By: Adeyemi Aleshinloye

In this interview with UCJ-UI correspondent, Professor Ayoola Akinwole provides insights on ASUU strike, especially as how the federal government has withdrawn from an agreement or the other and also neglecting the urgent need of the revitalisation of public universities across the federation.

We understand that when the ASUU strike commenced in March, it was majorly to protest the use of the IPPIS payment platform, as well as clamour for the disbursement of revitalisation fund and arrears of salaries. However, most people do not know why the Union is against IPPIS. Can you enlighten us on this, sir? 

The strike is not about IPPIS. ASUU never went on because of IPPIS. So, if you understand that the strike is not about IPPIS, that is enough. The strike has nothing to do with IPPIS. Let’s clarify that. A press conference held on the 9th of March where we discussed reasons for the strike. IPPIS was not one of them. IPPIS is a payment platform that the Federal Government wants to impose on us despite the fact that we had an agreement with the government way back in 2013 that IPPIS would  not be applied to universities and research institutions. So, if the same government that made the same agreement seven years ago is now predicating discussion with the Union that our members register on that platform that we all agreed will not be used for us, you can imagine what kind of game the government is playing. So, our strike has nothing to do with IPPIS. It is a distraction brought by the government. The present strike is to compel the government to implement the demands they willingly entered with us on February 7th, 2019. We signed a Memorandum of Action with the government on various things. The first is funding for the revitalisation of public universities. [The others are] earned academic allowances, salary shortfalls, state universities, payment of earned allowances to our members in UNILORIN, NUPEMCO -which is the pension fund administrator owned by the Union, visitation panels as well as the constitution of the government team. That is all what this strike was about. This was signed in 2019. Before March when we declared the strike, what the government had taken care of were payment of earned allowances to our members in UNILORIN and NUPEMCO’s licence to operate. There are six demands that were still outstanding as of March this year. It was on those six, after several failed attempts to make the government fulfil their promise to us, that we had no choice but to go on strike. We started with a warning strike on the 9th of March, 2020 for two weeks and when the government refused to take any positive action, we declared an indefinite strike on the 23rd of March.  

So, in essence, we are on strike due to the government’s insincerity in implementing the MOA  signed with our union on the 7th of February, 2019 which covered the following – funding of revitalisation of public universities, payment of earned allowances owed our members up till 2016, salary shortfalls for our members in Federal University of Technology, Akure (that was just paid about three weeks ago … salaries that the government had been owing our members for close to seven years); then, state universities. The way Governors arbitrarily set up state universities is unbecoming, and though education is on concurrent list, there must be responsibilities assigned if someone wants to create a university. They should not predicate establishing a university on an intervention fund which is TETFUND, What the Union has found out is that most state governments only establish universities hoping that those universities will survive on TETFUND whereas it is not supposed to be so. TETFUND is supposed to be an intervention fund. We have been tracking down with governments on the issue of underfunding and proliferation of state universities because they are also public universities. That is that. Payment of earned allowances to our members, then, visitation panels. By the laws of this country, all public institutions are supposed to be accessed every five years. Remember that the governments set up Governing Councils to manage  at the expiration of the tenure of the Governing Council, which is a period of five years, the government is supposed to send a visitation panel which is supposed to evaluate how the governing council that just finished their tenure have ranked those universities for five years. But as I speak, the last time any of those was done was 11 years ago. So, if it will now take ASUU to remind the government what is stated in the law, you can now imagine the kind of attitude the government has …and it is the same government that will be talking about lack of funds, corruption and due process. Yet, they keep changing governing councils. 

The last but not the least is the FGN-ASUU agreement of 2009 covered conditions of service as well as salaries for our members. By that agreement,  conditions of service were supposed to be reviewed every three years. It was supposed to be reviewed in 2012, 2025 and 2018 – three reviews that are overdue which have not been done. What this translates to is that lecturers in higher institutions in Nigeria have been on the same salaries for 11 years. If ASSU has accommodated the government’s excuses of lack of resources from 2009 till date, the government has never thought it fit to review the conditions of service of ASUU members. That tells you how important education is to the government of today. You and I know that the economy as it was in 2009 is not the same right now. All these are what we have been discussing with the government since 2017 and they kept asking for more time but we were about to wrap discussion with the government on all these when the government decided that since they were the employers of labour, the IPPIS that we had agreed will not apply to us, that any other agreement they want to have with ASUU must be based on an agreement that ASUU members enrol on that platform. But as far as we are concerned, that is a slave master’s mentality. You don’t force workers on things that have been mutually agreed upon. So, that is the summary of why we have been on strike. 

