Barrister Joy Emordi is the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Education. In this interview with OCHEREOME NNANNA, she addresses some political and educational issues, especially the strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and efforts being made to persuade them to return to the classrooms. Excerpts:

You were at the Abacha constitutional conference as an elected or nominated delegate?

Elected. Anywhere you see me I must have worked very hard to be there. For me nothing comes easy.

That must have been your first election?

Yes. That was my first election. And that election was unique in that nobody gave me a chance to succeed. And the Ohanaeze, the umbrella organisation of the Igbos said that I was a woman and that I should not go. They even said the Ikemba, Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu, should not go. They had their line-up of candidates. I was asked to step down. I decided to go back to the people at the grassroots, who felt that I was the one they wanted to represent them.

And at that time it was a free and fair election. My opponent at the end of it came and congratulated me. When they did everything to try and stop me and they did not succeed they started backing me. They actually wrote a letter to me commending me for my efforts but they had felt it was an assignment for the elders. Then I was younger and I did not blame them one bit. The rest is now history.

Later you contested as a governorship candidate?

Barrister Joy Emordi, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Education
Barrister Joy Emordi, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Education

Yes. By then Abacha was in the picture. The Abacha group in the government had sympathy for the United Nigerian Congress Party (UNCP) and the Democratic Party of Nigeria (DPN). They had their people in Anambra State. They were using General Jerry Useni and they were frustrating my candidacy. It was rumouring that I would soon be disqualified.

I did not want to take anything for granted. They felt that as a woman that I would not be able to make any impact. But during the elections they saw that we were winning. Out of 21 local governments we won twelve during the local government election of 1998. They were saying that I would be disqualified. That was when I gathered courage.

That was when I discovered that there is little money can do if you have the people behind you. The UNCP had a lot of big men in society  – name them – Chief Emeka Offor, the one they called Chief Nwakalor – so many of them were in the UNCP.

In spite of that they found that they were not winning elections. In the local government election my party (Congress for National Consensus, CNC) won more than 50 per cent. At the House of Assembly election my party won more than fifty per cent, and it was just a month to the governorship election that general Abacha died and that scuttled everything.

Some people started saying that Abacha was behind me and that was what made me tick. The person actually behind me was Prince Arthur Eze. I met Abacha only twice, and each time as a member of a group. We never related one on one.

People were saying it was Abacha who asked Arthur Eze to assist me and I did not even refute it.

How did Arthur Eze get interested in your candidacy?

Thank you very much. Do you know who did it? We were working together and Professor Aminu said that this woman has a lot of hidden talents. And when we were trying to look for candidates he was the one who decided to support me for the governorship seat.

He found out that my problem was money. When he saw the amount of work we were doing in the field he told me that he had a friend he would like me to meet to assist me in my election, Prince Arthur Eze. He gave me a note to Prince Arthur Eze.

But then I had not even known Prince Arthur Eze. Even on that first day when I took the note the Professor gave me to him his boys did not even allow me to see him. So when I got back home and told Prof he said I should call him back.

Prince Arthur Eze told me in an excited voice to come back to the gate to his house. I told him that I would not come to his gate again because I did not want to be humiliated by his hangers-on. He decided to send a vehicle to bring me to his house.

When I came in he said that this man (Prof Aminu) had never asked him for anything. He said Prof Aminu as oil minister helped him to get an oil block without asking or taking any gratification from him. That when the rules for local investors in the oil industry were made and his company fulfilled all the requirements and he was given an oil block with no conditions attached. And that since this man was asking him to do something for the first time; he was going to do it.

With his financial assistance we were able to move forward without looking back and people started coming over to my side. But the rumour that I was going to be disqualified continued to mount, so I decided to go Abuja and seek out this General Useni and ask him what I did to him. As God would have it, as I was coming into his office building I saw him seeing off one of the emirs.

Then I sidled closer to catch his attention and his ADC tried to stop me. General Useni asked him to allow me. When I introduced myself he asked me to come up to his office.

