Strike: ASUU President Bares It All, Exposes Okonjo-Iweala, States Condition For Call-Off
–Ngozi Okonjo is acting Britton Woods Institution’s script on our education and economy
—- Dr Fage
The President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Dr. Nasir Fage, gives an insight into the real issues at the core of the current strike action embarked by Nigerian university lecturers. In this exclusive interview with the publisher of Daybreak Magazine, Comrade Daniel Onjeh, Dr Fage reiterated his union’s resolve to press on with the strike as the unresolved issues outweighs Government’s propaganda and blackmail. Fage is convinced that his union’s course.
The strike action embarked upon by the university lectures have become an issue of serious concern to all well-meaning Nigerians. While some are very informed about the underlying issues, most are in the dark.
The dialogue between ASUU and the Federal Government hit the rock when the Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, declared, “Take it or leave it, the Federal Government is not going to release an extra ten kobo to fund university education”
Kindly give us a background to the ASUU Strike which commenced July 1, 2013
The background is that in 2009, we signed an agreement with government on how best to revitalise the Nigeria University system. The major issues of contention at the point of the negotiation leading to the signing of that agreement was that we knew the universities were facing the twin problems of rot and decay in infrastructure and then, the problem of brain drain. Many lecturers are migrating to other countries to assist them in developing their education systems.
So at the negotiation table we set out to ensure that whatever we agree between ASUU and government was what will address these major problems of the Nigerian University system.
In 2009, as I said earlier, we were able to reach an agreement after three years of negotiations. It took three years because we were conscious of the fact that every aspect of the agreement must tally with what is required to address the problems I mentioned earlier. As such, we were looking at each aspect with a magnifying glass, if you like, so that we can see what it entails and what is required we begin to address the problems I mentioned earlier.
After signing the agreement, characteristic of government, if you recall, after the agreement, government just singled out the salary component of the agreement and implemented it. We had to wait two years before Government did anything further. In fact in 2011, we were forced to embark on a series of warning strikes which culminated in a total and indefinite strike on the 1 December 2011. And it was after that declaration of total and indefinite strike that Government started moving towards addressing the other aspects of the agreement, particularly the issue pertaining to the funding requirement for revitalization.
We were invited to a meeting in January 2012 by the Secretary to the Federal Government, after the intervention of the National Assembly Committees on education.The Secretary to the Federal Government rolled out a road map for the implementation of the 2009 agreement. In that road map, the government said it was going to make available to public universities (public universities here means state and federal universities) a sum of N100 billion in 2012 and then follow it up with N400billion per annum for the next three years, meaning 2013 to 2015. The basis of that is that if government could not implement what was in the 2009 agreement, because the 2009 agreement stipulated that government should make available a total sum of N1.518trillion for three years to address the problem of rot and decay in Nigeria federal universities.
At that point in time we had 24 universities; later on government established additional 12 universities. We were talking of N1.518trillion in 2009, for 24 universities; but in the road map that was furnished to ASUU by the SGF, it was clearly reduced to about N1.3trillion for all public universities that is, federal and state universities, numbering more than 60 of them.
In order for the universities to access these money, it was further agreed and government said it was going to set up the needs assessment report, the Needs Assessment Committee, that was going to visit these universities and collect data on the immediate priority needs of the universities so that we know what is the real amount so that this time around, we will not only make funds available, but we will be fully aware of what the funds are going to be used to address. So with that in mind, we were convinced that, well, it appears that government is serious this time around, so we should give government a chance.
Unfortunately, two years after, even after the needs assessment report was submitted, the government has not been able to implement the roadmap that it decided on the implementation of the 2009 agreement. That is the genesis of the recent strike that the union embarked on the 1 July 2013.
Our members nationwide were worried that do we have to continue waiting; because clearly, the 2009 agree stipulated that after three years, which is in June 2012, we should undertake a review so that we see what we’ve been able to achieve by implementing the 2009 agreement. When the Needs Assessment Report was submitted in July 2012, our members were hopeful that government will immediately swing into action by making available N100Billion, and then follow it up with N400Billion annually between 2013 and 2015. Unfortunately that didn’t happen and our members were worried because at every subsequent meeting we had with the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, he will tell us that the MOU is going to be implemented in two weeks’ time, in one month’s time, in two months’ time, and it became a norm that at every meeting we get a new date. And our members said, well, they have been very patient, and that since government is clearly not interested in implementing the agreement, then what we want to do, since we have exhorted all other means of getting government to do what is right, we will have no option than to invoke the last option available to us: withdrawal of services by our members nationwide. And that was exactly what happened after a meeting at Ago-Iwoye, between 28 and 30 June 2013. And that meeting decided we should embark on a total and indefinite strike.
