There is obviously no headway in the negotiations between ASUU and the FG as both sides maintain the pre-strike positions? What is really happening?
The truth is that ASUU went on strike over the fact that the federal government refused to implement the 2009 agreement. The provisions in the Memorandum of Understanding dictated by the Secretary to the Federal Government of the Federation (SGF) on 24th of January 2012, and then the Needs Assessment that was carried out in July 2012, a number of issues were involved, and are still involved. One is funding of the universities. The 2009 ASUU-FGN Agreement was specific in terms of reversing the rot and decay in Nigerian universities. The chairman of the Federal Government Team that negotiated with ASUU, Deacon Gamaliel Onosode, said he wanted to enter the history books as the chairman of a Government Team that not only identified the key problems of Nigerian universities but has also provided the solutions. He also said that he would not sign any document, any agreement; any item that he knew that government was not going to implement and that was why the negotiation took us three years – from 2006 to July 2009.
That agreement had four sections namely; funding of universities, conditions of service, academic freedom and university autonomy and then other matters.
On the question of funding, the agreement provided that within a space of three years, government will provide 1.5 trillion naira in order to address the rot in the university system. Between 2009 and 2011, nothing happened. ASUU wrote over 200 letters to government on the agreement, nothing happened. On the 4th of December 2011, after a number of warning strikes, ASUU embarked upon an indefinite strike.
Then in January of 2012, the SGF apprehended the strike and called us to meetings in his office. We went there, had discussions and the Secretary to the Government of the Federation then dictated the Memorandum of Understanding to the effect that on the question of funding, instead of N1.5 trillion for the 24 federal universities that had been captured in the 2009 agreement, government will instead provide N1.3 trillion for 61 public universities, that is for both federal and state universities. ASUU initially disagreed over the N1.5 trillion for 24 universities as against N1.3 trillion for 61 universities, but eventually bent over backwards and accepted it. The Memorandum of Understanding, which was dictated by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr Anyim Pius Anyim, said that N100 billion was immediately available, and that N400 billion will be provided for each of the three years beginning in 2013 and ending in 2015 which will make a total of N1.3 trillion. He even said while discussions were still going on that we shouldn’t worry and that by the time government started pumping this money into the universities, we will in fact not know what to do with the money.
So we took that back to our members and our members were not happy saying that we cannot trust this government, it is just on paper. I said look, I moved the vote of thanks to Pius Anyim at the end of negotiations. I did so because I thought he was very sincere, very honest.
Because he told us that N100 billion was immediately available we then said let us spend that money now, he then said no, let us do a needs assessment, let us identify the priorities of each of the universities. He said he didn’t want a situation where we will just be throwing money generally at the universities. It was on that basis that government set up a team under the leadership of the Executive Secretary of Tertiary Education Trustfund (TETFUND), Professor Mahmood Yakubu, to go to each of the universities and identify the priorities of each of the universities. That was done on the basis of which a report was then made that captured the needs of individual universities and then an integrative report dealing with all the universities was also there.
That report was then taken to the Federal Executive Council where it was presented by Professor Mahmood Yakubu, the Executive Secretary of (TETFUND). ASUU members were also there during the presentation. When the members of the Federal Executive Council saw the state of rot in the universities – where students were using in their laboratories kerosene stoves instead of Bunsen burners, where students were excreting into polyethylene bags and throwing them through the window, where students were standing under trees to receive lectures, where there were laboratories without water, no electricity, where students were doing theory of practical in Engineering and other science-based faculties. When they saw these things, we were told; the members of the Federal Executive Council were thoroughly embarrassed and ashamed and swore, with President Jonathan there, that they were going to address the problems.
The President said that that presentation was not enough, that the Federal Executive Council is only concerned with federal universities and that it was necessary to bring state governors into the picture. They then scheduled another presentation for the National Economic Council chaired by the Vice President, Namadi Sambo. That presentation was made and all the governors were equally embarrassed by what they saw.
At the end, they set up a technical committee with Governor Godswill Akpabio, governor of Akwa Ibom State as chairman. The committee did its work, brought its recommendations, they were taken to the Federal Executive Council and the recommendations were approved and then endorsed by the President who said they should go and implement. That was in February of 2013.
From that time up to now nothing has happened. Since then ASUU had interacted with the Ministry of Education, interacted with the Secretary to the Government of the Federation pressing for the implementation of the approved recommendations by the president and nothing happened. It was at that stage that ASUU then went on strike; and since the strike started, what have we heard?
We have been called by the National Assembly Committee on Education chaired by Senator Uche Chukwumerije. Very interestingly, when we got to the meeting with the committee at the National Assembly, it was clear to all the members that the reason for the strike was because government refused to implement the agreement, the Memorandum of Understanding, and the needs assessment as approved by Mr. President.
