I Stand With ASUU (1)  –Dr. Muiz Banire (SAN)

I Stand With ASUU (1)  –Dr. Muiz Banire (SAN)

The recurrent industrial actions by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) in Nigeria are not too dissimilar to several other strikes that we have been witnessing in the country. Strikes have become so pervasive in the country that one is hardly able to distinguish when a sector is down or is on strike. Most of the strikes arise out of the lackadaisical attitude of government, which plays deaf and dumb to most situations. Government at all levels in Nigeria is hardly pro-active but ever reactive. So, if any organ is to be blamed for any industrial action in the first instance, it must be government. In fact, in this particular instance, it is the Federal Government as meddlesome interloper that triggered it, as the negotiations ab initio are for the respective university councils. 

The only difference between the ASUU strike and other strikes is notably in the length, but in terms of recurrence it is the same shape in all sectors. The reason for these routine sectoral strikes is not unconnected with the fire-brigade approach, if you like, transitional or pedestrian approach, to issues arising in those actions.

For instance, one recalls the last strike of the judiciary staff, which took months equally and ended up being suspended. The medical personnel staff’s strike is equally not infrequent or rampant. This is just to mention but a few. 

On the ASUU strike, I have read several interventions and followed the controversy around the propriety or otherwise, but chosen to be quiet as I had hitherto in three different columns in the past warned about the impending industrial action but, in the usual attitude of the regulators, they never read the interventions and, if read, never acted on them (See my columns in the Daily Sun of 2nd December, 2021, “Tertiary education and the future of Nigeria: Another perspective! https://www.sunnewsonline.com/tertiary-education-and-the-future-of-nigeria-another-perspective”, 9th December, 2021, “Secondary education and culture of bullying, https://www.sunnewsonline.com/secondary-education-and-culture-of-bullying” and 20th January, 2022, “NUC: Please, save the nation. 

I am constrained now, however, to intervene due to so many misconceptions in circulation, some born out of ignorance, while others are suspiciously sponsored propaganda of the government. From my reading of the situation, it is either the spokesperson of the union is doing a bad job, not properly and articulately isolating and identifying issues, or the government propaganda, as usual, is drowning the voice of ASUU. 

To situate the context of my engagement and preempt the government wailers, permit me  to reveal, or if preferred, confess two facts. The first is that I was in the academics before and left as a senior lecturer thus, by extension, a member of ASUU then; and, secondly, none of my children so far attended nor is likely to attend any Nigerian university, to my unhappiness. The truth is that it is one thing for the children to receive such quality education and it is another thing subjecting them to cultural conflict.

In most instances, you are not likely to get the best in the latter situation as they substantially lose their culture and identity in the process. In this respect, I confess again that it is my regret, unwillingly courted but foisted on me by our inept leaders that have badly devalued our education while their children get educated abroad equally. The truth is that you will struggle to get 5 percent of our leaders whose children are schooling in the country, and, worse off, not in private schools in Nigeria. So, to the wailers, I come in peace and innocently. Let me warn hastily that the whole effort herein is to demonstrate how the industrial actions are on the side of the masses, as opposed to bourgeois. 

Consequently, I urge you to patiently follow through. With this disposed and as a template, I will adopt Professor Hamman Tukur Sa’ad’s thesis as presented by Olusegun Adeniyi in his column, ‘The Case Against ASUU, Part1,” which I am in substantial alignment with the reasonings therein except for some grey areas that he probably does not know or chose to innocently gloss over.

Unfortunately, these areas are critical to the conversation, both in terms of clarity and frankness. The first propeller of the ASUU strike is the subjugation of the roles of the Governing Councils of the universities to that of the ministries, in this wise, Labour and Education ministries. To the best of my knowledge, by the statutes and conventions, the employer of university staff is usually the Governing Council, not the government directly. The terms and conditions of service are to be determined by the Council, which may vary from university to university, depending on how the university is posed to attracting the best to its faculties. It is like in sports, particularly football, where the best soccer talents are wooed from time to time with mouthwatering offers. This is the rationale behind vesting the recruitment power and conditions of service in the university Governing Councils. Lending credence to this is the fact that the environment in which each university operates differs. I remember, during my time in the university, we had a discriminatory rent regime for the lecturers. If my memory serves me right, while we were paid in Lagos, Rivers and Abuja higher rents, other academic staff in other universities took less. This was, and I still believe is still, the situation before the unwarranted intervention of government in the direct affairs of the universities. The tendency and the drive of the Federal Government and the government at the state level is always to adopt a central command structure. Certainly, this is not working and can never work.  In the presentation of the professor, he alluded to internally-generated revenue as part of the funding strategy that could be adopted, based on his successful experience as a vice-chancellor. With respect to Prof. Sa’ad, there is no novelty in that approach.

