The National President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, Prof Emmanuel Osodeke, speaks on issues surrounding the ongoing strike by university lecturers and others
The NEC of ASUU announced a 12-week strike recently while citing the inaction of the Federal Government. What are some of the issues yet to be addressed by the government?
None of the issues ranging from revitalisation fund, earned academic allowance, deployment of UTAS (University Transparency and Accountability Solution), release of visitation panel reports, proliferation of universities and reforms has been fully addressed; so, nothing has happened.
Isn’t there another way for the union to seek redress, especially seeing that students are home for close to three months?
Which other ways do Nigerians or the press want us to use? We have used all the ways; we issued warnings, we had meetings, we had MoA (Memorandum of Action), we had Memorandum of Understanding, all the visible methods we could talk through with, and then nothing happened. So, what do we do? Strike is the last option remaining, and they (government) are not even responding, so what do we do?
So, you mean there is no other means?
If you have any, you can suggest.
In what way is the UTAS better than the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System, which was proposed by the Federal Government?
Well, we keep saying that the IPPIS is a fraud being managed by the office of the Accountant-General of the Federation, whose head is also charged with fraud. We have been vindicated; you heard that the AGF has been arrested by the EFCC (Economic and Financial Crimes Commission) for misappropriation of N80bn and suspended; this is not small. The IPPIS is a platform they use to siphon money. UTAS is a platform that has been tested but they refused to deploy it. UTAS will take care of all the sectors in the university, which is not in the IPPIS. Issue of sabbatical, issue of visiting lecturers, all will be taken care of by UTAS, which is not accommodated by the IPPIS.
The IPPIS cannot take care of the peculiarities of universities and UTAS is designed in such a way that it can accommodate everything. As I’m talking to you, a large number of people are being owed eight, nine and 10 months’ salaries because they cannot be paid by the IPPIS. What you’re paid today, you’re not sure of what you will get next on the IPPIS. It cannot cater for all peculiarities of universities. UTAS was designed for the Nigerian university system at no cost to the government. But with the IPPIS, we pay to the people taking care of it, like the World Bank, on a monthly basis.
The Accountant-General of the Federation was accused of N80bn fraud. What will that amount do for ASUU?
No, we should be asking what the N80bn will do for Nigeria taken by one man. It’s not about ASUU. It’s about Nigeria. N80bn can construct not less than 80 to 100 kilometres of road. That N80bn will build 10 new secondary and primary schools. It will take care of all the lab equipment in all tertiary institutions in the country. But one man allegedly took it away.
The Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities has also introduced its own payroll system. Are you not concerned that this system can complicate the remuneration process in the university system?
Ordinarily, they should have joined us just like the polytechnics and colleges of education have done. But if at all, they want to do theirs, it should be subjected to a test by the NITDA. What we are saying is let the NITDA subject the three systems to a test and we will take the best one.
Why has ASUU shunned meetings with the Briggs committee?
It’s good to get facts right. All the meetings they have invited us for we have attended all of them, but they have not come up with any meaningful thing. They have not shown any sign of agreement or giving us attention that our issues are outstanding.
TETfund has always been described as a major player in the development of higher institutions of learning. Do you think the agency has lived up to expectations in terms of funding the major infrastructural projects in the universities?
The only problem we have in TETfund now is that politicians have taken over TETfund and it is also being managed by all Nigerian fund systems. They call it stakeholders’ forum and board of trustees’ fund; they mismanage the funds and it is no longer as envisaged when we proposed this mode of funding in 1992. Similarly, the Board of Trustees’ Fund, when it was planned, it wasn’t supposed to have a big number of companies that are not paying their dues and taxes. This is why their effect in the country is dwindling.
There ought to be a thorough investigation up to the FIRS (Federal Inland Revenue Service) where they collect the funds. When it was established, it was not like that. It was not established to be a big bureaucracy and that is why its effect is dwindling. Let’s go back to the initial design of TETfund; by that design, TETfund is an agency that is available, the money is collected and disbursed as it’s evaluated every year, with ASUU being a member of its council; but now, it has become a bureaucratic system just like the ministry since ASUU was removed. There is a need for the government to undertake a very serious auditing of TETfund from the beginning till now and ASUU should be in that committee so that the deficiencies can be corrected.
