June 24, 2024

University strike: A game of nebulous players

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The ongoing industrial action by University Staff Unions – Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT) and the Non-Academic Staff Union of Allied and Education Institutions (NASU) has revealed several dimensions of manipulations, diatribes, propaganda and outright blackmail. This is in a bid to curry favour, and confuse public opinion by some critical stakeholders such as our sister unions, government and its agencies and committees whose activities since the strike started could be described as nebulous players in the destiny of university education in Nigeria.

With several authorities, personalities and even innocent students proffering possible solutions to the crisis, it has been discovered that the solution to the present industrial quagmire beyond mere orders to re-open universities “with immediate effect”. ‘Even the “enough is enough” of the Visitor and President during his Sallah holiday in Daura has been discovered to be grossly not good enough to pull a magic wand to the University system blighted by decades of decay in the area of infrastructure and a litany of poorly remunerated staff who can no longer wait for heaven to send the reward of their hard services on earth.

Also, in a season where the learned head has been thinned by hunger and could no longer size their thinking caps owing to several months of withheld salaries to force university workers into submission; several positions have been put forward as solutions to the current educational impasse. The latest is that of Professor Eyitope Ogunbodede entitled: University Education: The Chickens Have Come Home to Roost, a professor of dentistry and the 11th and immediate-past Vice Chancellor of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, in a Lagos based publication known as Newsdirect of August 6, 2022.

Whereas the recent posture of some of our sister Unions in the university system calls for critical appraisal of our workplace affinity and cooperation, Professor Ogunbodede’s article smacks a great measure of courage, and fairmindedness except on issues which are beyond him and in the court of his own Union, ASUU. He launched his first salvo on the unworkability of the two weeks given to the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu to resolve all the issues in contention and cause the resumption of universities in two weeks! We may wish to recall earlier that the Minister of Labour and “Conciliator-General” of the ongoing strike, Mr Chris Ngige had blamed the Minister of Education for the prolonged strike and even advised the Unions to go and disrupt the operations of the Federal Ministry of Education by occupying office corridors to shout and clap.

The Minister of Education from the grapevine is discovered to always be away on medical and political tourism up to the extent of not properly relinquishing power to his junior minister sometimes. Rather, the work of the Minister of Education is said to be handled most times by some head of parastatals of his Ministry such as the National Universities Commission and the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND).

Professor Ogunbodede and SSANU appear to be on the same page on the dangers of incessant strikes to the health and quality of university education in Nigeria. As a former Vice Chancellor and University manager, should he decide to be very sincere; he would confirm that SSANU is the most work-friendly crop of university workforce who hardly go on strike when other Unions are up in arms to disrupt the internal and national peace of ivory towers.

Yet, the recent behaviour of some of our sister unions appears to have scuttled every scruple of sincerity in the composition of their demands and negotiating strategies. This explains why it remains a mystery how ASUU has always been treated with special attention as if they are the only Union in the University system such that the media does not know any sobriquet to the current industrial dislocation than “ASUU strike”.

SSANU would refuse to accept Professor Eyitope Ogunbodede’s description of the Professor Nimi Briggs Committee inaugurated by the Minister of Education to wade into thorny issues of the 2009 Federal Government University Union Agreement as reputable. To say the least, there are deep rancorous manifestations in the operations of the Professor Briggs Committee who claimed not to receive the mandate to discuss financial issues with SSANU and dismiss it with just two meetings, but held twelve meetings with ASUU, concluded on a 109%-185% salary increase for them and submit the report to the government without inputs from other Unions in the University.

Besides, no committee to review agreements in the university system would be reputable if Registrars and Bursars whether serving or retired are not included to give proper direction on issues bothering the non-teaching staff members of the University. One question that is yet to be answered is, who is to be blamed for the skewed conduct of the Prof. Briggs Committee. Is it that ASUU pressurized Prof. Nimi Briggs’s Committee to “donate” the superfluous percentages of salary review or did Professor Briggs just need to donate bogus packages to ASUU, the Union to which he belongs so that he could start earning a professorial 2-million-naira salary at the conclusion of his national assignment! Yet, the likes of Dr Gamaliel Onosode of blessed memory, Dr Wale Babalakin, all non-professors nor teaching staff but with a human face, fairness, respect and sincerity to both the teaching and non-teaching staff members of the university had served out in the committee without any industrial acrimony.

The late Onosode and Babalakin’s chairmanship are known for level-headedness and desired a university system where the teaching and non-teaching staff would work in unison and earn reasonable pay with a fair grading template, peculiar allowances to deserving staff based on their divides; but the worst began to happen when teaching staff cum Professors Munzali and Briggs took over and aimed at the jumbo salary for a section of university staff and a pittance to others. Should Prof. Nimi Brigg’s package be placed side-by-side with what was provided in the 2009 agreement, one would easily understand that the committee was on a bazaar spree for teaching staff to the detriment of other workers in the University system.

Prof. Eyitope Ogunbodede in his piece proposed the relocation and shedding of the control of IPPIS, one of the strongest issues of contention in the ongoing strike to the National Universities Commission (NUC) with a code name called IPPIS-U. This would amount to the final burial of the non-teaching staff in the university. NUC from all indications is a final burial ground for former vice-chancellors and remand home of Professors who do not believe in any other person in the university system than the teaching staff.

