…Speaks on stalemate over N30bn Earned Allowance for varsities staff members
By Johnbosco Agbakwuru
Senator Chris Ngige, Minister of Labour and Employment, in this interview, says the Federal Government has met six of the nine demands made by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) contrary to the union’s claim that nothing has been done, saying efforts are being made to resolve other issues.
What is the update on ASUU strike?
We are negotiating with Academic Staff Union of Universities, Non Academic Staff Union and Senior Staff Association of Nigeria Universities towards ensuring that public tertiary institutions are reopened. As you know ASUU has been on strike since March 9, 2020 to be precise.
We have held meetings, but they opted out of negotiations during the COVID-19 period because they said they didn’t want virtual meetings. So we have just resumed meetings.
We have some grey areas to clear and we will meet again shortly. I am waiting for one or two reports before I communicate a date to them. The major report is the report from the Nigeria Information Technology Development Agency, NITDA, as per the system developed by ASUU which government sent to them for integrity test.
Is it true that government has shifted ground on the payment platform, IPPIS, for ASUU?
No, the University Transparent System, UTAS, which they brought, is not yet ready. It is not fully ready, it is undergoing integrity test for the software. I am not a computer scientist, but you must also know that you must test the hardware in the integrity test for the software. As we speak, ASUU has no hardware and UTAS does not have hardware backing.
It was said that the UTAS will take six months to be developed. Are you going to wait for another six months?
I am waiting for the NITDA full report, but the preliminary report they gave me, the software integrity test will take them about six to eight weeks and thereafter we go to the hardware. But the big issue is who will provide the hardware? ASUU doesn’t have the finances to do so.
Has government budgeted for it now as we speak? That one is a major problem but we don’t have to dissuade anybody, we don’t have to tell anybody not to carry on, we like local content development, we need our things to be home grown. So, we are really encouraging them.
By the time we finish with this other software test to look at its capacity, its ability to withstand shock and hacking etc, the hardware test is in, hacking and security. So by the time we finish it, we will decide on what to do. But do not also forget that we need to have something for us to make payment to them as we speak. For those who have got into the system, they have pointed out the deficiency and they are being corrected, it’s work in progress.
ASUU has claimed that the FG has not fulfilled any of the promises made. What is your reaction?
I don’t know what they mean by none of the demands has been fulfilled. I have said it; we have a nine-point demand from them and, as far as I am concerned as the conciliator, six have been resolved. We have people now appointed to go and visit universities, the President has approved it and the Ministry of Education has sent it to be gazetted.
Like I told the Ministry of Education, the mere fact that the gazette is not out doesn’t mean that the appointments have not been made. So you can announce the appointments. The renegotiating team, again, somebody has been appointed to chair it in the place of Dr Wale Babalakin who has resigned, there is nothing wrong again in announcing the name.
So, those two are gone. Shortfall in payments has been made to the Federal University of Technology, Akure; in fact, government over paid by the report ASUU itself gave, so these three issues are gone. Then NUPEMCO (Nigerian University Pension Management Company), we have gotten PENCOM (National Pension Commission) to give them temporary certificate for them to operate. They gave it to them for one year because there was no pension board but it has been extended, that is the fourth.
The fifth is that they said state universities are being proliferated and we have to impress on state governors not to establish universities they can’t fund, universities that are anemic financially and we arranged and have spoken to the Governors Forum and we have even, as a government, said that the Act establishing the National Universities Commission will be amended in such a way that they can withdraw automatic recognition given to such universities if governors or state governments abuse it by proliferating them.
The other issue is the issue of Ilorin. There are some ASUU members who were not paid Earned Allowances but have now been paid. The three other issues include the issue of revitalization of the university system. The government of former President Goodluck Jonathan in 2009 agreed that it would give them N1.3 trillion, N220 billion every year for the next six years and there was a renegotiated agreement in 2013. And by the renegotiated agreement of 2013, government gave them N200 billion as down payment and they called off their strike.
Government didn’t pay them anything in 2014, nothing in 2015 and this government inherited that agreement in quote because they say government is a continuum. But we have said that we believe in revitalization. We have also said that we are not reneging on the agreement entered by a past government, but we will find other sources of generating funds to implement.
And a committee was set up for it and that committee had a workshop, the decisions were validated, it was brought to the President and the President signed. Meanwhile, we paid a token of N25 billion three times. So, this year, government offered N20 billion and said that, because of COVID-19, we can’t afford much.
But they are saying no, that they want N110 billion while the entire COVID-19 budget for health, humanitarian services, job creation, everything is N500 billion. So, that is where we are on that. However, government said we are looking at everything. On Earned Academic Allowances, N30 billion was given with an understanding that it is for all the unions in the universities but when they (ASUU) got back to their members, they said the N30 billion was only for ASUU.
Whereas government, based on the initial agreement, the N30 billion was for all them, we negotiated with NASU (Non-Academic Union of Universities), we negotiated with SSANU (Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities) and NAAT (National Association of Academic Technologists) and we told them “the N30 billion is there for you”.
After struggling for a while, they all agreed that they will go with ASUU and use the former template which they have been using in sharing because that wasn’t the first time we are giving them money on Earned Allowances.
There is a template of 70 per cent for ASUU and 30 percent for other unions or something like that, I can’t remember the exact sharing formula; the Ministry of Education does it for them.
Based on that, those unions called off their strike about one month ago and went back to work. The issue here now is if ASUU takes the N30 billion alone, these other unions will go on strike, they will close the gates of universities, close the library, shut water supply, they will shut the bursar’s office, clinics, registry, electricity and everywhere.
And once they do that, you are as good as having achieved nothing because when the lecturing halls are locked up, when the auditoriums are locked up, when laboratories are locked up, where do you teach students? So, we are taking it holistically and I am appealing to them to see it that these are all fingers in the university system; you need everyone so that we can once reopen for everybody.