Fred Ezeh, Abuja
Classrooms in polytechnics have been under lock and key for over a month. The reason was because of industrial disagreement between the academic staff in the polytechnic system and the Federal Government.
President, Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP), Mr Usman Dutse in this interview explained the current state of affairs.
What is the situation report concerning ASUP and federal government on the on-going strike?
It’s important that I give you brief background knowledge of this struggle. The strike was a continuation of the struggle we started since 2017. Recall that we embarked on warning strike sometimes in 2017 and later suspended it after several appeal and intervention from well meaning Nigerians. Government made several promises that year which our National Executive Council (NEC) deliberated on and decided to suspend the strike, to allow for further discussion. In 2018, we signed some agreements with the government on how best to address seven items that we thought was most critical to the academic and infrastructural development of polytechnics. All parties agreed that within two to three months, the issues would be resolved. Unfortunately, the issues exceeded the agreed time, lingered for over a year without empirical signs and commitment from government to address them. After extensive deliberation, NEC decided that we should give government ultimatum to address the issues or we consider other options. The ultimatum was issued on October 2nd, 2018. Government quickly reacted by extending invitation to us on October 16th. We met with government representatives and had extensive discussion on the issues. They showed us efforts and steps they have made to address the issues. But we were obviously unsatisfied with it and we told them there. They then suggested that we give them more time to look at the issues the second time. We agreed, and gave them one month as requested. The one month time came and passed and nothing tangible was done. When we saw their unsatisfactory and insincere response to our needs, we decided to embark on strike on December 12th, 2018. Polytechnics classrooms were closed that day. On December 17th, we were invited for a meeting with the representatives of federal government. At that meeting, we discussed the issues one by one, review their efforts. Unfortunately, we were still unsatisfied with their efforts. Nothing tangible or impressive was presented to us. We felt that more need to be done and that the strike should continue. After then, another meeting was fixed for January10th, 2019. On that day, none of the government representatives was available for the meeting. They neither communicate to us verbally nor written before the meeting date. We all gathered at the meeting venue and were told that government representatives couldn’t make it. We were totally disappointed and insulted by the fact that principal officers of government could avoid such crucial meeting that would bring solutions to industrial dispute in the polytechnics. We resolved to reschedule the meeting. But they are yet to communicate to us regarding the new date for the meeting.
Could their absence mean they attached less importance in reopening the polytechnic?
That was what they made us feel. In fact, we felt disrespected and insulted. They would have communicated to us properly about their sudden absence instead of keeping quiet, and allowed us to assemble at the meeting venue before we were told by their staff that they are indisposed for the meeting. That was an unfair treatment to us.
What are the critical issues in this dispute?
The issues are numerous but we narrowed it down to seven items, which, to us, are key needs of the institutions. The NEEDS assessment is key in the struggle. It has lingered for five to six years now without proper attention from government. It was same government that assembled the team that went round to assess the needs. Regrettably, nothing has been done since then on the outcome of the exercise. We thought there would have been a serious action and timeline to work on the end document so that institutions could be better of. They would have been brought up to date, academically and otherwise, with their contemporaries across the world. Another one is the Earned Academic Allowance (EAA). It was a serious matter to us. In fact, there was a time government stopped the payment of EAA on the ground of revenue shortfalls. They later promised to address it after several agitations. Our concern was that the financial burden of EAA was shifted to institutions based on their Internally Generated Revenue (IGR). The implication was that salaries could not be paid because institutions fail to raise IGR. The institutions complained that the burden was much on them. And they cannot afford to pay salaries and allowances at same time. Ideally, it is the responsibility of government to pay the allowances and not the institutions. So, we challenged the government to rise to its responsibilities and provide the needed funds for the allowance. But they have assured us that efforts are being made to include all the allowances in the budget.
Can you disclose some of the offers made to you at previous meetings?
There is no need talking about that because we were not satisfied with what they presented to us concerning the issues we raised. For instance, they convinced us that the reviewed Polytechnic Bill was on the table of the President awaiting his action. They showed us communications between them and the Presidency requesting for inputs and clarifications on some parts of the bill. They claimed to have done that. So we were heart broken when we heard that the President refused assent to the bill.
You presented seven items to government. Will you suspend strike if they met two or three of them?
I can’t speak on that now. Let government start first, then, we would meet them halfway. Nigerians must understand that we don’t take pleasure in shutting down the institutions; we are only making case for better academic services in the schools, which would be made possible through improved funding and adequate welfare for workers. But I must emphasis that the items we presented to government are very critical to the academic life of the polytechnic system and government need to act on them as quickly as possible.
What promise did you get from federal government as regards the NEEDS assessment?
They made several promises during our meetings but none was followed with action. For instance, they (government) promised to release initial N50 billion as revitalisation fund to serve as infrastructural intervention in the institutions but that has not been done. They only showed us correspondents on their efforts to release the fund. But institutions are yet to get it. With what they told us in previous meetings, we expect that institutions should have received the money by now. But that has not been done.