When the Secretary to the Government of the Federation spoke, we were shocked. When they asked him about the Memorandum of Understanding, he acknowledged that he wrote it, he took responsibility that it is his document but when they read that N100 billion was available to be given to the universities in 2012, N400 billion each for the following three years; he said: “Oh, what I meant was N100 billion and not N400 billion.” So Senator Chukwumerije then said: “SGF, you are a lawyer, you dictated this thing; that is what you started with, that you wrote it; how can you say that you didn’t know that N400 billion was not N100 billion?” The SGF had no answer and embarrassingly, they closed the session.
We then had other meetings in the SGF office and at one of the meetings he shook the MoU in the face of the then Minister of Education, Professor Rukayattu and said sarcastically: “Look, I think they said they want N400 billion, go and give them the N400 billion naow” and they laughed. The SGF ridiculed the MoU that he had dictated! ASUU cannot have that because education is key to what a country does, education is key to the development of a country.
Brazil said recently that any new oil field that they find, whatever money derived from there will be used to fund education. Ghana spends about 31 percent of its annual budget on education and if you look at the percentage of the GDP spent on education, amongst a number of countries, Nigeria has less than 1 percent of GDP spent on education. Ghana spends 8.6 percent, even Republic of Benin and Togo; they have higher levels of spending on education than Nigeria.
The fact is that government eventually of course, when we went on strike, set up the [Governor Gabriel] Suswam Committee to deal with the question of implementing the Needs Assessment Report but Suswam came to that committee with a mindset. He came in order to be a contractor and not to implement the report of the Needs Assessment Committee. Against the N100 billion that the Secretary to the Government of the Federation had told us was there and could be released but that we should go and do a needs assessment report so that they will know how to disburse it, what Suswam did was to first and foremost tell us that there is no other kobo anywhere, that there was no money; he was just talking to us anyhow.
The government has consistently argued, and may have succeeded in creating the impression that all ASUU is after is money, money and money in the form of increased pay and allowances and other benefits and not improved university system? Don’t you think that ASUU has not been able to convincingly respond to this impression to drastically change popular perception of the union?
When they said that all ASUU is after is money, money, money, they mean for example that we are after salaries, we are after the money that comes to the pocket of ASUU but fortunately, when anybody sees the Memorandum of Understanding, the Needs Assessment Report and also has read the statements credited to ASUU in publications, they will know that ASUU is after the Funding of education and not after money. In any case, if you have worked, shouldn’t you be paid; if ASUU has worked, shouldn’t it be paid? It is said that a labourer is worth his wages of his labour or something like that.
What we are trying to say is that, even as at yesterday [when the interview was held], there was an editorial in one of the national dailies which tend to push the whole blame for going on strike on ASUU and not the Federal Government.
Well, we know that no matter what happens, no matter how much information people have, based upon the biases that people already have, they will bend the information that they have to suit those biases. ASUU’s struggles have never been about money per se, they are rather about funding of education; we have been saying fund education. UNESCO says fund education up to 26 percent of national budget, let the Federal Government provide that money. We have been consistent about funding of education.
Secondly, ASUU’s struggles have also been about conditions of service. In the 2009 agreement, we talked about earned academic allowances. These are allowances in relation to responsibilities, that is, responsibility allowance; like you are a head of department, allowances in relation to supervision, you supervise PhDs, you access professors; allowances in respect to excess workload.
In Nigeria, the NUC said that the student-teacher ratio should be between 1 to about 40. In some Nigerian universities, we have a situation of one lecturer to about 500 students. In Harvard, it is about one to three, in Yale it is one to about five, you know, the ratio varies but in Nigeria, in our public universities, no teacher teaches a class, on the average, that is less than 150. We teach far above and we have consistently said that look, employ enough teachers, when you employ enough teachers, you won’t have to pay for excess workload because teachers are carrying more than the workload that they ought to carry. So, staffing, not just academic staff but non-academic and all staff of universities, they have earned allowances which government has not been paying since 2009 and it has accumulated and come to N92 billion for both academic and non-academic staff.
ASUU, because we recognise the interconnections between the academic staff and non-academic staff; we say pay everybody. We could have said look, pay us the academic staff allowances and leave that of the non-academic staff. ASUU said we work in a system; if you pay us and you don’t pay the others, there will still be crisis; so bring the money so that all categories of staff are paid but government is saying no, it doesn’t have the money; it only has N30 billion. Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, [Minister of Finance and Co-ordinating Minister of the Economy] at a meeting in the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation in the course of this strike told us: “I have cash; 30 billion naira cash, I am putting it on the table, take it or leave it. if you don’t take it you can be on strike for the next two or three years. Yes, that is what Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala said!
With regard to that, there are a couple of issues to sort out. Firstly, why don’t you believe the excuse being given by government that it has no money? Secondly, as a former president of ASUU and one who is still active in the system, do you think the decay in the education sector can be resolved without necessarily addressing the decay in the entire society?
