National President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Professor Abiodun Ogunyemi, in this exclusive interview by TUNBOSUN OGUNDARE, speaks on reasons the ongoing industrial action by the union is inevitable and the union’s refusal to call it off until the Federal Government yields to its demands.
In September, the Federal Government claimed to have released N20 billion funding for universities, what is your reaction to that?
The N200 billion is not an issue at all. The government ought to have released that money latest by October last year and the amount served as a mark of commitment towards the implementation of the 2013 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed with ASUU in that year. In that MoU, government agreed to massively inject funds into the public university system in the country. This is as a way of re-vitalising the system. That is why we called that fund, which is a total sum of N1.3 trillion, a re-vitalisation fund. Between 2013 and 2017, government released only N200 billion, leaving out N1.1 trillion. So, when ASUU engaged them last year and we told them that they had abandoned the agreement, they said no. And that to show that they had not abanadoned it, they would release N20 billion immediately while looking into a way of mobilising fund for the balance. That was the N20 billion they were making noise about that they released many months after. So towards raising the N1.1 trillion, government raised a seven-man team and they worked for about two months or submitted their report. But up till now, government has kept the report in the cooler. In October last year, if government had released N20 billion, we expect them to release a stretch of N220 billion on yearly basis and will do that for five years.
At times, people get confused on various terminologies used concerning this FG\ASUU faceoff. Sometimes, you say 2009 agreement, at another time, we hear 2013 MoU and yet another, you refer to the 2017 Memorandum of Action (MoA), what are the differences?
The 2009 agreement is the originating document. That is where we have four major issues outlined. They are centered on funding, academic freedom and university autonomy, conditions of service, and other related issues. In implementing the 2009 agreement which was signed in that year, the government agreed to inject N1.3 trillion into the system.
We dragged this for about three years before they finally agreed and raised a panel in 2012 that went out on visitations to virtually all the public universities to assess their needs. To be specific, a total of 73 universities were visited. And what the panel came up with was worse than the picture ASUU painted. They found out that many of them have pipes but with no running safe water, no conducive classrooms, no laboratories and all that. And that was what gave birth to what we call the 2012 Needs Assessment Report. ASUU engaged them again. After six months, the Federal Government agreed to implement that report. When we met, government said it was okay. They said we should give them a six-year plan on how we were going to address all the issues at stake. And that was what informed the signing of the memorandum of understanding in 2013.
In that MoU, government was to release N200 billion immediately which I had mentioned earlier and then releasing N220 billion every year and for the next five years, all totaling N1.3 trillion, which I had also mentioned earlier.
But here we are. So, you can see that both the MoU of 2013 and the MoA of 2017 originated from the 2009 agreement. The failure to implement the 2009 agreement gave birth to the 2013 MoU and in turn to the 2017 MoA. That is the link.
Then, is it not safe to say that ASUU is forcing the Federal Government to sign all these agreements?
That cannot be true. This is what government is expected to do. Now, the public primary and secondary schools in the country have almost collapsed. It is only children from poor homes that attend them. How did we get to this sorry state as a country? It is the fault of governments at various levels. They abandoned their responsibilities towards the primary and secondary levels of education. And if we turn our back on public universities, a similar thing would have happened to them. And that is what ASUU does not want. The ruling class which has diverted our money to build their own private universities is not bothered with what happens to public universities. They can afford to send their children to private schools. Even you and I who attend public primary and secondary schools, am sure, would not want our children to go to the same schools today. That exactly is what is happening and as it is, a time will come when the children of the poor will not be able to attend public schools anymore. And we don’t want this to happen.
Does it mean that ASUU believes that the Federal Government has the money but deliberately will not want to spend it on public universities?
Are you saying Nigeria has no money? We have if we manage our resources well. How much is a senator earning if they actually love Nigeria? How much is a governor earning? How much do you think goes into their security votes? What security are they talking about? Are we in a state of emergency? We have done our arithmetic which we always show to them that Nigeria can afford more than what ASUU is asking. The Federal Government can afford free education at all levels if those in the corridors of power have the political will and interest of the common man at heart. It is just that they are a selfish set of people. They think about themselves and their families and are not bothered about what happens to those who are less privileged in the society.
Now that you are on strike, how will you react to the government’s threat of ‘no work, no pay’ rule for workers?
That can never be directed to ASUU. I don’t also know where that policy can work. Industrial action is legal in labour law. Even at that, that kind of threat is an empty one. As for ASUU, even when we are not in class, we are conducting researches and engaging in community services. That means our work is not only in the classrooms. So, what we are doing now is an advocacy as stakeholders in the university system on one hand and stakeholders in the society on the other just to ensure that government sits up and does the needful. Public universities must not collapse. The ruling class must know that it is their responsibility to provide quality education for children from poor homes just as they send their own children to private universities or abroad to study. They too deserve something good. And that is a way to prevent them from taking arms against the society in future. Their interest is what matters to ASUU.
Students are seriously affected by your action.
The truth of the matter is that people need to appreciate the content of the complaint that the union is making and the issues involved in this. We can’t continue to pretend that all is well. If Nigeria were to be a poor country, we would endure the situation of things in the education sector but we all know that Nigeria is not a poor country as I had earlier said. This strike is for the good of everyone. It is not about ASUU alone. If there is good and conducive learning and hostel environment, students will be the most beneficiaries. We also have children in schools and that is why we must all make sacrifice today so that we can have a better tomorrow. Government wants to introduce an education bank where schools and students can obtain loans after jerking up school fees. How many children from poor homes get jobs years after graduation? How then would they be able to pay back such loans if they don’t have jobs? That kind of bank will end up in the hands of the rich. In fact, there are lots of issues. ASUU doesn’t embark on strike until all avenues have been explored. Students, parents and the entire public should understand that our action is for the good of all.
Then when are you calling off the strike?
This strike is not a warning strike, but total, comprehensive and indefinite. It will remain like this until government meets our demands.