For some time now, whenever government releases money to be paid or shared with university workers, it has been discovered that NUC is the “temple” where the evil formula of 75% for ASUU and 25% for other university staff was conceived. At the payment of another tranche of earned allowance, it was 89% is to 11% in favour of the teaching staff.

Also, if NUC is made to domesticate IPPIS, it would be a clear jump from the frying pan into the lake of fire where teaching staff would earn income as Adjunct Staff for more than five universities. Whereas the concept of IPPIS was introduced by the government of President Goodluck Jonathan, GRFR and spearheaded by the sophisticated global economist cum Finance Minister, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iwaela. It was not wholly a bad idea; and if it was faithfully and rightfully implemented in the university system, the season of confusion and an individualistic quest for salary platforms of UTAS for ASUU and U3Ps for SSANU would not have arisen.

For once, the stress of salary payment in the face of shortfalls, and budget deficits has completely been taken away from Vice Chancellors and University Bursars courtesy of IPPIS. In the light of the competing platforms and Ogunbodede’s IPPIS-U which may be teaching staff primed; it is the platform created by the operators of university payroll and ICT which is U3PS – University Peculiar Payroll Payment system birthed by SSANU that IPPIS should collapse into since they had worked in close liaison from February 2020 when IPPIS was rolled out.

In fact, IPPIS depends on critical inputs from the payroll units of federal universities before the computation of monthly salaries is concluded. The Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Education, Mr David Adejo could not hide his commendation for U3PS. The Nigerian Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) is another nebulous institution and a factor to the ongoing strike due to its political manipulation of their tests on UTAS, IPPIS and U3PS and report to the government on their workability.

The call for an abroad-based meeting of stakeholders such as the Ministers of Education, Finance, Labour, Presidential Committee on Wages which also is the National Salaries and Wages Commission, Head of Service of the Federation, Accountant General of the Federation, the Staff Unions, the Students, Tertiary Education Committee of the Senate and House of Representatives is not a bad idea, only that novel ideas hardly work in our clime especially the government when it comes to the issue of education.

The suggested meeting had already been held in May 2022 at the Banquet Hall of the Aso Villa at the instance of the Chief of Staff to the President, Professor Ibrahim Gambari, known as the Tripartite-Plus meeting. The likes of the Sultan of Sokoto, the Christian organisation hierarchy and other stakeholders attended the meeting which only yielded a single fruit which was the release of the withheld arrears of consequential wage adjustment which university workers were wrongly denied for almost three years and whose value had eroded. It was at that meeting that the Sultan of Sokoto pleaded for the payment of salaries to university workers as a mark of good faith which the Minister of Labour, Chris Ngige berated and ensured its repudiation.

Before I conclude, a scriptural verse in Acts of the Apostle 26:24, may suffice, “…Festus said with a loud voice, Paul thou art beside thyself, much learning doth make thee mad”, I may wish to trace the atomistic disposition of some of our critical stakeholders to end the ongoing strike to much learning which may portend some madness traced to Apostle Paul by Justice Festus. Where a group of colleagues of the same university system desires to see other colleagues as beggars, scums of the earth while they fly themselves to the heavenly comfort of bogus salaries is another nebulous mission.

Adding to their brazen brags are statements credited to their leaders after the coup of Nimi Briggs Committee that other Unions should negotiate their welfare as they cannot speak for others, even when the so-called Briggs Committee denied them the opportunity to negotiate their financial concerns. While Labour Minister and Chief Conciliator of the University Strike Mr Chris Ngige declared that Nigeria is broke and would not borrow to pay 20 million naira monthly salary to a professor, his junior minister, Festus Kayemo had concluded that – “the non-teaching staffs (sic) will go on strike if the Federal Government pays ASUU 1.1 trillion naira.

Methinks the feuding parties in this struggle may have to drop their long degrees and titles, abandon the knowledge of their careers and borrow both common sense and wisdom to descend from their high horses to bring an end to the lingering menace of the ongoing strike. A holistic approach should be adopted to solve the problems of university staff unions and not the Prof. Nimi Briggs style of divide and rule. A grand total of all that would make all categories of staff in the universities feel a sense of belonging should be sought and not a one-sided presentation.

This may not be too big for the government of Nigeria to settle, after all, education, security and health are the essential services every reasonable government must provide its citizenry and may not be up to the global 26% per cent UNESCO benchmark for education. The introduction of tuition fees in federal universities should not be contemplated as suggested in some quarters. The commercialization of tertiary education in Nigeria would be the final demise of access to quality education for the poor and the only potent social welfare gesture for Nigerian youths.

Neglect on education in certain parts of the country is what gave birth to the initial insurgency eruption in the country where education was ridiculed as madness. If this current strike is allowed to fester, another group of evil doers may spring up which may pale the current national budget on security into insignificance to prove the maxim, if education is too costly, try ignorance.

From February 14, 2022, and March 27, 2022, when ASUU and SSANU kicked off the ongoing strike respectively, the various stakeholders charged with the responsibility of resolving the issues of the strike have proven to be nebulous players in the destiny of the nation and future of the present and distant generations. Any serious government can resolve the issues of the ongoing strike which has kept about two sets of post-JAMB or would-be undergraduates in limbo and on-campus undergraduates, postgraduate students at critical stages of their semesters stuck in frustration.

Comr. Anietie Atai, PhD writes from Uyo, Akwa Ibom State. She is the Chairperson, SSANU UNIUYO and Chairperson, Nigeria Labour Congress Women Committee, Akwa Ibom State.

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