Well, on the first question of whether the government has no money; that is not true, government has money, we do not believe that government has no money. As we told Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala, we are a union of intellectuals, we have economists, experts in economics, and so we have access to the figures that government itself produces in relation to its revenue string. Government has a lot of money. What is important is not the question of whether government has money or does not have money but the priorities of government in relation to spending the money that it has. Like we told her dramatically, it is not the size of the cake that matters but how you share the cake to the various individuals who have a stake in it.
So government has a lot of money but how is the government applying that money? Government spent three trillion naira bailing out the banks; it spent 500 billion naira bailing out the airlines; it spent another 100 billion naira the textile firms; it even had money to give to Nollywood and the Stock Exchange, private people who arrange deals, they had money to give them, about 350 billion naira. How come when it comes to education, government suddenly says it has no money? It is because they have contempt for education; they want people to remain in ignorance so that they can continue to toy with the destiny of Nigerians. It is not that they don’t have the money; they have a lot of money. They are now amassing money for 2015, towards the next elections. Whether the country goes to ruin or not it doesn’t matter as long as they can pursue their political ambitions. Yes, government has money!
Even if you look at the international oil market today; a barrel of crude oil is selling at 109 dollars. Nigeria is producing 2.4 million barrels per day, yes, 2.4 million barrels!. So if you multiply 109 by 2.4 million, you will know what Nigeria is making on a daily basis.
The initial proposition for Nigeria’s 2013 budget was that it should be at 70 dollars per barrel and then the National Assembly said it should be 97 dollars per barrel, but because the 2013 budget in fact was not formerly approved, we do not know the figure they eventually used. But whatever it is, they have what they called Excess Crude Account, they have money there. There is the Sovereign Wealth Fund, there is money there. So Nigeria has a lot of money! Nobody can say that the country doesn’t have money, it is not true. So in terms of funding education, it is whether government has the interest of Nigerians at heart; whether they want to invest in the future of Nigeria. So it is not that they don’t have money; they have a lot of money to spend if they really want to rescue the rot, the decay in education.
On the second question about the general decay in the society; well, there is no doubt that there is a relationship between the decay in the Nigerian society with the decay in Nigerian universities. The decay in Nigerian society fuels the decay in Nigerian universities and ultimately the decay in Nigerian universities also fuels the decay in Nigerian society.
You see, we have always made the point that if you take your individual interests; if public schools are bad and you have children, what do you do? You do not say because all schools are bad you will allow your children to receive a bad education, you will employ private teachers, isn’t it, to try and teach them? In doing so, you create pockets of excellence and in doing that you hope that you will be able to change the system as a whole.
So also, it is possible for the educational sector, for you to get it right, you must spend money there to make sure that the place is properly organised so that in turn, it will impact upon the society as a whole.
What we have had, frankly speaking, is that the current ruling elites in Nigeria are like the dog that is destined to get lost, it will not hear the whistle of its master. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence as to the catastrophe that will befall the country and themselves, they continue on the current course, they will not see, they will not listen. So things continue in the way that they are. The society is bad; it is rotten! The ruling elites are shameless, they are shameless!
I saw this thing yesterday on the front page of The Nation newspaper where a group of kidnappers came out and they say they were giving the government 60 days ultimatum to grant them amnesty and they were brandishing guns and they were hailed by the public. There is no state in Nigeria; that is why Nigeria is described as a failing state; the state in Nigeria has failed, yes, the state in Nigeria has failed. All they [leaders] are interested in is providing for their own security, no security for the public.
Frankly speaking, there has to be some radical transformation within the ruling elite. Jonathan talked about transformation but actually they don’t know what transformation means. Transformation is re-ordering the governing variables of society. You change the governing variables because you have to change from a faulty foundation; you re-arrange it to correct the faults. That is not what they are doing; they are simply re-arranging the dead chairs on the Titanic; that is what they are doing. The Titanic is going to sink but you take one chair from here to put it there so that it won’t sink but it is going to sink anyway; that is what the Nigerian ruling elites are doing.
So, we have a responsibility, Nigerians have a responsibility to ensure that the real transformation takes place because as long as we continue with this crop of leaders, Nigeria is going nowhere. That is the tragedy of the universities also.
There is also the argument that the general decay in university education is a direct result of the low quality of academic staff. Don’t you think this is true and if it is true, will university autonomy or improved quality of infrastructure or salary being canvassed by ASUU resolve the question of quality in the system?
How did they [lecturers] get there? ASUU leaders are not those who employ the teachers; teachers come into the universities on the basis of the processes put in place by the Vice Chancellors, by the governance structures in the universities. ASUU members do not employ teachers; there are levels of leadership in the universities that take responsibility for the appointment of teachers.
