Kemi Rotimi is a Professor of History at Obafemi Awolowo University, with a bias in the history of the police, and policing, in Nigeria. He said that the demand of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), is not tenable, as the employer cannot determine a channel of payment for her employee. He also decried the protracted and prolonged strike action by ASUU in this Arise interview monitored by LINUS ALEKE
ASUU has extended its strike action three times this year to force the federal government to implement some of the agreements it reached with her, do you think this four weeks extension of the strike action will be the final push that will force the government to do the needful?
The combat is just at halftime, incidentally, your sports commentator is with you in the studio and will understand what I meant by the combatants are just at halftime. I remember that two weeks ago, Mr. President directed that the Minister of Education should take charge of negotiations with ASUU, and there had been this controversy over the two weeks ultimatum. Whether it was the president that gave him weeks or he was the one that suggested the two weeks, whatever it is, today makes it 14 days. From the ASUU release, it is clear that there has been no meeting, in order words, the new man in charge that is the Minister of Education, whose business it should have been all along if he was committed to his duty, has taken charge. Let us see how far the ASUU leadership will go with the Minister of Education. They said, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige is bad, let us see if they can make progress with the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu. So, for me, they are just at halftime.
When we look at the ASUU demand, we can say that all the demands cannot be met at once, to be able to get the students back into the classroom, in the interest of the students, what do you think is the plausible solution to this problem?
Now, this should be my 6th intervention on this matter of ASUU, since March. But just like you, I am of the view that a good number of these demands cannot be met, and some should not even be met. I mean, this issue about ASUU having a platform that the employer must accept to pay members. I don’t know where that comes from, honestly, and the thing has now been polluted because the other unions in the system have also come up with their platforms. How many platforms will the government adopt before paying workers in the university system? I think that workers should be more concerned about payment of their agreed fee regularly and occasionally we should have some more if we want. But this issue about the platform, and ASUU is making it one of the minimum, I do not know, I will be surprised if the Federal Government will oblige ASUU that thing. Not when other workers in the system have also come up with their platforms. So, when I talk about halftime I know what I am talking about. Just the other day, either from the government side or the committee side, there was this leakage of what was in the BRIC committee report, and from what was leaked, it does appear that the university teachers will now earn what Yoruba call “gbem,” some big fee and other workers are already up in arms. How can ASUU have a 150-180 per cent increase and their own is just 10 per cent? Let me say this if anybody is looking for solutions in the immediate, whoever is talking to the workers in the system because I don’t want to be talking about this ASUU thing. ASUU is not the only union in the university system, and anybody who wants to pretend about it can pretend. Over the years, when you make an award to ASUU, that becomes the template that other workers in the system want to use to negotiate their rights. So, if anybody is looking for a solution, make sure that all the representatives of the workers in the system, and also the polytechnic and colleges of education are carried along in one go. There is no point in making any award to one group and leaving out the others, especially, in the university system. The moment we do that, that will be a recipe for another crisis. When I talk about halftime, I know what I am talking about. I don’t know what the committee is doing, but from their release, Adamu has not called any meeting and had not invited them officially for any meeting.
ASUU has also expressed genuine concern that the Federal Government is destroying university education in Nigeria, just as it destroyed the public primary and secondary education, but it seems that the use of strike is no longer effective, what then is the way forward because the university system in Nigeria needs to be revamped?
If anybody wants to revamp the university system, there is a question that both the ASUU and the government have been running away from, which shows the dishonesty of both parties and that question is who pays for the tertiary education and what should the quantum of burden be? In other words, we must have a dialogue, a dialogue that involves ASUU, representing the teachers, parents or sponsors, students, and the government about who pays for tertiary education. ASUU keeps talking about university autonomy, autonomy to manage what? Autonomy to manage the money that you collect from the government unless we answer the question of who pays for tertiary education and what should the quantum of the burden be. In other words, the university must be in a position to generate its funds and it cannot generate funds without charging fees. When you say it, people go up in arms, you don’t want children of mechanics, carpenters, and bricklayers to go to school, who says? So, if we are looking for a way forward, that question must be frontally addressed. Who pays for tertiary education and what will the quantum of the burden be?
Addressing these questions you raised above would be very important, but seeing that this is half time, as you have described it, what is the way forward and how is this crisis going to be resolved?
I have a prayer for the combatants, may the better side win because where they are now, is a dog fight. ASUU keep coming up with a thousand and one demands, what exactly are the core demand that they have? And then, as I had said, this minimum of a platform that government must adopt to pay university teachers will not work and I will be surprised if the government accepts it. Other groups have come up with their platforms, how many will government adopt? Meanwhile, all of these are quantum of money you are paying teachers or workers in the university system. So, if anybody is looking for a solution, maybe Bishop Kukah and General Abdulsalami’s peace committee should come in now and broker peace. Maybe, but let us see what the Adamu committee will do. Have you ever heard the voice of the Minister of Education? I mean, a crisis has been on since February and the man who is in charge, whose business it is primarily, has practically kept quiet. Have you ever heard that man talk? And the man who keeps engaging ASUU said he is a bad man. I am not holding brief for anybody, but let us see what an Adamu will do, let us see what magic Adamu will perform. The first two weeks have gone, and with ASUU’s release, it means they have not talked to them, they have not had any meeting, will he ever? I don’t know, where is he now? I don’t know. So, if you are asking for what the solution will be, the solution cannot just come like that but let ASUU also narrow its case and be more interested in the quantum of money they are paid and not the platform used. I will be surprised if the federal government obliges them with such a demand. And if it does, what happens to the other group? I had been here for 40 years, and I know what will happen, the moment we say that we have adopted UTAS, other unions will say that they have their platforms and until you oblige them the system will not work. How long are we going to continue to move in circles, I am tired myself. I pity the students who were admitted into the system this year, nobody had stood in front of them to teach them anything, they just managed to be matriculated and they had gone home. Six months have gone in a nine months session, it does not make sense. I am an anti-strike person basically and when it gets protracted and prolonged you just lose me. So, I have stated my position.
You say they have lost you but the executive of ASUU said that they are fighting a righteous cause to ensure that the university system is at par with some of the best universities in the world, how much of a loss has the students incurred?
Colossal loss; colossal loss of their precious time and lives and it hurts me. I don’t have a child in the university anymore but my heart goes out to these students. I become emotional over this sometimes, and we just engage in this dog fight over what? Over issues that look seemingly intractable and as I have said we have a federal government, while ASUU is crying over maintaining the existing universities, government wakes up to bring new universities into existence, does it make any sense? Both government and ASUU need to re-examine themselves, they are not just getting it right. Their going on with a prolonged strike does not make any sense to me. The Federal Government behaving the way it does, creating new universities, and neglecting the issue does not also add up, Mr. President only intervened in this issue two weeks ago after 5 months and now there is still the unresolved issue of the withheld pay of academics since February. Anybody thinking about peace must also see factors of the Federal Government paying the withheld salaries, as the strike is winding down. These are the immediate concerns, but as I said earlier, they are at halftime.