The National President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, Prof Biodun Ogunyemi, speaks on the two-week warning strike and the contentious issues, including the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System, in this interview with OLALEYE ALUKO
Your union has commenced a two-week warning strike over issues that involve the 2009, 2013 and 2017 Memorandums of Understanding. Can you break this down?
We have been on these issues since we suspended the last strike action on February 7, 2019. Then, we signed a Memorandum of Action where we have some outstanding issues listed. The ASUU and the Federal Government teams signed, and we expected those issues to be tracked. I will give you clear examples.
On that 2019 MOA, we agreed that the government would give an initial N220bn as a mark of commitment to the Memorandum of Action of 2017 which talks about revitalisation funds. Recall that the revitalisation fund is itself a product of the 2013 Memorandum of Understanding where the government agreed to massively inject funds to revitalise our public universities to the tune of N1.3tn and the fund was to be released over a period of six years starting with N200bn in 2013. For the subsequent five years, the government was to release N220bn each year. So, that is what we are tracking when we talk about revitalisation funds.
But till date, the government has only released a total of N220bn. So when you remove that from N1.3tn, it is a far cry and it means that we are paying lip service to the revitalisation of Nigerian universities. In fact, rather than revitalising the existing ones, rather than addressing the rot and decay that were identified when the NEEDS assessment was carried out in 2012 which led to the emergence of revialisation funds, the government has been busy creating new ones. This is because as of the time we were doing NEEDS assessment, the 12 new universities established by former President Goodluck Jonathan were not there. So, it was around that time that Jonathan just decreed that he wanted to give every region a university. And we have not departed from that trend.
How do you mean?
You see, now the government has started the University of Transportation in Daura, Katsina State, and another one will be in Rivers State. They have also started the University of Health Sciences. It appears there is no end to it – you also have the University of ICT (Information and Communications Technology). These are courses that could be taught in any conventional university but we have an obsession with proliferation.
As the Federal Government is doing its own, state governments are also busy using universities as constituency projects. And that is why every state governor is aspiring to have a university in their own constituency – this is the same way senators are also clamouring to have one tertiary institution or the other in their areas. So, it is as if members of the political class now see university establishment or higher education in general as the only thing they can take back home, whereas they are not ready to fund the institutions.
So, we took it upon ourselves not to continue this way, and that led to the second point we raised in our MoA that the government must establish a forum where the issue of proliferation of universities, particularly by state governors, must be addressed. Of course, they created that forum but it has been dormant. State governors are not keying into it and nobody is trying to stop them. We expect agencies of the Federal Government that have the powers to at least stop them from institutional accreditation because there is no way they can meet up with the expected standards.
But you know what they do? The governors just go to Tertiary Education Trust Fund and ask for money and they will establish the university, depriving TETFUND of the funds that should go into addressing the needs of the existing ones. So, revitalisation fund is by the way and proliferation of universities is another issue which we are tracking.
Then we are talking about the government agreeing with us on the outstanding balance of arrears of allowances, which we call, the earned academic allowances of up to 2018, which would be paid in four instalments. The first instalment was supposed to have been paid since November 2019. Nobody is talking about it. So that is another issue that we are tracking.
Then we also told the government about visitation. You know that the government is quick to talk about corruption in the universities, that vice-chancellors or professors are corrupt. But the system has a mechanism to address all of those. By the establishment act, every public university is expected to be visited at least once in every five years. But the last time the Federal Government visited its own universities was in 2011. And even the white paper that emanated from the visitation was never fully implemented.
So these are the issues that we have been engaging them on that if you say, “There are anomalies going on in the system,” then set up your panels and bring us reports.
Again, also as of February 2019, we are still tracking the issue of renegotiation; you know that our renegotiation with the government broke down at some point. But we now signed an agreement that the government would revive the renegotiation and it would be concluded within six weeks. So we have those five or six issues that we are tracking and we thought that the government would come clean with us and raise appropriate structures or activate appropriate procedures for addressing our issues.
That took us to about June or July 2019 when we just heard again that something called IPPIS (Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System) was coming back and IPPIS would now become the only template for addressing the payroll system and we said, no, it cannot work. IPPIS is not just coming. They first introduced it in 2013 and we told them it could not work and we agreed to set up a joint committee so that we could work out something that would work. But the government team went away in 2014 and we never heard anything again from them until five years later when they came back with IPPIS. They said IPPIS had been perfected and all our grievances had been addressed. We said, no, it doesn’t work that way. They said we should hold meetings, and we agreed. We told them that they couldn’t settle the issue of autonomy by IPPIS. Again, IPPIS will localise us because universities are universal cities of learning and research. We expect scholars to come from different parts of the world to come and enrich our programmes and give our universities international flavours.