Was the N100 Billion which was to be made available for 2012 by the federal government, provided?
That is what I said. Had it been made available, our members would have seen that government was serious about implementing the MOU. It was not made available, even a year after the submission of the Needs Assessment Report. It is also important to note that the Needs Assessment Report stipulated that in the short run, in order for us to commence the process of revitalization, we will need to make available a total sum of N800billion Naira (that is in the technical report of the Needs Assessment Report); we need to make available a total sum of N800billion in two years i.e. 2012 and 2013, so that we can begin to address the case of rot and decay in our public universities. Unfortunately, even the N100billion that was in the MOU was not made available by government. It’s only after we started the strike action in 2013 that government started making noise that it was making available N100billion a year late. I think that is where we are.
The general public have been told that the federal government ordered the release of N130billion for infrastructural development and staff allowances, which constitute a substantial part of the 2012 MOU and yet ASUU is adamant. How true is this?
I think if we go back to the 2012 MOU, in that MOU item 3.08, stipulated that government was going to make available N100billion in 2012. Then follow it with N400billion per annum for 2013, 2014 and 2015. The issue here is that as we stand here in 2013, (mark you, we are at the end of 2013)….
If they were to make available N100 billion for 2012 and subsequent ….
Government said in the MOU, N100 billion 2012, N400billion per annum for three years between 2013 and 2015. But in order to access this money, government wants to determine the priority needs of these universities so that the moment that is determined the money will be made available and we commence the process of revitalization, knowing fully well that we have a clear understanding of what to do with the money. In order to achieve that, the government set up the Needs Assessment Committee under the former Executive Secretary of the TET Fund (Tertiary Education Trust Fund). That committee finished their work and submitted their report. It turned out that in the report, the technical subcommittee aspect of it, we needed a total sum of N800billion, instead of the N100 plus N400 billion in the MOU, to commence the process of revitalizing our public universities.
Now, what we are expecting as ASUU is that even if government has problems implementing the recommendations of the needs assessment report, it should go back and implement the MOU, the 2012 MOU. By the provision of the MOU, by this year, the university system in Nigeria is entitled to the total sum of N100 plus N400, which makes it N500billion. But if we are to go by the provisions of the needs assessment report, the university system of Nigeria will require a total sum of N800billion for 2012 and 2013.
So what our union is saying is that: which one is government really interested in implementing? Is it the Needs Assessment Report which requires N800billion for 2012 and 2013 or the MOU roadmap that government on its own volition provided to ASUU as its own way of implementing the 2009 agreement, which requires a total sum of N500 billion. Now if government is providing N100billion, how does it compare with what the university system is entitled to from government for 2012 and 2013? Is it the implementation of the MOU, clearly N500billion, or is it implementation of the needs assessment report, clearly requiring N800billion? Or is it even implementation of the 2009 agreement which we said N1.518 trillion for three years for federal universities which reduces to about N1 trillion for two years? So that is really the bone of contention.
Does the N100billion and N400 billion for 2013, 2013 consecutively all cover for both the federal and state universities?
Taking the 2009 ASUU/Federal Government agreement and the 2012 MOU into perspective, what is the implication of the “take it or leave it” stance of the Finance Minister on the ASUU/Federal Government impasse?
As part of the 2012 MOU, apart from the funding for revitalization, remember I mentioned that a major problem is brain drain; our lecturers are migrating, not only to other countries, but also to other sectors of the economy within Nigeria. We noticed that once a lecturer leaves the university system (for instance those who join politics) hardly does he go back to the university system. And in recent times, we have witnessed a situation where a sitting minister in this cabinet resigned his position to take up a teaching job in an American university, which means that the situation in the American university is even better than the political terrain in Nigeria. So what we are hoping to do in revitalizing our university system is to also address the problem of brain drain.
