Magnus Eze, Enugu
Dr. Ikechukwu Igwenyi; is an Associate Professor of Biochemistry and the acting Chairman of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) in the Ebonyi State University (EBSU), Abakaliki branch.
Even before the two-week warning strike called by the national leadership of ASUU, university teachers in EBSU had a running battle with the management of the institution and by extension, the state government. Igwenyi explained why they downed tool.
Before the nationwide strike by ASUU, the local branch in EBSU had issues with the government, what were your grouses?
ASUU EBSU was not having issues with the state government but with the management of the institution. The reasons for the action are the threat to our salaries; threat to university autonomy and lack of official communication with management. The branch felt there was insensitivity of management on the plight of workers and needed to draw their attention to our demands through the only language they understand. In November, our salary was threatened due to paucity of funds to prosecute accreditation of some programmes. In December, our salary was threatened again when it was tied to BVN verification form which we objected to because it lacked originality, source, essence, no accompanying memo and it was not signed and above all, it lacked official complements of EBSU protocols. We rejected the form and sought for clarification which never came, instead, there was a threat that whoever did not fill the form will be delisted from the university payroll. This led to the delisting of 792 staffers that eventually were denied salaries. The union believes in the principles that an injury to one is an injury to all and of course you know that ‘united we bargain but divided we beg.’
After several attempts to convince management that they cannot tie a duly earned salary to an ordinary form could not yield the desired results and the only option left was to declare active non-compliance. Note that the mandate of academics in the university includes teaching, supervision, research and development, community service and so on. Active non-compliance means that we are active in service but not compliant in the area of teaching. It is supposed to be a quiet action that should be resolved within the shortest possible time. It has implications that it may end in suspension or degenerate into a total, comprehensive and indefinite strike. Note that ASUU always employs the 3Cs in negotiation: consultation, consolidation and lastly confrontation. This is biblical and synonymous with asking, seeking and knocking. We ask when we consult, we seek when we consolidate and we knock (an action) when we confront. It’s a divine approach and it never fails.
But the government described the reasons for your action as political and fake. What’s your reaction?
Well, the government has the right to its decisions and conclusion. EBSU is a citadel of learning, an ivory tower and a centre of academic excellence and freedom. To think that we are political is to impute a wrong meaning on the essence of a tertiary institution. EBSU does not belong to any political party and has no grouse against the Ebonyi State Government. The university belongs to the people of Ebonyi State and the governor, being the visitor has the mandate to visit at least once in five years. Early last year, he visited and addressed some problems of the university like provision of constant power, water recirculation and streetlight. The only problem we have with government is the constant reduction of subvention to the university. Subvention was reduced from N245 million to N200 million and in January this year, it was further reduced to N150 million, and with an increase in tax. University tax has been increased to N31 million which the government takes from the source of the subvention, leaving management with N119 million to ‘manage’ in paying a wage bill of over N370 million. The reason why it’s not a problem for us yet is that management has not complained and the university is still paying our salaries. The moment they cannot pay salaries, it will become a problem for us to tackle. We are not worried as long as management is comfortable receiving the reduced subvention and can pay salaries. However, budgets normally increase; but it’s unfortunate that EBSU allocation normally decreases. The wage bill of the university is about N370 million as I mentioned earlier and due to multiple campus system we operate, it is difficult to concentrate resources and have a strong IGR base.
Note that this reduction in subvention occasioned some of the problems we have with management which include non-payment of Earned Academic Allowance (EAA), non-release of promotions and appraisal results, CONUASS arrears, postgraduate programme honoraria, work and study programme honoraria, arrears of salaries and the obnoxious notional promotion that deny staff of arrears of salaries for up to 54 months. We believe that when we get to the bridge, we will know how to cross it.
On university autonomy, the processing of the BVN verification form has no respect for the position of the governing council and management. Management did not know the source, essence, origin and who will be in the custody of the secret bank details of members of staff. In the opinion of congress, that infringes on the autonomy of the university. Note that even as the visitor takes precedence, he does not have a direct influence on management and staff except on the dissolution of the governing council. This we want to preserve. Lastly, management does not respond to our correspondences since inception and we cannot lay claim to any understanding or agreement with the management. These were the reasons for the action.
So, are you saying that even when the national strike is over that the local one will continue?
Congress has met, after several consultations that climaxed into a letter from management on their response to the demands of the union. After the intervention of the visitor, Ebonyi State House of Assembly, EBSU Governing Council and well-meaning elders in the state, congress met and resolved to suspend the action for two months to give the university management time to fulfil some of the promises that have timelines within the period. In the event that management fails to do so, it may degenerate into the second option and we may proceed to a comprehensive, total and indefinite strike.
It is our conviction that management is sincere, frank and understands the implication of failed agreement, which was what also led to the several industrial actions ASUU national has embarked upon since 2009.
How true is it that this is the worst period in the history of EBSU?
I do not know the yardstick for the evaluation but I know that this is the first time the union is embarking on local action. We feel bad about it because we have been used to the routine of waking up, reading, research and teaching. Our biological clock is altered and our hormonal balance has also been affected. Our dear students are forced to face the vices in society because we operate an off-campus system of accommodation. First-generation schools were sited far away from town effect but in our case, the government has not invested in building hostels which exposes our students to undue exploitation. If we had hostels, they can be around the school to read and update their notes, interact and discuss while waiting for us to get out of the trenches.