In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ Azeezat Adedigba, the National President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Biodun Ogunyemi, speaks on the lingering strike; alleged corruption in accreditation process; government withholding members’ salaries and Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS), among other issues.
PT: University students have been at home since March, first because of COVID-19, but it has since been about ASUU strike. The only losers in these strikes are the students and their parents. Can’t ASUU think of a different way of seeking redress for its grievances without inflicting ‘collateral damage’ on students, parents and the country?
Ogunyemi: In the first place, it appears people are seeing academics (lecturers) as people who do not have children in the university, as non-Nigerians and as if they have no pity for their children, it is a wrong motive.
Over 90 percent of our members have their children in public universities, so whatever is happening now is affecting them. As I am speaking to you, two of my children are at home too and they are in public university. So, it is not as if we are deliberately leading a group that is inflicting punishment on parents and students out there that have no relationship with me and I have no connection with.
What we are doing is for the betterment of Nigerian universities and for the enforcement of policies on the certificates our children are going to have.
I don’t know when last you visited school hostels, rooms meant for 4 to 8 students are now occupied by 12-16 students. They no longer have a good and standard laboratory to the point that they don’t have water. A microscope meant for a student is shared by 5 or more students.
When we talk about revitalization, those are the things we should be addressing. People accused lecturers of rejecting online learning during COVID-19; it is not correct, we do not have good infrastructure. ICTs are not too good in public universities, no regular supply of good electricity.
We do not enjoy what we are doing but if it is to deny ourselves of comfort for all these things to be done, so be it. Our universities are shifting into some level of irrecoverable loss and decay
As of 2012, we conducted an assessment and it was the report that formed the basis of the MOU of 2013 which was talking of the revitalisation funds.
I visited a first-generation university and what I found were scary. I met them using kerosene stoves, fetching water to the laboratory with buckets and they call that a laboratory. The equipment they had in their engineering workshop was the 1965 equipment. It was just referred to as artefacts. Can we compare that to what they have in America and Asia?
Lack of quality equipment and infrastructure also affected our ranking and our teaching environment. If nothing is done, we’ll continue to go lower in ranking and that is why the union will remain passionate about universities in Nigeria. So, saying ASUU being collateral for the parents and our students, we are worried because they do not understand this struggle.
PT: Kindly elucidate more on the issues that are delaying Nigerian students from resuming
Ogunyemi: We were engaging the government on 5 issues as of March 2020. Those issues were and still are the revitalization fund based on 2013; negotiation of 2009 agreement which has dragged on for over 3 years, in fact 3 and half years; the constitution of visitation panel to all federal universities; payment of arrears of Earned Academic Allowance which government was known to have reduced and the proliferation of universities as well as governance issues in universities. Those were the five issues we were dragging before the government stopped the salaries of our members.
The government said they would give 20 billion for revitalization issue in January 2021 and that was not acceptable to our members. Our members said on the revitalization, the government should release half of one year which amounts to 110 billion as stipulated in the memorandum of understanding of 2013, that was where the schedule for the release of the revitalization fund was first spelt out that the government will release 1.3 trillion.
Government only released the 2013 tranche which was 200 billion, after that government has only given 20 billion, so we are asking them for the balance of 1.1trillion which we said they should give us the schedule of how they will pay but to show an act of commitment they should release half of one tranche which is 110 billion
On EAA, the federal government said they know we are being owed two tranches which totals 40 billion. What the government was going to release earlier is going to be a partial payment because the schedule for payment and the arrears has been worked out up to 2013 and the arrears were supposed to have been paid.
But the government said the 30 billion they will release will be shared among all the categories of staff(all union) and our members said no. It cannot be for all categories of staff, we have separate negotiation and if the government is saying it’s for all categories of staff, then you have to pay the total of 40 billion, so that is where the disagreement came from.
We equally engaged the government on the mode of payment and government said the union needs to enrol on IPPIS to get their arrears paid and ASUU is saying we have gone beyond IPPIS.
PT: Which month did the government stop paying the union?
Ogunyemi: There are about 3 or 4 scenarios relating to our salaries issue. The first scenario is one which no salary has been paid since February 2020 till date, we have some of our members though they are few in number, we have them in many universities who have not been paid a dime as salary since February 2020.
