Editor's note: As the face-off between the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the federal government of Nigeria lingers with the government’s alleged use of “hunger as a weapon” to deal with ASUU members, Legit.ng’s regional reporter, Ridwan Kolawole, in an exclusive interview, spoke with the national president of ASUU, Professor Biodun Ogunyemi, where the ASUU leader answered questions on some burning issues.
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A cross-section of Nigerians believes that ASUU as a union has become a nuisance for its unending demand of one thing or the other from the government every time. How would you defend your union’s actions in recent years?
It is a wrong perception to label the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) a "nuisance" because of its agitations for an improved university system over the years.
If you look carefully, you will find that our engagements with Nigerian governments (state and federal) since 1982 have always focused on four key elements: funding for qualitative university education, improved conditions of service for scholars in order to arrest "brain drain" academic freedom and university autonomy, and other matters relating to the efficient functioning of public universities such as laws and policies that hamstring the system.
Cumulatively, ASUU has had six series of negotiations with successive governments in Nigeria and reached five collective bargaining agreements based on those four key elements earlier enumerated.
These agreements were painstakingly undertaken between ASUU teams and government teams (with participants drawn from relevant FG's MDAs and representatives of owners of State Universities).
In sorting out the fundamentals, the negotiated agreements could take as long as three years (for example, 2009) to achieve. I've provided this background in order to establish the basis for ASUU's engagements and reported frequent disagreements with the government.
First, the four elements that constitute the pivot of our engagement with the government are critical to salvaging Nigeria's public universities and making them reclaim their leadership position in Africa. ASUU sees its advocacy in this respect as a historical responsibility it must discharge to prevent our tertiary education subsystem going the moribund way of public primary and secondary subsystems.
Second, governments after governments in Nigeria hardly respected the terms our negotiated or renegotiated agreements, just the way Nigerian politicians are reputed for not fulfilling electoral promises. At best, governments implemented the salary component of the "conditions of service" and expected ASUU to keep quiet.
But ASUU knows that to do so, is to betray our historical mission. Our goal is to champion the cause of revamping the Nigerian university system and reposition it as the hub for the transformation of Nigeria.
In third place, there is always a clause that allows the government to call for dialogue on any aspect of an Agreement it finds difficult to implement for one reason or the other. That explains why we talk of memoranda of understanding or memoranda of action. These are products of further engagements in-between FGN-ASUU agreements.
Unfortunately, however, these variants of negotiated agreements are also jettisoned no sooner than they are signed. Under such a situation, no trade union that knows its onions will fold its arms and watch helplessly.
And this explains why ASUU will always protest the antics of government. So, taken together, anybody who takes enough time to know the purpose of ASUU's agitations and engagements with governments cannot objectively describe ASUU as a "nuisance".
But for ASUU's agitations, tertiary education in Nigeria would have collapsed irretrievably. Concrete evidence of this is TETFund which was a product of the FGN-ASUU Agreement of 1992.
TETFund has almost become the sole funding agency for capital projects in Nigerian universities in the last 20 years or so. In fact, almost all new universities established by the Federal Government since the Goodluck Jonathan administration drew their take-off grants from TETFund.
A major threat to the existence of TETFund which ASUU has been contending within the last decade is the powerful lobby by owners of private universities to draw grants from the intervention agency for their "private investments."
We think students, parents, civil society organisations and other stakeholders should join forces with ASUU in this struggle against businessmen and women hijacking TETFUND as well as in our overarching engagements to restore the lost glory of our public university system instead of condemning the Union.
Recently President Muhammadu Buhari ordered that your outstanding salaries of February and March be paid but those in charge asked you to supply BVN which your union refused to comply. What is your fear as some believe you are hiding some facts?
ASUU is rejecting the demand for our members' BVNs by the operators of IPPIS because President Muhammadu Buhari's directive on payment of the withheld February and March salaries did not require BVN. So, it is not because the Union has something to hide. It is public knowledge that ASUU has rejected IPPIS for good reasons.
The IPPIS platform has no room for the contract, visiting and adjunct scholars who are not on pensionable appointment in Nigeria. So, it does not recognise the flexibility required for managing the payroll system to accommodate the emergency staff needs of the universities.
Also, IPPIS is an attempt to take Nigerian universities back to the mainstream civil service because clearance would now be demanded before the recruitment of academics and scholars in the universities. If allowed this will wipe out a semblance of autonomy public universities appear to be enjoying.
