Omoniyi Salaudeen and Fred Ezeh, Abuja
Two weeks ago, before the Federal Government announced the closure of all higher institutions to check the spread of Coronavirus, the Academic Staff of Universities (ASUU) plunged the nation’s ivory tower into yet another round of avoidable crisis.
This time around, the renewed face-off was in furtherance of its resistance to the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System (IPPIS) recently put in place by the Federal Government.
According to the union leadership, the initiative would erode the autonomy of the university, contrary to the international best standard. Other issues involved are the outstanding 2009 ASUU-FGN agreement, MoU/MoAs of 2013, 2017 and 2019, among others.
Consequently, following the directive of the Federal Government to stop payment of salaries to the recalcitrant lecturers, who failed to register on the new Payroll Information System, ASUU declared a two-week warning strike, threatening to make it an indefinite one, if the authorities insisted on forcing it down the throats of its members.
While appealing to Nigerians to show understanding and join forces with them in the struggle for the survival of public universities, concerned stakeholders take turn to condemn the insensitivity of the ASUU to the dismal plight of the education sector in the country.
A former leader of the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), Chief Frank Kokori, speaking with Sunday Sun, spared no word in condemning the militant approach of ASUU to issues that could ordinarily be resolved in a roundtable, adding that the strike was insensitive, inauspicious, and unwarranted.
He quipped: “Are they more militant than NUPENG that I headed for so many years? NUPENG is a freedom-fighting machine. But we don’t go on strike for stupid money. But we get anything we want through negotiation. You don’t negotiate in vein.”
He further insisted that the Federal Government does not have the capacity to pay at this time of economic downturn.
His words: “They don’t know economic indices of negotiation. That is what is worrying them since 2009 till today. The government does not have the capacity to pay, but they negotiated and signed. Any trade union that is talking of salary review at this time is a mad union. They can’t pay all those allowances now. So, they should not bring it at this time of economic downturn. You don’t go into stupid negotiation when the economy is down. Nobody should be talking of increase in salaries or allowances now.”
“They are reacting to broken promises by government. When they were negotiating with government, they were not aware of government’s ability to pay. We don’t do that in the private sector. In the oil industry, we know you can pay before we start negotiating. When I was in NUPENG, one small AGIP marketing company cannot tell me that it would pay what Chevron Producing was paying. As a marketing company, you can’t earn the same salary with what producers are paying. So, you negotiate based on what your employer can pay. Each time the ASUU threatens government, they negotiate with them. But after negotiation, they can’t pay. That is what is causing the recurring strike. ASUU itself should be mature enough to know that strike is inauspicious at this time of Coronavirus with downturn of economy all over the world. They must be patriotic to know that this is not a time to strike. They are professors, they should know that themselves. At this time, governments all over the world are looking for money. Nigeria’s economy depends solely on oil money. Now, there is no more oil money. Where do they expect the government to get money? That strike is uncalled for. They should wait until the world overcomes the threat of Coronavirus. They are just punishing the innocent future generation of our youths. They know government does not have money to pay them. I know it is 2009 agreement they had with the government that forced them to go on strike. The whole strike is based on the 2009 agreement. Nobody is going to pay them that money.”
Kokori, however, advised the Federal Government to reconsider its position on the IPPIS, saying it cannot be imposed on the university system.
“Government should have a rethink on that and allow them to do what they want to do,” he posited.