The second scenario consists of those who were paid following the directive of the president of the country in February that they should pay our members their salaries as from February .So, they started paying them from February but by June they stopped. So our members in the second category are owed four-month salaries July, August, September and October salaries
Then, we have the third category. When President Buhari said they should pay our members their salaries in February, two universities were not paid at all; these are University of Maiduguri and Michael Okpara University of Agriculture. They were not paid the two months’ salaries that government said they should pay us but somewhere along the line, because of pressure, eventually they paid them but they didn’t bring them up to the same level with others who were paid up to June. They only paid February and March but omitted April and May for colleagues in Maiduguri and Umudike, which means, in their own case, they are owed 6 months of salaries
And there is another group that was selectively paid by the office of the Accountant General of the Federation. The example I can give is the example of Usmanu Danfodiyo University Sokoto among whom in the month of September, 20 were paid though they did not enrol on IPPIS, which means we have every means to suspect there is so much arbitrariness in the operation of the IPPIS.
PT: Why is ASUU not offering help in correcting the lapses it observed in the IPPIS instead of insisting on a special platform for university staff alone?
Ogunyemi: IPPIS was imported to Nigeria. It was given to the government from the World Bank. So, there was no way we could have access to it; those who have the license won’t make it accessible to you.
We decided to develop an alternative but the government challenged us after we spoke to them that the IPPIS was not capable of responding to the needs operation of the varsity system. We invited them to work together to develop a homegrown platform. I said that in 2014, we were ready to work with them so that we can help our university grow.
They came back in 2019. By that time, we told them we thought we had put the issue of IPPIS behind us. But now that they are back, we told the government that we have resolved on our own to give you a better solution to this problem and that is what we have done, we had to task ourselves to get the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS)
Now that we have developed it, we have made 3 presentations. The first presentation was made at the federal ministry of education; the second was made at the Senate before the leadership of the senate and the third was made in the office of the Accountant-General of the federation where all stakeholders were represented including the Nigerian Information Development and Technology Agency(NITDA) which is the regulator of IT development and activities in the country. After those 3 presentations, we were being referred to NITDA for the final integrity test.
In other words, we’ve gone beyond going back to IPPIS because those 3 levels of presentation are part of the testing process and after every test, we had always gone back to address any observations.
So, where we are now is the final stage of the integrity test and we are very confident that it will scale through
Unlike the IPPIS which was not tested or validated by any agency, it is now that we are critical of IPPIS that they are trying to make some adjustment to it. As far as we are concerned, we’ve gone far beyond that and that is why we cannot go back to IPPIS.
PT: How does the payment platform proposed by ASUU address the alleged gross corruption in the university finance administration system?
Ogunyemi; The uniqueness of UTAS is not a platform for just anybody to tamper with. The way we have defined it, the NUC will be the custodian of the UTAS because NUC regulates all universities in Nigeria
All Nigerian universities have provision for UTAS; from the head of department to the dean of faculties, director and others.
But, there will be a different level of control. Whoever does anything on that platform will be recorded because it is easier to monitor. The corruption we are talking about was made possible because IPPIS was given to a contractor to operate. If you give the platform of a university system to a contractor to operate, the contractor has nothing to lose and that is why we have been accusing them.
Since we started this rights action, we have our records. IPPIS operators have been moving around the universities to enrol new employees on IPPIS and we will have nothing to do with such employee. We’ve complained to the government thinking they will take up the challenge of investigating our issue.
PT: Some say the #EndSARS succeeded because university students were and still are at home as many allegedly joined. Isn’t that a reason to suspend the strike so that idle youth will return to school?
Ogunyemi: Do you know what they call counterfactual argument?
Counterfactual argument in the sense of relating to or expressing what has not happened or is not the case. We don’t think they are directly related. Which one started first, it was the government that started it so we have to trace it back to its origin. Will ASUU be on strike if the government fulfills its promises? They’ve denied us of livelihood. It is a matter of logic. If they had not created the situation, ASUU would not have gone on strike. Except they provide evidence that ASUU sponsored the #EndSARS, for me it is counterfactual.
PT: Away from the strike, people have criticised accreditation of programmes, especially lecturers that partake in the process. How is the union handling this?
Ogunyemi: I think, on two occasions now, we have had cause to formally send the money our members were given during accreditation exercise to NUC.
We have petitioned NUC over this hoping they might have to do further investigations.
But what the vice-chancellors do is that they were only providing accommodation for the assessors as they said it’s their own way of showing hospitality but we don’t see that as hospitality; we see it as an attempt to corrupt our members.
Many of our members have decided to opt-out because it appeared that the vice-chancellors are not ready to allow our members present what is fine. They are becoming increasingly domineering and stigmatising our members.
So, we believe NUC has the capacity to investigate this, and NUC has been trying its best. I know the commission issued queries to some universities.
PT: How is the rivalry between ASUU and other union members on campus?
Ogunyemi: All I know is that every union exists to fight for the welfare and comfort of its members. Once they are not attacking us, we won’t attack anybody.