And so, the 2009 agreement came up with some allowances that should be paid to academics for doing some peculiar assignments in the system. Mark the word ‘peculiar’. These assignments are not carried out by every academic in the system. It is only the academic who has carried out that additional responsibility that is entitled to the earned allowances.
So, in the 2012 MOU, government came up with a procedure for addressing the problem of earned allowances, in the Nigeria university system. The implementation monitoring committee of the 2009 ASUU/Government agreement was given an additional mandate and its membership was expanded to include the representatives of the Budget Office, the Finance Ministry, and any other ministry, (planning and what have you) that are related to sourcing of funds and payment of allowances.
So this expanded monitoring committee, sat down and looked at what was needed to be done to address the problems of earned allowances. And indeed that committee also gave a report in early 2013. And then the expectation is that since that report has been made available, government should also make available the funding requirement to implement the report, because it is part of the MOU.
Now the problem is that after receiving the report, government did not do anything about it. Because at the point the report was submitted, government should have made arrangement to capture the money in the budget or even make arrangement with the national assembly to ensure that we are able to go for a supplementary budget to address that problem. But government didn’t do anything. They just sat on that one also.
What came out is that from the recommendation of the implementation monitoring committee, so expanded, we needed a total sum of N92 billion to pay earned allowances for all workers, meaning academic and none academic, in Nigerian federal universities. This money is not for a year. It is to settle the arrears for three and half years between 2009 and early 2013. If you disaggregated it per annum, the money is not going to be much. But because government have not been paying these earned allowances since 2009 that is how the money came to about N92billion for all workers in our federal universities. That is what the government said they are making available N30billion for councils to go and settle the earned allowances.
What our members are saying is that, that money is it for the implementation of the MOU? Because the MOU clearly states that IMC go and determine, we will pay. And now that it has been determined, is government renegotiating the amount under the earned allowance? Or what really is government doing? That is really where the problem is. If we are able to get an answer to that, maybe we will be able to find solution to the problem.
In reality, where in the MOU we needed N500 billion between 2012 and 2013, government is making available the sum of N100 billion. And where we needed N92 billion arrears for earned allowances from 2009 to the second quarter of 2013, government is making available N30billion which is less than the a third of the amount. So that is really the problem.
Now we have two issues: the funds for infrastructural development and the earned allowances. Now from all understanding, the finance minister has made a take-it-or-leave-it position, at which point ASUU pull out from the negotiation table. Because it appeared the statement closed the door. From that, it means the funds for infrastructural development is nonnegotiable.
The issue is that what do we want to achieve? Are we really interested in addressing the problem? If we are interested in addressing the problem, government should at least implement its own MOU. If government is finding it difficult to implement the 2009 agreement, at least it should implement its own MOU which it willingly made available to ASUU in 2012. If at this stage we are now sitting down to renegotiate, what are we renegotiating? Is it the 2009 agreement or the MOU which is just like a unilateral offer from government saying this is what I’m going to do? Which one are we renegotiating? That is the issue.
On the Minister of Finance’s statement, you see we are getting tired of people coming to pretend they know it all, when in actual fact; there are people within this country who know better than them, how we should run our economy. Then her coming to say, “Take it or leave” it is as if she is bringing this money from her personal resources to settle the problem of education in this country. That is something that is not acceptable to our members, because the funds we are talking about is not the funds that belong to the Minister of Finance, it is funds belonging to the Nigerian people. What ASUU is saying is that used the resources belonging to Nigerian people to solve the issue of education which is going to serve the purpose of lifting Nigeria people from the doldrums of illiteracy and darkness and bring them up to a position where they can play an effective role in determining the fate of their nation ensuring that our country become developed within the shortest possible time. So if the Minister is coming at that point in time to say, “take it or leave it,” as if the money belong to her, that all other Nigerians should just watch while she do what she wants to do with the money that belongs to Nigerians; that is what our members take exception to.
Even at the meeting point, some of our members who are professionals in the finance field took her on. And at a point she was saying she was not there to discuss economics. We said, “ok, if you are not here to discuss economics, what are you here to discuss? Are you here to just make an offer and then leave it at that whether we accept or don’t accept?” the worst we can do, according to her, is to remain on strike for the next two years. Our members said they cannot accept that. Surprisingly the same minister is going about saying all kinds of things about our economy. Which professionals in the field take exception to, because if that is the fact, let the figure be made available to people so that we can do an analysis and then tell Nigerians what the true situation of our economy is.