In any case, where do they come from? If the quality of students that you get is so low, where do you get the teachers from? From the same decayed system. That is why you have teachers who cannot speak correct English; they will tell you: “on the light”, “off the light”. They come from the same set of students who graduated years before who were speaking such incorrect English, who did not have proper experiments, who had dry experiments, who didn’t have proper education; that is where they are coming from.
That is why, frankly speaking, when I go to these big offices of some of these big shots in government, public officers, huge big powers and I go to their toilets, you will find out that they have big jerry cans of water because they know that water won’t run in their toilets. They are comfortable with it because that is what they know. They went to university when they were doing what students call “shot put,” excreting inside polythene bags in the classroom and throwing it outside through the window. So in their offices, it doesn’t make a difference; that is normal.
So when you talk about the quality of teachers, the quality of teachers that you get will come from the quality of students that you produce. In the olden days when we were just starting as lecturers in the universities, we had lecturers from different parts of the world. I was interviewed by a Professor Smith from the UK, a white man. In the faculty then, you had professors from different parts of the world. I can count on my fingertips the number of foreigners now in Nigerian universities across the length and breadth of the country.
We no longer have foreign students except those who may come on some exchange programme. That wasn’t the case but because the conditions of service, the conditions for research have deteriorated so much that nobody wants to take the risk of coming to Nigeria. But Nigerian students are in Ghana, in Malaysia, they are everywhere!
The Central Bank Governor [Sanusi Lamid Sanusi] told us recently that in one year alone Nigerians spend between 62 to 65 billion naira in Ghana paying school fees. If the Nigerian educational system was right, if the Nigerian universities were right, that money will not go out, it will be here and foreign students will be coming to Nigeria to spend that money. So things are bad. The quality of academic staff that we are getting now is not the quality of academic staff that we had in the past. As I said, no foreigner will come as it is so you have to get them from within and even at that we still have a dearth of teachers at various levels. The Needs Assessment Report showed, for example, that in some universities, you have two or three professors among the entire pool of staff.
Now that there seems to be a stalemate, don’t you think that ASUU needs to re-strategise and re-negotiate the 2009 agreement as against a strike that seems to have no end in sight?
You see, we have talked about this; members of the public have suggested this; government itself has thrown it at us. The question is, if you had an agreement that you negotiated for three years – from 2006-2009 – that was not implement and ASUU had to go on strike. We had a Memorandum of Understanding that ASUU got from government, government dictated it, which was not implemented. After that there was yet another Memorandum of Understanding, government did not implement it. There is a Needs Assessment Report done by government itself, presented to government; that also was not implemented. What guarantee is there if you go and then have another negotiation that it will be implemented? The most rational thing for anybody, anybody, even somebody who didn’t go to school, they will tell you, look, finish this one first, let them implement the previous agreement, let that one be concluded then we can start another round of negotiations.
We know that, in fact, we should have started negotiations since 2012; since last year; to re-negotiate the agreement of 2009, because it is suppose to be every three years but we have convinced ourselves that it is part of the sacrifice, part of that process of bending over backwards. Let us suffer because we know that even those that we are better than in terms of conditions of service in 2009 have overtaken us but we are willing to stay the course. Let us get the agreement of 2009 implemented, let us get the MoU implemented, let us get the Needs Assessment Report implemented; after that we can talk about re-negotiating another agreement because that will then show to us how serious government is in terms of implementing agreements.
We have told government anyway that in a situation where people do not implement agreements will only create anarchy. When you don’t implement agreement that you validly entered into after three years of negotiation, collective bargaining, agreements arrived at through collective bargaining, you don’t implement; you are simply calling for anarchy. So, why do you go for another one?
Why don’t ASUU approach the issue of this decay by, for instance, engaging the other unions in the education sector to campaign for a holistic reform since the basic foundation of knowledge starts from the lower levels – primary education and secondary education? Agreed now that there is decay in the entire system; don’t you then think that these layers of decay are being transferred to the universities?
ASUU has been doing that. That is why ASUU has been calling for the funding of education, not just the funding of university education. But we also recognise that there are different unions in charge of different sectors of the educational system as a whole.
While we carry the burden of speaking for the educational system as a whole, it is also the responsibility of the unions in charge of the other sectors to play their role. We cannot shave their hair in their absence; that will be wrong. That is why, in the case of the university, the government has been telling us that we should talk about our own union issues only. There is what we call working class solidarity; so we are speaking for NASU, we are speaking for SSANU, we are speaking for NAATS but they must play their own part, their own roles in the process.
We are a trade union and when you expand your area of involvement to involve the area of others, government will say that you are trying to politicise the issues and that you are trying to bring down the government. If we now go to engage NASU, SSANU, NAATS and NUT and all of them to then say let us come together on this matter, government is going to say you see, they have gone beyond what is their own, they are now involving other unions in order to bring us down; they want to change the government in power. That is not the design of ASUU, ASUU wants funding for education in general and funding for universities in particular.
