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Unease as ASUU/FG faceoff ends year 2018 education sector

By Ujunwa Atueyi
27 December 2018   |   4:27 am
With the ongoing face-off between the Federal Government (FG) and Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), many Nigerians are united in their conclusion that something...

[FILE PHOTO] Left- ASUU National President, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi

With the ongoing face-off between the Federal Government (FG) and Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), many Nigerians are united in their conclusion that something is seriously wrong with the leadership of this country, UJUNWA ATUEYI writes how government and the union have been going back and forth in resolving the knotty issues.

• Union lists conditions to end strike
• Rights group backs action
• NANS gives December 31 to resolve impasse

Less than 48 hours to Christmas celebration, the leadership of Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) converged on University of Lagos (UNILAG) ASUU secretariat and strictly said that the union was determined more than ever before to continue the struggle following government’s alleged non-chalant attitude to their demands.

This time, they were assertive in their declarations, as government’s continued neglect in implementing outstanding issues in the 2009 FGN-ASUU agreement, as well as the 2013 Memorandum of Understanding they claimed is becoming intolerable.

Sadly, this is happening when President Muhammadu Buhari-led government is supposed to be taking stock of its administration’s feats in the education sector.

The ongoing saga has again brought to the fore the long years of neglect in public education, and the unfortunate plight of Nigerian students who are at the receiving end.

Though the leadership of ASUU had while announcing that there is no end in sight in the current strike appealed to Nigerian students and their parents to bear with the union while the struggle lasts, the students’ leadership body, National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), had warned that their patience is running out.

The Zone A Co-ordinator of NANS, Umar Faruk Lawal, has in a report challenged the warring Federal Government and ASUU to endeavour to resolve all pending issues and call off the strike on or before Monday, December 31, 2018.

If the strike exceeds the stipulated deadline, Lawal said the union would mobilise members to disrupt the 2019 general elections. He wondered why both parties were yet to reach favourable conclusions after several meetings.

He said: “We want to announce to the Federal Government, ASUU and the whole world that very soon, we are coming out in full force. It’s not a threat to the government neither is it a threat to ASUU. We are not afraid of anybody that wants to jeopardise the future of the Nigerian students or the masses. We are coming out and we are going to hold the entire nation stagnant by shutting down the airports and major roads across Nigeria. This is a warning and not an appeal because we are talking about our right here.

“I want this message to reach the table of the President that 2019 is around the corner. All the PVCs of the Nigerian students are not meant for the government that is not taking good care of our educational sector. If they don’t call off this strike before the end of December 31, 2018, we as NANS are going to resolve it for them.”

Meanwhile, President of ASUU, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, had during the emergency press briefing last Sunday, stated: “Since the commencement of our industrial action on November 4, 2018, we have had six meetings with agents of the Federal Government with no clear commitment from the government in resolving all the affected issues. Government appears to have adopted the ‘keep-them-talking’ strategy, while deceiving the pubic that progress was being made, and that partial agreement had been reached between the government and the union.

“Through its press interactions, government through its representatives had falsely raised the hope of the Nigerian public on the state of discussion with our union. Our expectation from a very responsive and sincere government is that by now, all outstanding issues would have been resolved to the satisfaction of both parties. Unfortunately, government is yet to show sincerity in addressing the problem.

“Nigerians should please note that, as of today, there are no concrete commitments on the part of government to warrant considering the suspension of this strike, which we did all that was possible to avoid. We appreciate the understanding of our students, their parents, among who are many ASUU members, and all people of goodwill since the resumption of this preventable strike. ASUU does not take your sacrifice for granted. With your continued support, we can make the Nigerian ruling class come to accept the centrality of university education in improving the human condition.”

On why the union has not been able to reach a consensus with Federal Government despite several meetings, Ogunyemi explained: “The challenge is from the leader of government team, Dr. Wale Babalakin, who came to the renegotiation table with his own presentation/proposal. We told him you are not asked to go and propose new things or introduce new item into the document. You are given a 2009 agreement to go and renegotiate, but he insisted that he was not bound to stay by what he was given and that he had his own position on this issues.

“He said before we can talk of funding, we must know how much we need and then we must talk of sources of generating the fund. We told him that was not part of your assignment, you are not asked to go to renegotiation table to start talking of sources of generating fund, but asked to look at what we have proposed in terms of funding, condition of service and others, revisit them and bring up ideas to debate on and arrive at a consensus. Babalakin did not operate within that framework.