What is the implication of her take it or leave it remark on the ASUU/Federal government impasse?
Well, what that means, if she is truly speaking on behalf of government, although some representatives of government are saying that that was not discussed before she made that statement; but as Minister of Finance and the coordinating minister of the economy, if she says it, then it means that is the position of government until government comes out clearly to contradict her, Nigerians will have no option than to accept that that is the position of government.
But on the dialogue that is on-going, clearly that statement from the minister of finance has raised a feeling of despair in our members. If truly that is the position, we will just continue with this struggle until government decides to come back and do what is right in our university system.
We as intellectuals have a fair idea of what is happening. But at the appropriate moment we will go public on what is happening with our country being held by agents of the Britton Woods Institutions that is IMF and the World Bank. If you go to the Ministry of Finance now you will see the people that are really running our finances. And we are becoming worried that day in day out our country is being forced to tow that path of countries that are failed economies like Greece. And this country cannot go in that direction. And we will come out with our position on that subsequently.
Don’t you think it is time you speak on this issue? As it is right now, some officials of the government and even some segment of civil society, from their recent comment, are attempting to reduce the ASUU demands to self-seeking agitation, solely for lecturers’ welfare, what is your take on this?
If it were for the self-seeking objectives of our members, then when government decided to implement the salary component of our agreement, we would have just gone and stayed in our universities without teaching and research facilities and continue to teach our students. But we are not like other workers in this country. We cannot afford to take pay, when we cannot justify the pay. We have to do our work. We have to conduct research, produce knowledge and disseminate knowledge before we are happy being intellectuals. That is why for the last four years we have been following government up to ensure that government implement the agreement so that we have universities that are truly worthy of the name university.
I’m sure you have had course to go and study in Ghana. I’m sure you are very observant. I am sure you must have observed that the attitude of government to education in Ghana is totally different to the attitude of government to education in Nigeria. Once there is a problem, for instance the University of Ghana Legon, where I am sure you must have studied, they borrowed $25 million to build hostels for international students hoping that they could charge commercial rates and then repay the loan within a short period of time. Unfortunately, the student union movement insisted that they cannot allow them to charge that high rate. It became clear that they are going to default in the agreement they signed with the bank that loaned out the money. The Ghanaian government came in and took over the loan, and decided to pay the loan. The University of Ghana Legon is now better off with hostels where international students can stay and they don’t have to pay commercial rates there. I don’t think that is the kind of attitude we have in Nigeria. If any university dares to put structures like that, I’m sure that university is on its own.
There is the need for us to start addressing the problems of this country conscientiously. The only way we can do that is to get our leaders to start paying attention to education. Because all sectors of our economy stand to benefit from sound quality education imparted to Nigerian citizens.
Recently, Mr President had to go to China to sign a number of MOUs to enable the Chinese, who are highly educated, to come and help us develop our economy. We are saying that is a wrong move. What we need to do is to educate Nigerians so that they can compete effectively in the labour market with the Chinese. What is wrong, for instance with Nigerians going to set up infrastructure in other African countries if they are highly educated and capable of doing that? This problem of unemployment that we keep talking about, if Nigerians are highly educated, they will be job creators, not only job seekers. What we will see is that within the shortest possible time, we will address the problem of unemployment in this country.
But in reality we know that we have the capacity to turn around our country in such a way that within the shortest possible time, we will be competing with at least the countries that we started this movement towards development with, particularly Brazil, India and Malaysia. At least we can be able to compete effectively with these countries if we get our education right. That I think is the major issue.
Don’t you think it is time you reviewed issues pertaining to our economy, the Ministry of Finance, with respect to the Britton Wood Institutions? Don’t you think it is high time you made your revelations, rather than delay it so that the society will be enlightened?
Ours is a union of intellectuals. We first conduct research, and then at the end of the research, we make public our findings. We are conducting the research, but I want to assure Nigerians that it is not going to take us long to conclude the research and make public our findings.