What about the review of Polytechnic establishment Act?
That is another area that we have had great challenge with the government and our people are seriously disturbed about that. The polytechnic review bill was in the National Assembly for close to three years. It successfully passed through all legislative process including public hearing which had impressive participation of all stakeholders. They made suggestions and inputs, and they were all accommodated in the document that was submitted to the President. We thereafter waited patiently for his assent only to hear the heart breaking news few days ago that he denied his assent to it for some reasons. We were told that he was unhappy with some sections, particularly the part that had to do with the power of the President to appoint or remove Rector or governing council members. We were seriously concerned about the development. We had wanted the President assent to the bill, and then subsequently, he could make suggestions for further improvements. That is the way forward.
What are key components of the new Polytechnic bill that you will like Nigerians to know?
They contain lot of innovative piece of laws and guidelines that would herald sudden academic and infrastructural revolution in the institutions. We have the issue of “mandate” of polytechnic which was extended. Another one was tenure of principle officers, composition of academic board, issue of visitors and several other things. Ideally, the Act provides the guidelines on how the institutions are run.
Do you suspect that some people are deliberately working against the success of the bill?
There are clear indications that some yet to be identified persons are seriously working against us. We can’t pin them down now but we won’t relent until success is achieved. We don’t know their reasons for such sabotage but we appeal to them to have a rethink and join the struggle to salvage our polytechnic system from academic and infrastructural collapse.
Happenings at state owned polytechnics have been a major concern to ASUP?
Our members face worst working conditions there. But we are changing our approach to enforce the rights of our people. It might sound incredible to Nigerians, but the truth is that some state owned institutions are treating our members badly. We have complained to the concerned states government about it and no significant improvement has been seen on that regard. Aside the poor treatment, our members are owed several months of salaries and allowances. Our records indicated that the least is four months. Others are 10 to 12 months salary. That is pure wickedness if you asked me. In this case no one is talking about allowances and other entitlements. Workers in such institutions are totally unhappy and that could evidently be seen in their output. Worst case scenario could be found in Abia State Polytechnic, Aba; Benue State Polytechnic, Edo State Polytechnic, Kogi State Polytechnic, Bayelsa State Polytechnic and several others.
Nigerians have accused your union of being selfish in your demands. How do you react to that?
That is not true and unfair to us. We have been confronted with that accusation several times. But I always maintained that this endless struggle is never for the welfare of our members but that of the entire polytechnic system. There is no doubt that polytechnics have suffered from prolonged financial and infrastructural neglect from government, and that could be seen in the quality of educational services being rendered in the schools. In addition to that, the polytechnic establishment laws are obsolete and need urgent review so the institutions could work in line with 21st century global standards. We, at some points go off the law to do things that we feel could help the institutions. Another good example is the NEEDS assessment. The fund would have gone a long way to provide adequate infrastructures that would aid teaching and learning in the institutions. But government seem to have turned deaf ears on that. Originally, polytechnics are practical base institutions and otherwise would lead to “half baked” graduates. Polytechnics achieve more if adequate infrastructures are provided to combine theory and practical knowledge. Parents, students and stakeholders must know that we are not selfish. We are only asking government to do the needful regarding the benefit of the students and the society.
Are you confident that solutions would come soon?
It depends on the sincerity of the government. Many people in government do give excuses that the agitation started long before they came into power. But I believe that government is continua. New government always inherit asset and liability. We believe that durable solution will come if government establishes an independent Commission that would solely carter for the affairs of the polytechnics, same way they treated the universities and colleges of education. We equally suggested that regulatory role be taken away from the National Board for Technical Education (NBTE), which has over 500 other institutions under its watch. They are obviously overwhelmed and that was why we get lesser attention from them.
What other ways or strategies could be adopted to resolve this unending dispute?
We have bent our rules several times to accommodate the views of the government. We have met several times with relevant stakeholders and had extensive discussions on the best way to improve academic and infrastructural needs of the institutions. But unfortunately, in most of the cases, we end up writing reports that are never implemented. That’s totally discouraging and I am not sure if our people would continue that way this time. There are clear indications that government is not ready to attend to us. We could see that they are deliberately frustrating our efforts to restore the lost glory of the polytechnic system.
Are you impressed with level of funding of Nigeria education system?
Absolutely dissatisfied. Check through our annual budgetary proposal. Provision for education is absolutely inadequate. In fact, it has continued to drop year by year since 2015. Budgetary provisions for higher institutions in Nigeria cannot be effective in providing quality teaching and learning services in the schools. My fear is that several policies of government, economic or otherwise, might be effort in futility if education is not funded properly.
What has been the position of NEC regarding the strike?
NEC agreed that the strike should continue because the fight is a genuine one. And it’s not for self enrichment but for the betterment of our students and entire society. They resolved that the seven items presented to government was critical to academic and infrastructural growth and development of the polytechnic system.