The Deputy National President, National Parents Teacher Association of Nigeria (NAPTAN), Chief Adeolu Ogunbanjo, also expressing his anger over the incessant academic disruptions in the universities, said: “I don’t know why ASUU is refusing to be a part of IPPIS. No employee is greater than its employer. I don’t know whether they are hiding the fact that they are paying some ghost people. This strike is needless; it is unwarranted, and condemnable. They are going on strike just to punish our children, whereas, their own children are in the private universities, which don’t go on strike. It is unfortunate the way ASUU members are treating Nigerian students and their parents. I am dismayed that ASUU is on strike. They should join the IPPIS if they don’t have skeletons in their cupboard. If they refuse, the Federal Government should call their bluff. ASUU is going about it the wrong way. They are too militant at the moment. I am sure Federal Government will make a lot of saving if they join IPPIS. I am sure they are paying some money to some people that shouldn’t be paid. That is why they are refusing to join the payroll system. The government should stand by its words and give them a timeline for them to join. If they refuse to join, they should start recruiting. There are thousands of people looking for jobs. Why should they be so recalcitrant? What the Federal Government is doing is to make themselves accountable to the Nigerian citizens.
“Of course, in 2009, there was an agreement between the Federal Government and ASUU. They are okay for asking for research grants and all that. But at that point in time, the price of oil was over a $100 per barrel. Right now, things are not the same. It’s been predicted that oil will sell between 20 and 25 dollars per barrel in the next few weeks or months. And here we are with Coronavirus. So, they are going on strike just to punish our children.”
He also berated the ASUU chapter of the University of Ilorin for joining the bandwagon, saying that “this is a wrong time for them to join ASUU strike. It is unfortunate. They are going to suffer the second time.”
A notable opinion leader in the North, Dr Junaid Muhammed, also weighed in on the situation and called for a return of normalcy to the nation’s university system, stressing the need for a holistic approach to the revival of the education sector in the country.
In a telephone interview with Sunday Sun, he said: “The confusion in the Nigerian education system is not unique. It is a reflection of societal decay and the total dishonesty of the so-called Nigerian political elite. And, of course, university lecturers are part and parcel of the Nigerian political elite. They are part of the reason nothing seems to be working in the education sector in the same way nothing is working in other sectors.
“The people who are responsible for implementing policies are insincere. So, I am not surprised that the majority of these unscrupulous leaders in ASUU are using this mere paralysis in the whole country to blackmail the government. Each time they want to make a demand on the government, they threaten the country with strike. There are instances of students who put in for three or four years courses, but ended up spending seven years. I know one or two sets they had at Bayero University, Kano, where each of the students spent up to seven to nine years to graduate from the courses, which were meant to last for only five years.
“This country cannot go on like this. And the solution is just not about dealing with ASUU. ASUU has gone on a number of strikes to achieve what they could. In fact, they now see ASUU as a gateway to political leadership in Nigeria. Some leaders of ASUU have been made ministers, commissioners, chairmen of INEC and so on. They now believe that making noise is a way of achieving their end even if at the expense of the students and the whole country.
“And they have seen that the Buhari administration is very weak. Unfortunately, the security situation is bad and the economy is on the verge of recession. We are running a mono economy. If oil prices are down, we will go down with it. They should stop confusing government of the day and consider the interest of the students. If they are not doing anything and they decide to go home to be a nuisance to their parents, they can turn to Area Boys or bandits. As far as I am concerned, the crisis in the education sector cannot be solved through sectorial piece meal approach. There has to be a holistic solution. And there cannot be a holistic solution until there is up and doing far-sighted leadership with clear vision and a timeline of what they want Nigeria to be. Otherwise, I can see how we can solve the problem.”
However, in his own position, Prof Stephen Adebanji Akintoye, strongly believes that the ASUU is doing what it should be doing to correct the abnormalities in the system.
He said: “It is not the strike that is bastardising our education, it is the policies of government towards education that is bastardising education and putting terrible pressure on the people who are in the education sector. They find themselves under constant pressure and they are reacting through strikes.
“If this present generation of these professors do not stand up to resist the invasion of the university system by the people in power, if they do not resist the excessive use of control that people in power are brining to impact on the educational system, if they keep quiet and absorb the shock, experience retrogression and do nothing, their names will stink in history. They have to do something. People say it is militant. Yes, it is militant, I agree. But do they have any other choice? They have entered into agreements upon agreements with the Federal Government and the Federal Government is just deceiving them and refusing to carry out the agreements. Remember, these professors are human beings like the rest of us. They have their own personal interests, they have their children to pay school fees for and they are not getting their right dues.
