*Identifies fresh hurdle on negotiation path
By Omololu Ogunmade
The federal government is set to commence fresh negotiations with Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) over its eighth-month old strike.
The union has been on strike on March 9, this year to press for its exclusion from Integrated Personnel Payroll and Integrated System (IPPIS).
Answering questions from State House reporters after a meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, said negotiations with the union was suspended following the outbreak of COVID-19.
According to him, ASUU had rejected suggestions for virtual meetings and insisted on physical negotiations.
The minister said the face-off between the federal government and ASUU over payment method, might not be immediately resolved because University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS), as proposed by ASUU as an alternative to IPPIS, lacks the hardware that can make it operative.
However, he promised to communicate to ASUU the date for the resumption of meetings with the union this week while it awaits the report of National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) on UTAS’ software.
He said: “As you know, ASUU is on strike which they started since March 9, 2020 to be precise. We have held negotiation meetings. They opted out of the negotiation meetings during the COVID-19 period because they said they don’t want virtual meetings. So, we have just resumed our meeting.
“We have some grey areas to clear and we will meet sometime this week. I’m waiting for one or two reports before I communicate a date to them.
“The major report is the report from the Nigeria Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) as per the system developed by ASUU which the government sent to them for integrity test.”
Ngige also hinted that acceptance of UTAS from ASUU by the federal government, might not automatically resolve the stand-off between them because the budget for hardware that will herald its take-off was not captured in 2020 budget.
According to him, if the federal government eventually gives ASUU the nod to alternate IPPIS with UTAS, the union has no money to procure the required hardware for its implementation and this will pose another challenge to resolution of the crisis.
Nevertheless, Ngige said the federal government had already forwarded UTAS’ software to NITDA for integrity test, saying it does not usually want to discourage any Nigerian from evolving local content solutions to emerging issues.
Ngige added that part of the challenges that will threaten the negotiations is lack of payment platform that the government can deploy to pay the lecturers following their rejection of IPPIS.
He said: “..The UTAS, that is the University Transparent System which they brought is not yet ready. It is not fully ready. It is undergoing integrity test for the software. I am not a computer scientist, but you must also know that you must test the hardware in the integrity test for the software.
“As we speak, ASUU has no hardware and UTAS does not have hardware backing.
“I am waiting for the NITDA full report but the preliminary report they gave me, the software integrity test will take them about six to eight weeks and thereafter, we go to the hardware. But the big issue is, who will provide the hardware?
“ASUU doesn’t have the finances to do so. Has government budgeted for it now as we speak? So, that one is a major problem. But we don’t have to dissuade anybody. We don’t have to tell anybody not to carry on. We like local content development. We need our things to be home grown. So, we are really encouraging them.
“By the time we finish with this other software test to look at its capacity, its ability to withstand shock and hacking et cet era, the hardware test is in, hacking and security. So, by the time we finish it, we will decide on what to do.
“But do not also forget that we need to have something for us to make payment to them as we speak. For those that have got into the system, they have pointed out some of the deficiency and they are being corrected. It’s work in progress.”