Saturday comment1

The truce is a welcome relief, writes Emma Agu

Conspiracy theorists are likely to insist that, last week’s decision by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) to call off its months’ long strike, was predicated on the capitulation of the federal government to its demands; as the former feared an electoral backlash, should the situation remain unresolved before the presidential election. Those on the other side of the theory insist that ASUU used today’s elections to blackmail the federal government, to submission, as the later would not want to go into a very difficult election with the strike overhang.

No matter one’s position on the matter, nobody is likely to contest that this truce is a welcome relief. For one, it guarantees that the 2019 general elections will not be jeopardized by the strike. More fundamentally, is the crucial fact that, while the students can now return to school and pick up the pieces of their lives, their parents too can have some reasonable assurance that their ordeal is about to end. Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige who bore the brunt of the ASUU angst, with his education counterpart, Mallam Adamu Adamu, should now be counting their blessings that those long hours of excruciating negotiation, those taunting jibes from labour leaders calling for their heads and the anxious moments when the president’s patience could be running out, are now over.

For the above reason, the federal government and ASUU deserve commendation, for finding the courage to make the necessary concessions that broke the deadlock, in the strike saga. But let’s not fool ourselves: the imbroglio is not far from over. The truce is likely to last for as long as it is possible for the federal government to stave off another opportunity for ASUU to hold it to ransom. If experience is anything to go by, my informed guess, is that circumstances, such as a steep shortfall in revenue, could force the FG to renege on the agreements.

Why I am I so pessimistic? Our history! Now take a mental picture into the past. Recall that in 2013, out of sheer exasperation, Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka had proposed that institutions of higher learning in Nigeria, be shut for two years, to address the rot in the education sector which, in his view, was at its lowest ebb. He made the call, at an education summit, convened by the Rivers State Government. The incumbent minister of transport, Rt. Honourable Rotimi Amaechi was Governor of Rivers State at the time while His Excellency Goodluck Jonathan was President of Nigeria. Soyinka’s 2013 proposal is instructive as it underscores the mischief of trying to blame the recent ASUU crisis on the present administration. To take such a posture will amount to pulling wool over the eyes of Nigerians while sending a clear signal that those who make such allegations have no solution to the problem.

To put the matter in its proper perspective, it should be recalled that the ASUU-FG face-off was caused by the failure of the federal government, to faithfully implement the agreement it signed with ASUU in 2009 when Goodluck Jonathan was vice president of the country. Jonathan inherited the matter but not without passing through some tortuous moments at the hands of ASUU. In fact, at one point, it took all the conflict management skills of David Mark, who was the President of the Senate, at the time to resolve the impasse. It was on that basis that, the Jonathan administration entered into agreement with ASUU in 2013, on how to resolve the matter. Unfortunately, most of the agreements were observed in the breach. For instance, on funding for the revitalization of public universities, the Jonathan administration agreed to pay N220 billion yearly from 2009 to 2013. Following the ASUU strike, the federal government paid the first installment of N200 billion, for one year. But it ended up not paying in 2010, 2011 and 2013. Those who want to hold the Buhari administration responsible for the recent impasse owe the public the duty to explain why the previous administration committed the federal government to such an agreement, knowing that it had no money to pay. If that agreement had been implemented, there wouldn’t have been the recently ended ASUU strike.

It is noteworthy that the Buhari administration has agreed to release the sum of N25 billion, into the revitalization fund in April/May 2019, with a pledge to resume full implementation of the MOU, when the recommendations of the Report of the Stakeholders Workshop on Sustainable Funding of Education in Nigeria, of 27th-28th November, 2018 would have been activated.

The stakeholders achieved a major milestone by the agreement reached on the contentious issue of outstanding arrears of earned allowances in Nigerian universities. According to the MOU, government agreed to pay the already approved N20 billion by 15th February, 2019 while an additional N5 billion would be paid by 28th February, 2019. While it is reassuring that government has set clear milestones for settlement of the outstanding balance up to 2018, university teachers should not gloss over the moral challenge posed by the allegation that, in some cases, claims were inflated, by about 45% as revealed during the Presidential Initiative on Continuous Audit (PICA), which was started by the current administration, in 2016.  What happened? If it is true that the forensic inquest into claims, by lecturers, revealed bloating of figures, that will amount to an unspeakable affront to the moral standing of some university dons and a justification of the anti-corruption crusade of the Buhari administration.

Take it or leave it: our universities should never be associated with graft, no matter the temptation. For, if the crucible that ought to refine future leaders is tainted with corruption, what do we expect of the products of such contamination? While we bother about that, the university personnel should be celebrating the promise, that the outstanding balance will be slated in four equal instalments within a time frame of 36 months; in November, 2019, August 2020, May 2021 and February 2022. The fact that government also pledged to mainstream further payments of the allowances into the annual budgets, beginning with the 2019 budget shows that President Buhari, who seldom reneges on such promises, has indeed entered into a covenant with ASUU, for the period of his second term.

In spite of the promise of the agreement which also touched on salary shortfall, payment of earned academic allowances to loyal ASUU members of University of Ilorin, etc., we should never delude ourselves that the agreement is capable of resolving the serious problems affecting tertiary education in Nigeria, let alone discouraging strikes by lecturers and students. If the truth must be told, over time, even before the restoration of democratic rule in 1999, ASUU and all arms of government have refused to address the fundamental underlying disincentive to education funding in Nigeria. My take on this is simple. For as long as political office holders and top civil servants have the liberty to send their children to the best schools abroad, to acquire knowledge and skills from societies that have created good educational systems, for so long will such people be less obliged to revive the country’s educational system.

What this means is that the minimum desideratum for sustainable transformation of our university system, is to deny public office holders and other categories of civil servants, the privilege of sending their children abroad for further studies. The only exception should be for post graduate and other specialised studies. It is a sure bet that, should such a scenario be implemented, those parents in privileged positions will fall over each other to get schools properly renovated, equipped and structured and lecturers appropriately rewarded. Going forward, ASUU should insist that this should form part of its covenant with the federal government, as the Buhari administration gets set for its second term.