”Education in Nigeria now is political” – ASUU President
“I’ll give you the example of Ondo State. It used to have one but now it has three. In the three universities, they are owing their staff salary arrears. Governors have turned university education into constituency project. It’s like a project you bring back to your constituency when you have gone to serve. Same thing with the establishment of federal universities now; because somebody wanted a federal university in his town, he established several others. So, it is political”.
These are the words from the National President, Academic Staff Union of Universities, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, in an interview where he explains the sanctions imposed on University of Ilorin, why the union may not stop using strike as a tool for pressing for its demands and other sundry issues in the education sector.
ASUU seems to be synonymous with strike actions. Is there no other way to press for your demands than going on strike?
Let me first correct an impression; ASUU is not synonymous with strike actions. It’s a campaign of calumny. ASUU does not go on strike until it becomes inevitable. We take strike action as the option of the last resort, which is also legally valid, according to ILO convention. A worker has a right to use strike action as an option in labour advocacy. Before a union goes on strike, certain steps would have been taken. With ASUU, we would present our demands, engage government and on many occasions, government would make promises. There are timelines. We are a union of intellectuals, and if there is anything academics are trained to do, they are trained to pursue their goals, achieve milestones in their fields and track their activities. At the expiration of the time we agreed on when we do a review, we remind and engage them again. What infuriates our members most of the time is that government would even ignore you. In other words, there are three stages of our own struggles; we notify, engage and declare. Even when we declare, we still give ample room for further negotiation. It’s the same thing that happens in the larger polity. Every politician signs a social contract with the constituents, but how many of them remember their manifesto, and why do they go scot free, because Nigerians don’t ask them. What we do in ASUU is that we ask them and that is what makes us unique. For example, we had a strike action between July and December 2013. Before that action, we had written close to 50 letters to the government, we had over 20 meetings and we had contacted everyone who could prevail on government. We told them universities were dying and since it had done the NEEDS assessment, we wanted the report implemented, they started to dilly-dally. At that point, we said no. If government was used to that, scholars should show the way to fix this society and that is what we are doing. Imagine if every critical sector in the Nigerian social system is doing what we do; holding leaders accountable, the Nigerian society would be a better place. We are not taking pride in strike actions; we are doing it as a matter of training because we cannot stomach such. So, strike is not our first option, it is the last, and before then, we could have gone into many stages. The warning strike last year was part of our tactics. People thought it would snowball into a long strike, but we said no. It was just to draw the attention of the public into what was going on.
Government would always tie its inability to meet ASUU demands to dwindling revenue. Don’t you believe them?
After General Yakubu Gowon, which government in Nigeria has ever told you that ‘we have more money than we can spend, and so, come and take?’ The registered language of Nigerian politicians is that there is no money. It is about asking and getting. If you don’t ask, you will not get. If you don’t hold them accountable, everything will remain a promise. The principle is that nobody will give you your right unless you ask for it. Nobody will give your dues to you unless you show them that you are aware and you are conscious. Education is a right in Nigeria, but they are treating it as if it’s a privilege.
During the last negotiation, ASUU and the Federal Government signed an agreement that government would release N200bn for universities and then N220bn annually for six years. Has the government been paying the money?
The 2013 Memorandum of Understanding states that government should intervene in public universities within a time frame of six years and that government should release N200bn in the first year; 2013. Then, from 2014 to 2018, government should be releasing N220bn annually. We had requested that the intervention should not stop in 2013, but they have not paid after the first one. What we are trying to guide government to achieve is to put our universities at a vantage point where they can compete with others in the world. If government had been faithful, things would have been better. But, we held a meeting at the level of the implementation monitoring committee for the NEEDS assessment fund, and the Ministry of Education, under the Minister (Adamu Adamu) has promised to demand for the payment of that of 2014. I would see that as part of the dividends of our warning strike action. We believe that if we had not gone on that warning strike, maybe members of the public would have even forgotten about the MoU. I believe when we go back to the negotiation table, all these issues would be refocused and put in proper perspective.
Is it deliberate that ASUU didn’t say anything between then and the time you had the warning strike?
It is not that ASUU didn’t say anything. That was why I said before you hear our shout, we would have taken many steps. We had written and we have been using that platform to ask for the continuous flow of funds. Everywhere in the world, they are looking for the best and brightest. So, if you want to retain our brightest, we must do everything to encourage them to stay
Recently, government proposed moving education from the concurrent list to the exclusive legislative list. What’s your stand on this?
It’s highly political. If you analyse it critically, you would find that many state governors are compounding the situation of education in this country. On one hand, state governments would hold tenaciously to the constitutional provision of concurrent provision on education. On the other hand, they would go to the Federal Government for assistance when they run into problem. Up to the primary school now, Federal Government is intervening; the UBEC law which covers primary and junior secondary school, not to talk of university. Education Trust Fund is what most of them draw from. I suspect why Federal Government is toying with that idea is because it is virtually present in education financing across all levels. So they are thinking they should just take it as their responsibility. But I can assure you that it’s not going to come easy, especially when people are already saying Federal Government should release some of the things it is holding on to. But at the same time, we also have to send words to our state governors; they should stop politicising education. There are many states proliferating universities now. A state governor that cannot fund one university is establishing three. What happens is that the state government would find it difficult to fund the university. I’ll give you the example of Ondo State. It used to have one but now it has three. In the three universities, they are owing their staff salary arrears. Governors have turned university education into constituency project. It’s like a project you bring back to your constituency when you have gone to serve. Same thing with the establishment of federal universities now; because somebody wanted a federal university in his town, he established several others. So, it is political.
Are you saying that creating more universities is not good? On one hand we say we don’t have enough universities, but on the other hand government is creating more, yet something seems to be wrong with it.
You can create more in a situation where the outcome of your feasibility study has laid out for you plans to run that university for the next five to 10 years. Many of these universities spring up without any projection or plan. Some of these new universities find it difficult to pay salary, and these are universities that are less than eight years, which means somebody did not do his home work. Even now, government is planning to establish six new universities. They would always run into the same problem because university education is a capital intensive project. In a situation where you have to duplicate principal officers with a retinue of allowances and perquisites, you are not going to escape problem of shortage of funds and deficit of facilities. The new universities are welcome because they help to expand spaces for students, but in some other climes, they would have just expanded facilities on existing campuses, and with that, you would not need registrars, VCs, DVCs, etc and new everything.
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