President of the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities, Mohammed Ibrahim, shares his thoughts with OLUWAFEMI MORGAN on the failure of the Federal Government to implement agreements reached with university unions among other issues
In February 2021, the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities embarked on a warning strike for three weeks and signed a Memorandum of Agreement. What is the level of implementation of the MOA?
Out of the eight issues that we presented to the government and agreed on, only one was partially attended to; that is the constitution of the visitation panels to the federal universities and the inter-university centres. The exercise took place but we have yet to see the white paper. So, it was just like a jamboree, people spent money, we went round, and it took almost two months to do an exercise. There were lots of revelations that came out from that exercise; abuse of office, corruption, a lot of things that happened in those institutions. If the white paper was presented, it would help the government itself to strengthen the administration of such institutions.
Can you give the public a general overview of the challenges facing the educational system, especially those concerning SSANU and the Joint Action Committee?
These were promises made to us; issues about the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS was one of them). Our members have been complaining about getting mutilated salaries, fractured salaries. Although those issues have been strengthened a bit, issues that are germane now are the non-remittance of check-off dues to the unions and the third-party deductions.
For example, January deductions, many universities did not get; a lot of people will suffer unnecessarily because you have cut-throat interest, which leads to pain and struggle. They are supposed to pay for 24 months and 34 months, these will spill off to other months. As a response to the challenges, SSANU and NASU have come up with a solution called U3PS, University Peculiar Payroll Payment System, which we will propose and present to the government very soon.
As you are aware that our union has all the Information and Communications Technology experts, the bursary and the payroll staff members in the university community. We don’t believe in IPPIS anymore. Recall that when IPPIS came on board, all the three unions supported it, only ASUU was against it. We believed the IPPIS because the government said it wanted to use it to fight corruption in the system, and they told us also that it was going to take care of the universities’ peculiarities. But Lo and behold, we were hoodwinked into it and all our earned allowances were chopped off.Allowances such as responsibility allowance, hazard, call-duty for our medical doctors, and shift duty for our nurses and other engineers who are working on the sites were fractured through the IPPIS.
Is that why you decided to develop another payment platform?
So these are the reasons why we decided to assist the government by coming up with a solution that would take care of the universities’ peculiarities because the university is not like the regular public or civil service. Our retirement age is 65; we also have sabbatical leave, where our members can go to other universities, share experiences and gain more knowledge while they will be receiving salaries in their mother stations as well as the new places.
It was part of the agreement we had with the government in 2009. The government created all these troubles. In 2009, the government met with all the university-based unions; ASUU, SSANU, NASU and NAT, and we agreed on certain issues and this culminated in signing an agreement with the government. Each union had an agreement that it signed with the government in 2009, even the one of SSANU was signed in November 2009. Now, 12 years down the ladder, not even 50 per cent of the 2009 agreement has been implemented.So, you can understand that with the current inflationary rates, and the living condition in Nigeria, among others, things have gone from bad to worse. The deception on the part of the government is unpalatable. You sit down with the government, you negotiate, you agree, you sign, and nothing will come out of it.
Take a look at how porous our tertiary institutions have become –bandits, kidnappers will go in, kidnap people, students and lecturers, and demand ransom. Unfortunately, many do not have the money to pay. Many of these universities don’t even have proper perimeter fencing. So, it is easier for bandits and criminals to intrude on the institution, without any resistance.
What do you think the government should do about the insecurity in the universities?
We have been calling on the government to do something about it. I have made statements that the government needs to train and license our universities’ security units made up of retired military, police and para-military personnel who are used to fighting crime. We have made all sorts of appeals but nothing has been done.
You have spoken about infrastructure, funding, and all other support. How helpful has TETFUND been to the development of the universities?
If there is one thing anybody will commend the government for today, it is the existence of TETFUND as an organisation. It has become the live wire of all tertiary institutions in Nigeria. If not because of TETFUND, I don’t know where our universities, polytechnics and colleges of education will be, especially state universities. Any university that you see that is worth being called a building, you will see the inscription that informs you that it was built by TETFUND and the year it was built.
We should also understand that TETFUND is a product of the struggle of the unions spearheaded by ASUU. Probably if the unions didn’t struggle, there wouldn’t have been TETFUND—that is why it is also wrong for the government to refuse to listen to the unions when they agitate for meaningful policies.
There is still a serious brain drain in the Nigerian tertiary space; a lot of experts in all fields of life in Nigeria are leaving the country. Apart from poor remuneration, what other factors are responsible for this?
One of the major challenges we have in Nigeria is insecurity. It has become terrible. People will go out to get what they and their families will eat, yet they cannot sleep with their two eyes closed. Secondly, the living condition is terrible. Today, the issue of energy is a major challenge in Nigeria. You cannot buy petrol in the filling stations in peace and then you have to depend on generators to use the fan, get cold water or watch television not to talk of doing business.
Thirdly, the inflationary rate is so high that the salary that should take you home does not even take you to the gate of your office. A worker should have a decent place to live with his family without cut-throat charges but that is not the case for us living in the cities. The system is totally muddled up with a lot of inconsistencies, a lot of uncertainties and life is no longer pleasant for people in this country much less for professionals.
What is your take on the argument by the government that Nigeria isn’t getting enough revenue at this time, therefore it will not be able to pay monies meant for the unions?
