By Adesina Wahab
After a two-week warning strike, members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, last Monday, started an indefinite strike to press home their demands. In this interview, the National President of ASUU, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, talks about some of the issues in contention.
Why is it that your grouse against government has always been the same? Is it that government has not met any of your demands?
No. Our demands are not exactly the same things. The last time government came up with the Treasury Single Account, TSA, and we raised some issues about it, especially funds for research, donations to universities among others, they agreed.
We called for the renegotiation of our agreement and they agreed. And we have had no problem about those issues. However, some issues appear to be constant in recent times like the revitalisation of the university system, Earned Academic Allowances, proliferation of universities, setting up of Visitation Panels to federal universities among others.
Those ones have been constant because they have timelines for addressing them and government is not doing anything about them. If government is supposed to release 25 percent of the money needed to fund an aspect of the agreement by November 2019 and the government did not do anything, and they did not even call us to give any explanation.
To me that smacks of arrogance. The revitalisation that ought to be done in 2018, has not been done. So, we have to take it up again.
The issue of the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System, IPPIS, was first brought up in 2013 and we rejected it then and we told them that we could help develop a better and credible alternative.
In 2014, we started work on the Nigerian University Transparency and Accountability System, NUTAS. The government did not say anything about the IPPIS until last November.
Meanwhile, in 2014, we started work on our alternative to IPPIS and have committed some funds to it, but when the government did not say anything about IPPIS for five years, we too stopped work on what we were working on.
We thought the government had reasoned with us that IPPIS cannot work in the university system.
This is because of the peculiarities of the university system.
The government has escalated the matter with the stoppage of our members’ salaries. For two months now, our members have not been paid their salaries.
We have a better and more credible alternative to IPPIS, but for us to get our alternative working will take some time and money.
Is going on strike at this time appropriate?
I don’t know when it will be appropriate to go on strike. Nigerians have not told us when to go on strike. If you stop the salary of people and deploy hunger as a weapon of war against such people, the union cannot keep quiet.
We started warning strike two weeks before the panic mode we are in. When we started the warning strike, if the government had called us and released at least one month salary to our members, we would have got a platform to meet, may be discuss and negotiate. Now, people have worked for two months and you have paid some workers and did not pay a section.
Forget their claim that they have captured over 90 percent of lecturers on the IPPIS, if that is the case, they would have ignored us. They have left logic of reason for logic of force. People that are hungry, how do I tell them not to go on strike.
Within our own limited resources, we have purchased some items and we are going to intervene in the Coronavirus issue we have at hand.
We have members who are in the medical field and we will be fully involved as we will embark on ASUU COVID 19 Intervention Programme.
Our strike is not to work against containing Coronavirus. Schools are on break now, we are not attacking students and we are only fighting for our rights.
If you were in the shoes of the government, what would you do?
There is a lockdown of the country and why should a government say a group of workers should not be paid. Such a development has made our members embittered.
Why should the government ask people to enrol in a programme that is not feasible. Such things and policies are not just workable and holding to them is not reasonable. Government does not need to stick to a policy that is not good.
What corruption are they fighting? The money they have released for this Coronavirus issue, who will account for them?
We lack the resources and cannot do rapid response like China did and which made it to overcome the Coronavirus pandemic.
China was able to do that because of the quality of education and the intellectual storehouse they have. Do we even have laboratories that are functional?
Is NUATS no longer being integrated into IPPIS? What happened to the dialogue between ASUU and government on the issue?
In 2013, when they came up with IPPIS, we started work on our own alternative, but they did not talk about IPPIS for five years and we have spent about N5 million on NUTAS and last year when they came up with IPPIS, we had to be sure it would not be a wasted effort.
We depend on the contributions of our members to do anything and we need millions of naira to develop the application. Our dialogue with them broke down because they want to use IPPIS as a booby trap for us.
They are saying that they would want us to be on IPPIS first and that after NUTAS is developed and they are convinced, they would allow us to go back and be on our NUTAS, but are they going to allow that to happen?
Now, apart from finance, it is going to take us over a year before NUTAS could be operational. We can see that they are only trying to lure us into IPPIS.
Is ASUU not trying to use state universities to fight its battle against the introduction of IPPIS?
Our members who are sufficiently knowledgeable about our struggles know what we are fighting for. The Memorandum of Action signed with the government on February 7, 2019, had timelines attached for the implementation of some items.
For instance, the setting up of Visitation Panels for federal universities was fixed for March 2019, release of the first tranche of money was slated for November 2019.
Interactions of ASUU with state governors was also on the list and had a timeline. Review of the conditions of service for all universities was on the list too.
The government did not meet any of the timelines. They only brought the issue of IPPIS to distract us. IPPIS is not the main issue. We still have better funding of education and many others.
Few days ago, the non-academic staff came out to express dissatisfaction with the implementation of IPPIS and threatened strike, has that not justified your union’s opposition to it?
Well, may be they are just seeing what we have seen about IPPIS long time ago. When the government brought IPPIS and our comrades in the non-academic sector went their own way, we felt there was no problem as we have different mandates to defend and promote. We were concerned those things would happen.
Look at what happened to the police and others already enrolled. Some policemen had to threaten Industrial action over the manner they butchered their salaries.
They have been working on the IPPIS for over 10 years and the system is still fraught with irregularities.
The university system operates flexible payroll system because of the Inflow and outflow of lecturers. Let the government tell us where the IPPIS has worked in the university system anywhere in the world.
The World Bank designed the IPPIS for the civil service and not for the university system.
Initially, both academic and non-teaching staff shared the same view on IPPIS before the issue of the sharing of Earned Academic Allowances came up and ASUU was accused of shortchanging the non-teaching staff, what actually happened?
It is not correct to say N100 billion was released and that ASUU took 80 percent. The government did not release more than N25 billion at a time. I don’t want us to go into areas of differences between our union and others.
We have different mandates and we should not work as rivals. It is unfortunate if other unions see us as their problem, they are the ones seeing us as foes, we don’t see them as such.
Most of the things everybody in the university system benefit from are products of ASUU’s agitation. In 2013, when the Earned Academic Allowances were paid, ASUU members lost out because we were on strike then and the non-teaching staff had a field day allocating and awarding huge sums to themselves.
They are our comrades and we are not rivals.