In addition, ASUU has been planning an education summit that will bring together all the interest groups in education. We have said to ourselves that at the end of this strike all the interest groups in education will be brought together to discuss the future of education and hence the future of Nigeria. So you can see that ASUU is thinking at different levels, is acting at different levels in order to address the issues that you have just raised.
In a recent article published by one of the national dailies on ways of funding the agreement with ASUU, there have been suggestions that agencies of government like the Central Bank, the Petroleum Development Fund, the National Communications Commission and JAMB should be approached to raise the required 1.5 trillion naira to fund the agreement. Do you see this as a viable approach?
Well, it is a viable approach. The thing about ASUU is this; ASUU does not just present problems without also proposing solutions. When we reached the agreement with government and then this MoU was dictated by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, they challenged us and said: where will these monies come from for funding this agreement, this MoU? They on their own also said that the money will come from both budgetary and extra-budgetary sources and they said they know that NNPC’s budget does not go to the National Assembly, there is money there, CBN’s budget also does not go to the National Assembly, there is money there, JAMB also, there is money there and other sources which are not captured by the National Assembly, so we can get money from these sources to fund education, to fund the agreement. And so if the money is there why shouldn’t we use the money?
In addition, remember that the Tertiary Education Fund was the idea of ASUU. We said look, let us have a fund because all businesses, all institutions use the products of Nigerian universities. Just put in place a small tax that when they pay it will then be used to support education. It was that proposal by ASUU that led to the establishment of the Tertiary Education Trust Fund. But when it was first established as Education Tax Fund, even primary schools were being funded with the money whereas what we had said was tertiary education. They have now amended that. That, clearly, is a viable and legitimate way of funding education.
Apart from that, we have also said the Sovereign Wealth Fund is there, which belongs to all the three levels of government; the Excess Crude Account is also there, which belongs to all the three levels of government.
Very often you find them sharing money. They will gather in Abuja and say we are sharing Excess Crude Account money; why can’t we spend from that money to fund education?
Currently, ASUU is accusing the government of misusing the TETFUND money. Won’t some people in turn accuse government of flouting the mandate of these statutory institutions?
No! Let us take the case of TETFUND as an example. TETFUND is mandated to provide high impact investments in universities and other higher institutions. The tax that companies pay is meant for that purpose. But you will be violating the provisions of TETFUND when you then take money from there and on your own spending the money on behalf of TETFUND. That is what the government has always done. The TETFUND Board is supposed to channel the fund specifically on projects that are suppose to generate high impact in the universities and higher institutions. So that one is there!
Then CBN, you know, has money sitting down there. There is nothing in the CBN act that says that that money cannot be expended on education. There is nothing in those other agencies like the NNPC that stops government from using money from there to fund education. For instance, during the Obasanjo era, they took money from NNPC to fund electioneering and we believe also that during the life of this government under President Jonathan, they have also been taking money from the purse of the NNPC and use it for elections. That is what violates the Act of the NNPC; that also violates the Act of CBN. When you use the money in terms of funding education, health and other things, you are not violating the Acts that set up the NNPC and these other agencies.
There was a recent advertorial on the status of implementation of the 2009 agreement between ASUU and the Federal Government, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation said on the issue of transfer of Federal Government landed properties to universities, government had made it clear that it cannot transfer government landed property to ASUU as it has no structure to manage or maintain such property. What is exactly at stake here?
You see, that is one of the lies that government tells. When government started putting pressure on the universities, and that is why I said ASUU always provides solutions, government started saying that no, we will no longer fund university education, universities should now be self funding. As a result, some universities have now gone into ventures such as making “pure water.” That is not what universities are meant for. In other countries, universities conduct research that they in turn patent to then get a lot of money from there. Universities own property that they get money from and not from making pure water or creating tollgates inside universities where vehicle owners are compelled to pay tolls.
You see, we reached an agreement with government when ASUU proposed that since public properties were being recklessly sold – NITEL, NICON Noga, this one, that one; they were just dashing them out – ASUU then suggested to government to create a university holding company owned by all the federal universities in Nigeria and then cede some of these properties to the holding company and the profit that will derive from its management, they will get money to fund their operations such as research.
The government gave out all the buildings in Abuja, the ones in Lagos such as the former Federal Secretariat in Lagos; they dashed them out. Those properties could have been given out to the university holding company owned by the entire federal universities in the country, not individual universities. Under such a scenario, they will not run to government cap in hand begging for money; they will use the profits to run their activities.
We didn’t say give landed properties to ASUU; it is to the universities under a holding company. We spoke to the vice chancellors about two days ago and they were very happy about that agreement, because it will help them but the government is not interested in going in that direction. What they are interested in is that they will get their friend like this power company that they just dashed out; they want to give these things to their friends.