So, our position is that universities should be allowed to run according to their enabling acts. These acts, which have been fortified by the autonomy law (2003, 2007), make governing councils managers of universities including personnel information and payroll systems.
Each of the University Acts states that where a university council is found to be incompetent or corrupt, it should be dissolved and reconstituted immediately. ASUU has been accused of supporting corruption by opposing IPPIS, but nothing can be farther from the truth.
If we support corruption, we would not have submitted petitions on suspicion of fraudulent practices against serving and or former VCs in the Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike (MOUAU), Federal University, Oye-Ekiti (FUOYE), Federal University, Lokoja (FULOKOJA) and many others. The government did nothing about our petitions till date.
Again, if ASUU has something to hide, we would not have demanded that visitation panels should take a critical look at governance (including financial) issues in the Federal Government's 43 universities.
We have been agitating for the visitation exercise for more than three years and the government has not yielded to our demand. We also find the allegation that our members are working in more than two places spurious. Many of those accused of this act were attracted to the proliferated universities with the knowledge of their vice-chancellors.
Most of the relationships with other universities are also largely regulated, say, through the defined distance to places of primary assignment and limit to number universities to visit. The question government does not want to address is: why create new universities when you have no plan for developing them?
The Nigerian ruling class has turned university establishment into a tool in their politics of appeasement. New universities are established not because our rulers love the people, but as a device for taking attention away from their proclivity for education tourism for themselves and members of their families.
Your salaries have remained unpaid, how have your members been coping?
ASUU members are resolute trade unionists who could not be deterred, coerced, or intimidated by the government's use of hunger as a weapon of war against them.
We knew from the outset that it might come to this point because the character of members of the ruling is almost the same. What is happening now happened under President Jonathan and President Olusegun Obasanjo under the current civilian dispensation?
We equally experienced it under Generals Sanni Abacha and Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida during the military regime. So, if you trace it historically, the response of government is not strange to our members. In fact, our members have had to stay without salaries for six months before now.
We survived it then, and we shall survive it now. So, drawing from experience, withholding our members' salaries is not enough to break their resolve. We are making the sacrifice for both the current and future generations of Nigerians. We only need to remind those trying to distract us of the truism in the saying that history will vindicate the just and God will punish the wicked.
Supposing your demands are met during this pandemic, do your members have requisite skills to embrace online teaching proposed recently by the government as it is being done in some countries?
The answer is capital No! I read the submission of the VC of the University of Ibadan where he said some quasi e-learning arrangements have been in the works for some time in his university. He, however, confessed to the university's inability to implement the full complement of online teaching as obtainable, say, in the Western world.
If the first-generation university like Ibadan can openly admit its inability to deploy the technology for now, the level of readiness of other universities can then better be imagined. I also recently read about the process of activating e-learning facilities in one or two universities in South Africa.
The authorities had to support the students with laptops and data for internet access. In a nutshell, there are still many hurdles to scale in the deployment of the e-learning technology in our universities.
These include a lack of steady power supply, poor internet access, poor background of students, and a deficit of skills among lecturers. Many of these challenges could be addressed if the government works with ASUU on the longstanding proposal for revitalization of public universities in Nigeria.
What if the federal government still holds on to your salaries, what is the next line of action?
Salaries or no salaries, our members are resolved to forge ahead in their struggle for a better deal for the Nigerian university system. The National Executive Council (NEC) of ASUU meets from time to time to review the situation. That is the body that tells the Principal Officers of the Union what to do at any point in time.
There were reports sometime that the federal government was ready to accept your own template of IPPIS but you failed to produce the document promising many months before it could be ready. How true is this claim? If true, why does it take so long?
It is true that ASUU has proposed an alternative platform to IPPIS which is called the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS).
We first requested that an ASUU team should work with the IPPIS team to develop an alternative platform that would be more amenable to the peculiarities of our universities' way back in 2013/2014. However, government agents did not respond positively.
So, we thought they had shelved the idea of extending IPPIS to the universities because of our objections. But, suddenly, in July 2019 the merchants of IPPIS came back with full force. They claimed to have addressed all of ASUU's objections, but this claim is totally false.
