The President, Academic Staff Union of Universities, Prof. Abiodun Ogunyemi, in this interview with ADELANI ADEPEGBA, explains reasons for the ongoing strike by members of the union
Strike has been a recurring problem with successive governments in Nigeria. Do you think the government has been deliberate or helpless in the way it has handled the education sector?
The issue of strike actions being incessant is a reflection of the insensitivity of the political class. You don’t see reasonable unions like the Academic Staff Union of Universities just going on strike without making its case very clear. At every point that we have had to go on strike, we would have written several letters. We would have made consultations, held meetings and sometimes, we would have published paid adverts to put our matter in the court of public opinion. But because the political class does not see education as a priority, they would always ignore us. It doesn’t matter which group among the political class is in power, it has been a consistent thing, especially because they have lost interest in education. Look at the history of Nigeria, there was a time when public primary and secondary schools were the toast of everybody. Consider the 1960s, 1970s, private schools were few and far between. Most of us you see today attended public schools, but it became expedient for us, almost everybody in my generation, to start patronising private schools when it became evident that the political leaders over the time have neglected public primary and secondary schools. What we see from the way Nigeria is going is that the political class in government is determined to destroy public universities and that is why ASUU is insisting that appropriate attention must be given to the public universities. Each time we say that, it doesn’t mean we are not sensitive, it only means government should address the drift that may take public universities to the same level public primary and secondary schools have got to. I don’t believe the government is helpless. Some people would ask: is this the appropriate time to go on strike? There would never be an appropriate time. When the economy was doing well in 2013, 2014 and even up to 2015, government didn’t implement the memorandum of understanding it reached with us. It was only when we insisted that enough was enough that they attempted to do what was proper.
In plain terms, what is the strike all about?
The strike is about seven issues: We demanded funds for revitalisation of our universities and it was agreed in 2013 when we went on the strike that culminated in about 13-hour meeting with the Presidency. We signed the MoU on December 11, 2013. That was when we agreed that government would inject the total sum of N1.3tn into the university education system and that it would be released over a period of six years. The first year, government was to release N200bn, which it did, but it took a long time for us to access it. But since that release in 2013, no single kobo has been released thereafter. For 2014, N220bn was not released. Again 2015 and 2016, nothing was released up to the third quarter of 2017. In all, we can estimate the outstanding amount to be about N825bn for revitalisation of our universities. When government doubted that our universities were rotting away, it set up a national committee in 2012, which went to all public universities and came back with the NEEDS Assessment Report, which showed that we didn’t have anything close to a university in terms of quality facilities. The importance of that is that as lecturers, our conscience is pricked when we work in an environment that cannot compare to other universities elsewhere, particularly in Africa. That was the essence of the revitalisation fund and we are still insisting that it is a major demand of the union. On the issue of earned allowances: the government released N30bn and promised to pay the balance after completing the forensic audit, but nine months after, it is not looking in our direction, so our members are unhappy. The government has refused to take the necessary steps on registration of the Nigerian Universities Pension Management Company as we agreed during a meeting at the National Assembly. The government has also failed to provide support for universities’ staff schools in violation of our agreement and a judgment of the National Industrial Court on the matter. The fifth issue is the payment of fractional salaries to lecturers in federal universities since December 2015. See how long it had taken us to take up these issues.
What are the other demands?
In many state universities, their governors have stopped subventions and so they are finding it difficult to pay salaries. The case of Ladoke Akintola University, Ogbomoso, Oyo State, eloquently attests to this. We also have governors establishing new universities when they could not adequately fund the old ones. Ondo State is perhaps leading the pack: the state has three universities, and the one in Okitipupa is moribund. We have just 55 lecturers there, and the government is not paying any attention to it. For months, workers are not paid. Even the first university in the state, Adekunke Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, has met the same fate, but the government went ahead to establish a third university. You would be surprised that this same government is thinking of establishing the fourth university. Is that what we need? Instead of proliferating universities, why can’t they consolidate? We see the same problem in Edo, Bayelsa, and Ogun, where the governor is going ahead to establish the third university without funding the older ones. Then the issue of our retiring professors; the Pension Reform Act stipulates that once you serve in the university for at least 20 years and you rise to the position of a professor, you should retire with your salaries, but the government is not implementing that. The (National) Pension Commission is supposed to issue the originating circular that would give strength to the legal provision.
But people feel that the step taken by ASUU is insensitive, that strike should be the last resort.