“The joint committee that was set up went and brought its own proposal and this issue of education bank was one of the things that were identified. Immediately they presented it, we brought out a document, which was the white paper of the failed attempt with the education bank. Education bank was first introduced in 1993 and by 2001, it collapsed. Government was not funding it as expected. In fact, for seven years, the bank operated without a law, without a governing body. By the time they are winding up, they could not even lay their hands on the assets of the bank, as corruption had taken over. And so, we now told them this education bank was not feasible. At that point, we dropped it.

“Then the issue of school fees came up and we debated it. We told them tuition fees will not be realistic in a country where over 60 per cent cannot afford two square meals a day. It has been established that over 60 per cent of Nigerians do not earn two dollars per day. That it will take education farther away from the children of the poor. But by the time the committee said for now the issues of the tuition fee should be stepped down, Babalakin said ‘no way, I disagree. I will present my own position.’ And for about six weeks, he kept saying he would present his own position. Eventually when he presented his own position, it was education bank, where he proposed that a student will borrow N1 million every year and 70 per cent of the money paid to the university, public or private and we smelt a rat.”

Ogunyemi, who was obviously baffled with Babalakin’s presentation, queried the rationale behind such proposal. According to him, “when you are saying we should channel public fund into private universities, it means you want to enrich the rich who are the owners of the private universities. And we even said that if you are going to sentence these children to a lifetime debt, there is no guarantee that there will be job after four years and a child who has borrowed N1 million per year would have N4 million hanging on his/her neck plus interest of five per cent. We said that was not acceptable to us, but he insisted and we dragged that for another six weeks or so before we wind up the negotiation.”

Speaking on the way forward, the ASUU boss said among all outstanding issues in the FGN-ASUU 2009 agreement and the MOU of 2013, if government can pay about two or three tranches of the revitalisation fund, his members could reconsider their position, failure to do that, “ASUU will not shift ground.”

He said: “We have told them what to do, first, they have to pay the outstanding balance of shortfall from our salaries, that is what we call salary shortfall. Secondly, they have to address the issue of Earned Academic Allowance (EAA), at least up to 2016. But shortest way to prevent this from happening again is to mainstream it into the 2019 budget; they have a proposal on how to do that now. If they mainstream the EAA and engage our members that we owe you this amount, this is what we can pay for now, and our members consider it reasonable then, they can think of what to do.

“Then on the issue of revitalisation, they said they released N20 billion, but N20 billion is a non-issue because we are talking about N1.1 trillion. There are five tranches outstanding since 2013. If they can release two tranches or three out of it (about N660 billion), our members may reconsider their position. We can be more confident to go and meet our members.

“Then on the issue of state universities, we asked them to set up a platform, which they promised to do. If for instance their intervention could lead to recall of our members at Kogi State University, installation of unionism in Kwara State University, as well as other universities where government has not been funding, then we can start talking. And of course, our members at UNILORIN, whose EAAs have not be paid, they need to pay them. The NUPENCO licence we are expecting it in January, we hope they will not disappoint. These are the basic things government should do before we can reconsider our stand.”

While the student leaders are calling for suspension of the strike, a rights group, Education Rights Campaign (ERC), has frowned at lack of commitment on the part of government, thus expressing total support for the union.

Lagos Co-ordinator of the group, Yusuf Nurudeen Omomeewa, wondered why the FG is yet to honour her own agreement with ASUU despite several negotiations and meetings since the commencement of the strike.

“Our submission is that the strike is needful and important at this period when the Nigerian university education is almost in a state of comatose. We join the ASUU in opposing the proposal of the government to privatise the public university education. We call on the leadership of ASUU not to make the strike a sit-at-home one or limit the activities of the strike within the confine of their members.

“The ASUU leadership must map out public activities, mass meetings, rallies and or protests that are capable of attracting Nigerian students, civil societies and parents to the struggle on the need to save public university education from collapse,” he said.

Now with trepidation at all quarters, the students’ deadline and threat to shutdown the nation, coupled with ASUU’s willingness to accept at least two or three tranches of the revitalisation fund, it behoves on the Federal Government to review and harmonise all issues raised with a view to resolving the conflict.