Industrial Court Voids Ban of ASUU by Ebonyi State University, Awards N6m Damages

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The Presiding Judge, Abakaliki Judicial Division of the National Industrial Court, Hon. Justice Oluwakayode Arowosegbe has declared the actions of the Ebonyi State University, Abakaliki, its Vice Chancellor, Registrar and Bursar banning the lawful activities of the Academic Staff Union of Universities as unconstitutional, illegal, ultra-vires and in contravention of Section 40 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) and therefore null and void.

Justice Arowosegbe reversed the suspension of the ASUU’s members, Associate Professor Ikechukwu Igwenyi and Professor Ndubuisi Idenyi, and mandated the Ebonyi State University to unseal the Union’s secretariat located and situated at CAS Campus of the University.

The Court further granted an order mandating the defendants to release the Union’s check-off dues from November 2021 to date and welfare dues from March 2022 till the date, and an order of perpetual injunction restraining the University, their privies, agents, appointees or those acting under their instructions from further interfering in the lawful activities of the ASUU as legally established and registered association.

Justice Arowosegbe also ordered Ebonyi State University to pay the arrears of salaries withheld to the two suspended unionists, Professor Ikechukwu Okorie Igwenyi and Professor Ndubuisi Idenyi with the sum of N6m dissuasive compensation.

From facts, the claimants- ASUU and 5 others had submitted that through a radio broadcast on 18th November 2021, the Ebonyi State University banned the Union and its members and consequently issued query to one Prof. Ndubuisi Idenyi, the then Chairman of the 1st Union’s Ethics and Conflict Committee, accusing him of insubordination for inviting members of the union to a meeting on 24th November 2021 and, consequently suspended him from work on 7th December 2021.

The Union deposed that Ebonyi State University, Abakaliki, its Vice Chancellor, Registrar and Bursar sealed the office of the union, seized the check-off dues, and painted the story of fractionalization as the excuse for their actions.

In defence, the defendants- Ebonyi State University, Abakaliki, its Vice Chancellor, Registrar and Bursar argued that the University did not ban the union, as portrayed and that, it only forestalled breakdown of law and order, and the query and suspension of Professor Ndubuisi Idenyi was purely administrative and backed by the University statute and that the right to freedom of association has limitations.

The defendants maintained that the check-off dues were withheld because the University did not want it to go to the wrong hands. The University deposed that, the wrong assumption of office by Professor Ikechukwu led to crisis, which precipitated the actions of the University, and urged the court to dismiss the case for lacking merit.

In opposition, counsel to ASUU and 5 others, Femi Falana, SAN averred that the university failed to prove the alleged crisis leading to its actions, and urged the Court to grant the reliefs sought.

Delivering the judgment after careful evaluation of the submissions of both parties, the presiding Judge, Justice Oluwakayode Arowosegbe held that employers’ proprietary rights are not absolute and cannot therefore, be exercised to take away the labour rights conferred by SS. 40 & 254C-(1)(f)-(h)&(2) of the Constitution and the provisions of the TUA and ILO instruments.

Justice Arowosegbe held that if an employer does not want to allow unions to hold meetings in its premises, it must not employ workers, that the Union and its members have a right to hold union meetings within the 1st defendant’s premises, so far it is not within working hours and do not interfere with the works of the defendants.

The Court ruled that the action of the University withholding the check-off dues and welfare dues of the union is a further confirmation that, they not only banned ASUU-EBSU but also, actually killed the ASUU-EBSU, as Check-off dues are the soul and blood of unionism.

Justice Arowosegbe held that the banning of the activities of the ASUU-EBSU, hounding of the officers out of the Ebonyi State University campuses, suspending these officers, coupled with the withholding of the check-off and welfare dues, and the salaries of the suspended officers is unmistakable proof of the total annihilation of the ASUU-EBSU.

The Court stated that fractionalization in the union is not within the remit of the ESUL, and the University and its Vice Chancellor and registrar have no vires at all, to ban the affairs of the ASUU and its members, and to subsequently issue queries for disobeying the ban not to hold meetings of the Union or, on any infraction intra-vires the relationships between union and its members or between the members of a union inter se, as to the issue of factions causing crisis in a union.

Justice Arowosegbe declared that Ebonyi State University, Its Vice Chancellor and Registrar have no power to act on, deal with or make any pronouncement whatsoever on a matter relating to trade unions which is an item in the Exclusive Legislative List as contained in the Second Schedule, Part 1 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended).