Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, ASUU President

…as ASUU, FG on the road to compromise

BY EMEKA EJERE

The eight-month old strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), in the public universities, may be nearing an end as unfolding events are bringing the union and the federal government on the same boat.

At the end of a meeting between the federal government and ASUU on Friday in Abuja, Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, announced that the federal government has agreed to release N30 billion as part payment of the Earned Academic Allowances (EAA) to ASUU.

“The Accountant General of the Federation (AGF) was committed to release N30 billion on or before November 6”, Ngige said.

“The remaining N10 billion would be spread equally over two tranches to be paid in May 2021 and February 2022 respectively. The OAGF should quickly conclude the verification of figures of EAA claims so as to clean up the figures from 2014 to 2020.”

On the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS), the meeting was informed that ASUU has met its timeline regarding the first stage of the initial demonstration of the efficacy of the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) to government.

The meeting also agreed that if UTAS passes all the integrity tests, which involve the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) and the Office of the National Security Adviser (NSA), it will be adopted for the payment of the University staff.

Meanwhile, the meeting could not agree on how payment would be done for ASUU members during the transitional period of UTAS tests. The government side again appealed to ASUU to enroll on IPPIS platform in view of the Presidential directive that all Federal Government employees should be paid via IPPIS.

It added that they (ASUU) can thereafter be migrated to UTAS whenever certified digitally efficient and effective with accompanying security coverage. But ASUU maintained that given its invention of UTAS, it should be exempted from IPPIS in the transition period.

Academic activities in the nation’s public universities have been halted since about two weeks before the outbreak of Coronavirus pandemic due to the strike, purportedly precipitated by several claims being made by ASUU).  The federal government and ASUU had been in serious roundtable discussion, with the IPPIS being the crux of argument.

The IPPIS, according to the federal government, was established mainly to enhance transparency and accountability in the payment of civil servants, including lecturers in Nigeria. In furtherance, the policy will also weed out various corrupt practices in the educational sector and open the door for employment.

But ASUU had rejected the system, proposing the University Accountability and Transparency Solution (UTAS) as a better alternative emolument payment platform. The union claimed the introduction of IPPIS was mainly to topple the autonomy of Nigeria federal universities, which violates the Universities Miscellaneous Provisions (Amendment) Act 2003.

As a way of sanction, the salaries of lecturers who failed to enroll in the scheme were initially withheld for months. However, upon pressure, the federal government released funds for payment of their salaries. Up to date, both parties are still vying for survival. Between spaces of this battle, students have been at home.

Sources claimed that those who neglected ASUU’s voice and succumbed to FG’s threat among the lecturers regretted their action as they were underpaid after enrolling in the scheme. It was also claimed that the Non-Academic Staff of Universities (NASU) and Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) had threatened to go for a temporary strike and withdraw from IPPIS after months of enrollment because of irregularities in the system.

There are also reports that civil servants have faulted the payroll platform as they have no confidence in it. ASUU is not ready to go back in talks on IPPIS but on UTAS platform, which it declared recently was ready for integrity test.

Little wonder, the striking university lecturers reiterated on Monday that they are not affected by the directive of President Muhammadu Buhari that only federal workers captured on the IPPIS would continue to receive salaries. The president, while presenting the 2021 budget proposal to a joint session of the National Assembly, had ordered all federal workers to enroll in the IPPIS platform, saying the platform was meant to check fraud, including the payment of salaries to non-existent personnel. He also disclosed that the platform would also check the payment of unauthorized allowances.

However, in an interview with News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), president of ASUU, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, said the workers referred to by the President were civil servants and not university lecturers.

He said, “The directive was meant for civil servants; university academics are not civil servants. We have an understanding with the government to develop an alternative platform that would be sensitive to the operations of the university and accommodate its peculiarities.

“The platform we are developing will also respect the autonomy of our universities as obtained globally. The idea of seeking clearance from the Head of Service or the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation is alien to university operations because it will halt its flexibility.”

He further said, “The University Miscellaneous (Provisions) (Amendment) Act (2003), which the government gazetted as University Autonomy Act (2007), had vested the powers of personnel and payroll system in the hands of each university’s governing council.’’

Ogunyemi recalled that ASUU, on January 9, 2019, reached an understanding with the President to develop its proposed University Transparency and Accountability Solution for testing, and adoption of the same for managing personnel information and payroll system in the universities.

