries, allowances and other welfare packages of the teachers remain stagnant. Teachers are still very poorly paid in the State. The provison of teaching materials in the Schools is still a major problem.
Now, he has come up with the issue of competency test on the teachers and their sack as a critical aspect of his education reforms.
If the Governor has not so far shown enough seriousness and sincerity in the earlier reforms he initiated, what guarantee is there that he is serious and sincere in the present reform pertaining the teachers? It is not about boastful speeches and display of executive bravado. After all, talk is cheap. It is about real action and work.
Agreed that the competence and quality of the teachers are also an integral part of the problem bedevilling the teaching sector, it is not the immediate problem begging for emergency approach. The Governor should have completed and sustained the above reforms he commenced first before turning on the issue of the competence and quality of the teachers.
The 75% pass mark is more of a punitive measure than a realistic reform. Internationally, the standard pass mark is 50%. In Nigeria, it is even 40% from primary school level to tertiary undergraduate level. It is only at the tertiary postgraduate level that it is hiked to 50%. The 75% pass mark is not fair and objective in the assessment of the teachers.
Before the issue of the competency test arose and the eventual purported sack of the teachers, the State had a work force of about 33,000 teachers. After the test and the purported sack, about 21,780 teachers have been earmarked to go. This figure represents about 75% of the work force. In their place, the State Government had conducted another test to recruit about 25,000 new teachers to replace the sacked ones.
The sack letters issued expressly stated that the termination of the appointments of the teachers will be effective from the 3rd of February, 2018. This presupposes that the State Government would have completed the process of recruiting the new teachers before then; and they would start work on the 6th of February, 2018.
The implication of this exercise is that the State Government will replace “incompetence” with inexperience. How long will it take the new teachers to be grounded in the art and skill of teaching? Will this process not deplete the teachers’ work force? What will be the ratio of a teacher to students?
Certainly, not all those that applied for the teaching will score the standard 75% pass mark and the other competency criteria and requirements set by the State Government. Will that not create a shortage in the manpower and work force of teachers in the State? How long will it take the State Government to complete the recruitment process of the 25,000 target of new teachers?
I still do not think that that test, as it were, is the best way to decide the competence and quality of the teachers. More disturbing is the fact that the State Government acted against the rule of natural justice and fairness: it set the questions for the test, mark the scripts, determine the pass mark, adjudge the teachers as incompetent, and decide the percentage or number to be sacked. These processes are all against the run of fair play.
The conduct and language of the Governor and the State Government in the face-off is unfortunate. Uncivil, uncouth and uncomplimentary language unbecoming of leaders has been employed to describe the teachers. They have been termed as “incompetent”, “unworthy”, “quack”, etc. I think it unfair and uncharitable to describe any teacher that scored 50% and above in the competency test with such adjectives.
The politicisation of the face-off is another area of great concern. The State Government is the worst culprit here. After the NUT organised its protest against the sack of the teachers which was roundly condemned by the State Government, there was a counter-protest in support of the sack the next day. If the State Government could roundly condemn the NUT protest, then they should have done the same thing to the other one.
The State Government always alleges that it was the government of the opposition PDP that employed these teachers; and that PDP is the one fueling the present face-off by setting the teachers against the State Government.
I think the Governor and State Government should down play this political antics and face the business of governance for which they were elected. Heaping the blame on PDP for the problems that they, themselves, have created will not solve the problem. It will only exacerbate it and expose their incompetence and lack of focus.
The NUT, on its part, is not without blemish in the whole imbroglio.
As a Labour Union, NUT is expected to be above board in its activism. Therefore, it is supposed to be proactive and not reactive to all the reforms and policies of the State Government that directly or indirectly affect the teachers in the State. The score card of NUT on this is not impressive, to say the least.
The NUT should have vehemently resisted the idea of the State Government conducting any competency test on the teachers in the first place as soon as that idea was muted. If at all it was necessary, it should have insisted that the Teachers Registration Council of Nigeria, but not the State Government, to conduct the test.
