From Adanna Nnamani, Abuja
President of the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP), Dr Anderson Ezeibe is a lecturer at the Federal Polyethnic, Nekede, Imo State.
He is also a seasoned activist, who has been on the forefront of fights for welfare of the masses.
He rose through the ranks of Student Union Government and has served ASUP in various capacities, including Secretary General, Zone D Coordinator, Chairman Nekede Chapter, among others.
In this interview, he bares his mind on the plight of Nigerian workers in the face of growing inflation and insecurity and the union’s battles with the government to get better infrastructure and improved welfare for its members.
The general issue concerning Nigerian workers is rapidly rising inflation. The purchasing power of many Nigerian workers has gone down. Meanwhile, the NNPC Group Managing Director recently gave a hint that the pump price of petrol will increase to N340-N350/litre, even though the take home of work is still stagnant. What is your position?
The current salary structure in Nigerian polytechnics, for instance, came to life in 2010. And that is why we’re talking about re-negotiating the 2010-2019 agreement. Today, the exchange rate has depreciated by more than 200 per cent. Consider that of the salary of a chief lecturer is about N400,000. The current value of the purchasing power of that amount is not up to N70,000 now. So, inflation has made a mess of the paltry sum called the minimum wage increase. Look at the price of gas, electricity tariff and the increments with respect to the price of fuel. And now they’re talking about further increase. It’s going to be a very difficult one. We don’t expect Nigerians to throw up their hands and watch this happen because Nigerians have actually been driven to the precipice. Like I said earlier, it is not enough to say there is no money. You have not shown that there is no money. The level of opulence by the ruling class does not show that there is no money. I was watching a television programme yesterday, one of the states where polytechnic lecturers are being owed for 31 months, the governor of that state was talking about the fact that he is unrepentant. You are owing people for about 31 months and you are unrepentant. In that same state recently, they bought about a 100 Hilux vehicles and distributed them to Personal Assistants, Special Advisers, and Personal Aides to the state governor, in a state where workers are owed for 31 months. So, you see a misplacement of priority. The size of political governance is unwieldy. It is not sustainable. That’s where the problem is. Our priorities are not right. Money is never enough. Resources are never enough. It is a matter of where do you place your priorities? It is very unfortunate. We want to develop, yet the sectors that have direct impact on human development indices are left to rot away, like education and health. So, it’s very unfortunate, but I know that labour is not going to fold its arms and watch the complete annihilation of the people by poverty. And I do not see how the government can conceive this kind of idea, particularly at a time like this.
The government has proposed to provide N5,000 monthly for 40 million poor Nigerians to cushion the effect of the fuel subsidy removal. What are your thoughts on this?
What is it supposed to do? What will N5,000 do? First of all, what will be the framework? How implementable is it? How do you identify the 40 million people? Our belief is, and we have justification in the fact that this is the usual trend. It has happened before, it has continued to happen. This is a ploy to also take money because like I said, what is the framework? How do you identify the people you are giving the N5,000? And what impact will N5,000 make? Is N5,000 up to $10? It is less than $10. So, what are they going to do with that? There is a lot of insecurity in the land. People cannot go to farms. We are going to face food crisis in the foreseeable future. We read in the newspapers that those in Zamfara and other parts of the North cannot go to the farms to harvest because of insecurity. You cannot move on the roads because of insecurity. People are also afraid to go by rail because of insecurity. The country is on its knees. And we still keep deceiving ourselves, talking about things that are not implementable, and politicians live in opulence, with a political official who will be going in a convoy of 15 to 20 vehicles all at once. And you expect the populace to understand and agree with you that there is no money. We don’t, we don’t believe in the N5,000.
What is the explanation for the incessant strikes? Is there no alternative means of getting the government to fulfill its negotiated obligations?