You see, internationalisation is a major criterion for universities’ ranking globally and people continue to talk about non-feasibility of our universities in global ranking. But people don’t trace it to the root, which is the localisation of our institutions.
Still on IPPIS, the Minister of Finance said out of 137,016 academic and non-academic staff members of universities, 96,090 had been enrolled in the IPPIS. Don’t you think that some members of the union are working against your stand?
We are not bothered. Anybody can brand any figures. I am not privy to those figures. That is number one. Two, there are different ways they (the government) have used to cajole people and I will give you examples. There are lecturers who are close to retirement. They threaten them that unless they registered with IPPIS, their pension would not be guaranteed.
Then, as IPPIS officials were going round to capture lecturers, they were also going about with their lists of those who would be recruited by the universities and they were threatening universities (because some of them also have things to hide) that they must accommodate their own candidates. And the universities and the IPPIS contractors started capturing, even new recruitments – people who are not lecturers in the universities. That is why we are calling for investigations into IPPIS.
So, those on temporary appointments, those newly recruited and those close to retirement are the first three groups of people that they got and for others, they started using some other forms of cajoling. We know that some vice-chancellors are playing games with them and at the appropriate time, we shall expose them.
So, whether people are going against our directive or not, we just believe that what they are saying is not correct. It is not correct because let them tell us the status of those that have been captured. Are they confirmed staff members of universities? So if anybody is on temporary appointment, you cannot take that as a university staff member.
How effective can your agitation still be if about or more than 60 per cent of you have already done what the government wants?
Basically, when the government comes up with a payroll system which implies there is no space for scholars that are coming from abroad, either for short service or for contracts, then it means that you have already denied us what could give our universities the international feasibility and of course, what can enrich our programmes – the various programmes run in our universities. So, we kicked against IPPIS.
Furthermore, the government wants to take the universities back to the mainstream civil service. It was like that under the military system. You recall that a military Head of State even appointed a Major-General to be the sole administrator of Ahmadu Bello University, Kaduna State. That was the lowest we got in the tertiary education.
Now, you are coming up with IPPIS that will require a Vice-Chancellor to send a memo to the Head of Service or to the Accountant-General of the Federation before they can employ in the universities. It is never done. Universities by nature should organise a flexible payroll system because of the peculiarities of their programmes and procedures.
So, we have made this clear to them over time and it appears that nobody wants to listen to us. And that was why we said, because we also are interested in fighting corruption, we will work towards giving you (the government) a programme that will be university-based but that can be accessed by the government even from their offices so that they can monitor what is going on. It is a very simple technology; it does not require rocket science.
But there are vested interests, and I will tell you about these vested interests. They are implementing the IPPIS, of which they took a loan of $140m. So, somebody must spend that money. So, when some newspapers started to write editorials that because ASUU wants to cover up corruption, that is why we don’t want IPPIS implemented, they are missing the point. The point really is that why does a government need to take loans to develop software that Nigerian scholars can develop in Nigeria? We are developing software now and we are telling them that just as it operates in banks, we can give you a platform that people will key into locally and that there will be different levels of access.
There will be points at which red flags could be raised in case of toxic money. If a vice-chancellor brings in a new worker, an alert will be raised because if that is not captured in their budget or part of the processes approved by the Governing Council, there will be red flags and by so doing, we will monitor corruption. Again, this idea of lecturers teaching in four or five universities, people have Bank Verification Numbers and you can know their sources or flow of funds.
You can track them. In Bayero University, Kano State, today, they have a policy that you cannot be an adjunct lecturer in more than two universities and if you want to do that, you must seek the express permission of the university and you cannot move beyond 200km radius of the university. So, this thing is regulated. The issue here is about regulation.
Also when they say lecturers are teaching in five or six universities, I will tell you about it. There are some scarce fields that vice-chancellors go out of their way to seek the help of other universities to give them personnel that can handle such courses – talk of Nuclear Physics, Health Physics, Neuroscience, Neurosurgery and others. These are areas that some people will call hardship areas, but we need them because the world is going technological. We cannot afford to be left behind. So, even that a lecturer is listed in two or three universities is not a sin globally. Across the world, there are names of scholars you want to be listed in your universities because you want to shore up the image of our universities.
