Opinion: ASUU, FG stalemate – It’s like the pretender fighting the deceiver

by Fisayo Soyombo

President-Goodluck-Jonathan

More than three years into the Presidency of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, I am still unconvinced that he is the man. At his last media chat, for example, his responses on the state of tertiary education and the whereabouts of wanted terrorist Abubakar Shekau betrayed his underwhelming understanding of a country he ought to be governing.

Tuesday 8th October 2013 marked 100 days that public university education in the country has been at a standstill. It has been popularly dubbed a strike — or more elegantly, an industrial action. But the reality is that what is ongoing is a feud between two groups of people — one, dominated by a greedy lot feigning sanctimony and posturing as genuine advocates of education revamp; the other, by a grossly irresponsible clique of people whose only business in governance is siphoning public funds.

There is little to prove when I say the Nigerian government is dominated by an irresponsible lot, one so crassly and rapaciously corrupt that virtually no sector of the economy is working at half the capacity commensurate with supposedly invested funds, be it health or power or education. In the oil industry, the scale of corruption is in life-and-death proportions, far beyond the millions and billions of naira always being bandied about in the media; and the most worrisome matter for me is: where or who will begin the clean-up? Only three months ago, I was served the most chilling warning of my entire life when an industry expert told me: “Stay out of corruption in the oil sector… Are you married? Do you have kids? You will die if you try it…”

There is little to write on matters of corruption in public places and how well the country would be functioning if we incorruptibly deployed our resources into tackling some of our most pressing socioeconomic challenges, including the sliding standard of education. Added to that is the damning tragedy of having a president who has a narrow idea of how to run the country, and is consequently prone to being misled by the hordes of sycophants massing around him and masquerading as his loyalists and the country’s patriots.

More than three years into the Presidency of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, I am still unconvinced that he is the man. At his last media chat, for example, his responses on the state of tertiary education and the whereabouts of wanted terrorist Abubakar Shekau betrayed his underwhelming understanding of a country he ought to be governing. Add corruption to government ineptitude and confusion, and you can tell the country won’t be free from doom anytime soon.

Clearly, education has had its share of the resultant rot, beginning from student populations far above universities’ carrying capacities and culminating in utterly unbelievable learning conditions, such as the staging of lectures under trees or in sports pavilions. In 2004 as a student at the nevertheless prestigious University of Ibadan when students had to take courses across departments, many of us were Olympic sprinters in the making. We ran from one lecture theatre to another because we knew they could not accommodate all of us. Too many times, I received lectures without seeing or hearing a single word of everything the lecturer wrote or said. Tens of students shared laboratory equipment both during practical lessons and exams. In my final year, I wrote an exam that required students to identify certain leaves; but since about five or six of us shared a leaf, we all knew the answers! Any recent graduate of a public university has his/her share of such nightmarish experiences.

So we all know the problem. But what we all do not know is that a certain body, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), deceptively claims to be fighting for all of us. Very unfortunate. ASUU has downed tools these past four months due to its insistence on full government implementation of the 2009 agreement both parties signed. Sadly, very few students have read the contentious agreement, which at once explains why so many student unions and groups have been blindly staging protests in support of ASUU.

Is ASUU wholly fighting the cause of saving the Nigerian education system from collapse? Who or what has the right answer? Well, it isn’t President of ASUU, Dr. Nasir Isa Faggae. And of course, were we to ask President Jonathan, expect him to say, like he did during last month’s media chat: “I don’t know … you journalists know more than us…” The right answer lies in the underlying reasoning behind all the sections of that 2009 agreement.

In January 2007 when the Federal Government team led by Deacon Gamaliel Onosode and that of ASUU led by then President, Dr Abdullahi Sule-Kano began meeting to renegotiate the 2001 agreement, the terms of reference for the resultant committee were to: (i) to reverse the decay in the university system, in order to reposition it for greater responsibilities in national development; (ii) to reverse the brain drain, not only by enhancing the remuneration of academic staff, but also by disengaging them from the encumbrances of a unified civil service wage structure; (iii) to restore Nigerian universities, through immediate, massive and sustained financial intervention; and (iv) to ensure genuine university autonomy and academic freedom. However, when the issues for negotiation were listed, they were: (i) conditions of service, (ii) funding, (iii) university autonomy and academic freedom, and (iv) other matters.

First observation, how exactly does “condition of service” — candidly put, “salary upgrade” — constitute the most important step in “reversing the decay in the university system”? Why was condition of service ASUU’s most cherished matter for renegotiation, at the expense of infrastructure upgrade or funding?

