National President, Academic Staff Union of Universities, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, speaks with OLALEYE ALUKO on the ongoing strike and the contentious issues between the union and the Federal Government
The 2019 general elections are around the corner and some Nigerians may read political meaning into ASUU’s current strike. How do you respond to those who say the union is being partisan?
That is blackmail; it is cheap blackmail. This is because between this government and the opposition, we do not see any difference.
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In 2013, when we went on strike, the then government started attacking ASUU; that we wanted to bring down the government because we were being sponsored by the opposition. The opposition then is now the government in power. Whether you talk of the opposition now or the opposition before, they are all products of the same political stock. They have the same political genes running through them. We don’t have a reason to pitch our tent with any of them. What is constant in ASUU struggles is the kind of university system that we want to build. It is only education that can save Nigeria.
What is the background to the current crisis between the university lecturers and the Federal Government?
In 2017, ASUU went on a national strike because of the failure of the government to implement the Memorandum of (Understanding) of 2013. The 2013 agreement itself came out of the government’s failure to implement the 2009 memorandum. The Memorandum of Action in 2017 came out of the government’s failure to implement the 2013 agreement. You can see the history of failures and disagreements.
There are four major outstanding areas and they are the funding of education to the level where we shall all be proud of our universities. The second is about conditions of service. This talks about improving the welfare of academics; supporting them and creating the enabling environment to work. The third issue is the university autonomy; that is, getting a situation that will allow scholars and university teachers to investigate any area without government attacking them. The last includes other related areas. What does this mean? It is about policies and laws that will allow all the listed things.
The last aspect talks about regulatory agencies such as the National Universities Commission and the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board. We want their roles to be revisited. The NUC, for instance, is not supposed to be dishing out instructions to universities without considering the laws under which the universities were established. The same issue applies to JAMB. JAMB is striving towards admitting students for the universities, whereas, universities, under their laws by the Senate, are empowered to determine the quality of students they want to admit and the conditions under which they graduate. We want an enabling environment to be provided for our universities; that they should be well-funded and appropriate policies put in place to support this.
These four areas have continued to surface in our negotiations with the government as far back as 1982 when we had the first negotiated agreements under the Shehu Shagari government. It was in 1992 that the demands became clearly defined.
One of the gains of the negotiation of the 1980s was that the Federal Government was at a time considering increasing school fees in the universities but ASUU opposed it because the children of the poor would be shut out of the university education.
So, the government asked us to bring up a proposal which we did. We told the government then that it could levy companies operating in Nigeria to pay a percentage of their tax for education and the government bought the idea. The companies are to pay two per cent of their pre-tax profits in order to fund tertiary education. This is because it is actually the incubator for the human capital that they need in their industries. That was what led to the Tertiary Education Trust Fund of today. I gave this background to show where we are coming from.
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Which part of the Memorandum of Action that you signed with the FG in September 2017 has not been implemented?
As of 2017 when we were forced to go on strike, we found out that the government was not keeping fate with what they agreed to do in 2013, particularly in the area of funding. We told the government that the universities were in a serious state of dilapidation and from our estimates, we put the revitalisation cost at N1.6tn. But the government said it needed to verify how we arrived at the amount. So, the government went out in 2012 to carry out the NEED assessment verification in our universities. They visited 73 public universities in Nigeria – federal and state, and they came back to analyse the report.
If you saw the report; it was so worrying. We had even first-generation universities which did not have even water in their laboratories. Rooms meant for four to six students were being occupied by 20 students, among other inadequacies. Libraries had empty shelves and computers were down. The government felt alarmed. The report was presented to the National Economic Council so that both the federal and state governments could see the decay in the university system. So, the government committee put the estimate of revitalisation funds at N1.3tn, not too far from our estimates. And we were ready to go with that – that was in 2013. And the government agreed with us that N1.3tn would be injected into the universities over six years, starting with N220bn in 2013.
But it took the government three years to even release N200bn. And by the time we were coming in 2017, the government had only released N200bn out of the agreed N1.3tn, leaving the outstanding of N1.1tn.
And we told the government then that it had abandoned the agreement and that we would need to massively inject funds into the universities in order to revamp and revitalise them. But the government said it had not abandoned them, saying it was because there were no funds. It said as a sign of commitment, it would release N20bn in two tranches; N10bn in September 2017 and another N10bn in October 2017. And that was one of the areas of agreement with the government.
The government also agreed that the earned academic allowances of our members, as part of the conditions of service, which had been pending, would be paid after a forensic audit had been done.
Last year, we asked about the forensic audit, which was mentioned since 2013, and how long it was going to take. The government said we should give it six weeks and it would be done with it. Nothing has been heard about the earned academic allowances.
There are, however, areas in the Memorandum of 2017 that the government implemented such as the staff schools and the registration of our Pension Fund Administrators.
All these issues warranted the need to renegotiate the agreement between the union and the Federal Government. We started renegotiating since March 2017 and the government seems to be dribbling us. They could not summon enough courage to agree on one issue. The only area we were dealing with for 16 months now is funding. In fact, at some point, the members of the government team were being evasive. What we saw was that the leader of the government team, Dr Wale Babalakin, brought up the idea of increment in fees, which ASUU had fought.
It appears that the government does not know what it wants to do with university education in Nigeria. They think that by creating universities and leaving them to fend for themselves, they are making achievements. But that is wrong. Our members decided to take this action (strike) because of the antics of the government.
They need to treat education as a state of emergency.
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Do you agree with the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, that the government cannot meet ASUU’s demands because of dwindling oil prices and the recession?
We disagree with the minister. The future of Nigerian children cannot just be tied to fluctuating prices of one commodity, which is oil. Nigeria is rich and much more blessed than tying its fate of and that of its people to one commodity.
ASUU has consistently said there are places where money is trapped. I have documents showing the alleged scandals from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation in billions of dollars, which is more than what the universities need.
The Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr Ibe Kachikwu, once said Nigeria lost about $60bn to the non-enforcement of the terms of the Production Sharing Contracts signed between the Federal Government and the international oil companies. There are many things we can talk about when we say there are sources through which Nigeria can fund education. One of them is (curtailing) tax evasion; you have direct stolen funds, revenue losses through careless handling of oil production; recovered loot and so on. The government has promised 15 per cent allocation to education. In the last two years, 2017 and 2018, it has been seven per cent. It took ASUU’s persistence to give a promise of 15 per cent. So, there is a lot of pretence from those who are ruling us. We disagree totally with the minister because we believe that his submission is not scientific enough.
The Minister of Finance, Mrs Zainab Ahmed, announced in September 2018 that the Federal Government released N20bn to the universities for revitalisation. Where does that money fall in all your struggles?
We don’t even want to reckon with that N20bn. This is because to us, it is coming too little and too late. It is too little because I have just told you that we have N1.1tn outstanding in the government’s promise of revitalisation funds to the universities. That was the agreement we had as of last year.
Even from the minister’s words, we are not sure yet if the money has been released. So N20bn was not the issue; the issue is, how are they are going to pay the N1.1tn that we need to transform our universities.