The concluding part of the interview withÂ SenatorÂ Joy Emordi, Chairman Senate Committee on Education.Â By OCHEREOME NNANNA
But when they offered the 40 per cent I felt it was a good basis to call ASUU to a meeting to see how they can call off the strike since it is adversely affecting our children.
If we continue this strike we stand a chance of ruining a whole generation of future Nigerians.
When they came to the meeting ASUU complained that government did not put the offer the way it should be communicated to them. Then, the minister before everybody, pleaded with them and apologised, promising to make amends as ASUU desired. I was touched by the ministerâ€™s humility.
Government cancelled their stance not to talk to ASUU again. They went back to the negotiations.
It was at this point that one of the ASUU officials, Dr. Fashina, got up and said no, that government must sign everything in the document before they would go back to the negotiations.
I advised ASUU to take the 40 per cent, call off the strike, go back to the negotiation and use that as a starting point to resume talks. From there we see what we can do to move forward. But ASUU said no, that the government must sign the document before they would call off the strike.
At this point I felt frustrated. The government was arguing that Nigeria was a federation. That they would not like to sign on behalf of the states being that education is on the concurrent list and they have no right to sign for the states.
And just yesterday, the governors met and agreed with the federal government that it cannot sign on their behalf. So where do we go from here? I still plead with ASUU to please call off the strike.
Even on that day, I made it clear to the government that I did not like their going to the Arbitration Court because this is a situation where you donâ€™t have to create a victor or vanquished because it can only be solved through dialogue. But after that I read from the papers some people calling me names, that I did not end the meeting well.
They forgot conveniently that the meeting had to end because of that last-minute spoiler which demanded that government must sign the document. That demand took us back to square one, just when we were on the verge of a breakthrough. Unfortunately the senate had gone on break.
I would have called an emergency meeting of the committee because I have a number of very experienced and able members on that committee, such as Professor Jibril Aminu, Professor Hambagda, and so many others.
That day they were the ones who told me, Chairman, you better end this meeting. I did not know what to say again other than to end the meeting.
They did not remember what I have been doing for the education sector. We are trying to amend the Education Tax Fund (ETF) to see how we can get more money to fund tertiary education. For many years now I have mopped up money from the Ministry of Education and given to the universities without any of them asking me to do so.
I would ask all the universities to write out the first three things you needed most. They would do that and I would ask them to go and submit to the clerk of my committee.
Then we will look at other sub-sectors and mop up funds to help them. Public office is a thankless job so I do not bother myself with all the abuses being heaped on me for no fault of mine.
Whatever I do I do it with all sense of patriotism. Whatever is happening now I donâ€™t think it is not solvable. We can solve it. We have no other country than Nigeria. We cannot achieve education for all without solving this problem, and we cannot achieve Vision 2020 without solving the problem of education.
We must see ourselves as stakeholders and lovers of our children and come together to solve this problem once and for all.
You were chairman of the education committee for two years under President Obasanjo and you have been in the same position for two years under President Yarâ€™ Aduaâ€¦
Donâ€™t ask me to compare and contrast between the twoâ€¦
I was actually going to ask you to do exactly that but in a different way. Under these two dispensations which did you find easier to do your work of oversight, and which one has tended to respond more to the needs of the education sector?
To be honest with you, none of them has ever restricted me from doing my oversight function. They were always open because we always insist on openness. In terms of meeting the needs of the education sectorâ€¦let me say in terms of the ministers I have worked with, the most knowledgeable is this Dr. Sam Egwuâ€¦
Many people may be surprised to hear that because the impression outside official circles is a bit different. Especially after his alleged 120 million naira 25 year matrimonial anniversary bash while government could not find money to pay university teachersâ€™ demandâ€¦
I was there. There was no champagne. Anybody who knows me knows that I am not sentimental. The man had 25 years of successful marriage. They had a church service in the morning. And due to the number of guests who attended he said he did not have enough room in his house to take people, so he decided to organise dinner at Transcorp Hilton. Even the drinks were served in glasses. If it was a frivolous party I would not be there.
Definitely not. We tend to exaggerate things, especially when the person is a government officer. It was blown out of proportion. On the whole, I would not say that this regime is better than the other. We still have the same problem of funding of the sector.