ASUU and the Federal Government agreed to have a “separate salary structure for university academic staff” to be known as Consolidated University Academic Salary

Structure II (CONUASS II), comprising the Consolidated Salary Structure for Academic Staff (CONUASS) approved by the Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN) effective 1st January 2007, the Consolidated Peculiar University Academic Allowances (CONPUAA) exclusively for university teaching staff and derived from allowances not adequately reflected or not consolidated in CONUASS, and the “rent” as approved by the FGN effective 1stJanuary 2007. Under these circumstances, a lecturer cN earn as much as N7.5m per annum.

ASUU and FG also reached an agreement on earned academic allowances that will see an assistant lecturer receive N15,000 per student per annum, senior lecturer N20,000, and reader and professor N25,000 as postgraduate supervision allowance; and the lecturers can receive the payments for up to five students. Added with other allowances — for teaching practice/industrial supervision/field trip, honoraria for internal/external examiner (postgraduate thesis), and honoraria for external moderation of undergraduate and postgraduate examinations — a lecturer can earn up to N580,000 per annum in earned allowances. There is a sum of N200,000 for external assessors of candidates for the position of Reader or Professor; plus a Responsibility Allowance that sees Hall Wardens receive N150,000 per annum and Vice Chancellors/Deputy Vice Chancellors/Librarians receive N750,000. A list of other non-salary benefits includes improved proposals for vehicle loan/car refurbishing loan, housing loan, research leave, sabbatical leave, annual leave, sick leave, maternity leave and injury pension.

To be clear, I am unfavourably disposed to arguments in some quarters that ASUU’s remunerative demands are unreasonable. No. In my opinion, ASUU — and indeed any other labour union — reserves the rights to propose whatever conditions it considers most effective for motivating its members for optimum job performance. What I find unacceptable is ASUU’s less-than-impressive approach; and there are at least four manifestations of this trait in the 2009 agreement.

One, in pushing for CONUAS II, ASUU conceitedly argues that Nigerian university academics represent the critical mass of scholars in the society, with the potential for transforming it. They, therefore, deserve unique conditions of service that would motivate them, like the intellectuals in other parts of the world, to attain greater efficiency and effectiveness in service delivery with regard to teaching, research and community service, and thereby stem the brain drain. However, if doctors, teachers, oil marketers and transporters, civil servants, engineers all downed tools as often as ASUU does, I am wondering what is left of the society that ASUU so piously claims to be desperate to “transform.”

Two, while ASUU agrees to be disengaged from the encumbrances of a unified civil service wage structure, it goes on to demand that whenever there is a general increase in public sector salaries and allowances, the remuneration of academic staff shall be correspondingly increased. Simply put, ASUU wants to have the best of both worlds.

Three, in the agreement, ASUU ensures that the renegotiation team agrees to its salary demands but as soon as discussion shifts to other matters, the team only recommends. And so, on matters involving the Education Tax Fund, Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB), amendment of the National Universities Commission Act (2004), and funding of universities, which are major institutional channels for reforming education, what ASUU does is to recommend, agree to recommend or project.

Finally, ASUU has been going about its latest industrial action like a social crusader when the crux of it all is increased wage. On its website, President Faggae wrote: Dear Comrades, as the struggle to save Nigerian University system is being pursued, I’ll like to salute all our members for their resoluteness in ensuring that the 2009 ASUU/Government Agreement is implemented in accordance with the Roadmap defined by the 2012 MoU. We believe very strongly that the rot and decay in the University System is not only arrestable but also reversible. We believe even more strongly that, the key to turning round the University System lies in the sincere implementation of the Agreement… We will continue to carry the banner of this struggle to its logical conclusion….

By sanctimoniously claiming to be fighting to reverse the rot in education when it is in fact chiefly motivated by its own pecuniary benefits, ASUU is equally guilty of the deception and mischief its president oft-accuses the government of. Between Jonathan’s Federal Government and ASUU, I cannot find the saint; and I find them jointly culpable for the current standstill in the country’s tertiary education.

My prediction is that the ongoing industrial action will be hard to halt. Whatever his understandable grouse with the 2009 agreement or the negotiators on behalf of the government, President Goodluck Jonathan fulfil its dictates. That is the moral thing to do. An agreement was signed; it must be honoured until such a time when it is due for another review. And surely, ASUU or no ASUU, a government in which a federal lawmaker willing to play ball receives N4m as soon as a breakaway faction surfaces at the National Assembly has the financial resource to embark on an infrastructural overhaul of education.

But with Jonathan suggesting on 29th September that the academic union has been hijacked by the opposition, this strike will not be over anytime soon. In case you haven’t seen a Nollywood movie in a while, well, “this is just the beginning!”

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Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

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