One may ask; where are all the monies that they have realised from the privatisation process? It is not part of the budget, it is not captured in the budget of the country that this is the money we have realised. All the money they said they seized from people who stole money, where is that money? It is not in the budget, so where is the money? Nobody accounts for that money!
We are saying look, NICON Noga Hilton, now Transcorp Hilton, was making a lot of money; NICON Insurance was also making a lot of money, also NICON Luxury Hotel; they were all making a lot of money, they were not incurring losses! Why do you take a government company that is making a lot of money and then privatise it? Does that make sense?
For us in ASUU, instead of privatising them, give them to a public sector universities holding company that will then generate money from there to fund the activities of universities so that government will no longer be under pressure to provide funds for running the universities. That was the reason.
We also said it is inconceivable that you have foreign companies coming to Nigeria, whether it is in oil, whether it is in communications or wherever – they all make huge profits in Nigeria – get them to set up research and development companies in different universities; create a local content policy and also have a local research policy that will require that companies set up research and development units and centres in the different universities across the country so that when they conduct research they patent it and on the basis of that earn money. When they solve problems, you pay. But right now, when the companies have problem, they run outside the country whereas we have people here who can do that research. So there are patriotic solutions to the problems that the country has but these ruling elites they are simply not interested!
About two or three sister unions in the university system are not involved in the ongoing strike by ASUU – NASU, SSANU and may be NAATS are not involved – what in your view is responsible for this? Secondly, since the three unions used to belong to the same national centre, that is the NLC; don’t you think ASUU should have made more efforts to make them become part of the ASUU struggle?
The fact is this; when our strike started, when the problem started, we briefed the NLC on the strike and it is left to the NLC to which we belong to then initiate a process of getting these other unions also to be involved. And of course, like I was explaining earlier, SSANU, NASU, they have their own separate jurisdictions and they have their own members.
When the Needs Assessment Report of public universities was done, there had been this big misconception which some of the university based unions have tried to react to on the ground that ASUU wants them retrenched. ASUU does not want anybody retrenched.
When the Needs Assessment was carried out, government panel found out that, and the ratios are there, established from the beginning; non academic staff are support staff; all of us go to different universities in different parts of the world; the core business of the university is teaching and so the number of teachers should be more than the number of supporting staff. What has happened in the case of Nigerian universities is that the number of non academic staff is more than the number of academic staff; sometimes four times in some universities where you will have sometimes 800 academic staff you will have 3,200 non academic staff. As a result, 70 percent of the personnel cost goes to non academic staff and 30 percent goes to academic staff. It is lopsided. That was the finding of the Committee on the Needs Assessment of Public Universities in Nigeria.
The committee subsequently made recommendations, for example, that in future the process of natural attrition – when people retire, they should no longer be replaced. In some universities, the number of senior non academic staff – deputy registrars, assistant registrars and others are more in number than the number of professors in the university. That is not healthy. But what has happened is that as a result of that report, NASU and SSANU now believe that ASUU engineered the report that says they are too many. But that is the fact of the case. ASUU has not said that anybody should be retrenched. Some of them have been saying that if the Needs Assessment Report is implemented, they will go on strike. Maybe that is why they have not been involved in the struggle that we have been involved in.
Nonetheless, as I said, ASUU has taken it upon itself to champion even the interest of those unions who are undermining what it is doing. ASUU is saying these earned allowances; pay everybody, all universities’ staff and not just academic staff. Even when government is pressing us to focus on ourselves, focus upon your 52. 2 billion naira, leave the other ones but we said no, we don’t want a situation where ours is paid and the others are not paid. So we expect SSANU and NASU to join in the struggle but we won’t go and meet them and say come and join us.
As I said the government will say ooh, you are the one mobilising other unions to come and take part in this; but we expect them, since they know the issues involved, nobody is saying that anybody should be sacked. We expect the NASU leadership, the SSANU leadership to join in it and say, yes, it is our struggle. When facilities improve, their children will benefit also so they should take the initiative; ASUU cannot go and meet them and ask them to join; in fact they should join on their own; after all we are all in the same university system.
Virtually all the private universities in the country have no academic staff union or association. What has ASUU done to correct this given that the labour laws in the country are quite union friendly in that regard? Why has neither ASUU nor any of the other unions unionise this category of workers?
Well, in the recent past, this was one of the problems NLC tried to address. I know there was a programme aimed at mobilising or organising one million new members for the NLC. This was because there are many occupations that are not unionised and many employers make it impossible for employees to be unionised. Right now I know of NABTEB – National Board for Technical Education – unionisation is going on there but the management is resisting it and sacking workers, yes, sacking workers.
There are one or two private universities where lecturers have indicated that they want to join ASUU and we are encouraging them. Presently we are doing different things to encourage members, academic staff of private universities, to form unions. SSANU also has the same problems; NASU too has the same problems. Proprietors of private universities do not want their employees to be unionised although the laws in the country say you cannot prevent people from joining unions; but those laws; they can bark, they cannot bite because at the end of the day, the labour laws are friendly to the employers; when they are violated, nothing happens.