By expressly agreeing that the State Government should conduct the test in the first place, NUT has acquiesced to the outcome and therefore cannot be heard to complain afterwards. I think this is the foundational mistake that NUT has made which placed it in a compromised and dicey position; thus making it very difficult for it to redeem its position, especially giving the chain of events and the ripple effects that followed thereafter.
Now that the face-off looms, the sack of the teachers is imminent on the 3rd of February, 2018 and the Governor is still adamant that the teachers must go, NUT has embarked on protest and industrial action. What will NUT achieve with this industrial action?
Over the years, industrial action has proven to be less effective in the agitations of Trade Unions. If negotiation is their ultimate target, as it is always, how effective have the outcomes of these negotiations been?
For instance, each time they embark on strike or industrial action as a result of increase in pump price of petroleum products, especially PMS, negotiations have never led to the desired total reversal of the pump price to the status quo ante bellum. If industrial action does not achieve the desired results, why embark on it over and over again? You cannot do the same thing over and over again and expect different results.
I think the time is ripe for Trade Unions to start thinking outside the box by being creative and ingenious in the way the confront government in industrial face-off. This is because the governments of the day are stubborn and arrogant and industrial actions no longer intimidate them. Therefore, Trade Unions must be proactive and not reactive in their approach. This way, impending face-off may be nipped in the bud.
I have reaons for questioning the efficacy of industrial action in the current face-off between the NUT and the Governor.
By the 3rd of February, 2018, the appointments of these teachers will be automatically terminated and they will cease to be workers in the public service of the State Government. The implication is that they will also cease to be members of NUT. This further means that they have lost their right to protest and embark on any industrial action whatsoever in respect of this face-off. If they dare, their assembly will be tagged as unlawful and criminal.
The right to join a Trade Union, being a constitutional right, is voluntary. No person can be coerced to join or not to join. If the 25,000 or less new teachers to be appointed by the State Government chose not to join the NUT, and the have the right to do so, what becomes of industrial action? Will this not weaken it and demoralise the remaining members? This is because in industrial action of this magnitude, the more the protesters, the more the encouragement.
I am not unaware that there is a pending suit before the Kaduna Judicial Division of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria filed by NUT against the Governor and State Government in respect of the competency test issue. An interlocutory restraining order has also been granted against them. This is a good development.
What will the industrial action achieve that the court action will not? Would the industrial action not jeopardise the court action? Court actions may seem slow and weak in the short run, but it is the strongest and surely in the long run. Industrial action may have a quick-fix effect, but court actions are enduring, lasting, time-testing and final.
In the midst of all the lingering issues I raised herein, the fate of the students is still hanging in the balance of cross-fire between the NUT and the Governor. Ironically, both of them claim they are doing all these for the sake of the education and future of the students.
But, are they both fair to the students? I do not think so.
The face-off is more of a battle of ego. It is between the show-off of Executive powers and that of Union might. It is a flex of pride and arrogance in leadership between the Governor and NUT. It is more of a competition and tussle than a quest to better the lot of the students in terms of the improvement on the quality of their education. The Governor wants to be seen to be a tough and decisive leader who wants to walk his talk; and the teachers want to save their jobs.
I say this because if statistical investigations are carried out, it will reveal that none of the children of the Governor, the key officials in his government, and even the officials of the NUT is attending any public school in the State. Therefore, they care less about what happens to the public school students that are still at home. They are not in the position of locus parentis to the students.
If truly they all care about the education and future of these students as they want us to believe, then a middle-course approach to conciliation must be adopted through dialogue. Pride and arrogance must be dropped.
In addition to the recommendations I made in my earlier write-ups, I will further suggest that the Governor and his team should engage the NUT in a round-table dialogue with a view to collectively reviewing the whole process and come out with lasting and sustainable solutions to the face-off.
This will be easier because the good thing is that even NUT has conceded that the education sector needs reforms; and it is ready to support the Governor and State Government in this regard. The Governor needs NUT much as NUT needs the Governor to effectively carry out these reforms. Only dialogue can achieve these.
The education and future of these students must not be undermined by this face-off.
History and posterity beckon to judge the roles played by both the Governor and NUT in this face-off.
Barrister James Kanyip: Partner at James Kanyip & Co. (Legal Practitioners)