THE 2017-2018 academic calendar of tertiary institutions in Nigeria kicked off in full swing last week after surviving an initial heckle at the instance of a strike action by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). Nigerians had expected ASUU to stretch the strike action beyond tolerable limit as usual, but this time, the story is different. The strike lasted less than a month, the shortest under any government in Nigeria. The government of President Muhammadu Buhari had labored visibly to contain the anger by ASUU for declaring an indefinite strike action. It rallied the union leaders to round tables with several pre-down meetings, which eventually calmed frayed nerves. For the first time in history, ASUU demonstrated maturity and a deep sense of understanding, agreeing to save the Nigerian students, long agonizing period of staying at home. ASUU in essence, may have started responding positively to the mantra of ‘change’ by the government.
Nonetheless, it is not yet Uhuru for both the Federal Government and ASUU. The problem lies in the resolve by the unionists to suspend strike on a major condition. That is; full implementation of the agreement they long ago signed with the government on improvement of tertiary education in Nigeria. By this, ASUU made it clear that it may go on strike again in October on failure by the government to abide by the agreement. In fighting for improvement of the tertiary education in Nigeria, ASUU had demanded a full-scale University autonomy, increased funding for Universities, payment of backlog of debt, which the Federal Government owed the schools and most importantly, exemption from Treasury Single Account (TSA) implementation, among others. The government may have agreed on phased implementation of demands by ASUU, a reason the strike by union was short-lived; it nonetheless, it found the issue of exemption from the TSA most objectionable.
To ASUU, TSA has constituted a bottleneck that has eclipsed the core mandate of the universities on research and breakthroughs. The lecturers are not happy that grants from international and corporate organisations for research by universities, hitherto paid into the accounts of institutions, are now trapped in the centralised TSA accounts, which they argued are not easily assessed. They are pained equally that the universities, of late, have been losing the grants at the expiration of timelines set for usage. Logical as the argument against the TSA by ASUU sounds, the Federal Government seemed not moved and inclined to back down on implementation. The reasons are quite obvious. TSA remains the major plank of the policy by the government for turning the battered economy of Nigeria around and most importantly, for taming the instinct for corruption in the government circles. If the government is sticking uncompromisingly to TSA, the reason is not far from the breakthrough it has been recording with its implementation. As at March this year, the federation account had increased to N7.2 trillion. Avenues for further increase are still wide open. Prior, more than half of this humongous sum would have dissolved into private pockets of corrupt government officials and their cronies.
Before TSA, officials of government were stealing uncontrollably from the government. The case was worst when the government had it tough to determine its own cash position at every given time. For instance, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) under the immediate past government was operating more than 47 different account said to be directly accessed by few officials in government’s name. In all, the government of President Buhari with full implementation of TSA had to close down over 20,000 bank accounts illegally operated by MDAs, as the federation account was getting leaner by the day. There were reports that by the time President Buhari assumed power in May 29, 2015, the national treasury was almost empty against the backdrop of screaming looting by officials. All along, domestic debt and borrowing, which kept mounting, were never aligned and used for the purposes they were obtained. The incongruities in the manner the national treasury was being managed precipitated the sudden recession that gripped Nigeria from 2015 up till the first quarter of this year.
It presupposes therefore, that a government that battled fiercely to save the Nigerian economy from total collapse, pulling the country out of a gripping recession all the same, with TSA as a major tool, will not relax grip on the implementation by any means. This is a message that should not be lost on ASUU.The Professor Biodun Ogunyemi-led ASUU had demonstrated uncommon sense of understanding and empathy for the government of President Buhari and Nigerians in general by calling off the strike early enough. The impression now is that both the government and ASUU are on synergy to save the education sector in Nigeria, in national interest. For this, ASUU has continued to earn applauses for refusing to play to the gallery with uncompromising stance in negotiation with the government on issues at stake. It is in this spirit that more Nigerians expect ASUU to put on a thinking cap to devise fresh ideas for universities to access international grants for research and development, while refraining from the urge to compel tertiary institutions’ exit from TSA. ASUU should begin to ride on the crest of its growing popularity to assist the implementation of TSA rather that be noted with deliberate intent to subvert it.