We are doing everything that we can but progress is slow because of the reprisals that many managements in the universities take against those who they see as being interested in forming unions and when they sack them because they don’t have a union on the ground they have difficulties in supporting them. So that is a problem but that is a responsibility that the NLC needs to take up. The NLC needs to attack this problem frontally like the programme which it had that was aimed at unionising at least one million members in non unionised occupations across the country. Let us do that and in private universities we will be there, telecommunications, we will be there, even in banks; employees are not unionised in many banks and because the labour movement is very weak right now, that is also part of the reason why these things are going on.
Against the background of dwindling funds for federal universities was it rational or right in your view for the federal government to have established ten new universities in 2011?
ASUU has argued against that. ASUU has said look, there is a procedure, even, for establishing universities and that wasn’t followed. You can expand the carrying capacity of universities that are currently on the ground. Cairo University has over 100 thousand students. Many universities across the world; some have 250 thousand, and if you come to Nigerian universities, the largest one is ABU which has over 30 thousand students. So why don’t we expand the carrying capacity of existing universities that are already on ground instead of establishing new universities?
I think it was a political decision; government took a political decision by establishing universities in states of the federation where there are no federal universities as at that time. They took that decision without consulting ASUU and they are funding them without consulting ASUU; doing all kinds of things that are against even the due process thing that they themselves put in place.
Corruption is said to be endemic in all spheres of our national life. How can this epidemic be tackled in the university system?
Well, I have said it before that it is not just in the university system. Corruption is the air that members of the ruling elites breathe in Nigeria; it is their oxygen and if you cut it off, they will die. So they have an investment, there is nothing you can do to stem the tide of corruption unless you remove the ruling elite; it is impossible without that. The ruling elites, whether they are in the universities or they are in the government, are the same, they are doing exactly the same thing. All these laws, EFCC, ICPC, work only when those in power want them to work and mostly against their political enemies; they don’t work when the objective is actually to clean up the system because nobody is interested in cleaning up the system.
In universities, ASUU, in fact our members, get into trouble for pointing out cases of corruption. Our union leaders are harassed because we are saying that look, let us do these things properly. Look, Suswam is attacking ASUU now because we said he cannot build hostels at 2.1 million naira or 1.6 million naira per bed space and that in any case he was appointed chairman of the Needs Implementation Report not to go and award contracts but to put in place the framework for implementing the report. What did Suswam also do? Part of the 100 billion naira they said was available he put 1.15 billion naira aside for administrative cost; which administrative cost?
Like PPPRA, when it was being established, I know the NLC then opposed it and said this was going to be a bigger bureaucracy; it should just be an ad hoc thing but the members said no, it should be established. Again, what happened during the fuel subsidy crisis that they were involved in a lot of the fraud that took place? So corruption in Nigerian universities is a small cup of tea compared to the big drum, river of corruption that you find in the government and other sectors of the economy.
In all of this, how has the NUC fared in performing its regulatory role in the university system?
I think that the NUC, when we had twelve universities or fewer, the NUC was far more effective; all of them were public universities. Now you have federal universities, you have state universities, you have private universities and there are over 100 of them, about 106 and NUC is not able to, does not have the capacity to regulate standards across all the universities. Remember that standards are a function of funding; if funding is available, then standards can be established. If you have proper conditions of service, people outside Nigeria will be motivated to come and teach; students will also come. If funds are not there; if facilities for research are not there; people won’t come.
What the NUC does is this; it is like deceiving itself. If it comes to carry out accreditation, universities, many universities will rush to borrow lecturers and facilities from other places, stock up their libraries with books that they borrow from other places; when the NUC team goes they return them. NUC knows this and the universities know this. Even the quality of programmes that we have; NUC knows that there are problems there, we don’t have teachers to teach them, but NUC has to carry on that common deceit to society in collaboration with the universities, in collaboration with the government in order to ensure that you can have something they call university system in place.
In the wake of the current industrial action by ASUU, some people have come out with the suggestion that there is the need to segregate tertiary education from the other levels of education. Do you see that as a viable or reasonable option?
That is part of the recommendation of the Needs Assessment Report. The report noted that education is very, very big and that even in many states of the federation right now, you already have Ministry for Higher Education and Ministry for Basic Education and that the Ministry of Education should be split into two: one, Ministry for Higher Education and two, Ministry for Education or Lower or Basic Education; that happens in many countries of the world but government is not interested in that. Instead it has a Minister of State and a Minister. It has to separate the two so that they can focus precisely on their areas of concern.
Although you have raised this issue earlier but putting it more bluntly, part of the contention of government is that there was a commitment in 2012 by the SGF that 100 billion naira will be released in 2012, then 400 billion naira in each of the three years subsequently; the question is being asked as to why ASUU is insisting on the full implementation of this even as we are in the second of the four years that government agreed it was going to provide the funds?