I recall with nostalgia that this had been the practice in the past, particularly during the transformational era of the late vice-chancellor of the University of Lagos, Professor Jelili Adebisi Omotola, of blessed memory (my great mentor in whom I am well pleased). Up to that period, the university had so much freedom to do all that the professor suggested by way of augmentation of the renumeration of the staff without any questioning. Today, so many regulations and oversight acts of government have killed those initiatives. The universities, admittedly, cannot breathe on their own again without recourse to government. Regrettably, again,  there is so much impediment around the ability of the universities to so do, as the governing councils and the management of the universities are in shackles.

The normal line of communication with the government in those golden years was through the university’s Governing Council and not directly with the vice-chancellors. Today, the vice-chancellors are hardly on sit in their campuses, as they have had to answer one supposed governmental regulator or the other. If not the minister or commissioner for education, it will be their permanent secretaries, the National Universities Commission, the National Assembly, Office of the Auditor-General, etc. This much was captured by Mallam Yusuf Alli, SAN, in his paper at the 36th convocation lecture of the University of Ilorin, when he opined that vice-chancellors now practically spend most time in Abuja, responding to one call or the other of the bureaucrats and politicians.

Today, university autonomy is so badly bruised to the extent that the universities can hardly breath anymore. The skipped aspect of Sa’ad’s presentation is the undue exploitative oversight on the universities by the various supposed regulators of government. I recently had a discussion with a friend whom I felt would be a great administrator of a university. Stemming from my friend’s pedigree, I tried to prop him to apply for the vacant vice-chancellorship position in a university. To my dismay, he retorted that he was not interested. When prompted and urged to disclose why he was declining, my friend told me that I needed to be in the system to know how much exploitation, by way of governmental oversight, goes on, from ministerial pressure, to the permanent secretary, the National Universities Commission and, the worst monster of all, the National Assembly. Any resistance is vilified by cheap blackmail of the personality, they fabricated figures and share in the media to embarrass the person unwilling to play along. 

How does a poor professor resist this kind of onslaught? The end message from the above is that where the management manages to generate any internal revenue, seventy percent ends up in the pockets of these external administrators. Even where the university intends to apply the derived fund to augment the incomes of their staff, circulars upon circulars from the government and the National Assembly tends to suffocate and frustrate the effort.

Now addressing the statutory subvention, as little and insufficient as it is, this is both externally and internally pilfered by numerous officials. As the ‘Ogas at the top’ demand their own, so also the big boys within the university systems feed fat too. At the end of the road, nothing to show for it. Beyond this point of corruption within the system, the reality is that the government cannot solely fund the universities with the available resources. As clear as the above is, the contradiction is that the government that is struggling to support the existing universities, as one cannot use the word, ‘sustain’ in the very sense, is busy proliferating universities. Practically every month, a new set of universities are established by the government, mostly politically motivated. Where else is this done? And you still want to contend you don’t have enough funds to cater for the existing universities.

I read the suggestion of Sa’ad that the universities be completely privatized and made fee-paying institutions, while interventions such as scholarships, bursaries and other grants be made available to deserving students. Honestly, I do not ordinarily have issue with this suggestion but for the fact that most state governments that are still grappling with the payment of workers’ salaries cannot meet such obligations which remain my challenge. What the eventuality is then likely to be is the harvest of dropouts from the institutions due to impecuniosity. The worst development is that the political class has even destroyed the various bursary and scholarship schemes.

Beyond poor funding, it is now largely politicized to absorb students with political connections with little or no chance for students perceived to evolve from the homes of political opponents. The slogan, ‘man-know-man’ has crept into the administration of the schemes to the extent that brilliant students would hardly be recognized and catered for. Repositioning this as a palliative is of utmost urgency therefore. I read the proposal from parents of university students also in terms of ten-thousand-naira support levy to the institutions; as commendable as the proposal is, coming from the concern and frustration of the parents; even where acceptable, it is a drop in the ocean that cannot make any meaningful impact.

What is required in terms of infrastructure upgrade is not a joke and far surpasses the personal levy proposed by the parents. Now on the issue of absorption of lecturers’ salaries into the Integrated Payroll and Personal Information System (IPPIS) platform, let me confess that other than the fact of being a payment platform through which all civil servants are to be paid, I know nothing more. While not too agreeable with Saad that lecturers are not civil servants technically so as to be migrated into the scheme, my thought is simply an offshoot of the earlier point made on the role of the Governing Councils.

