Strike: at last, Reps broker peace between govt, ASUU

The leadership of the House of Representatives yesterday brokered a meeting between the Academic Staff Union of Universities ASUU and the office of the accountant general of the federation.

The meeting came after three weeks of deliberations with the union and all the relevant government agencies to resolve the teething issues that necessitated the 7-month-old strike of the lecturers.

Speaker of the House, Rep. Femi Gbajabiamila who led the principal officers of the House to the meeting had enquired from the Accountant-general and the NITDA if the universities payment systems can be re-evaluated.

While the Direct-General of the National Information Technology Development Agency, NITDA, Kashifu Inuwa said that all the three payment systems including University Transparency and Accountability Solution, UTAS; Integration Personnel and Information System, IPPIS and U3PS failed the integrity test and as such could not be relied upon, the Accountant general, Sylvia Okolieaboh offered for a meeting with ASUU to resolve the issues.

He said that the issues would be resolved using the IPPIS payment solution.

He said that adopting UTAS might prompt unwholesome requests from other agencies to be paid in their own salary structure.

Okolieaboh said: “If there are peculiarities in the university salaries system, what we need to do is to sit down with ASUU and identify them and address them in IPPS, are you willing to accept, if the answer is yes, then the whole of the issues will be resolved.

What we need to do, in my own opinion is to sit down with ASUU and know what the issues are and address them inside IPPS.

“One of the risks I’m adopting UTAS is that everybody will come and say give us our own salary. As we speak, the military is on IPPS, the police are on IPPS. They have their own peculiarities. What we need to do is sit down. IPPS is not a perfect system”.

He also offered ASUU to come up with any homegrown solution, assuring that the government will abide by it.

“In the spirit of reconciliation, if ASUU knows any fibre that can help to resolve the issues that we have, ASUU should go ahead. If ASUU knows any solution, we are more than willing to accept. if we are going to use UTAS, it means we are going to build the salaries of the universities”, Okolieaboh said.

Also speaking, the NITDA DG said they were waiting for further directives from the government to continue with the testing of the solutions.

“Our interactions with ASUU started in 2020. We keep identifying issues. We are always willing to continue with these engagements. We ended the last test in June 2022. We are waiting for the directive to continue. The last engagement was on the directive of the Chief of Staff to the President. We have 3 solutions. UTAS, U3PS and IPPIS. Professional advice, these solutions have failed. There are vulnerabilities in them as we identified. As far as a university payment system is concerned, these three solutions have failed”, he said.

Speaking also the Director General of the Budget Office, Ben Akabueze informed the lawmakers that they were opposed to adopting multiple solutions, stressing they will be expensive to fund.

He said “There is a dimension to this discussion. Acquiring and maintaining any application based on which we will pay thousands of people will cost money. If you decide to use any of them, you need a data centre and it will cost billions of naira. There has to be backup.

“We are vehemently opposed to multiple solutions because of our own fiscal situation. It’s still the government that will fund it. It doesn’t really make sense to us. Let’s determine which one is best but let’s not do multiple solutions”.

Similarly, the Head of Service, Yemi Esan contribution also said that “At this particular time, the country may not afford two payment platforms at this time. Running two platforms will be extremely expensive at this time. If we are using UTAS or IPPIS, let’s flush it and use it.”

On his part, the Minister of Labour, Chris Ngige lauded the House leadership for the initiative, encouraging ASUU to stick with IPPIS to address their grievances.

He however regretted that ASUU hurriedly went on strike when negotiations were still ongoing without his notice, stressing he would not accept the failed systems.

The minister also mulled the financial autonomy for the university to generate its own funds.

“You started very well on the critical part, which is the renegotiation of their salaries and wages. It is money. The economy is bad. Biting on everybody. I don’t blame them.

“The answer to everything is that what you did at Briggs committee is still negotiation in progress, but when you go now and say it is an agreement to be signed by the government, nobody would agree. I would not agree because it did not pass through due process.

“The Minister for Education cannot even sign it alone. The ability to pay is a guiding principle of collective bargaining and agreement. You cannot offer what you don’t have.

“The issue is being addressed holistically by all. Here, I want to plead guilty to the offence that the day ASUU visited the President that they have UTAS, I was the one that raised my hand and said we should give them a trial in the spirit of the executive order.

“The AGF supported me. Some people said they have discovered something that would make us not lose foreign exchange, why won’t we embrace it? I am happy with the clarity the budget office has offered, that the three systems will look at it. Anyone that is good the government would adopt it for the whole country.