Well, people have been saying that over and over that strike should not be a weapon for insisting on what we think is proper; but honestly speaking, we have not seen those criticising us for going on strike suggesting alternatives. Before we got to this stage, we must have explored all the options they talked about. They talked about dialogue, writing letters, running paid adverts, consultations, meeting opinion leaders and those we think can talk to people in power, but at the end of the day, we would have met a brick wall. We see those saying that as blackmailing us, it appears they deliberately want to close their eyes to the efforts we have made.
In this case, how many opinion leaders did you approach and what efforts did they make to avert the strike?
In November last year, ASUU went on a warning strike. Before we got to that stage, we had written not less than five letters to the appropriate authorities. Now we observed they (government) were not observing the registration of appropriate pension contributions for universities, which we call Nigerian University Pension Management Committee. They were not talking about the earned allowances for our members, which they agreed to pay or support for staff primary schools; they were not talking about the fund for revitalisation of public universities, which are in decadence and despicable state. You are not talking about the Pension Act as it affects the salaries of retiring professors at state and federal levels, you are also not talking about the proliferation of universities and sudden resort to fractional salaries for our colleagues in federal universities and the non-payment of salaries in state universities. So we brought up these seven, eight issues and as of then, we had brought up the 2009 agreement, which was due for renegotiation in 2012. We brought up these issues in the memorandum of understanding we reached with the last administration in 2013. When we went on strike on that note, we wrote to the National Assembly, ministers, and appropriate agencies, and the Senate President subsequently summoned a meeting. He invited the relevant government agencies and we met twice on this matter. The first time, we tabled all the issues and the government gave its response. During the second meeting, government made some offers which we said were not acceptable and at the end of the day, we arrived at some positions. Those positions were communicated to the ministers, the National Assembly leadership, and other stakeholders just to ensure there would be follow-up.
What did you agree to at the second meeting?
We agreed that they should carry out a forensic audit because the government said it wanted a forensic audit on the funds it earlier gave to the governing councils in respect of the N30bn it gave for the earned allowances. It said this would be done within six months and we did not object. That was in November last year and it is well over eight months now. We didn’t hear from them, so it became a problem. When we raised the issue of staff schools, the government pulled out its support for staff schools. The National Assembly pleaded with us to await the judgment of the National Industrial Court on the matter, which was to come up on December 5, 2016. Though we didn’t take the government to court, another party did and they dragged us into it, and we agreed to wait for the outcome. However, whatever the outcome is, it would not be strong enough to repudiate our agreement and that was what happened. The court told the government that it didn’t have the right to stop supporting the staff schools; it was an agreement that was binding. From December 5 till date when the judgment was given, the government has not issued a circular that would restore its support to the staff schools. On the issue of NUPEMCO, government offered to ensure that it would be registered and given licence in the shortest possible time. We perceived some surreptitious moves to frustrate ASUU. We started our application for registration of NUPEMCO when the registration fee was N150m. They later increased it to N250m and again, N500m, but we still met the requirement, finally they made it N1bn. We met the N1bn requirement over a year before we went on the last warning strike, but it wasn’t registered.
What steps did you take before embarking on strike?
You can see the letters we wrote to the National Assembly, and the ministry and we conveyed the position of our union on the discussions at the National Assembly and also our position at the meeting we convened at Bayero University, Kano. We told them our NEC agreed to participate at the renegotiation, which is ongoing like I mentioned and then our members insisted on payment of all outstanding arrears of earned academic allowance at the end of the Ministry of Finance forensic audit, not later than July, 2017. That is the crux of the matter. This letter was conveyed to the government in January, we didn’t hear anything from its officials. We met with the education minister and he said they had written (to the Presidency) and were waiting for a response. We met with him again and he still promised. We wrote to the labour minister, no response. The letter we wrote was copied to the Acting President, Senate President, Speaker, Senate Committee on Tertiary Institutions and Tertiary Education Trust Fund, Minister of Labour and Employment and also to the chairman of the renegotiation team, just to put him on notice. If he had power to stop it, he should have done so. We also wrote to the Minister of Finance and the Nigeria Labour Congress President and that is why he said he was in support of the strike action. You can see the level of consultations and contacts we made before this action started.
The media aide to the President, Garba Shehu, said it appeared ASUU wants everything at a time. Is that true?
Let them tell us what they have done at a time before you can say that ASUU wants everything at a time. They should tell us what they have given ASUU. You can’t say negotiations would address shortfall in salaries, or the issue of staff schools. You said we should wait for court judgment but you didn’t implement it. You can’t say we should also wait for arrears of allowances, which you said you needed six months to verify. After verification, what else is left? Implementation! So, let him tell us what they have given ASUU from the list of what we demanded last November apart from negotiation, and negotiation is not part of what we are asking for.