What do you make of the federal government’s claim that it is the past governments that were making agreements with ASUU that could not be fulfilled? 

It will be illogical for any person to push the blame of governance onto past governments. When the government changes, you inherit everything from the past government. It was the same past government that handed over leadership to the current government. Why did the government accept the mantle of leadership when they could not accept the responsibilities? It will be nothing but irresponsibility for anybody to say that. Government is a continuum. The federal government does not refer to an individual. So, it will be wrong for anyone to say that the past government is to blame. Even the 2019 MOA that the current government willingly signed, they have done nothing about it. 

The federal government made some agreement with the national leadership of ASUU last Thursday. However, there have been conflicting reports on the consent of the agreement – some claim ASUU members will be exempted from IPPIS while others claim the exemption will only apply to payment of withdrawn salaries. Also, there are conflicting reports about the amount agreed to be disbursed to the Union. Can you clarify this? 

There is no agreement for now. They are offers. And let’s correct the issue of the 35 or 65 billion, it is not coming to ASUU members. The government does not release money to ASUU except for our salaries. Whatever funds the government is releasing, they are releasing them to universities via the Governing Councils appointed by the government themselves. So, the money is not going to be given to ASUU members. Revitalisation is what the federal government feels that universities need to upgrade their facilities. It is not money paid to ASUU members. On all that has been going on in the public domain, that is the government’s side and until our Principal briefs us appropriately, I cannot make pronouncements on any of those offers. They are offers. And as you said, the meeting was made with the national leadership. There are mechanisms in place for the national leadership to appropriately brief us. When we hear from our own side, we cannot categorically say that this is what has been tabled. But as you read it, we also read it. They are offers which our members are supposed to consider. No agreement has been made. 

Students often wonder why ASUU goes on strikes only to back out weeks later without achieving their objectives; and many think the same situation may be repeated with the ongoing strike. What do you have to say about this? 

Well, it is unlike other Unions. ASUU declares strike after all efforts to amicably resolve our differences with the government fails. Even during strike, we will always make ourselves available for dialogue. Most of the time, it could have effects on students and the education system generally while government functionaries keep making promises to the Union. As a Union of intellectuals, we usually choose to give them the benefit of a doubt. That is what happened in 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019.  Government kept signing either Memorandum of Understanding or Memorandum of Action with us. Let me give you one example, in 2019, on funding for revitalisation of public universities, the agreement said  “the government will be releasing the sum of 25 billion naira only in the period of April/May 2019”. When the government signed this, that in the next two months they were going to be releasing funds to universities and ASUU believed them  … that is just one. Look at another – earned allowances. [The agreement says that] “25 billion as part-payment of earned allowances will be released to staffs” The initial 20 billion naira will be released not later than February 28th. The government was signing this agreement on 7th of February. This has not been released up till tomorrow. None of the tranches of earned allowances they promised has also been released. If the government signed this with us in February… Remember that the blackmail of the government was that ASUU was trying to stall the election. And yet, the government, the Minister of Education and the President signed every page of this memorandum. So, if the government did this and the Union decided to hold them to their word and so suspend the strike, have we done what is wrong? But up till now, nothing has been done by the government. 

You can’t blame the eight-months that students have been on strike on ASUU. That will be unfair because if the government had been sincere, you would expect a serious government to initiate dialogues with ASUU on these demands during the period of the pandemic. Until last month, when they started saying they wanted to open schools. Now, the government has been putting the blame on ASUU, that students have been staying home for eight months. It is the same propaganda. Lies! They are just trying to paint the Union as an irresponsible Union but you and I know that ASUU is a responsible Union. So, it is not right to say we normally go on strike and suspend the strike even without achieving everything. But there are minimum standards we expect from this current strike so that we can be sure that if the government does the needful, perhaps members will reconsider the cause of the strike but it will be wrong for ASUU, as a Union that is compassionate about the education sector to close our eyes to promises made by the government with time-frame. 