“So, no matter how much I love ASUU, I would not support something that failed a test. But the good news is that they said it is a continuous process. I had advised at that time when the first result came, to do a handshake with IPPIS. The peculiarities can be captured.

“I told my friend to do a handshake while we continue the work. They accepted. The tests were going on and they went on strike. And as Labor Minister, I was not even given notice. I still believe that NITDA with the assurance they are giving here should recommence their test and keep upgrading and forwarding us reports.

“Finally, somebody raised full autonomy. The ACt is clear, there is no ambiguity. It was amended in 2007, not even 2003 and University Councils are their employers, I don’t know why the government or Ministry of Education can start giving full effect to the autonomy so they can start generating their own money and pay themselves.

“So the universities should set up their standard, get their grant from FG, research, consultancy and fees.  They should generate money”, Ngige said.

But the president of ASUU, Professor Emmanuel Osodeke said that it was not the first time the government was making a promise of looking into the issues and yet failed.

Quoting the University Miscellaneous Act, the Union opposed insisted on the autonomy of the university, saying that Nigeria was the only country where salaries of lecturers were paid through the office of the accountant general.

Osodeke also queried why NITDA has refused to make available the report of the last test on UTAS, insisting that the report must be available for them to study.

He said: “We were told exactly this same thing in 2017. They all came and told us at the same time. Are we really patriotic? They are paying money to foreign companies per person.

“We have two options. Use the one we have developed. Is there any other country in the world where the salaries of universities are paid by the office of the accountant general? No country in the world will harvest the data of their university lecturers and give to a foreign company.

“The Nigerian people have a law that says that the Universities are autonomous. What we want is real accountability. Allow the Universities to operate on the basis of the laws of the country.

“Circulars should not dictate what goes on in the university system. It’s this perception that the Universities are corrupt and cannot manage themselves that has put us into this problem.

“Until we see the report and our committee goes through the report, we cannot talk. Why did you send the first two to us and refused the last one?”

The union feared that the government will also fail on their promises like before.

In his final remarks, the Speaker of the House, Gbajabiamila appealed to ASUU to interface with the accountant general in the interest of the students, assuring that the parliament would be a witness to the agreements.

He appointed the Chairman, of the House Community on education to be part of the tripartite meeting.

Gbajabiamila also said that the report of the meeting will be ready in days for onward transmission to President Muhammadu Buhari. 

“Let me just say I believe this would be, hopefully, the last meeting we are going to have on this matter because from here the leadership of the House will put together our reports, our recommendations and our thoughts, and take it to Mr President. I am hoping that with whatever we have done, ASUU will at least – this is an independent arm of the government – access in good faith and hopefully, the government too will accept in good faith so that our children can go back to school and that is what this is all about.

“Again, let me repeat, we are running a government: nobody, no individual, no group, whether you are the legislature, judiciary or whatever can be above the government or above the law.  We can make our case…and I am speaking specifically to ASUU who I know we are all with you on this. We did not say that because the court had given a judgment, that is the end of this conversation. In spite of the court judgment, we are still looking for solutions. We didn’t even address it here. I don’t want to address it. It is another third arm of the government…otherwise, one could have even said the court has given judgment, I don’t know if there is a stay of execution. 

“I am also in touch with your lawyer, Mr Falana; we still even chatted this morning so that we can all be on the same page. We are appealing to you. The judiciary has spoken, at least as of now. The executive spoke. The legislature is about to speak, together with the executive. Everybody cannot be wrong and only one person is right. I am happy with the solution to the issue of UTAS. It is no victor, no vanquish: everybody is carried along. And if it is possible to accommodate everything that ASUU wants in UTAS, for me, that is the best way to go. On the issue of revitalisation and everything that concerns funding, that is why I asked the DG Budget if provisions have been made. At our first meeting, we discussed; told you what we would do. We have not reneged from that. On the issue of white paper, what we told you we would do, we will do. I have the letter here from the minister; the letter is here…finishing up with the white paper and sending it back to the President for his final approval. That is the letter here. The report for UTAS, we have here.

“So, we have been working according to everything that we said at our last meeting. Everything we said at the last meeting we have done. So, really, it is firmly at the feet of ASUU. I am pleading with you; the House is pleading with you, let us put all interests aside and look at only one interest and that is the interest of our children”, he said.

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