Since its formation in 1978, no other body of professionals in Nigeria has been as much of a thorn in the flesh of the Nigerian Government as the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). The carcass of its more-than-three-decades long “struggles” remains with us today. Not exempting any government, dictatorial or democratic, ASUU has mostly advocated for university autonomy, adequate funding and the general wellbeing of academics. Sadly, successive Nigerian governments have reneged on various agreements reached with the body of lecturers and their institutions.
It is heartrending to see our intellectuals, national assets who are supposed to be our thought leaders, diminish to a level where they easily resort to strike actions, sometimes without fully exploring all available options. While one might expect a more robust level of reaction from the lecturers, it does appear that experience with several Nigerian governments has taught them never to trust government. They learnt the “winning formula”: that government pays attention faster when threatened with strike actions.
The average Nigerian, even those whose children are at the butt of ASUU’s industrial actions, tends to empathise with the lecturers. These Nigerians are themselves firsthand victims of government’s irresponsibility and repeated failure to deliver on its priced but empty promises to them. Even now, these Nigerians know better than to trust a government that professed (positive) Change during electioneering, only to turn around and ask them to take the throttle—that #ChangeBeginsWithMe—without showing a worthy example. In the words of the novelist, Kole Omotoso, there’s been no Change, just Exchange of people in government.
Unfortunately, yet another ASUU strike may be in the works; this time, over the Federal Government’s Treasury Single Account (TSA). Although initiated by the government of ex-President Goodluck Jonathan, TSA was implemented fully by the Buhari-led administration across all federal government parastatals (including FG-owned universities) in September 2015. Already, TSA has brought an exceptional level of transparency and accountability to all federal government parastatals and has curbed government corruption like no other time in the history of Nigeria. With TSA, it has now become extremely difficult to ‘convert’ government money into personal funds.
That’s the more reason one wonders why TSA should now be the bone of contention.
ASUU has alleged that the implementation of TSA across its universities has denied the institutions of their autonomy, specifically as it relates to the ability of various University Managements to access and manage foreign grants meant for research. According to them, this has badly rubbed off on the image of many Nigerians universities and adversely affected their ability to attract foreign grants. A good case in point is the Federal University of Agriculture Abeokuta (FUNAAB) whose Vice Chancellor, Prof Olusola Oyewole, said the university has had over $2 million grants for a project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation trapped in the TSA for almost one year.
FUNAAB is said to only be one of the universities in the country allegedly suffering as a result of the TSA implementation. That, however, does not in any way take away from the benefits which TSA has brought to Nigeria, even to Nigerian universities. Now, TSA which is supposed to help the universities and other FG-owned institutions to attract international grants, seems not to be working in their favour. This situation urgently has to be fixed. However, the fix is not to exclude the universities from TSA as being advocated in some quarters. That would be a temporary solution and a call for return to the previous system that enthroned unaccountability in our universities.
At its conception, one of the advancements which the TSA is supposed to have witnessed by now is the ability to collect foreign currencies. This was confirmed by the Accountant General of the Federation (AGF), Alhaji Ahmed Idris at the 3rd Annual Accountants’ Zonal Conference of the ICAN-UK District Society in London. Represented by Mr Zakari Aminu Salihu, a Director in the parastatal, the AGF said: “The milestones we should have reached by now have been slowed down as a result of the non-resolution of cost payable to Remita and other stakeholders … one of which is the issue of foreign exchange transfer.” Till now, over a year after TSA’s full implementation, the foreign currency component of the project is yet to see the light of day.
Here, it is important to mention that, all this while, the payment facilitators of TSA (all commercial banks, more than 400 microfinance banks, tens of card payment processors, SystemSpecs, the owner of Remita which is the payment gateway into TSA, and many other partakers within the Nigerian e-payment ecosystem) have not been paid for services which they continue to render.
The academics should be aware that, while they have a major point of grievance with the federal government over the implementation of TSA, there are other associated issues whose resolution would help to speedily resolve theirs. One of such other related issues is the fact that, unlike most other projects of the federal government, the TSA lacks ownership, i.e. a parastatal to manage its implementation and all that pertains to it. No office has taken full charge of it since its inception till date. The responsibility for its management has only been tossed between the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation, the Central Bank of Nigeria, and Ministry of Finance. This is in fact one major reason for the stalemate in the resolution of outstanding TSA payments. It is also the reason why many MDAs are already flouting provisions of the project by operating commercial bank accounts not linked with TSA.
In addition, there is a recourse for ASUU to look inwards: while the lecturers are lamenting about the effects of TSA on their research capabilities, university bursars whose duty it is to manage the university funds are all-embracing of TSA. Rising from its 2016 conference where it analysed the impact of TSA so far, the Association of Bursars of Nigerian Universities (ABNU) released a communique (copy of which was published on page 31 of ThisDay newspaper of August 22, 2016) in which it endorsed the TSA. ABNU “unanimously agreed that it [TSA] is a very good system with many benefits to the system and the entire university.”
ABNU further recommended that “any university with outstanding issues should compile them … for further action.” As ABNU encouraged the OAGF to look into the nature and purpose of endowment and other related funds that are required to generate returns on investment, the association of university bursars recommended that both state and private universities should key into the initiative.
It is important for ASUU to take a second look at its current position on TSA. While one emphathises with them on their plight, resorting to another strike action or any other activity that would negatively impact on the implementation of TSA and the many benefits which the nation has already derived from the scheme would be tantamount to drawing the nation back by many years.
Instead, ASUU should pressure the federal government to do all that university managements require to smoothly access their TSA, including the implementation of the foreign currency component of the TSA and the attainment of other major milestones of the project. This way, ASUU would not only get more than its demands, it would be contributing to the accelerated development of the nation.
By Olufemi Adekambi is a public affairs analyst