If you hear some names now that they are associate lecturers in some universities, you will think they have the right calibre of staff. So those are the things that are going on. Even overseas where people showcase as models, there are professors that are listed in four or five universities. In some of these places, they don’t even collect money but the universities need them to boost their image. In our own case in Nigeria, we establish universities without planning for them. Where are the lecturers that will teach in the University of Transportation now established in Daura? Where are transportation scientists and railway experts? They said they will bring them in from China. Those people; are they going to say they should be captured on IPPIS or they will come on contracts? (These are) contradictions.
Or will a university that is just starting generate IGR (Internally Generated Revenue) to pay such people? It is not logical. So what we are saying is that we are not averse to the war on corruption. We fully support it, and we will do anything. In fact, if anything, we are the loudest when it comes to shouting against corruption in the university system.
How many of our professors or VCs have we reported to the government that they are not working? But the government did not take any action. And now, some newspapers are turning around to say that ASUU is shielding corrupt professors or corrupt VCs. It is not correct. It is red herring.
Earlier this year, ASUU met with the President, Ministers of Education and Finance on this IPPIS issue, and it looked as if a middle ground had been reached. Yet, you still went on strike. What went wrong?
Yes, we met with President Muhammadu Buhari and we left that place with the impression that the ministers should address our issues. One significant thing that President Buhari did was to hand over the document we presented to him to the Minister of Education and he told him in our presence, “Minister of Education, you have a lot of work on your hands,” and he gave him the document.
To us, that speaks about the issue of “doing follow-up.” Of course, the Minister of Education started something. He tried to arrange a meeting between us and the Minister of Finance. He, on his part, brought back our renegotiation. Now, we have started our renegotiation and we are meeting with the government team. All things being equal, the negotiation is likely to go on smoothly and be concluded soon. However, that also depends on the sincerity of those who are representing the government. So, we have always said that on our own part, we are ready to do our bit to ensure that everything goes smoothly. We are also expecting that the government team comes with that same mindset. So that is why I said the education minister played his own part. We have had like two or three meetings with the Minister of Education so far. But he tried to arrange a meeting with the Minister of Finance and it appears that the finance minister was not ready to meet us.
Rather than meeting us, she has been threatening us: “Yes, no IPPIS, no pay; lecturers who do not register on IPPIS will not be paid. Already, we have captured 80, 90 per cent of lecturers.”
We are not bothered by that. They should know that they cannot intimidate lecturers. Academics that know their onions are never intimidated. They are not intimidated because knowledge dispels fear. We believe that we have what it takes to challenge them because we know that they are not doing the correct thing. I will continue to stand on that.
IPPIS is riddled with corruption and we are even calling on the Federal Government to investigate the IPPIS office. The media has been awash with stories. Recently, we heard directly from a retired Auditor-General of the Federation who said that the government could have meant well by introducing IPPIS, but those who are implementing IPPIS have lost what should have been the case. So, IPPIS which was designed to curb corruption has also become a bastion of corruption.
How many of the university workers captured by IPPIS underwent interviews? How many of them are actually workers in the last two or three years? This is part of the corruption in IPPIS.
What if the Federal Government decides that it will go ahead and employ people to fill lecturers’ positions, do you think the majority of workers who have already subscribed to IPPIS will join your fight?
Well, that is the worst case scenario, but we have seen it before. We have even had a case when the government said it banned ASUU. They proscribed ASUU and they declared all staff members disengaged but I can assure you that if they do that, they will lose over 90 per cent of their best hands, and the Nigerian university system will collapse. I can assure you of that.
Do you think the creation of Congress of University Academics, a parallel faction of academic lecturers, has any role to play in this crisis?
No, I don’t recognise any parallel group in the first place. So I don’t really want to talk about any parallel group because I don’t know about any parallel union. What I know, as I have been telling people, is that we have some individuals who we sanctioned for running afoul of the provisions of our constitution. They have decided to gang up to attack and undermine the union. But we have always told them that there is a window for them to come back.
We have a mechanism within which we address grievances. I mean, let me give you an example. You have heard of the story of the University of Ilorin.
But UNILORIN was the first to join this warning strike now. What happened there? It is because at some time, people came to realise that there is no room for free riders. These people you are talking about, the last two regimes of arrears of allowances that were paid to universities, they were forced to work with us to get their entitlements. That is to tell you that we all know what is good for the system. We all know that we are working for common interests – a system that works – a system where what is due to scholars is given to them and a system that can win the respect and respectability of others in Nigeria as well as in other parts of the world.
The revitalisation we brought to universities includes offices constructed and some of these aggrieved lecturers were entrusted to stay in these offices. So, they have not said that we are not staying in these offices ASUU fought for.