Have you ever heard America say they are getting enough money? Have you ever heard any nation say they are getting enough money? Money is one commodity that is always scarce. For me, it is a misplacement of priorities; there are areas like education, health, security and infrastructure that you don’t joke with. If our 2009 agreement with the government was implemented, then the unions could sit with the government and take a look at the realities on the re-negotiation table.Those in the political rung are still earning a lot of money despite the uproar surrounding their salaries and allowances, yet the people who train the leaders are being deprived of their basic allowances.
Infrastructure remains a problem in the universities. You see students studying with candles and torch, you overcrowded dormitories overcrowded with students queuing to use the toilets. I had once jokingly said that if they wanted to fix this system, every person aspiring to be a public officer must be made to have his or her children in public primary and secondary schools, including tertiary institutions. They must also use public transport. If you enforce this law in this country, I promise you that half or three-quarters of our problems would be solved.
Do you think that the government mean well in current talks with your union?
All we have is one promise to another. I will give you a typical example, using the issue of the minimum wage arrears. On April 18, 2020, the consequential adjustment was signed into law. From that time till today, all other sectors of the Civil Service had been paid the consequential adjustment arrears but the tertiary institutions have not been paid. We have been signing agreements, MoAs, MoUs, with the government from 2020 till today, they have not seen the light of the day. When we went on a warning strike in February 2021, we were invited by the government, they cajoled us, they pleaded with us, and we suspended the strike. We signed an MoA. Before then, in October 2020, we also met with the government; they agreed that they were going to give N30bn to the Non-Academic Staff Unions to offset the earned allowances. Till today, they have not done so.
So, if you want me to be honest and truthful, all I have seen with the government is deception. I have not seen anything that has convinced me and my members that the government really means well for the Nigerian university workers.
Have you considered the option of suing the Federal Government, just as the medical staff of tertiary institutions won the government in an industrial court recently?
It is another sad development. This is not the first time we have been winning cases against the government. If we can recall, in 2016, the government took us to court on the issue of staff school teachers. The 2009 agreement with SSANU stipulated that government would take charge of the recurrent and capital expenditure in the staff schools in the universities. All of a sudden, one public officer woke up and decided to put out a circular sacking all staff school teachers. The case ended in court. We won this case, fair and square, and the government was directed to re-engage those that were sacked and that the backlog of salaries paid to them. As I am talking to you today, a lot of the universities re-engaged without paying the backlog while others refused to re-engage them. So, the Nigerian government has been a serial offender in terms of not obeying court decisions.
Has the educational system in the country gone so bad that many Nigerian students are now studying in Ukraine?
Obviously, you don’t need a soothsayer to tell you that. If it is not bad, there wouldn’t be many Nigerian students in Ukraine. It is important to note that access to education at the level of tertiary education in Nigeria is even a problem. JAMB always informs you every year that about 1.2/1.5 million candidates have sat the examination but there are only spaces for less than half a million. So, where do you want the remaining 800,000 plus to go? Instead of improving the infrastructure in the system, accommodating more students and creating more space, the government is busy doing nothing. Every day, you hear about the establishment of new universities when the existing ones are not fully funded; they do not have adequate staff. It is appalling and nauseating to sit down here, knowing that we have more than 5,000 Nigerian students in Ukraine.
ASUU has UTAS and then you just mentioned U3PS. Why did ASUU and SSANU not present a single payment system to the Federal Government?
With all due respect to ASUU, we did not know when they were doing UTAS. With the challenge that we experienced with IPPIS, we did not want to consult anybody. If there is a union or a group of people that should know better on how to bring solutions to the deficiencies of IPPIS, it is the non-teaching staff—SSANU has theICT, the bursary, the personnel, and the registry staff members as its members. So, it was very easy for us to assemble our professionals.
I can tell you that our U3PS is something that we will present to the government and I am optimistic that it will pass all the integrity tests that they are looking for because it is something that is borne out of the experiences we have had with IPPIS, even the shortcomings of the IPPIS were considered. It is left for the government to take a look at what ASUU has presented and what we are going to present and see which one will solve the challenges we have in the universities in terms of payments and other things concerning the staff.
Are there no other strategies to make the government listen to your demands apart from strikes?
If you are honest, you cannot say that SSANU is synonymous with strikes. We see things differently and it is not that SSANU is afraid of going on strike or that we have not been on strike before but we are majorly populated by professionals. Most of us are administrators and other core professionals like accountants, doctors, engineers and so on. If you hear SSANU or JAC going on strike, then we must have been pushed to the wall. We just had to react to the situation. I have told you that from October 2020 till date, we have had different MoUs and MoAs that we have signed with the government at least three or four times, and we only went to strike once. That was even a warning strike. That shows you that we are not happy about strikes.
What people don’t realise is that members of ASUU, SSANU, and other groups are also Nigerians, whether good or bad, it (strike) is also affecting us. I will give you a typical example of myself. I have three of my children in federal universities. So, as of today, they are all at home because ASUU is on strike. I see them every day and I feel it. If SSANU also goes on strike, they will still be forced to stay at home. No member of the university is happy to celebrate going on strike but this government has shown that the only language it understands is when you down tools; that is when they will discuss with you. So, whoever is saying that we should not go on strike is not being realistic, considering the nature of the government we have engaged in 12 years.
We could pretend and say we don’t want to hurt the feelings of Nigerians and also fall into the trap of being lackadaisical, and now start to find other means of earning a living, instead of agitating to get better working conditions. We will become federal and state government hospitals where they ask you to bring all sorts before they attend to you. Is that the kind of thing people want universities to become? The issue of going on strike is only the last weapon.
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