I think the answer is clear, the answer is clear! If you have an agreement and you don’t implement that agreement, you are creating a situation of anarchy. Two, the agreement was based on a realistic assessment of the needs of the universities if we are to function as part of the global university system in the modern age except if we want to remain where we are, then nothing should be done, we should then continue with the way that we are.
ASUU is right to insist that government should honour the terms of its own agreements. ASUU is saying 100 billion naira in 2012, 400 billion naira in 2013; that makes it a total of 500 billion naira – that is the money you gave to the airlines, private airlines; you can bring that money to fund education – between 2012 and 2013, that money should be available; however you did it for the banks, however you did it for the airlines; you can also do it for the universities. you can take money from the Sovereign Wealth Fund, you can take money from the Excess Crude Account which is what the Needs Assessment Report says. The money is there; you can get the money and spend it on education.
In terms of the earned allowances, the 92 billion naira; that money is also available if government has the will, if government has the integrity to abide by its own agreements, dictated by itself, written by itself. So ASUU is not asking for the moon! ASUU is not asking for anything that is extraordinary! ASUU is simply saying implement an agreement that you yourself made. It will be wrong; ASUU will be doing a disservice to the country if it simply folded its hands after an agreement has been made and then say don’t implement; we will be an irresponsible body; we will be totally an irresponsible organisation that we will not be doing justice to ourselves and the nation.
There are implications in this for other unions. You have a collective agreement which government does not implement and then you say it doesn’t matter whether you implement it. If they do it to ASUU, they will do it to others.
Your tenure as ASUU President in the ’80 was marked by series of confrontations with government. What were those issues and how were they resolved?
They were the same issues that we are raising now – funding of education. At that time Prof Jubril Aminu was the minister of Education and they were not willing to fund education and he had made a number of statements that were anti even the ministry that he headed. We then said, look, Jubril Aminu was not fit to remain as the Minister of Education.
We were also bothered at that time about the fact that the country was under military rule. We believed that it was not the proper atmosphere to develop academic and educational institutions. We were therefore opposed to the autocracy of the military for we were seeking for avenues that will ensure that Nigerians could exercise their rights; ASUU was involved in the struggle with the NLC under Comrade Chiroma.
Government responded by brutalising us and said that teachers were teaching what they were not paid to teach. They proscribed our union, arrested me, and sacked me from the University of Benin. But we know that ultimately government had to eat its own words because under Attahiru Jega who took over from me, government had to make an agreement for funding the universities. That was in 1992. After 1992, we had another one in 1999-2001 and then again in 2009.
When government then recognised that although it could not browbeat ASUU, although we were banned, we were still operating as a union; government was still talking to us as a union.
Remember when ABU students were shot and Ango Abdullahi said only four students died, we mobilised within the NLC for there to be a nationwide demonstration against the military, that was in 1986; I was president of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, and I left Owerri and went to Lagos for a meeting with the NLC.
While I was there, I got a letter from the late Prof. Nzimero, who was an adviser to Babangida at the time, telling me that Babangida was a comrade and that we should not do anything to undermine his government. And I said if Babangida was a comrade then the slaughter of students in ABU, the anti Nigerian policies in education and elsewhere, his total endorsement of the IMF and World Bank policies that were then emerging at that time would not have happened. Nigerians will march against the callous murder of Nigerian students in ABU on June 4, 1986.
That was what led to the proscription of ASUU, the banning of the NLC and then my subsequent sack from my job in the University of Benin. All these were part and parcel of that. Nigerians struggled until the military left.
Unfortunately, those who took over from the military were the same forces that had supported the military within civil society. Those who were most opposed, in terms of principle, to military rule were excluded from the process because they don’t have the money and the organisation wasn’t there.
There is one ironic trend in the education crisis in Nigeria as majority of the ministers of education have always traditionally been appointed from the university community. Why do you think they usually don’t give informed advice to government?
Well, how do they get there? They were not nominated by ASUU. When you want to go and do anything, you look for your friends, people who think like you. When the government is looking for people to appoint within the academia as ministers, they look for people who think like them. We don’t pretend that everybody in the academia think in the same way, we think in different ways. That is why Paul Baran makes the point about the difference between an intellect worker and an intellectual.
Most of the members in ASUU, most of the leaders in ASUU are intellectuals. A lot of our members on the other hand are intellect workers; they don’t oppose the ruling ideas; they don’t care; they are satisfied with the status quo; they do research to support the continuation of the status quo. The intellectual on the other hand is interested in unmasking the various ways in which the status quo makes it impossible for members to realise true justice, true freedom, you know, living in a state that truly helps in realising themselves. So when the government wants to appoint people they look for intellect workers, they don’t really go for intellectuals.