He said ASUU had since done that and presented the same to the Federal Ministry of Education, adding that what is left is to present it to other major stakeholders, especially the Federal Ministry of Finance, Budget, and National Planning.

Considering UTAS

Addressing journalists after a nearly three hours closed-door meeting with the leadership of the Senate and ASUU last week, Dr. Chris Ngige, said the federal government might consider the adoption of the UTAS presented by ASUU.

Dr. Ngige said the alternative payment platform presented by ASUU was home grown and worth given thorough assessment test.

“We agreed at the meeting to give required consideration to the UTAS alternative they came up with as a way of finding lasting solution to the lingering crisis over implementation of IPPIS. We have neither jettisoned the implementation of the IPPIS nor fully accepted UTAS.

“The level we moved to now is to subject ASUU’s scheme to integrity test and in doing so, it will be presented to users like the office of Accountant General of the Federation on Wednesday.

“After that, it will be sent to the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) and from there to the office of the National Security Adviser for second look.

“The platform is an option grown device that requires stage-by-stage consideration and from the looks of things is good,” he said.

It was learnt that the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, who brokered the meeting, had noted that the current impasse between ASUU and the federal government was an ill wind that would not do any of the two parties any good. Lawan asked the two parties to find a middle ground to resolve their differences, saying “It has to be a win-win situation”.

Confirming the headway achieved at the meeting, the chairman, Senate Committee on Tertiary Education and TetFund, Ahmad Baba Kaita, said the interface had not ended, but a stage of compromise is getting closer between the two parties.

“The meeting brokered by the President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan, among other stakeholders, achieved a lot today with agreement on the need to subject the UTAS alternative brought forward by ASUU to integrity test by all relevant departments of the government,” he said.

Although the ASUU leadership refused to speak to the press after the closed door meeting, they were in good mood, lending credence to the minister’s hint about government’s decision to consider the alternative platform.

Meanwhile, Education Rights Campaign (ERC) has described the controversy generated around the implementation of the IPPIS in the public universities as needless and distracting. National Coordinator of the group, Hassan Taiwo Soweto, said the drama was unnecessary considering the huge challenges confronting university education in the country.

He said, “The controversy was unnecessary and diversionary especially considering the enormous challenges of underfunding, skyrocketing tuition fees and a clampdown on democratic rights facing the education sector.

While admitting that there is a high level of corruption in the university system, Soweto maintained that implementation of IPPIS, without democratic control and management of schools, will not in any way curb corruption.

Questioning the moral rights of the present administration in fighting corruption, Soweto stressed, “In the hands of a capitalist government whose officials are themselves corrupt, the IPPIS will not automatically achieve the expected outcome of curbing corruption.

Rather it will only shift the centre of corruption and manipulation of the payroll system from the governing councils of the respective universities to the offices of the Accountant General of the Federation, Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).

A parent, who is enthusiastic about university education, Mr. Abdulrahman Akanbi, cautioned that since both sides want progress and development for the nation, there is no reason why everything that will lead to success must not be done by both sides.

 “To ASUU, a record must be set straight. All terms cannot be met in a day. They shouldn’t expect to get their wants within jiffy minutes. If that should continue, the whole nation would paint them as devil and enemy of progress.

“It is important for the federal government to honour whatever agreement reached with ASUU so as to put an end to strike in the nation’s educational system. Unfortunately, disrespecting their agreements that led to strike often has been tarnishing Nigeria’s image before other countries of the world.

“They should also take with caring hands the educational sector and increase its annual budget so as to have a quality education with necessary infrastructures in our universities. Like two sides of a coin, some students blamed ASUU for hypocrisy, unpatriotic and huge demand, whereas others faulted the federal government for reneging on promises always,” he said.

Another concerned Nigerian, Mr. Patrick Williams, regretted that the industrial action, which coincided with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, has lingered for eight months and continues even after the ease of lockdown.

“The two parties would have to reconvene a meeting and iron out their differences”, he cautioned.

“The Nigerian students are rotting away at home and the Nigerian educational sector has to take a critical look at itself and find a lasting solution to the recurring strikes.”

The meeting is to reconvene on October 21 for ASUU to report back on the decision of her National Executive Council (NEC), in order to facilitate the calling off of their strike.