“In our time, our salaries were small. But there was very little imposition of governmental control upon our lives. So, we felt a sense of dignity, even though our salaries were small. Today, that sense of dignity is being eroded by the people in power, especially at the centre.
“Nigerians need to stand up and decide what type of educational system we want, how do we want our teachers to be treated, how do we want our schools to be treated. The situation with the university is getting worse and worse. Something has to happen. If Nigeria really wants to be part of the modern world, our universities have to be free to do their academic works without imposition of governmental control. Universities are very critical to development, critical to the progress of the country.
“And we cannot treat our own as if we are just part of the civil service. The university system is not part of the civil service in any country that wants to grow. They’ve been crying for years about the agreement reached between them and the government. For those of us who are products of academics in the world, there is a deliberate effort to destroy the university. We cannot continue like this. Why is Federal Government taking over the payment of salaries in the universities? What is the logic behind that? What is the purpose? Do you really think Nigeria will be part of the modern world in this way? We are to start from a point. We must be part of the modern world.
“If this continues, it will be double jeopardy for the country. There is a problem; Nigerians need to demand that it be solved. But we are not demanding that, we are demanding surrender.”
At the very beginning, the Nigerian university system in its pristine standard enjoyed wide respectability, competiveness and resourcefulness among comity of nations. With the pioneer University College, Ibadan, later University of Ibadan, and Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife-Ife, (formerly University of Ife) blazing the trail in the Southwest, and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, churning out the world’s finest human resource in the East and North respectively, Nigeria’s potential for greatness as an emerging world black power was not in any way in doubt.
It was sine-qua-non of a solution provider for science and technology, industry and innovation. All of these expectations were in line with the primary purpose of a university as the guardian of reason, inquiry and philosophical openness.
But somewhere along the line, the country’s leadership lost direction and began to look for the solution like a needle lost in a haystack.
The general conclusion among the stakeholders is that the militant approach of the academic staff union resulting in recurring strikes has done more harms than good to the university system.
According to available records, no less than four academic sessions have been lost by the federal universities to the incessant industrial actions embarked upon by the ASUU in the last two decades. Regrettably, students have always been at the receiving end of the endless crises resulting in consequential elongation of their years of graduation.
In 2017, the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu inaugurated a 16-member re-negotiation team headed by Dr Wale Babalakin to interface with the various university unions-ASUU, NASU, SSANU, NAAT – with a view to resolving the deadlock arising from the 2009 agreement. Three years down the line, little or no progress has been made.
While urging the authorities to do the needful by urgently addressing the issues of underfunding, decaying infrastructure as well as corruption in the system, stakeholders stressed the need for a more positive attitude on the part of ASUU towards resolving issues that could ordinarily be settled in a roundtable.
The Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Education, Sonny Echono, who debunked ASUU’s claim that salaries of its members had been stopped because of non-enrollment on the IPPIS platform, said that many agencies of government are yet to receive their February salaries owing to the current financial challenges.
While insisting on the implementation of IPPIS as a way to curbing corruption in the system, he disclosed that teaching hospitals and public universities had been identified by the ICPC as conduit pipes for siphoning government’s funds.
“As the accounting officer of the Ministry of Education, I can tell you that there is massive fraud going on there. No university is an exception. We may not have the record of state universities, but you can imagine what the case would be there. It’s not peculiar to universities. We had similar problems in the public service before IPPIS was introduced, but that has been significantly minimized,” he said.
In the face of the lingering crisis and the hard line position of ASUU, the Federal Government has ordered the closure of all federal institutions as a preventive measure to check the spread of the dreaded Coronavirus in the country. The two weeks warning strike embarked upon by ASUU would have ended on Monday (tomorrow) if not for the closure of tertiary institutions by the government.