At least our interaction with the Minister of Finance started raising issues and it is clear that she didn’t have answers to most of the issues that we raised. When we conclude the research, in due course, we are going to make public [our findings].
But from the little you have found out, what can you say about the intention of these international monetary organizations on the educational system in Nigeria?
The major thing is that the Britton Wood institutions were set up after the second World War and the intent is to make sure that they assist the countries that were devastated as a result of the war in rebuilding. What it means is that by the origin of the Britton Wood Institutions, they are set up to protect some particular countries. African countries were not captured in the equation. What is happening now is that the Britton Wood Institutions are trying to make sure that we don’t take capital out of the so-called developed countries; there will rather be an influx of capital from the underdeveloped countries to the so-called developed countries.
We are saying in Nigeria that you cannot expect agents of the Britton Wood institutions to come and advise us to do what is right for our education. Because if we stop that the capital flight from the Third World countries to the developed countries will be drastically reduced; particularly if the Nigerian university system is working very well, other African countries will prefer to send their children to Nigeria just like we are sending our children to Ghana for education, and then they will not find the western world, and to much lesser extent, the eastern world, attractive as far as the issues of university education are concerned.
This means that the capital flight from African countries to western and eastern world will drastically reduce because Nigeria is now in a position to provide an alternative to other African countries.
If we look at it in this perspective, we will see why the Britton Wood institutions make sure that the Nigeria university system is not given the requisite attention to enable it turn itself around and begin to compete effectively with western world university system.
It used to be that Nigerian universities like the University of Ibadan, Ahmadu Bello University, were compared with other universities in the world like Cambridge, MIT and Harvard. But the situation is not the same now. Among the university rankings, hardly will you find Nigerian universities among the best 2000 in the world. Even in the African frontier, hardly will you find a Nigerian university ranking within the best 50 in Africa.
What we are saying is that we cannot continue to listen to these agents of the Britton Wood institutions. Because in reality, if we listen to them, our university system will continue to languish in rot and decay and our students and lecturers will continue to migrate to the western world to go and continue assisting them to develop their economy.
That I think is the crust of the matter. But like I said when we finish the total analysis we will come out with our report.
Recently, there have been a series of protest against ASUU by various groups prominent among them are the factional leaders of the National Youth Council of Nigeria, NANS and the market women. Do you think ASUU will consider shifting ground in the face of this protest against it by these groups?
I think the first thing to ask is: who are the people organizing the protest and what is their stake in the university education? Are they genuine? Do they really care about the university education in Nigeria? It is also important to note that we have gone through this before, in previous strikes it is the same modus operandi; to ensure that a lot of pressure is piled up on ASUU so that we suspend the strike action.
This strike is a different one because our members have looked at what is happening with education in Nigeria and have decided that they want to address the problem. In due course we will talk about the genesis of these protests that are going on, and who and who are behind it. But for now, we like to believe that these protests will only serve as a distraction and we don’t have time for distractions. We will continue because we know our course is just and right and we will pursue it to a logical conclusion.
Our conviction is that Nigerians who are genuinely concerned about education, particularly university education in this country, know what the problems are and our genuine students, the undergraduates and the post graduates, particularly those of them who are really interested in being educated, not just collecting certificates, know that what we are saying is true: that our universities are languishing in rot and decay and the brain drain syndrome is not being checked at all, and as such, they call us almost on a daily basis to say that they understand what we are doing and we should move on.
So you are saying that the protests by these groups have no effect on ASUU?
What I am saying is that if they are protesting, have they really gone to the universities to find out what is going on there? Do they really care about the university? I am sure if they do, they will understand that our course is just and right and they will support the struggle to salvage the Nigerian university education system from total collapse.
Are you saying that the people protesting are not informed?
They are not.
As such ASUU is not moved by their protest because you feel they are not informed?
They don’t understand what is happening. If they see the level of rot and decay, I want to assure you, that they will come out and support what ASUU is doing and they will also make sure that we begin to do what is right as a country towards addressing our university education system’s problems.
In spite of not being informed of the issues, do you think they are protesting out of their own convictions or they are being induced or sponsored to do that, since you said you know from past experience that government can do that to mount pressure on ASUU to suspend the strike?