Well, to start with, strike is a legitimate instrument of engagement. It is recognized by international labour laws, regional labour laws and even Nigerian labour laws. So, strike is a legitimate instrument of engagement between organised labour and employers. In this instance, it is between organised labour and the government, which is the biggest employer of labour in Nigeria. Be that as it may, in recent times, the discussion has always been like the responsibility to stay away or look for an alternative to embarking on strike is that of the labour movements. But that responsibility is not for the labour unions alone. Government in itself or employers of labour themselves should also think out other ways. It is easy to say that academic unions like ours, because we’re intellectuals, have the capacity to think of other means that are less disruptive, and more productive in that sense. But I also would like to say that there are intellectuals in every sector of the nation’s economy. Whether it’s the health sector, the legal profession, in every other sector, even in government, there are intellectuals as well. So, the responsibility like I talked about is for all. It is for the nation. And if you now look at the key issue, the reason strikes come, you find out that the main reason has to do with breach of contractual agreements. In this sense, anytime we have discussions with the government, it ends up with what we call a collective bargaining process. It normally ends up with an agreement. The agreements come in different nomenclatures. It can come as a written agreement, it can come as a Memorandum of Understanding, it can come as a Memorandum of Action, whatever name, the outcome of a collective bargaining process ends with an agreement where the parties sign dotted lines to say, okay, this is how we can resolve this. A lot of times, it is the government that operates in breach of these agreements, and that is why strikes continue to occur, because the trade unions get frustrated and the only way to attract the attention of governments and the sympathy of the Nigerian public is to embark on strike. Recently, of course, ASUP organized a roundtable and the essence of the roundtable was also to interrogate certain issues that the government is afraid of looking at or let me say they appear lethargic in the way they approach such issues and also to develop alternative means of solving some of these problems. That was the essence. Of course, there were resolutions at the end of the roundtable and it is left for us, the stakeholders, including government, because government was well represented at the roundtable, to see to the implementation of those resolutions. If the parties are committed to implementation of those resolutions, I can assure you that in the foreseeable future, there won’t be industrial crises anymore.
What is actually responsible for the tendency of past and present governments to renege on agreements?
It calls to question the leadership structure of the nation. That is just what it is. That is what is being interrogated. Leadership has a lot to do with integrity and integrity is about honesty. You do what you say you’re going to do, being a gentleman. You respect agreements, particularly agreements that you did not sign under duress. So, it calls to question the quality of leadership and our leadership recruitment process in Nigeria. That is what it is. The persons who administer critical sectors of our nation’s economy, are they really the persons who are supposed to be there? Are they persons that will set the right kind of examples? Because by what you’re doing, you’re setting examples. We are teachers, and you’re telling us that we can violate agreements. That means that we can also be dishonest to our students. And that is wrong. That is passing the wrong example. And so it goes to question our leadership recruitment process. Because this whole thing is a system. Those in the National Assembly, are they the ones who should be there? Those at the executive arms, are they the ones who should be there? So, that is the critical question. I lead a trade union and we have employees in the union as well and there is a term for the engagement of these persons. We have terms of engagement for them. And so, are we reneging on the terms of our engagement with those workers? If we renege then, there is everything wrong with it. If we cannot afford to continue with the existing terms, we need to be honest and open about it and say, ‘Look, we cannot do this anymore. Look at the issues, we can’t do this anymore. Can we take a second look at this realistically?’ And then you lead by example, because you can’t say, for instance, that you don’t have this water here, yet you’re gulping water. And then the next person that also needs water, you tell the person that there is no water. I can only believe that there is no water when I’m thirsty, I see that I’m not taking and you are also not taking. But if you can’t give me this 75 cl bottle of water, you tell me that it is not there, and I watch you take two liters of water. You know there’s a problem, because I can’t believe you. So, like I said, leadership is about integrity. It’s about honesty, commitment and passion for the development of the nation. And I think these qualities are in short supply in Nigeria.
Earlier this year, ASUP was on strike and then you suspended it based on some commitments. What is the update on those demands and the response of the government so far?
Yes, we were on strike for 61 days between April and June this year. And, of course, it dovetailed into a set of negotiations that led to the signing of a Memorandum of Action. That strike was suspended for three months, so as to gauge the level of commitment of the government towards implementing the provisions of that MoA. You can see that there is a serious lack of trust. That’s why it was suspended for those three months. Now, after the three months suspension, we reviewed the progress. Some items in the agreements have been met. For instance, the governing councils in federal polytechnics were reconstituted. Visitation panels were set up and they have gone on the assignments, and have completed them. Certain moves by the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation to deduct money from members’ salaries in the guise of backroom backlogs of unremitted Pay as You Earn tax liabilities between 2002 and 2018, we believe also that that matter was not handled because nobody is talking about it anymore. Now, the process of implementation for some items has been initiated. We had expected that by now they would have been concluded. For instance, members of our union in federal polytechnics are owed 10 months in arrears of the new minimum wage. Now, if you look back, the Minimum Wage Act came into life in April 2019. And that is the law. But the government has operated in breach of that law as it affects our sector. So, our people are owed 10 months in arrears. Of course, the government knows that they are owing and they say that they are going to pay. They initiated the process. They went to the National Assembly, and got supplementary appropriation to offset it. And that was like two months ago. But as we speak, the monies have not been paid. The institutions have been asked to make submissions of the beneficiaries and their claims. But despite the submissions, the monies are still not released and we are coming to the end of the year. We have the issue of the needs assessments report of 2015. Government says they don’t have money, but they will release some money as revitalization funds for infrastructure in the sector. And so N15 billion was approved. Now, we have seen a letter conveying approval from the Presidency, but the funds have not been released. So, if you look at the period that we are talking about, you see that a few items have been met, some have not been met. In fact, majority have not been met as a matter of fact, and in all honesty, members are getting restive again and it won’t be a surprise if they decide to stay away from the classrooms, again, to compel the government to respect the agreement it signed.
