Kano, Abuja and Zaria — The protracted dispute between the Federal Government and striking university lecturers took a new dimension yesterday when the Minister of Education issued a week's ultimatum to the teachers to resume work or be sacked.
Mr. Nyesom Wike, who addressed a news conference in Abuja, ordered vice chancellors to re-open all federal universities immediately, and said lecturers who failed to resume by December 4 will lose their jobs.
He also directed the vice chancellors to place adverts for internal and external vacancies to fill the slots that may arise from the firing of recalcitrant lecturers.
The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has been on strike since July 1, demanding the implementation of a 2009 agreement signed with the government.
That agreement provided for better funding for universities and higher pay for lecturers, among others.
Two weeks ago, ASUU chapters in the universities voted for the end of the strike after debating government's offer for phased implementation of the disputed agreement.
But instead of the national leaders to call off the strike, they wrote a letter to President Goodluck Jonathan demanding that the Federal Government should within two weeks begin injecting the pledged N200 billion into the universities.
ASUU further demanded that government should renegotiate the 2009 agreement by 2014 and the Attorney General of the Federation be made to be the signatory to the memorandum of understanding.
Government said these "fresh" demands were outrageous.
"It was becoming obvious that the union is taking the Presidency and Nigerians for a ride," the Minister of Education said yesterday.
"Government has reviewed the entire situation and come to the conclusion that the continuation of the strike action is an attempt by ASUU to sabotage all the efforts to address the issues.
"As a responsible government, we cannot allow the continuous closure of our public universities for this length of time as this poses danger to the education system, the future of our youths and national development."
He added: "Vice-Chancellors should ensure that staff who resume for work are provided with the enabling environment for academic and allied activities, any academic staff who fails to resume on or before 4 of December, 2013 automatically ceases to be a staff of the institution."
In a reaction to the minister's threats, ASUU president Nasir Fagge told Daily Trust yesterday that the union was awaiting a reply to a letter sent to President Jonathan.
He said the union had written to the president on the outcome of their national executive meeting which held in Kano to consider the government's offer over the strike.
"I don't normally take instructions over the media," Fagge said, referring to the instruction by Wike for the lecturers to resume or face the sack.
"We wrote a letter to the president through the minister on our position after our NEC meeting. So we are still waiting for him to reply to our letter. I will not want to react to what the minister said in the media because there are incidences whereby he denied saying what he was quoted as saying in the media."
But Fagge was apparently downplaying the anger of the lecturers, as some chapters of ASUU and individual teachers said they would not be intimidated by the minister.
Soon after the minister's news conference, the authorities of the University of Abuja announced the reopening of its campuses. It asked students to resume on Sunday.
But ASUU chairman at the University of Abuja, Dr. Clement Chup, said: "The school can go ahead and ask students to resume but we won't do any work; we won't teach them. It is not our responsibility to resume until ASUU decides.
"We're not afraid of that (sack). (The minister) can go to the motor park to recruit lecturers that will lecture the students. You can now see the insincerity of some people in government... . We dare them to sack us."
Chairman of the ASUU chapter at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Dr Mohammed Kabir Aliyu, told Daily Trust that the minister's pronouncements exposed him as being ignorant of the university system.
"The minister is ignorant... . He thinks the university is a ministry or a local government. It shows why we still have the problem. Most of them never went to the university and don't even know what a university is," he said.
A lecturer at the Bayero University, Kano, said: "It is an empty threat and as such we are not deterred. If they sack all of us where will they get those who will fill the vacuum? All the professors in this country are engaged in one institution or the other. Are they going to employ fresh graduates? And who will conduct interview for them?"
When contacted on orders for reopening universities, the head of ABU's public affairs directorate, Dr. Isma'il Shehu, said the university was not officially closed.
"ABU was not closed. Therefore, the university has been operating for all the months of the strike. We still have students in the hostels. Some of them are writing their projects or theses; they are accessing the libraries and other academic facilities," he said.
Meanwhile, Inspector-General of Police, Mr Mohammed Abubakar, has ordered immediate provision of adequate security in and around university campuses nationwide.
In a statement, Police Force Headquarters spokesman CSP Frank Mba said the measure was designed to secure life and property in the institutions and provide enabling environment for lecturers, students and other members of staff to go about their lawful businesses without hindrance. The statement directed all Commissioners of Police to personally oversee the intensification of surveillance in universities in their states.
Abdulwasiu Hassan, Ademola Adebayo, Francis Okeke, Ronald Mutum, Isa Liman, Ismail Mudashir and Hassan Gimba Yahya