Recently, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) embarked on another indefinite strike action to compel the federal government to honour its agreement with the Union and to consider the University Transparency and Accountability System (UTAS), as a payroll payment alternative for the Union. CHIKA MEFOR-NWACHUKWU takes a look at the issues on ground.
Negotiations between the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the federal government finally came to a stalemate on Monday, March 23, 2020, as the two parties could not reach consensus on the subject of the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) and the University Transparency and Accountability System (UTAS).
Observers of the tussle had thought that the feud bordered on just the integration or otherwise of academic staff of universities in the payroll system that was put up by the government to monitor and check the payment of its staff; but recent developments have shown that there was more to the feud than the disagreement over the enrolment of universities’ staffs in the IPPIS.
During a press conference convened by ASUU on Monday, the 23rd president of the Union, Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, revealed that the long-running feud between the federal government and ASUU did not only border on the inclusion or otherwise of academic staff of universities in the IPPIS, but also on the non-implementation and skeletal implementation of the provisions of the many agreement earlier reached by the union and the federal government.
These agreements, Ogunyemi revealed, arose from its many struggles and effort to ensure that the Nigerian public universities were saved from collapse.
The indefinite strike that was kickstarted on Monday, March 23, 2020, followed a two-week warning strike that was embarked upon from Monday, March 9, 2020, and it was kickstarted to compel the federal government to honour, most importantly, some key agreements that according to ASUU, are pivotal to the advancement of Nigerian universities, and which include the 2009 FGN-ASUU Agreement, the 2012 and 2013 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), and the 2017 and 2019 Memorandum of Action (MoA) 2019.
The Union accused the Nigerian government of reneging on its side of the bargain, and premised its accusation on the argument that the federal government does not care about the advancement of public universities, since children of members of the executive council do not attend schools here in Nigeria, but in foreign countries.
The Union further stated that the only intervention that was created by the federal government to cater for the needs of the nation’s varsities (talking about the Tertiary Education Trust Fund, TETFund) has been stretched into exhaustion, with the constant creation of new universities by state and federal governments, such that the Fund has been over-strained and the intervention resources available can no longer serve the purpose for which it was set up.
“In less than ten years, many of these unplanned universities have become crises centres for Nigeria,” Ogunyemi stated.
In a bid to unravel the mystery behind the perennial problems that the country has been bedevilled with, Ogunyemi claimed that the unholy marriage between Nigeria’s leaders and the external forces which dates back to the last 40 years, is at the centre of Nigeria’s colossal economic problems. He added that the unholy marriage started in 1979, when the World Bank took control of the country through introduction of the World Bank Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), which it said was aimed at controlling the economy of the under-developed countries by Euro-American Institutions and agents.
And going forward, the Union revealed that it stood against government’s insistence on its members enrolling in the IPPIS, and that that was what led to its issuing a warning strike. Ogunyemi maintained that the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System (IPPIS) is directly hooked to a foreign loan which is to control Nigeria.
The IPPIS, the Union claimed, is a programme spearheaded by foreign forces to bring the Nigerian University System to its knees through systematic underfunding, loan and other financial interventions which it said were aimed at frustrating the Union’s struggle for a better education system in the country.
In defending its stance, the union stated that it has rejected the payment scheme because of its technical and procedural deficiency, and added that government inadvertently ignited the event that led to the two-week warning strike by ignoring the FGN-ASUU 2019 Memorandum of Action. It also accused the government of provoking the strike when it stopped the payment of the salaries of the university lecturers who had not enrolled on the IPPIS.
The Union further stated that many of the issues that it has raised and that it wishes would be taken care of by government include the funding of the revitalisation of public universities, payment of outstanding balance of arrears of earned academic allowances, and salary shortfall at the Federal University of Technology, Akure.
Others include; underfunding and proliferation of state universities, payment of earned allowances (EAA) to loyal ASUU Members in the University of Ilorin, visitation panels to federal universities, regeneration of the 2009 Agreement and the IPPIS.
Furthermore, the Union stated that their rejection of the IPPIS also stems from the fact that the scheme has no place for contract scholars and academics in diaspora who it said are direly needed to add international flavour to curricula, research and procedures in Nigerian universities, and added that the advocates of the scheme had consequently directed universities to look inwards to generate fund to pay these scholars. This directive, the Union made bold to say, was government’s indirect way of reintroducing tuition fees in the public universities.
Having opposed the enrolment of its members in the IPPIS, ASUU however offered the UTAS as alternative which it said could and would take care of all the anomalies in the IPPIS. It added that while government had approved of the scheme, it gave a timeline for the development of the system.
The Union however considered as a trap, government’s insistence on the enrolment of its members in the IPPIS within the intervening period before the full development of the UTAS.
On the Union’s preference to the UTAS, Ogunyemi stated that UTAS will be domesticated in the university system adding that it will follow the global best practice which he said was found wanting in the IPPIS.
