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Elusive peace in Ebonyi varsity as government, ASUU disagree

By Adelowo Adebumiti
04 February 2021   |   4:23 am
State-owned universities in Nigeria, unlike their federal counterparts, are oftentimes bogged down by inadequate funding and dearth of infrastructure.

David Umahi of Ebonyi State.

State-owned universities in Nigeria, unlike their federal counterparts, are oftentimes bogged down by inadequate funding and dearth of infrastructure.

Funding, which is critical to the running of these institutions, is often inadequate following the lean resources of states. The effect is delayed salaries, face-off with workers’ unions as well as accusations and counter accusations among stakeholders.

In Ebonyi State University, the leadership of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) is currently embroiled in crisis with the university visitor, Governor David Umahi.

Already, the institution’s acting ASUU Chairman, Prof. Ikechukwu Okorie Igwenyi had raised an alarm over alleged threat to his life and family by the governor. The ASUU chief alleged that the governor had asked him to resign his appointment with the university forthwith for peace to reign.

Umahi had in October 2020, allegedly issued a directive dissolving all existing staff unions in the university, including ASUU, a development that created tension between the union leadership and state government. Igwenyi said his problem stemmed from his refusal to compromise on principles of the union by representing the genuine interest of lecturers and not a group of few professors.

The ASUU chief said he refused to be part of an agreement between the professors and government, which included that workers be paid at least 80 per cent salary for four to 12 months without negotiating with workers.

He also opposed management’s decision to implement recommendations of the 2018 staff audit, which recommended sack of members of staff earlier pardoned by the state and reinstated.

Igwenyi, who is also Chairman, Joint Action Committee of Trade Unions (JACTU) in the university, said he refused management’s decision to reduce staff strength and lay off workers without benefits, or accept that members of staff who are sick due to forced labour, stress, mental torture, hunger and are unable to take care of their health bills, be sacked without benefits.

Igwenyi alleged that his refusal to admit that the university has no money and cannot generate funds in the absence of students was the last straw.

He listed his other “sins” as refusal to accept dissolution of workers unions by the Visitor; dissolution of the university’s governing council without any established case of misconduct; and accepting group of professors as replacement to Council. Igwenyi accused the governor of undue interference in the affairs of the university, which negates the principle of autonomy.

To resolve the feud, Igwenyi said there is need to examine the root cause of the problem as members of staff have been subjected to untold hardship as a result of non-payment of salaries and job insecurity. The ASUU chief demanded payment of all outstanding salaries as a first step towards peace.

He said: “We have issues with the system, what we are clamouring for is our dues, our entitlements. We are not a political party; we are lecturers who should be allowed to focus on teaching, training, research and development. We are asking for our salaries and Earned Academic Allowances (EAA). We demand improved conditions of service and welfare, so that we don’t join others in seeking greener pastures abroad as over half of our lecturers are gone. We want to be promoted and paid our entitlements.

“We have problems with management and Visitor to the university. We want them to work closely and play their roles; to ensure that the dream and vision of our founders are not truncated,”Igwenyi added.

Commenting on the development, a professor in EBSU, Emmanuel Oti, said it was quite unfortunate that the Visitor to the university has impoverished lectures in the state-owned institution.

Oti alleged that workers in ABSU have not been paid in the last seven months. “How can anybody explain that the governor would allegedly deny EBSU members of staff their monthly salaries for seven months, but preferred to give them Christmas gift of N4,000 across board from a messenger to Professors. The governor should pay workers their salaries and arrears immediately because labourers deserve their wages. In the spirit of the new year, I urge the governor to look inwards and do the needful to avoid breakdown of law and order in the state.”

He also called on the governor to stop threatening the ASUU Branch Chairman, whom he said was only discharging his responsibility as a union leader.

Oti stated: “The entire staff of ASUU EBSU are solidly behind Igwenyi, I will advice you as a senior citizen of Ebonyi State to settle your debts with EBSU workers and we will allow you to breath fresh air. Your debts to EBSU are huge; you should listen to our heartbeat and stop chasing shadows. Ebonyi State University is in your hands today, you either build it to a world-class university it was before you assumed office or pull it down. The choice is yours to make but history will judge you at the end.”

Oti expressed optimism that Umahi would embrace peace by paying all outstanding salaries and arrears, restore and increase the institution’s subvention over and above what it used to be and reconstitute the Council.

Chairman, Media Commitee for Concerned Academic Staff, comrade J. Agbo expressed concern over threat to Igwenyi’s life. He said: “We are worried that none of us is safe as an injury to one is an injury to all. Our chairman was hunted because he represented the interest of members of staff, not his personal interest. He has not done or said anything aside passing on the resolution of congress and cannot suffer for being a worthy messenger and leader of the union.

Agbo added: “I am confused as to what the contest between a governor and an ordinary teacher could be.

“Every lecturer and staff should condemn and resist this attempt to create an atmosphere of intimidation and blackmail within the university, as being meted out to those offering their talents and skills towards moulding the next generation in character and learning.”

But the Special Assistant to the governor on Media, Francis Nweze explained: “The governor was briefed few weeks ago, that there are some youths protesting against ASUU local chairman for reasons best known to them. When he got to know about it, he called them to order.”

On claims that the governor directed Igwenyi to resign under pressure, the state spokesman denied it.

“Where are the proofs? Why are people saying all these things? Which pressure? Who is the person that put him under pressure? There is nothing like that,” he said.

On outstanding salaries owed EBSU workers, Francis said governor Umahi is a visitor to the institution, but the university has its own management that runs its affairs.