The NUC stated that there are about 100,000 lecturers to over 2.1 million students in universities. What do you think is responsible for the massive brain drain of lecturers?
Again, we have less than 60,000 lecturers and not 100,000. The ratio is much wider than what was said by the NUC. What do you think is responsible? It’s because we can’t recruit. Because of our condition of service, lots are leaving the country for other countries, but nobody is coming here. That’s the problem. That’s why we recruit people who are not fit to be lecturers. We need to improve on our condition of service so that we can attract lecturers from all over the world, so that those who have left due to brain drain can come back; we will not be moving forward if we don’t do this. We have to upgrade the condition of service in Nigeria in such a way we can attract lecturers all over the world.
What’s the way out?
For you to get the best, you have to improve the welfare package. A lecturer is earning about $600 a month here, but $10,000 a month abroad. Nigerians are running away in droves because of the poor working conditions and environment.
How about the influx of foreign universities coming to advertise to Nigerians?
People will come from outside to take our people away. We were told by the CBN (Central Bank of Nigeria) that every year Nigerians pay N1.6tn to foreign universities. So, they are coming for marketing. People come from the outside to come and take our people away because they know that we have the money to pay. Nigerian lecturers are leaving because of the poor learning condition.
What is your suggestion on this?
Nigeria should do the right thing and implement our agreement, upgrade the university system and fund universities appropriately so that we can attract students from all over the world.
Do you think the government will heed that advice?
If the will is there, they will do it. Remember in the 1980s, we were telling Ghana to go; now, we are the ones going to Ghana. Budgetary allocation to education in Nigeria is 5.4 per cent, but in Ghana’s is 16 to 20 per cent. So they should work on that. If we upgrade our own, people will come here. Increase in budget will suffice. For you to attract those people here, you have to increase the welfare package of lecturers.
How soon will the universities be opened so that students can return back to school?
We don’t know. That’s left for the government.
What if the government refuses to attend to ASUU throughout this year?
We will stay at home.
Why does ASUU embark on strikes while demanding salaries?
The difference is this: in my university, we’ve gone on strike several times but no student has missed one year. We start from where we stopped and continue. That’s why you don’t see a lecturer going on leave. We are not going on leave; we wait and teach the students. Don’t compare lecturers with others. We are not losing any year; we stay and teach the students. Are you also aware that my salary has been withheld for three months and we are not complaining?
But some students are saying their time is being wasted…
Let me ask, what do Nigerians want? Do you just want us to keep churning out students without knowledge, no practicals? Is it quality education we want without practicals and afterwards the students will be thrown out of the school? Students are living in huts as hostels. The question we should ask is why are students not coming from Ghana, South Africa, Benin etc to come and study here? In the 1970s and 1980s, you never heard of building collapse because of the quality of people in the system. The university is not a place you keep children and churn them out without knowledge; Nigeria will pay dearly for it.
Students have taken to the streets in protest. Why is ASUU not yielding to the demands of the students?
The students have the right to protest and fight for a good education. They have the right to tell the government to do what is needed; we are not against them. That’s what they should do just as the children of the big men are outside the country enjoying seamless education systems. It’s their right; Nigerians should fight for their rights; parents should join too.
Some people believe that only those who can afford education should go for it. Do you believe education should be paid for?
When you check Nigeria’s constitution, education is a right; it’s not a privilege. So, we should look at it that way. Two, parents are already paying; when we were in school, we stayed in hostels built by the government and our meals subsided. If these politicians were asked to pay school fees in their time, they wouldn’t be where they are today. We didn’t stay in shanty villages. That’s what these politicians passed through. It is their right, they shouldn’t beg for it. Every Nigerian has the right to education.
How true is it that some ASUU members do not care about the strike because their children attend private universities?