Your organization is accommodated in the Ministry of Education. In your last engagement with the Minister of Education, did you see honesty in his handling of this very matter? Do you see a possibility of projecting further action from them?
Well, you gauge honesty by actions, by activities. You don’t gauge honesty by the look on people’s faces. You gauge honesty by outputs and actions. So, to be honest, we expect more. As at this moment, we do not expect that these items will still be occurring. That we’ll still be talking about these issues at this time. So, it is left for the reading public or listening public to determine who is honest and who is not honest about keeping to agreements.
The Advocacy Roundtable on the Future of Polytechnics in Nigeria was held about four weeks ago or more. The recommendations of the committee would have reached different stakeholders. What should the public expect? Are there new initiatives or concrete steps for implementation?
Well, first, the roundtable was designed by our union to bring stakeholders in the sector together; that is, the chief executives, directors, bursers, registrars, librarians, sister trade unions, agencies of government that interface with the sector, that is the technical vocational education subsector, the regulators (that is the National Board for Technical Education); other agencies like JAMB, even National Universities Commission (NUC); National Commission for Colleges of Education; Industrial Training Fund, members of the National Assembly, former Ministers of Education, former Executive Secretaries of NBTE, former rectors of polytechnics,l and lawyers as well so that we can collectively look at issues in the sector. Because it looks stagnant. As teachers in the sector, we do not feel satisfied anymore with the level of growth and the growth trajectory for the sector. We feel that we are supposed to have gone beyond where we are currently as a sector bearing in mind that the oldest tertiary institution in Nigeria is actually a polytechnic, that is the Yaba College of Technology. So, we are spread out, we have gone beyond where we are currently, we expect that we would be making a greater impact in the nation; in the economy of the nation. We feel that the current crisis with respect to the economy of the nation is an indictment on the performance of our sector. And so we decided to have that engagement. So that we can come together to speak to ourselves at the engagement. So that we can speak to ourselves honestly and identify what the issues are. We classified it into five sub-themes. We looked at the issue of the mandates. By the issue of the mandate, we are talking about current certification. The highest level of certification that we have is the Higher National Diploma and it has been there for quite some time now. And we are asking, is this what it should be? Are we supposed to limit ourselves to this level of certification or can we go beyond this? If we can go beyond this, what do we require? If we’re not going beyond this, why are we not going beyond that level? And then we look at issues around funding. Should funding be for the government alone? What are other funding models that we can adopt in the sector because we also invited the organized private sector. So, what are other funding models that we can adopt? We looked at the issue of research and innovation culture, because as tertiary institutions, we are supposed to be contributing to society through our research and innovation outputs. Essentially, that is a core area of service to the nation. And for us, also, we feel that we’re not doing enough and so why are we not doing well, in this area also, and what can we do? Also, we looked at the curriculum. What is happening with our curriculum? Is our curriculum fit for its purpose? Does it fit what our industries need? For instance, are our products good enough for the market? Because it’s easy to say unemployment, it’s another thing to have employable people. These are two different things. So, are we producing people who are employable or who will satisfy the needs of our industry or the environment? So, these were the major sub-themes that guided the discussion on that day and they said that it was a good outing. At the level where we are currently, we have a second committee that is working on the implementation framework for the resolutions, because all the resolutions do not require the same players. For instance, when we are talking about the issue of regulation, where we are talking about whether we need a dedicated commission, the commission can come in through lawmaking, for instance and in that instance, you need to design an intervention that will take you to the National Assembly. That will make you interface with lawmakers. Now, if you’re talking about the one that deals with curriculum, you can’t go to the National Assembly to talk about curriculum. The issue of curriculum, you face the regulatory body and the chief executives. So in that regard, that’s why we say that we have another committee, a smaller committee, a syndicate team that is working on implementation framework, so that for each of the items, we identify agencies of government, non-state actors, that we need to work with, and what we need to do, so that we’ll get it rolling. And of course, for now, we are preparing for our national delegates conference. So it is a distraction of sorts. After the national delegates conference coming up in the first week of December, before we get back to the issue of the Round Table and the implementation of the resolutions.
