By Nwachukwu Obidiwe
As journalists were about to leave the Conference Room of the Hon. Minister of Labour and Employment after the opening session of the prolonged re-negotiation of the 2013 agreement between the Federal Government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) Monday, September 18, 2017, Sen. Ngige jokingly asked the ASUU President, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, “in how many minutes are we bringing back the press, 10 or 30 minutes? As you may wish Your Excellency, Prof. Ogunyemi grinned. With journalists now out and the technical session on, the ASUU leader stretched the joke and said he hoped the meeting would be short going by the fair posture government negotiating team has adopted. The labour Minister further picked up the joke. “So, I am now a fair conciliator? Laughter ensued. “The crown you removed from my head in public you now returned in the closet,” Sen. Ngige added. He was referring to an incident on August 17, 2017 the first day of conciliation when ASUU accused him of bias.
The Minister had insisted that university teachers did not follow due process in the declaring industrial action as they did not give the Federal Government, the mandatory 15 days’ notice as contained in the Section 41 of Trade Disputes Act, Cap T8, 2004. He also said the agreement ASUU had with the leadership of the National Assembly could not be tracked as it was not domiciled with his Ministry. ASUU had counter argument but suffice the meeting ended that day on a sour note with little achieved.
But what are these age long issues that have battled university education to the ground and kept university teachers on perennial strikes? Top is the revitalization of public universities through adequate funding as well as payment of earned academic allowances. The rest are administration and funding of university staff schools in line with the judgement of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria, registration of pension administration for the university (NUPEMCO) and guidelines for the retirement of professors. They also include salary shortfalls, exemption from Treasury Single Account (TSA) and upliftment of standards in state universities.
All through the negotiations which at times lasted into early hours of the morning, Sen. Ngige placed the concern of the Federal government over the disharmony in the universities at the front burner and hence the imperative and urgency of restoration of normalcy. “The disruption of the university academic calendar is our collective loss.
The easiest way to tackle the problem and create a sustainable roadmap is for all of us to appreciate the size of our current earnings and tailor the demands accordingly.
This government wants to resolve the lingering ASUU problem once and for all so that our children can enjoy quality education like we did. We are open and we are transparent,” Ngige said. Relatively, the university teachers got all their requests. While the Federal Government for instance indicated its inability to pay N220 billion per annum for the revitalization of the universities, it acceded to the release of the sum of N20 billion in two tranches of N10 billion naira each for the months of September and October 2017 to demonstrate its commitment to the 2013 FGN/ASUU MoU.
Besides, earned academic allowances will also be offset with the sum of N23 billion released to the office of the Accountant General of the Federation under Authority to Incur Expenditure, with forensic audit to be conducted within a time frame of six months.
The Federal Government also tendered evidence showing the commencement of payment of shortfalls in salaries since September 6, 2017 as promised. In place of TSA, the Central Bank is to create a separate interest yielding account for the university endowment funds, research grants, stabilization funds and others while requests on staff schools and state universities were also met.
ASUU leadership did not hide its pleasure over this unprecedented development. Hear the ASUU President, “I wish to place on records that for the first time in the history of this country a government official came out to say something went wrong on the government side and showed honest commitment to redress it.” The Minister of Labour had throughout the negotiation left no one in doubt that government was on a fresh, new direction and maintained in all the meetings that “this government is that of change. It is not like others before it. We are facing real economic downturn today but whatever agreement we reach with you shall be implemented.
Our earning as a country has gone down drastically but within the limited resources available, government has conceded to do a lot of funding in the interim and will do more when the economy improves.”
But the resolution of these issues was not easy. ASUU strike has turned an annual ritual for over a decade with successive governments unable to substantially tackle myriads of problems. The sensitive nature and tensed disruption that ASUU strike impacts on the socio-economic and political psyche of the nation, can easily be gleaned from the outcry that attends it, unrestrained degradation of the sector and decadent quality of graduating students. However, the commitment of the Buhari administration to cast this problem defying years of settlement to the dustbin of history and revitalize higher education came topmost on the agenda of government.
Consultations therefore started at the highest level of governance. Besides the implicit confidence of the President in his cabinet ministers charged with the negotiation, the exercise of this authority so reposed, expressed eloquently throughout the exercise. This not only shored up the confidence of the university teachers in the commitment of government but also in the ultimate resolution of the issues that have kept university education on its knees.
Recall that a section of the media had on September 1, 2017 reported that the Vice President had taken over negotiation, with the mindset of the usual failure characteristic of the former administrations where tossing ASUU from one negotiating table to another was the order. The Vice President promptly dismissed this while the Sen. Ngige as the chief labour conciliator of the federation said the issues of strike by an employee though a labour matter, needed the synergy of relevant ministries or agencies in its resolution and that reporting to higher authorities in the process of negotiation did not connote a takeover.
Giving further insight into the mind of the Buhari team, Ngige told ASUU on Monday, 18 September, the very day the strike was called off, that Minsters under the present administration do not just exist in name. “We are not in the Jonathanian era. You don’t need to bother about who you are negotiating with. Some of you have told me that you negotiated with President Jonathan but I tell you that things are certainly different. We are cabinet ministers and we have full powers to negotiate with you and report back to the President with good results. Time when we had to doubt ourselves is far gone.”
The Minister had earlier during negotiations with the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) frowned at the lethargy of the office of the Accountant General of the Federation, over the release of funds approved by the Federal Government for specific purposes. He therefore warned all the agencies that have a role to play in implementing the Memorandum of Action with ASUU to be faithful to such role. Hence, as each of the stakeholders to the ASUU pact; Ministry of Education, Ministry of Finance, the Budget office, National Salaries, Incomes and Wages Commission, Office of the Accountant General of the Federation picked copies of the signed agreement, Sen. Ngige drummed to the hearing of all, “the era when agreements entered into is left to gather dust in the shelf is over. Everybody must strictly play the assigned role and faithfully too.
The sign-off from the President of ASUU, Prof. Ogunyemi would touch the heart of every Nigerian. Said he, “education, particularly university education can become a money spinner for the country. These days we hear of education tourism, but in the 60s and 70s, other African countries were coming to Nigeria to get quality education. Today, the reverse is the case. Our children go as far as low rate places as some of our neighboring countries where Nigerians establish universities and charge foreign currencies.” There is no gainsaying that with the commitment of the Federal Government to holistically tackle the rot in the Universities, the restoration of the glory days of higher education in Nigeria is here.
►Nwachukwu Obidiwe writes from Abuja.