So, we don’t want to talk of opportunism; people who want recognition and other kinds of benefit. But we are saying that we don’t have any splinter group. The best we know of is a handful of people that we sanctioned over one issue or the other, or who are being sponsored by vice-chancellors because we have issues with such vice-chancellors. These are the people that are ganging up and saying, we want to pull down ASUU. But ASUU is an idea; you cannot kill it. ASUU has taken root and it will take another 40 years for any group to get to the level of ASUU.
What does ASUU want from this warning strike, since the union has said that IPPIS is just a distraction? Are you on strike over the 2019 MoA or over IPPIS?
No, there are many issues and you saw the way I started the story that we have a Memorandum of Action of February 7, 2019, and we were tracking the memorandum thinking that this was the way to go and suddenly they brought in the IPPIS in July 2019.
IPPIS is a distraction and you can see how it has distracted us from our MoA. So, what we are saying now is that let us go back to our MoA. If we go back to our MoA, we will even see the issue of the need to respect university autonomy there. We will see the issue of funding, revitalisation, outstanding entitlements, issue of state universities and their governors, and others.
And by going back to the MoA, we will also be able to underline that IPPIS just came in through the back door and it is trying to erode the basis of university autonomy. So, IPPIS is a distraction because it has become amplified beyond reasonable levels of assumption and our primary objective of fixing our universities is no longer being discussed. And that’s why we said we need these two weeks of serious engagements to tell whoever cares to listen that we have been coming from the 2009 agreement. And we have had an agreement with the government on four key components of our university system. The first is funding; second, conditions of service; third, academic freedom and university autonomy; while the fourth component is related to issues of enabling laws and general operating environment.
So every memorandum we have signed with the government – whether 2013, 2017 or 2019 – all emanate from the 2009 initial agreement because all issues we are still tracking have their roots in the initial agreement.
As it stands, would you say the Minister of Finance and the government team generally are going to consider the alternative option brought forward by ASUU?
The Minister of Finance has never for one day asked us about our alternative model – the University Transparency and Accountability Solutions. If we have the opportunity to have another meeting with President Buhari, we are willing (state it). But the point really is that the people in the finance ministry, particularly the Accountant-General of the Federation and IPPIS office, know what they are doing and we have taken them on directly.
Some people are saying that your union is only trying to blackmail the government on the issue of IPPIS. What is your take?
Those who are criticising our position on IPPIS should have a rethink. They should look at all the facts. We are saying that IPPIS is not even a major problem of Nigerian universities. In China, when they ran into the problem of coronavirus, they drew out people they had invested in their education.
See the way their engineers set to work, see the way their doctors set to work and see the way their scientists and professionals set to work. If they didn’t invest in people, from which pool would they have drawn from? That is what we are telling Nigerians that we need to reinvest in education, particularly university education. It is not about basic education alone; in China, they would not have gone to primary school products to come and solve their crisis.
So, let Nigerians see our point of view to know that what ASUU is doing is a patriotic duty. Today and for the last 10 years, Ghana has not budgeted less than 20 per cent to education. But Nigeria has been sliding, last year; it was seven per cent, this year, below that. Is that how to develop a country?
Imagine what our universities would have turned into if that N1.3tn had been injected into our universities. We need to develop our laboratories; we need to equip our libraries; we need to have better hostels and facilities. That was what happened in Ghana.
Nigerians are wary that anytime ASUU declares a warning strike, it is likely to lead to an indefinite strike. Should Nigerians rest assured there would be no indefinite strike?
Well, it all depends on the outcome of our meetings. I may not be able to predict. It depends on the outcome. If the government calls us today, as they are doing now, we will see (how it goes). But the point is: when are we going to fix Nigerian universities?
The government has been playing hide-and-seek with public universities’ funding. In other places, you don’t just wake up one day and create universities. We are proliferating universities in Nigeria without plans to fund them. It is provocative. We should be interested in what goes on in public universities.
And this is why we are angry that the government is doing all of these and Nigerians are not joining us to ask questions. Nigerians should actually be on the streets demonstrating against any government policy that will make education not accessible to their children.
So, people should not just be saying, our children must be in school at all costs. As I speak with you, I have children in the universities who are back in my house. So, people should not be talking as if they are the only people who have children. It is a painful decision going on strike. Before we get to the point of going on strike, we would have done in-depth analysis and because of our patriotic zeal, that is only thing we owe this country as a legacy. If they have conquered primary and secondary teachers, we must never allow them to conquer us. If it remains one lecturer in the university, we will fight.