So, you think government is not sincere about strengthening the education system?
I mentioned earlier that it is about the kind of ideology that drives a government; it appears as if our people in power don’t have a clear vision about the role of education in development. We in the university system are clear about what education can do; it should serve as catalyst for development. If you talk about transforming the economy, education can drive it. Talk about invention, creativity, education should drive these processes, including security and the health system from the simplest thing to the most complex, including nuclear science, which is about the most complex operation. We believe education should be at the forefront. Nigeria is aspiring to greatness, but she is not giving attention to education. In the last two years, what has been allocated to education in the budget is between six and seven per cent. Even in countries where they have experienced wars like Rwanda and Sudan, they are allocating well above 20 per cent to education. Our citizens are rushing to Ghana, most universities there are public universities. Consistently in the last 10 years, they (Ghana) have been giving not less than 20 per cent to education, whereas in the past, other African nationals flooded Nigerian universities. What we are asking for is reversal of that experience. We lose over N500m annually to education tourism within Africa. It has been estimated that over 30,000 Nigerians are undergoing one form of education or the other in Europe. So, we see these statistics, though most of those going abroad are mostly children of the ruling class. We need to use education to drive our development and that is why you can see ASUU being vociferous, we are so passionate about it. It’s as if our lives depend on it.
Some people believe that officials of government and ASUU have both killed the university system by not sending their children to public universities anymore. Why is that?
Let me correct that impression: As I talk to you, two of my children are in public universities. So, when they say ASUU officials, my predecessor in office has two children in public universities. We have our children in public universities, but if you talk of the political class, they can afford to advertise their children who are graduating from foreign universities on Facebook and other social media platforms. Where would I get money to send my children to Cambridge or Oxford University? That is the question. Is it now that the government is paying fractions of salaries that lecturers would afford to send their children to foreign universities? The truth is that our focus should be on the ruling class, they are making everybody poor in order to continue to dominate us. The children of the rich get the best quality education to come back and dominate the children of the poor who are struggling to attend our underfunded, under-equipped, under-prepared educational institutions. So, we have to break that cycle.
Do you honestly think the government can fund and implement the 2009 agreement considering that we are in recession?
Again, it is about priority. I told you about countries that experienced wars and that are still paying attention to education. The Nigerian ruling class have not really sat down to look at what roles education could play in the development of the country and they won’t do that because they have the World Bank and International Monetary Fund advising them that Nigeria, like other African countries, does not need university education. They said what we need is basic technical education and with that the children of the poor will remain peasants and hewers of wood for the children of the rich. They would even complain that artisans are no longer available, but who are the artisans, the children of the poor. How best do we equip our universities to make them competitive, to stop the drift? Those children they take abroad at young ages do not think Nigeria when they return to the country, if they come back at all. They have dual citizenship with dual personalities. We need to sit back and define the kind of society we want and the roles of education in it. Julius Nyerere did it in Tanzania and today, it is one of the most organised societies in Africa. You will see the passion with which the leadership is driving education in that country and they are getting results. It is because they took time to define the country they wanted and design education that would address the issues. That was what Nyerere preached in the early 60s. Nigeria needs to emulate that.
Some people believe that most ASUU stikes are about better pay, that ASUU is only interested in negotiating better salaries, allowances and so on for its members and only use better infrastructure in schools to cover up. How would you respond to this?
It doesn’t work that way, there is no time we go on strike that we don’t justify our action based on the environment in which we are working. Even if you talk of better pay, is it that we don’t have alternatives? It is for the love we have for this country. The love we have for this country has made many of our members to remain here, so don’t think they don’t have alternatives because they insisted that the government must make the environment conducive. If you see a medical doctor that is committed to his job, pay him the highest salaries in the world, he wouldn’t want to work in a clinic without the basic facilities to perform his operations. That means it is the love for the job that is driving the doctor as against his income. If not for the love, we would have gone on strike since our members were being paid 60-70 per cent of their salaries for the last two years. But each time, we say you need to attract and retain the best brains. But beyond that, you need to provide the enabling environment, so they go together. You need the enabling environment and the correct mental frame of mind to drive the process of giving quality education.
What is the least the government can do to end this strike?