Some stakeholders are saying that polytechnics should focus more on advancing vocational training and skills acquisition which are their core mandate, rather than vying for higher certification. What do you have to say to that?
Yes, it’s a core area. The sector is called technical and vocational education. We are skill based. You understand? Nobody’s talking about relinquishing that mandate. But the point is that if you look at the certification in the sector, they come in different layers. You have the National Diploma (ND), for instance. Then, you have the Higher National Diploma (HND). The level where you’re talking about is at the National Diploma. That is the middle labour manpower. Of course at the polytechnics, there are also new diplomas, national innovative diplomas and all that. That is also there. So, these ones are at the level of low to middle level manpower. We still have the national vocational skills qualification framework, where artisans are certified. They are given some form of formal education, their competence levels are gauged and then they are certified. So these are all very good. But at the higher National Diploma level, that is at the tertiary education level. That is, you’re now training professionals. You are training higher level manpower. It is the Higher National Diploma certification that classifies polytechnics as tertiary institutions. And we are saying, what do we do with that level? Do we abandon that level and face only vocational and skills training? If we’re going to face only vocational and skills training then why should staff in the sector be going for higher qualifications, PhDs? You don’t need PhDs to be producle that level of manpower. So a mismatch is a mismatch and that’s what we are talking about. That’s why we say that the government has to be very courageous. If this is tertiary education, how have polytechnics in other developed economies transitioned? How have they grown? In the UK, Malaysia, Philippines, United States and Germany, what is the status of polytechnics or technical education? So that we grow the way we’re supposed to grow. You don’t limit the sector. And you’re also crying that this is not productive, and all. No. You open up. After that HND, what next? Already, we know what is happening to that certification, the HND as a qualification, we know what has been happening to it over the years in Nigeria. Nigerians don’t place any value on it anymore. Employers of labour do not value it. The Nigerian government in itself also does not place value on it and this is evidenced by its own policies that discriminate against holders of these certifications. They do not place value on it. So, if you’re not placing values on them, why are you retaining them? Why are you retaining that certification? Propose an alternative, something better or improve on what exists. That is why we are saying that government should be courageous enough or eliminate the discrimination completely? If you want let us we can transit to start awarding Bachelor of Technology that will retain you in the technical line. We can upgrade the curriculum, so that we start awarding Bachelor of Technology, which still retains you in that technical line. What are the higher level of certifications you need, to continue to grow to Master of Technology? That’s the way it is outside. In the early 80s, the government recognized the need for the nation to grow along the technical line, that’s why they established the Federal University of Technology in Owerri, Minna, Akure, Bauchi and Yola. But as today, they have all turned to conventional universities. They’ve abandoned that mandate. For instance, FUTO is already offering medicine as degree course. And that wasn’t the mandate. So, what it means is that there is still a gap and the polytechnics can fit into this gap. That’s the point. The polytechnics can move into this gap and start awarding Bachelor of Technology and Master of Technology, because you gain nothing, if you say for instance, they say you finished with HND, you do bridging programme, before you go for Masters Degree and what is the bridging programme? The bridging programme is Postgraduate Diploma. What a bridge does is to take you from one point across an obstacle. So, what it means is that there is an obstacle. If there is no obstacle, there will be no breach or a bridging programme. Now, that bridging programme takes you to another line of education, no longer technical issues. That is what happens, it takes you to the theoretical side. That’s what it does. So, you’ve now abandoned the technical area, you’ve stopped it at HND. You’ve stagnated it there, and who told you that there is nothing again after HND? No, knowledge grows. You have to grow, develop the curriculum. Expand. After Bachelor of Technology, Master of technology. You can develop, continue to repeat the person along that technical line. Why do you detechnicalize that person by allowing him abandon that technical education to theory? That is the irony of our nation.
Many of the stakeholders, particularly the Ministry of Education, the NUC, JAMB and the rest of them toed your line of argument, but is there hope that this will be implemented, not just a yes, yes thing?
We are not going to allow it to be. We are going to have value for the money we spent. Already, we have a committee working on implementation platforms. For instance, the renegotiation of our 2010 agreement with the government is going to start again, very soon. That’s the platform for implementation. Some of the resolutions there, we will take some of them to that place. So, that we will now have a formal agreement with the government, discuss these issues at the level of negotiation with the government on how to go about some of them, and then enter into implementable agreements with the government. We understand it’s not going to be easy. We understand that it is not going to be a walk over. It is not going to be something that will happen just tomorrow, but we need to plan for the long haul. That is what we have just done.