The salary of the highest paid professor is N416,000 a month. How can he pay N5m as school fees if he has four children? How will he pay N1m as school fee if he has three children? It’s just an attempt to fight against us. All my children passed through the public school system. A salary earner in Nigeria, who is not stealing, cannot put children in private schools. So, all the lecturers have their children in our public schools and they’re at home.
Why have ASUU members accused of sexual harassment not been prosecuted?
This is not correct. The only ASUU member accused of sexual harassment in Ife is still in jail. How many people in the National Assembly, who have abused women, have been jailed, or who have abused minors have been jailed? We should put the perspective very well. Those accusations are mere attempts to sabotage or blackmail us. If it is correct, look for the person and jail him. If you find any one, jail him. A professor in Uyo, who committed electoral fraud, is in jail too.
ASUU does not run the universities. It is a union. We have a committee that can deal with any such person caught in such an act; blame the system and the government; it is not ASUU that refuses to set up a judicial panel. If anyone is failing in the system, hold the council responsible. We discipline our members but not through Facebook trying to blackmail academics. We will not succumb to blackmail. We told them to set up visitation panels every five years so that they can look for infractions and deal with them; we had to go on strike for 11 years before they did. We discipline our members. Blame the government, which refused to set up panels, and not ASUU.
Some of your members do not hesitate to do the bidding of politicians during elections. What do you have to say on this?
We don’t defend anyone. ASUU does not go on election duty. You should not use one person caught in a fraud to generalise other lecturers. ASUU as a body has said we should not be involved in elections because the system is corrupt from registration to voting. How many ASUU people go to conduct elections? They went as lecturers not as ASUU. Don’t because of one person now generalise; it’s not fair.
Will your members take part in the 2023 elections if your demands are met?
We have said that ASUU will not take part in elections, because before you start voting, the system is already corrupted. At the polling units, the system is corrupt. You tell us to say at the top to compile results, we won’t do that. So, anybody going to participate is going as a Nigerian and not as a member of ASUU, and when he is arrested, he should be treated as a Nigerian and not as ASUU.
Is there anything that the union is willing to sacrifice among its demands?
When we meet the government at the negotiation table, we will look at that. We can’t discuss our negotiation strategies publicly.
Is it true that your members collect salaries from multiple places while on sabbatical?
How many have been arrested? We have been told that the EFCC arrested the Account-General of the Federation. How many lecturers have been arrested? If it is true, the AGF should have compiled their names and sent them to the EFCC and get them tried. All over the world, lecturers are allowed to go on sabbatical; to go for an adjunct and get paid is not a crime. They are trying to blackmail Nigerian academics. So, it’s a global phenomenon captured in our law. It’s not a crime. You don’t blackmail lecturers. We are doing what is done all over the world. Some of us have adjunctship outside the country and we have many come here to do adjunctship too; it is not a crime, it is just blackmail.
Is it moral to be paid while you are on strike?
It’s moral because we are going to start from where we stopped. If I was teaching a student at 200 level, do you expect me to just jump to 300 level when we resume? We have to go back after the strike, forfeit our leave and comfort, and teach from where we stopped. If the government had attended to this strike from day one, we wouldn’t be here. This is the 14th week that the government has not intervened. Hold the government responsible. You are trying to punish a man who is being punished. I’ve not been paid for three months. I’m being punished, my children are at home and they are being punished. We signed an agreement in 2009, the MoA in 2020 and they didn’t implement them and you are talking about students being at home. I thank God that our students know the problem and they are addressing it.
Recently, the airlines said they wouldn’t fly and would go on strike, it didn’t take 24 hours before the government intervened, because they (government officials) fly, but our students have been at home for months and they (government officials) didn’t respond; that is our contradiction.
What do you want to tell the students and their parents?
Any day the students and parents take over this struggle, we will go back to class. To say the government we elected you, you’re using our funds. If you are going for election next year, ask them where their children are schooling; if they stay outside the country, don’t vote for them. They should insist that their children, who are abroad, are brought back home, and then we will go back to class.