Indeed, those who strayed into the IPPIS platform in the universities are currently licking their deep wounds with gory tales of mangled salaries and incomprehensible payment regimes. This is happening seven years after the agents of government have been experimenting with adapting the IPPIS to the university payroll system.
That shows that software development is not something you can decree into existence. So, ASUU was just being honest with the government when we said a total of 18 months would be required for the Seven Stage Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC).
The truth is that our technical team actually needs six months to develop the UTAS software while the rest of the period would be spent on testing and certification by the Nigerian Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA).
If our suggestion hand been welcomed way back in 2014, ASUU technical team would be done with UTAS by now. Our team commenced work fully after meeting President Buhari on January 9, 2020.
This is because we needed to be sure of the end-users before committing the meagre resources of our members to finance the project. If government agents cooperate, and with the pace at which our technical team is working, UTAS may be ready before the planned 18 months.
Some of your members reportedly register for the IPPIS against the union’s resolution. What is the union’s position on these members?
Members of ASUU who enrolled on the IPPIS platform fall under two broad categories. One, we have those who were lured or cajoled into the platform because of their vulnerability.
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Fresh appointees and those on the verge of retirement are mainly in this category. Some vice-chancellors threatened newly recruited academics with loss of job and frightened retiring ASUU members of the risk of losing their pension if they failed to enrol on IPPIS.
The second category of academics enrolled on the IPPIS are those who willfully disobeyed the Union's directives for some reason best known to them. All the cases shall be reviewed at the end of the ongoing struggle. Each case shall be treated on the basis of its merit and appropriate measures applied by the National Executive Council (NEC).
For the record, could you specifically highlight the areas the ASUU is not happy within the Federal Government’s IPPS?
As I said earlier, there are three main reasons why IPPIS is not suitable for the university system. One, a university is a universal city of learning and research. It should be open to scholars from any part of the world for enrichment and diversity.
IPPIS would make this impossible because it has no room for scholars who are not on pensionable appointment in the country. We should not over-localize our universities in an age of internationalisation. Two, IPPIS would take our universities back to the core civil service.
With the bureaucratic red-tapism of the civil service, the steady supply of urgently needed hands cannot be guaranteed under IPPIS. This will be made impossible the flexibility of university payrolls as operated the world over. Third, IPPIS violates the University Autonomy Law and undermines the establishment acts of the universities.
The governing council of each university is the employer of all staffers of the institution, including the VC. Each council is legally empowered to superintend all governance issues including personnel information and payroll system.
The government is only required to fund the universities in line with their budgets and then monitor. There are three ways by which the monitoring is done: regular or daily audit process, an annual audit by an audit firm appointed by the University Council, and the visitation exercise carried out at least once in five years at the instance of the visitor. If this three-layered monitor process is strictly adhered to, corruption in the university system would be brought to the barest minimum.
Our problem in Nigeria, however, is over politicisation and bastardization of these statutory mechanisms for curbing corruption. For instance, is it not ironic that a government that has failed to conduct visitation to its universities for close to ten years can turn round to accuse ASUU of "covering corruption" in the universities? It's really disgusting.
If IPPIS is resolved in ASUU’s favour, does that solve the problems of ASUU or those of our education system?
Universities are the crowning glory and the beckon of hope for any education system. The university subsystem has cascading effects on the other elements of the tertiary education system as well as the secondary and primary education subsystems.
IPPIS is a distraction to the main struggle of ASUU. We went into engaging the government on IPPIS because it is potentially injurious to the Nigerian University System. IPPIS is part of the IMF/ World Bank agenda to further underdevelop education in the country.
Nigerians should ask members of the ruling class why our universities should be the guinea pigs for a platform that is not used elsewhere in Africa or in any other part of the world. Our struggle against IPPIS has not taken us away from the original focus on the four elements of FGN-ASUU negotiations and agreements which I earlier enumerated.
Indeed, every issue on which we have engaged government, including IPPIS, could be linked with the growth or otherwise of our universities.
If the lingering issue of IPPIS is resolved in favour of UTAS, as we strongly hope it will, ASUU would be further encouraged in its advocacy for the repositioning of our universities for global competitiveness
Meanwhile, Legit.ng had previously that ASUU advised federal and state governments to back their lockdown order with the provision of existential needs for residents.
The president of the union, Professor Ogunyemi, warned that unless the everyday needs of the people are made available, the emerging lockdown of the country may not achieve its desired result of social distancing.
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