I will say that we are getting information of what is really going on with the protest, but you know I don’t comment until I get my facts right. So when we conclude that investigation, we will make public what is really happening and who is behind the protests and who are organizing them. We will talk about it in due cause.
Would you say the protests are out of the groups’ personal convictions?
I wouldn’t say that because I have not really directly interacted with them. But like I said one thing I know is that there are students and parents in this country who have been calling us and telling us they know the situation in our universities and they are convinced that what we are doing is right and that we should continue until we address the problems. Those ones may not have the support of anybody to go public but they have been able in their own little way to give us encouragement. I am convinced by the number of calls and SMS we are getting that these are the majority of Nigerians.
On what condition will ASUU go back to the negotiation table?
We are not off the negotiation table and we never said we will not dialogue with anybody. We are dialoguing with government. On the issue of the earned allowances it was government that actually walked out. Because after the Minister of Finance said take it or leave it, that the worse we can do is to remain on strike for two years, the SGF said, “well, now we cannot continue, so let us call this meeting off until we have a new position then we can resume and continue with the dialogue.” On that point, it was government that actually walked out.
Our union is a firm believer in dialogue and as far as we are concerned, anybody who invites us to dialogue, we will attend. It’s only when it becomes clear to us that the dialogue is akin to the dialogue between the deaf and the dumb, at which point our members will differ. And our union flourishes on internal democracy, and that seems to be what people do not understand. The principal officers do not own their own finalise decisions on behalf of the union; they normally have to consult with our members. Whenever the government invite us we will return to dialogue. The government have acknowledged to the fact that whenever they call us to a meeting we attend even at the shortest notice.
It was on the Needs Assessment Implementation Committee that was chaired by Governor Suswam of Benue State that our union decided to walk out. Because we were not really convinced that what that committee was out to do is to implement the needs assessment report. It appeared to us and consequently we were convinced that governor Suswam wanted to use the needs assessment report to do some personal things. As a union of intellectuals, we will not allow that. That is why we decided to opt out of the discussions at the level of the Suswam committee.
Like I said, we are open to dialogue and we have been dialoguing with government trying to find out which is the best way to resolve the impasse, but we are yet to get out of the tunnel.
For me as an intellectual, I am an incurable optimist. I am convinced that we will be able to get to the end of this crisis. But we will have to do what is right because we cannot continue to suspend strike actions or struggles to get Nigerian university system revitalised only to have to go back to the trenches after one or two years. We want a situation where we will be able to address the problems so that we will not have to back to the trenches again.
It appears you are willing to go back to the SGF committee to continue the negotiations because you didn’t walk out of it, but you are not ready to go back to the Suswam committee.
The issue is that in the first instance, it is even a mistake to disaggregated the agreement and the MOU into separate committees. We are talking about an agreement and an MOU. What is wrong with having one committee to address everything? You can have subcommittees under the same committee that will now be going to individual components of the MOU and reporting back. That I think is what we are trying to address with government now.
Are you saying that both committees should be merged since you lost confidence in the Suswam committee?
I like to believe that the government will address the problem of the Suswam committee. It is up to government to decide what they want to do with these committees, but on our side, our own conviction is that we will need a situation where even if you have an implementation committee, it should be reporting to a larger committee.
Invariably, since ASUU did not walk out of the FGF’s Committee, you are willing to return to dialogue if invited?
It is important to state that we have been having dialogue with the government although at a different level, not at the level of the SGF, at relatively higher level. We will continue with the dialogue to see how we find a lasting solution to this problem.
When can you say for sure this strike will be called-off to enable students go back to school and on what condition will your union call off the strike?
I cannot say that. It depends upon the government. When our members decided to embark on strike action, they made it clear that they want the agreement to be implemented or at least let the MOU be implemented. The MOU is government’s own position on the implementation of the 2009 agreement, like I said earlier, whenever the government decides to implement the MOU, at least we will know that the government is serious about addressing the problems of education particularly the university in Nigeria, and then our members are reasonable, they will look at what government has done and gauge it, if it meets their aspirations for Nigerian university system, I am confident that they will ask us to go ahead and declare the suspension of the action.
You mean until the MOU is implemented, ASUU is determined to remain on strike for as long as it takes?
This interview was first published by Daybreak Magazine and we have their permission to republish.
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