The least has been defined. In November last year, when we went to the National Assembly, the issues were itemised, seven, eight of them. Government was expected to have followed that pathway, to follow what I would call the action plan for resolving the matter, but for deviating from the action plan, government exposed itself to suspicion that it didn’t mean well. If it means well, it must go back to that plan and from there, we address the issues. Government has defined the process for addressing the problem; it just needs to go back to it. It is because it didn’t act on the understanding, that is why we are back to where we are. This action was needless; it is like we were forced into it. Implementation must commence and the implementation we are talking about is not the issue of renegotiation, this is a separate thing and that is why we didn’t have problems with Dr. Wale Babalakin.
What roles has the Ministry of Education played so far?
Let’s give it to the ministry, it has attempted on a number of occasions to assure us that it has taken some steps. It has written to the Minister of Finance and met with the Accountant-General of the Federation. The ministry has taken concrete steps that we believe should yield the expected results, but where decisions about finance were to be taken, maybe it met a brick wall. We don’t isolate government agencies, it is government that has still not delivered.
Do you think the absence of President Muhammadu Buhari may have contributed to the delay in implementing the agreement?
No, we don’t want to go to that area because government is a continuum, there is no vacuum in the Presidency. I showed you the letter drawing the attention of the Acting President to the issues. It’s not as if we didn’t bring him into the picture and when they are holding Federal Executive Council meetings, you would see them allocating money to projects. If they believe university education is important, they would have deployed the means to address these issues.
Are you disappointed in the Acting President?
We don’t reduce matters to personalities, that is why I said I won’t talk about President Buhari. The issue is not about him, we don’t engage in personality attack. The issue we have on the table is yet to be addressed. Who do we expect to address the issues? It is the government, whether at the centre or state.
Do you think education should be under the Federal government or is it better under states?
That is a constitutional matter.
But we are talking of restructuring now and ASUU can also contribute to it.
We don’t want to be dragged into the restructuring debate, we need the people’s constitution, what they are doing now is patching up. What we need is to break down the whole process; that is ASUU’s position. So we will not contribute to this issue of add-on. They are cosmetic, we want fundamental restructuring. We are yet to define the kind of society we want, the last time we tried it was under Ibrahim Babangida (a former military head of state) and the people said they wanted socialism but the political class did not want that, they truncated it. If you look at Chapter 2 of the constitution, you would see elements that show that Nigeria should be moving towards a socialist, welfarist state, but the ruling class said the provisions there are not justifiable. Talk of free education at all levels, is any governor talking about it? This means that they have repudiated that aspect of the constitution. Look at Section 18 of the constitution; you would see our educational objectives clearly laid out. Look at the economic objectives which state clearly that the commanding height of the economy must not be in private hands. What is happening, they are privatising, commercialising (everything), including education. If you ask people in government their ideas of how to generate funds, they will say, charging school fees. ASUU will fight that; maybe that is the next level of our engagement. You want to introduce school fees in a country where over 70 per cent cannot earn two dollars per day, where poverty is widespread, and where illiteracy level is about 60 per cent. What is the maternal and child mortality rate? When you look at all of these indices of human development, they are negative in Nigeria. The catalyst is education and government must fund it.
There have been views that universities should be able to generate funds internally, but our universities are not doing that. Does that not amount to laziness?
You have raised a very important question but let me draw your attention to the 2009 agreement again. In that agreement, it was spelt out that ministries, departments and agencies should give consultancy in areas of competence to universities. I have not seen that happening except for the recent oil exploration by University of Maiduguri lecturers in Borno State, which was truncated by Boko Haram. We have not seen that happening in many cases. That should have been one primary source of fund generation for universities, but government, whether at the state or the federal, has not been doing that. The other revenue source they talked about is research and we cannot do that without requisite facilities and you can see the connection. You can’t be a good researcher when you don’t have facilities and you cannot be a good teacher without being a good researcher. Even the quality of instruction would be hampered without effectively equipping the laboratories and library. These things are inter-connected and you can’t separate them. For a lecturer to effectively carry out a research, he must have the correct state of mind and that is why we have been having problems getting quality research from our universities. So it is not about laziness, it is about an enabling environment and motivation and support from government.
When will this strike end?
It will end when government is ready to do the right thing as we spelt out during our engagement with the government at the National Assembly in November last year.
LAUTECH, a member of ASUU has been closed for over a year, but the union seems to have been silent on it.
ASUU is not silent. In fact, two weeks ago, we wrote a letter to the National Universities Commission and we made our position clear; LAUTECH should be given to a state to manage, this issue of dual ownership is meaningless. Go and look at our adverts on June 9, it was placed in two newspapers. We specifically devoted a section to LAUTECH matters and brought it out clearly that a game of deception is going on in that university. The state governors are not committed to funding the university and they have gone ahead to establish their own, which means they want to abandon the school. We would resist that.