You cannot continue to unify the payment of lecturers across all the universities in the country. Let each Council determine what is appropriate to its staff. Let lecturers then earn migration into the more competitive ones. This will be an incentive to being hardworking. To this extent, therefore, I am not in favour of the proposed migration to the IPPIS. I read the comical argument that the resistance of the ASUU to the migration to IPPIS was due to some of them teaching in other institutions.

The truth is that lecturers are presumed to be specialists that could be utilized from time to time across the country and the universe, particularly in an environment like Nigeria where there is still dearth of qualified lecturers. It is inevitable for them to be borrowed across campuses. Where this occurs, they certainly will be entitled to some form of renumeration. In virtually all the instances of this nature, it is usually part-time and not permanent appointment. For accountability’s sake, such names will still be seen on the expenses roll of the concerned university.

Once a lecturer meets his minimum teaching hours, he is at liberty to use the remnant time productively. In fact, except if recently changed, law lecturers are permitted by law to engage in private practice to complement their works. Abuse is what is frowned at. This is the way of supplementing capacity in other universities. The point I am, therefore, struggling to make is that it is no aberration, much less, illegality to teach in other universities on part-time. This issue of migration is even no more of any moment as the federal government has acceded to migration to University Transparency and Accountability Solution, (UTAS).

Now coming to ASUU, most commentators in their various comments appear to be mixing up apple and oranges. ASUU is just a canopy for the lecturers and not the content of the struggle. I observe huge misconception of the issues involved in the struggle. While it cannot be discounted that welfare issues form part of the agitation, it is certainly not the only and main issue. There are so many other issues bothering on working tools which are germane to imparting of knowledge. Unfortunately, all the issues are intertwined. Most infrastructure crucial to dissemination of knowledge to the students are lacking in our institutions.

The libraries are now shadows of themselves; classrooms are no more conducive; choked classrooms with no public address system. Anyway, there is even no light to power fans or air conditioners where they exist. Students collapse in classrooms while lecturers sweat it out. Ordinary access to information network remains a challenge as the bandwith is narrow and inefficient most times. This is even where they exist.

How much does a lecturer earn to be buying data to research? Most lecturers lack campus accommodation and have had to resort to external accommodation which is definitely unaffordable in the urban universities. Are you considering the cost of transportation? Or you want the students to be giving lecturers rides which is a reality these days? The point being made is that there are so many other fundamental issues than welfare that are birthing the strike actions. They need to be addressed. In fact, without addressing some of them, teaching is impossible otherwise you will be imparting half-baked knowledge which is dangerous.

But for a moment, let us even assume without conceding that it is about welfare. Don’t you need stamina to teach? Without food, can lecturers have stamina to teach? It is the same analogy of providing infrastructure without the stomach component. People need to survive to enjoy the physical infrastructure. The message therefore is that as we address the physical infrastructure, the stomach portion cannot be relegated. They are Siamese twins that must be catered for jointly. When I, therefore, come across opinions backing the ‘no work, no pay’ position of the government, I start wondering if the authors of such opinions are grounded in the facts culminating in the strike. The provisions of the Act that allows workers not to be paid when on strike is only applicable where the tools of trade are available.

In other words, it is a provision that cannot be interpreted in abstract. The contextual and purposeful interpretation presupposes the existence of enabling working instruments and atmosphere. Where such is absent, workers, as in this instance, lecturers, cannot be held culpable. The net effect of my submission, therefore, is that lecturers are entitled to their arrears of pay as the failure to work was enabled by failure to provide teaching facilities.

The continuous subordination of the fundamental issues of trade tools is unfair and calculated to blackmail the lecturers. Now on the issue of some lecturers engaging in private lectures in the private universities, I say no law prohibits this in so far as it does not impact their primary assignment. The danger, however, in contemporary times, particularly stemming from the threatened onslaught of the government is that the said lecturers end up becoming permanent staff of the private universities, patronized by the children of the privileged.

Let me recall my assertion in the various interventions I have made on this subject that even where Nigeria possesses all the resources to establish universities infrastructurally, the country lacks capacity to staff them with qualified lecturers. I have no doubt in my mind that there is dearth of lecturers in the country. By this, I do not mean any available garbage but competent lecturers. Most of the star lecturers in the country today exist in the first- and second-generation universities. They remained there for this long due to the fear of uncertainty in the future of the emerging private universities. Now that there is reasonable certainty of the endurance of the private universities, star lecturers are gradually moving to the private universities. The import of this is that all the quality lecturers will eventually be attracted to the private universities, leaving the government universities with substandard lecturers.

This is the emerging scenario that have now subordinated the ranking of our universities to virtually nil. None of the global universities ranking admits any Nigerian university within the first five hundred in the global index today while only two falls within the first fifty in the African continent.