When I took the oath of office as Nigeria’s democratically elected Vice President in 1999 it was the culmination of decades of struggle against military rule. Our path to a legitimate, meaningful constitution and democracy took a personal toll on many Nigerians who fought to free us from dictatorship.
And I took the sacrifices of the many just as seriously as my oath and constitutional duties.
But the Nigerian Constitution severely restricts the powers of the vice presidency. Essentially, any executive powers or active policy roles must be delegated directly by the President. This is not an excuse; it is a constitutional reality.
So, today, six years after serving as Vice President, as a citizen of Nigeria, I am calling for an end to the almost three-month long strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), which has denied tens of thousands of students an opportunity to continue their studies.
After weeks of asking Nigerians online and in meetings for their ideas on #EducationSolutions for our future, one common immediate concern kept emerging: We must end the ASUU strike. So I instructed my office to initiate an online petition advocating an end to the strike by calling on the Federal Government and ASUU to finally reach a consensus so our students can get back to school.
While our petition action has been well received, some have been critical, specifically pointing out that there were several ASUU strikes during my term as Vice President (199-2007).
The critics are not wrong. During President Olusegun Obasanjo’s two terms there were numerous strikes, including several initiated by the ASUU and the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC).
But if I am going to get criticized for labour unrest while serving under President Obasanjo – whom I fought bitterly with over his attempts to change the constitution allowing himself a third term – let me take some credit for the one labour dispute I was officially tasked by the President to mediate:
In early July 2003, the NLC was in the midst of bitter, nationwide strike over increased fuel prices. I vividly remember the negotiations we were engaged in with labour leaders one week into the strike. Frustrated and angry with the talks, President Obasanjo stormed out of the meeting. Upon leaving he declared he would no longer mediate and told the labour leaders that from here on they would have to deal with the Vice President.
For the remainder of the day I shouldered the burden of negotiating a resolution to the strike. By evening, both the FG and the NLC reached a consensus and in the wee hours of the morning, President Obasanjo issued a statement announcing the end of the strike.
I never got any credit for helping resolve the 2003 NLC strike, as my job was to serve at the pleasure of the President. But I didn’t need credit as the priority was ending the strike.
Would I love to go back in time and have the presidential authority to mediate and solve all of Nigeria’s labour unrest during that time period? Yes. But I can’t.
But I do know this: Strikes, while a constitutionally granted right, always have winners and losers. And today, the ones losing out are our students. The Federal Government always has a choice: They can negotiate in good faith and reach compromise and consensus, or let strikes fester and do harm.
I can’t change the past when I served under President Obasanjo. But collectively, we can change the future.
That’s why I am calling on the Federal Government and the ASUU to work together to end this strike. If you agree with me, then join me in signing our petition.
And if you are angry with me over strikes dating back to the Obasanjo administration that is certainly your right. But that does not change the fact that today our students are on the losing end of the ASUU strike. It is time we demand its end.