“If we agree to the IPPIS, it will get to a point where the Vice Chancellor of a school cannot employ a staff without getting permission from the head of service. Universities are not run like that all over the world. That is why we talk about flexibility in the payroll system of the universities. The IPPIS violates the University Autonomy Law,” he said.
He was of the opinion that government should allow the UTAS which he said would have been ready if the government had given approval since 2014, adding that the Union was not averse to government monitoring and prosecuting anybody found wanting for fraud.
Speaking on the IPPIS and government’s insistence on the enrolment of members of the Union, the Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Education, Sonny Echono, opined that the payroll scheme would expose the massive fraud being perpetrated in public varsities.
Echono cited the recent report from the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission, ICPC’s System Check, which uncovered massive frauds in the tertiary education system, adding that the fraud was what the IPPIS aimed to checkmate.
He revealed that the federal government loses billions of naira annually to tertiary Institutions’ fraud, and added that the government will no longer tolerate or accommodate some varsities’ peculiarities that inflate personnel cost.
“Basically, our position is very simple. IPPIS is intended to check payroll fraud and there is no doubt that there has been a lot of that in our University system. Even Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, argued that some of the peculiarities of the Universities are not aggregately captured in IPPIS and we told them there are many organisations with so many peculiarities that have already been captured so they can make those accommodations,” he explained.
Echono further stated that the federal government while negotiating with the Union, needed a time frame for ASUU to mobilise its members or present the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) which it claimed to have developed. He however, added that 70 per cent of the university staff have already enrolled on the IPPIS, remaining 30 per cent, most of which comprise members of the Union.
He assured ASUU of federal government’s readiness to integrate UTAS payment system if it proved robust after passing through independent verification, and urged the union to give time frame to develop the software.
Echono further stated that it was unfortunate that ASUU has continued to feed the public with false claims and information about the IPPIS which has tremendously checked payroll fraud in the country’s public service.
Angered about ASUU’s incessant strike actions, Echono urged members of the Union to reinvent themselves instead of always resorting to strike at every slight moment.
“The fraud in the universities is amazing and you will be shocked. ICPC did a system check recently, and it was so shocking. In fact, the worst two organisations they mentioned are the Teaching Hospitals and our universities, and it is true. I am the accounting officer of the ministry.
“I can tell you, there is massive fraud going on there. There is hardly any university that is an exception. We do not have the record for state universities but you can imagine if it is a pattern.
“It is not unique to universities. Before IPPIS, we were having similar problems in the public service. People will tell you, I have 1,000 staff, but in real terms, it is only 500 that they have.
“If you have been claiming 1,000 and you have only 500 names somebody would look at it and say where are these millions going to every year. Many have not been able to fill all the gaps because they also have some challenges.
“If you recruit somebody today, you cannot put him on the nominal roll two years ago. So if you ask them for the nominal roll three years ago, there are two things you can do, is either you give us the correct thing which will show that you didn’t have them or you go and put fake names there now, and tell us that those people were there before but they left. And if you go and put fake people, this can be verified.
“The system check by the ICPC was launched by the President and it is in public knowledge. In the report, they mentioned Constituency projects in National Assembly as a major source of fraud but our own is the payroll system and Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) in universities.
Echono further insisted that ASUU as a Union, needed to redeem its image in the eye of the public, and added that the warning strike earlier embarked upon was against the norm because no notice was served the government before the sudden strike.
He debunked claims by ASUU that salaries of their members were stopped because of non-enrolment on the IPPIS platform, saying that many other agencies of government who are on IPPIS were not paid their February salaries because of financial challenges.
Echono while speaking, alleged that ASUU’s negotiation team has always comprised of the same set of people, and called on the Union to rejig its negotiation team.
“In any case, I need to advice the ASUU on the need to reinvent themselves because ASUU must change its own public perception. I know it is going to be difficult for them because if you check the composition of ASUU’s negotiation team, it has been constant for the past 20 years. It is always the current president and all the past presidents, the same set of people; those who fought for ‘Ali must go’ 40 years ago are still the same people. The world has changed.
“This approach of a carpenter who has only one hammer and who believes that every problem looks like a nail, must change. The strike has become their only tool and we say no to that. There are other forms of engagement that we can productively engage and achieve more, than every time you resort to strike,” he said.
He clarified that the salaries of ASUU members were not stopped by the Federal Ministry of Finance because of IPPIS, but that it was a general challenge.
Now, the same circle is about to repeat itself again as ASUU has embarked on an indefinite strike, a development that is reminiscent of the past when students had to stay at home for several months, waiting for an end to a strike action that goes with the label indefinite.
As it stands now, no one can tell what will become of the students of Nigeria who are always at the receiving end of the tussle between the ASUU and the government.