When we sat down I asked him what I did to him. He said oh, you are this Joy Emordi. He said the people in UNCP in Anambra were coming to him for help and no matter what he did they continued to lose elections and that at a time he said he was no longer going to help again. He said they told him I would not be accepted by Anambra people and yet I was nominated by my party.

He said he asked them whether my party was made up of only women that I should be allowed to emerge out of so many male candidates. And that since I continued to beat them at the elections he never promised to disqualify me and in fact he would stop assisting them. That was it.

Then I came back to the field and I did not look back again. I moved to all the wards in the state. Up till today I still have my coordinators in all the wards. We were moving day and night, seeing the people. My opponents had a lot of money. I had the people behind me and now with adequate financing coming from Arthur Eze, I also had money. If we had had that election it would have been a fait accompli.

I would have emerged as the first female governor in Nigeria.

It would not have been Madam Virgy Etiaba?

It does not matter now. The woman tried. She made history.
You are the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Education. Right now the lecturers under their union ASUU are on strike and there seems to be a deadlock in the negotiations between them and the federal government. What do you think is the real problem between the two sides?

I have always said it that education is in a state of coma in this country. As a result of that my committee was able to organise a very successful education summit. Experts were invited not just to discuss the problems but we were able to set up a small technical committee to fine-tune the outcome and they are still working to see how we can practicalise the outcome of that summit for onward transmission to the executive side and the side that has to do with legislation to the senate.

But one thing I have found out is that the problem leading to the strike is an accumulation of nonchalance and poor attention to the educational sector by successive regimes, especially the military. The sector stagnated. Since we started democratic government the government started looking at the problems.

And these problems are so many that there is no way you can solve them overnight. There is need for sincerity of purpose on the side of the government which this present regime, to be honest with you, I think they are sincere. I have been the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Education for four years.

Barrister Joy Emordi
Barrister Joy Emordi

I have gone through four ministers. This one, Dr. Sam Egwu, sounds and acts more sincere than the previous ones. The comatose position of our education ranges from head to toe. There is poor funding. And because of that there is brain drain. And there is even problem with curriculum, which was not designed to solve our problems or to deal with our needs in this country.

We have problem of misappropriation and misapplication of funds. There are so many problems that we will need the understanding of the stakeholders to move forward. What is painful to me is this idea of using only strikes as the means of projecting the protests.

Let me tell you, the agitation is justified. They are doing it to help the sector. They are doing it to bring sanity to the sector and give our children the best and to stop brain drain. But then, the modus operandi is wrong. Education has to do with children, human beings. If we allow it to continue the way it is going now we will produce future leaders that will lack substance and integrity.

Many of them have taken to social ills. The other day a pro-chancellor was attacked and all the culprits were undergraduates. ASUU came up with a four-item agenda: (1) funding (2) academic freedom, (3) their own welfare and (4) university autonomy. We were following up with what the government is doing about all these things. They have been able to achieve some, not hundred per cent.

At least, they have been able to make an impact and an improvement from what it was before. There was a sticking issue with remuneration. They are asking for 109 per cent increase. The government came up with 40 per cent. My committee had a meeting whereby we called the two sides, ASUU and government representatives. That first day we did not achieve much. ASUU said the government did not sign the agreement. We adjourned that meeting. During the next meeting, the government side said they did not want to continue the negotiation for reasons best known to the two sides.

Then we called them back for another meeting. We achieved something because we were able to persuade the government to go back to the negotiations. It was at that next meeting that the government offered 40 per cent. If they had not moved forward with something like this, to be honest with you I would have joined ASUU in protesting against government.

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 minister’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 don’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 don’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 Yar’ Adua…

Don’t ask me to compare and contrast between the two…

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 sector…let me say in terms of the ministers I have worked with, the most knowledgeable is this Dr. Sam Egwu…

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 teachers’ demand…

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 ministry’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 Ezekwesili’s public/private partnership idea would have been necessary?

No. 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 don’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 Ministry’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 don’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 don’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.

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