It’s just unfortunate that most of the promises or agreements made by the government were made without good intention by them. It’s obvious that by the time they were signing this, there was no intention to fulfill this. And that’s why we usually went back on strike. So, if the government signed this (agreement) in good faith, it wouldn’t have been wrong for us to suspend it. To know how insincere and unresponsive this government is, under the agreement on visitation panels, that has nothing to do with money, they promised to establish visitation panels. You can read it for yourself: “arrangement for the visitation panels has been concluded and the approved list of members to be processed is in the process of being gazetted. Due to the forthcoming election, a tentative date for the commencement of the visitation has been fixed for 11th of March”. Up till now nothing has been done. I mean, how do you take such a government seriously? Do you now understand what I am saying? These are the antics of it. If they signed this agreement with us last year and up till now, that list has not been gazetted. Elections have come and gone, they went to sleep doing nothing. That is why students must also take them up on their word.

It was still part of what they offered on Thursday – visitation panels. The same government that promised to do something March last year, see that they are promising again – to get a date for inauguration of the visitation panels and get back to ASUU by 22nd of November, 2020. These are what the government is offering us again. So, how do you reconcile the seriousness of a government that promised to do something March last year… and even during our two-week warning strike, what would have cost them to inaugurate a panel. If they promised to do something March last year and we gave a warning strike and now in November, the same government has not done a thing on something that does not  require budgetary allocation, it only tells you the insincerity of the government. If they are really sincere and are not paying lip service to education, would they be doing all these.

Do you think the present offer the government made is enough to call off the strike?

I do not have a personal opinion here. It is the opinion of the members that I represent.

Members will consider it and whatever members decide, our leaders will pass it across to us. That’s the way it works. We don’t force opinions down the throats of members and members should know what the government is offering them. If that is what they want, so be it. If not, we are back to where we were.

There are reports that the federal government is trying to establish a rival union to ASUU – Congress of University Academic (CONUA). What is your opinion on this? Do you think that with the existence of CONUA, ASUU will be sidelined? 

In the purview of government, we are a registered trade union. As far as Nigeria is concerned, ASUU is the only trade union of academics registered in Nigeria.

ASUU cannot be sidelined. We cannot be bothered by a non-existent union. Is that union in existence, the answer is no. It is just one of the propaganda of the government. Let the government do the needful. What concerns the government is to face their responsibilities with respect to improving schools, and not be bothered with unions. The responsibility of government is to align with the needs of those schools and bring our schools to be at par with other schools around the world. If the government has enough time to bother on their responsibilities, they will have less time for frivolities. Those are frivolities and they are diversions. It is to divert attention from the real issue. The real issue is that the government has not been responsive and responsible to their responsibilities towards the education sector. So, let them face reality and face their duties and discharge them as and when due rather than looking for excuses to divert people from the real issue which is that the government has failed to honour the agreement it entered with the Union. That is what the government should face. And we are not worried about any frivolities.  We will not be diverted. We will not be distracted. We have a focus to discharge the current strike to a logical conclusion and that’s the obligation of ASUU as we speak.

We have some UI students that thought they were going to graduate by February/March but they are yet to defend their projects. Some of them are yet to go for service. Do you have any advice for them? And what advice do you have for those that are still part of the system? 

My advice for students is to be good students and remain good children to their parents. It is unfortunate we are saddled with this kind of government and the onus is on us to begin to begin to evaluate people we put in government and how we put people in government. If they are actually sincere about the future of this county, the so-called COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown, what tangible thing had the government done during the lockdown. Have our hospitals improved? Is the government itself ready? So, don’t blame the Union. Are universities ready to take in students? We are experiencing the second wave of the infection now.  Are federal universities ready to accept students even if ASUU calls off strike tomorrow. What modifications have been done on campuses to show us that schools are being prepared to receive students, compared to what is going on in the airports. If you go to most airports, there have been modifications to things in the airport in adherence to the COVID-19 prevention protocols. Do we have that preparation in most federal schools? The answer is no. That is to tell you how sincere, how responsive the government is. In essence, by the time school later resumes, they are pushing responsibilities back to parents. Going back to your question, let students be good students and be engaged with things that are productive.

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