But now we have a focus through the education roadmap this government through this minister, produced. For you to succeed in anything there must be proper planning lined out.
There was nothing like that initially. That was when funds were being misapplied into irrelevant things. There was a year we were able to mop up six billion naira from the ministryâ€™s budget alone and distributed to the tertiary institutions.
From what I have seen now, I think Dr. Sam Egwu as a minister is more focused. And I think the President and his Vice, who were also university lecturers, have passion for education.
The impression out there is that these people are aloof and not in touch with realities on ground. That is why most people think the government is responsible for the ASUU strike. What you are describing is not what is being projected to the world out there.
What I see as a stakeholder is that there is a great deal of improvement. All we need is patience. At least, there is roadmap now. Before this regime, even after the funds are appropriated, accessing it will be less than 40 per cent.
In 2007, 77 per cent of the funds were released and only 27 per cent was accessed. The rest of the money was mopped up back into the system because the new president insisted that capital funds not spent by December must be returned to the system to prevent their being abused otherwise as before. When Egwu came he made it possible for most of these contractors to get to site.
They were paid up promptly to ensure they finished the project before the end of the year because he came in just towards the end of last year. Part of the problems we were having in the field which made fund accession difficult was that the Ministry controlled the funds appropriated to the unity schools.
The money would be budgeted in the name of the unity schools and the ministry would be the one spending the money on behalf of the unity schools. Because they were so many, only a third of the jobs earmarked for the year would be done and the rest of the money would be mopped up.
This minister stopped it. Now, the unity schools are directly in charge of funds appropriated to them in the budget. The implementation level is now very high because all of them are working simultaneously.
Before all the contracts would be done by the ministry. It was my committee that brought it up. Before we would complain and complain and nothing would happen, but this time they have decentralised this thing and we are going to start getting results.
Are you saying that if this arrangement was there all long, then Dr. Oby Ezekwesiliâ€™s public/private partnership idea would have been necessary?
They are two different things. We are talking about what the law says should be done and the other one was just an alternative way of administering the unity schools. That one, I donâ€™t think it was popular selling it to the people.
At that time they were complaining that a lot of money was being pumped into the unity schools without commensurate result, forgetting that it was the Ministryâ€™s refusal to allow the unity schools to spend their own budget that helped to stagnate them. They forgot that education is a social service not an economic issue.
It is a basic human right, so I would never support it. It is not an economic sector therefore you cannot talk of selling them off to save money.
I still believe in the reason these schools were set up, which was to encourage integration and strengthen our unity in diversity. One of the ways of achieving this is the unity schools system and the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC).
Now that they are accessing their funds and implementing their programmes by themselves there will be a lot of improvement in the system. And the university autonomy that has now been granted to universities is another great achievement.
The universities were complaining and we supported them. The previous regimes refused to grant them autonomy in the selection of their officers.
But now they are freely doing that without input from the executive.
What are your hopes in the next couple of years in the educational sector?
Let me confess to you that this strike has had a lot of unintended positive effects. It has made the government to sit up. The two objectives we have to achieve, education for all by 2015 and Vision 2020, have a lot of challenges facing them as the summit we held showed.
I believe in the next few years there will be a lot of improvement in terms of funding, in terms of welfare of university workers, in terms of further academic freedom and autonomy.
But in the case of autonomy I donâ€™t think they are going to get 100 per cent autonomy since they are still getting their funds from government.
There is no way you are going to have 100 per cent funding from government and have 100 per cent autonomy. And I, as Senator Joy Emordi, I do not support fee paying by our undergraduates.
If they are going to pay fees it should still be a token. Education is a basic human right, and no one should go without being educated because he or she is poor. The citizen may be poor but the country is not.
If they are allowed 100 per cent autonomy it also means they can now be free to fix any amount as school fees and do whatever else they like in the name of being autonomous. Since we are now working hard on the proper monitoring of how funds are spent, the next few years will witness a lot of improvement in our educational sector.
The two sides will soon get tired of fighting. How are you planning to get them together to resolve their differences?
I will still use my position as the Chairman of the Education Committee of the Senate to get the two sides back to the negotiation table to call of the strike and continue with the negotiations.
I still donâ€™t believe in the idea of victor and vanquished in this matter. Nobody is the Leviathan. There is no omnipotent or omniscient. Let them forget about their egos, come together and face this problem.