By Adesina Wahab
It is the ninth month since university lecturers across Nigeria commenced their strike on March 9, leaving undergraduates stranded at home.
Issues revolve around unpaid Earned Academic Allowances, Visitation Panels not yet set up for universities as demanded by the lecturers, poor funding of the university system, and the University Transparency and Accountability System, UTAS, preferred by the lecturers as against the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System, IPPS, adopted by government to pay public servants ostensibly to eliminate ghost workers.
In this interview, the National President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, speaks on the efforts to resolve the strike and why it is taking so long to break the deadlock. He attacks the Minister of Labour, Dr. Chris Ngige, saying he is playing hide and seek with ASUU. Excerpts:
After several meetings between your union and the government team, what is still the bone of contention?
It is government that has not done anything. They are yet to pay the withheld salaries of our members which is between five and eight months, the Earned Academic Allowances have not been paid, Visitation Panels not yet set up for the universities and negotiation has not even really started.
On our part, we have made appreciable progress in developing our University Transparency and Accountability System, UTAS, and we need the cooperation of the government to conclude it. We don’t need six to eight weeks to complete work on it as some people are making Nigerians to believe.
The Minister of Labour, Dr Chris Ngige, is playing hide and seek game with us. We will tell Nigerians about that appropriately. He is saying we are the problem, but we are not. He is behaving like a conspirator and not a conciliator.
It is unfortunate that tertiary institutions and education are in the state they are now. In 2013, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding, MOU, with the Federal Government, but when we reminded them about the Revitalization Fund for universities, it was like they wanted to repudiate the agreement. But that is not going to happen, government is a continuum.
Is there any hope the matter could be resolved at your next meeting with the government team?
We cannot predict what will happen because we have presented our charter of demands to government since. We have shifted ground on a number of issues. It is left for government to do their own part of the bargaining. If they insist on continuous use of Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System, IPPIS, and they refuse to pay our withheld salaries, it may be difficult to resolve the crisis. They know how they pay workers who are not on IPPIS their salaries and we are not going to be intimidated.
Can’t your union shift ground on some issues given the poor state of the economy now?
Let me begin with this. The 2013 MOU was signed with the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan and it has, as a major component, the need to inject funds into public universities. The NEEDS Assessment Committee set up by government went round 68 universities, both federal and state, and it was agreed that about N1.3 trillion be injected into the system over a six-year period: N200 billion was released in 2013 and that N220 billion be released annually for five years. But nothing was released for those years.
When this government came into office, they said we did not sign the agreement with them, but we said government is a continuum. They eventually agreed and said they would own it. In 2017, they promised to look at more sources of revenue and we suggested to them some areas they could look into and they did and have been raking in money from those sources without meeting our demands. On February 7, 2019, another MOU was signed.
In March, this year, they said they would release N20 billion out of the expected N220 billion revitalization fund, but we said no. But we shifted ground to accept N110 billion. What can N20 billion do to redress the bad situation in the system now? Take the issue of hostel accommodation, how many hostels can be built or rehabilitated with N20 billion?
In 2019, they promised to pay us Earned Academic Allowances, they said they would pay in November 2019 and August 2020 but they did not pay. Later they said they would pay N40 billion and we agreed. We negotiated for our members and we don’t know what other unions want and now imagine what they are saying, they plan to pay N30 billion to everybody – all the unions.
If you were in government’s shoes, what would you do?
I will declare a state of emergency in the education sector. At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, we said we had two emergencies on hand, one in the education sector and the other in health. Unfortunately, it is like we don’t know what we want in Nigeria. Our leaders, when they are looking for development partners, they can go to Benin Republic and bring somebody in ties and who is fair skinned and say that he is an expert when our people in the universities are who they need. Look at how they have destroyed our public primary and secondary schools. We won’t let them do that to our public universities. We can launch appeal fund for the education sector. Did they not mobilize funds during COVID-19? We must raise funds for the sector and over one trillion naira can be raised. They want public universities to die for private ones they set up through proxies to thrive. If we solve the problem in our public universities, the multiplier effects will be felt in all the sectors of our education system.
But students are tired of staying at home; they now see ASUU as the one that does not want the matter resolved.
It will be unfortunate if we allow that to happen. We have the opportunity to save public education. It is a sacrifice we must make to save the system.
Remember that our agitation in the past led to the establishment of TETfund; the NEEDS Assessment Committee that went round the country, I was in one of the teams and we went to some universities and, in one of the leading universities, we saw students using stoves to generate heat in the laboratory. We are going nowhere if the current system is allowed to continue. We are not planning for our children.
We must adopt inter-generational approach to issues. If you have a child in the public university here, our leaders have sent their children to foreign universities where they attend Harvard or Cambridge, who will they give jobs in CBN, NNPC and other top firms to? We sympathize with everybody but we are pained that nobody is thinking about the future of these our children.
Government is romancing rival CONUA. Is ASUU not afraid it could lose relevance?
We saw that coming because the minister had mooted that and even issued subtle threats a number of times. We know it will come to that. We wish him luck. If he thinks divide and conquer is the best approach, he is wrong. That cannot help anybody.
How do you feel leading ASUU in its longest strike?
We started the strike in March and few days after, the country was locked down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was not until late June that the country started opening up. So, one might not be able to count the first three months as part of the strike. Even as we speak, not all tertiary institutions are running. Polytechnics too are not running because we are not prepared as a nation for our education system to run seamlessly under a condition we have now found ourselves. The issue of the strike is not about how long, but how government responds. Remember that from 2013 to 2017, there was no strike.
If government shows the will, we can address the issues. But to isolate ASUU or paint it in bad color is unnecessary. We are carrying out a historic responsibility and history will vindicate us.