The General Secretary, Non-Academic Staff Union of Universities and Associated Institutions (NASU), Comrade Peters Adeyemi, speaks with SOJI-EZE FAGBEMI, on the strike by the university workers, problems created by the IPPIS and state of the economy.
WHAT are the reasons for the strike, most especially at this critical time when the country is battling with the economic crisis created by COVID-19?
It is no longer news that the three non-teaching staff unions in the universities keyed into the IPPIS policy of government. The capturing was in December, and the payment of salaries under that platform started in February this year and prior to our keying into the platform there were technical committees that were set up comprising government side, that is Vice-Chancellors, Pro-Chancellors, and all the unions in the system, that is ASUU, SSANU, NAAT and NASU. Over a period of time we held series of meetings and the consultant that was appointed by the Federal Government displayed the software; because over a period of time we had resisted to key into the IPPIS system because we have quite a number of peculiarities in the universities that distinct us from the workers in the core civil services. As a result of that, a platform was deliberately created for the universities, the polytechnics and colleges of education to take on board our peculiarities. Several meetings were held, the platform was tested with the exception of ASUU, the three other unions agreed. Again, over a period of time there had been these problems of short funds in personnel emoluments, there has also been this problem of corruption in the system; and when government said they wanted a situation where they could use IPPIS to at least reduce the level of corruption in the system, we then agreed as responsible Nigerians.
We were surprised however when in February the IPPIS started the payment of salaries of workers in the universities and later in the universities centers. And to our surprise, most of the things we agreed upon, the government did not comply. Government went back on its words. When this thing started we found out that some of our members were not paid their salaries at all, some were paid what is completely below what they were expected to get. Then we had the issue of all the agreements that we had with the government in 2009 which include payment of a number of allowances including earned allowance, all these agreements were jettisoned. In fact, what we were not paying before, National Housing Fund, IPPIS decided to deduct that without following the due process because you cannot just key anybody into the National Housing Fund, there are conditions precedents. Individuals will have to complete forms and do all the sort of things and they were supposed to be issued a membership card or something like that where every month when their money is deducted there will be record showing. All these things were jettisoned. So, we were confronted with a lot of crises about our members in March because February salary was paid in early March. So we did an aggregation of all the complaints university by university and we submitted to government and asked them to correct those things including deductions. Third party deductions were not paid, they deducted check up dues, they deducted welfare schemes, they deducted cooperatives and those who collected loans from banks were not allowed to pay back. So, it was really a serious problem.
So, in that March we notified the government after the meeting and what we did was we invited our members, our chairmen from all the universities and inter-universities centers to a meeting. We asked them before coming that they should collate the problems and they came and presented those problems to us, we compiled those problems and forwarded to both the Minister of Education and Minister of Labour and Accountant General and asked them to do something. You know IPPIS is directly under the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation; we did that in March. We were also not too happy because COVID-19 started actively around that period. Some of the things we intended to do; like going on strike immediately, we were prevented because the institutions were shut down. It doesn’t make any sense to go on strike when the place is not working. So, we reached out to government particularly the Minister of Labour, who appeared to have been very, very helpful because as at that time, he called us on phone, talked to us and he even tried to tell us that when they started it in the core public service that they also had some of these problems, and that he would try to get in touch with the appropriate agencies, Office of the Accountant General of the Federation to see how the issues could be resolved. So, we thought that things would change, March salary was paid, the same problem, April salary was paid, the same problem and initially they told us they were going to use three months for experimentation. So, we thought that when we pointed out all these things they should endeavour to start the process of correcting them, but they didn’t do anything. May, June, July, as we speak most of those issues are unresolved, even as I am speaking to you some of our branches have not collected their dues for about eight months.
So, all of the things they asked us to do we have done them. So, we then had a feeling that it could be a deliberate way to cripple the activities of the trade unions because they have been starving us of our legitimate funds by deducting our dues but not paying the unions. When we put more pressure they started releasing some of these dues, but those issues of cooperatives, welfare, bank loans, our allowances that were supposed to be paid, the issue of all our allowances as contained in the Federal Government NASU and SSANU agreement for 2009 were left unpaid. As we speak nothing has happened. We declared trade dispute because for us in NASU, we don’t just start going on strike. So, when we saw that the thing was not doing well in March we declared dispute officially with the government on this matter.
Not long ago we also met informally with the Minister of Labour who assured us that he was going to get all the agencies into a meeting to see how this matter is resolved.
Why this time when schools are just about to reopen after several months?
We had taken a position right from the word go. Why I told you that this is not a strange or a shocking one, we’ve already told government that except these issues are resolved, as soon as the FG announced resumption of the institutions that we are going to start a 14-day warning strike, and that’s exactly what we’ve done. Government had already made a pronouncement that the institutions should reopen and what we have just done is to go by what we have already said, that as soon as that pronouncement is made, we will start a 14-day warning strike and that strike started last week Monday and the level of compliance is very encouraging. We have said that if after 14 days the government continues to remain unbothered then we would go in to a full blown strike. This is where we are.
Considering the fact that there was a total lockdown in the education system for over four months, don’t you think going on another strike will destroy whatever remains in the university system?
You are aware that while this lockdown lasted ASUU had been on strike, and ASUU is still on strike. The pandemic only prolonged the commencement of the action. I tell you, if the government had been sensitive, this strike wouldn’t have been necessary. How can you expect trade union organisations, two formidable union organisations in the university system since March have been complaining formally to those in government, not only in writing, even physically to government. After declaring trade dispute, we also told them that as soon as you pronounce that the schools should resume we will start a strike. A sensitive government would not allow that to happen. You would have expected the government to take some proactive actions. But what have you seen in our government’s reaction to industrial relations matter? It is that government will never react until the last minutes. In some cases, it is when the strike starts. The government doesn’t take trade unions seriously. I don’t know whether you are aware that JOHESU went on a warning strike for seven days that paralyzed the hospitals, the government did not utter a word. So, it’s not about our problem. For almost one year we have sought audience with the Minister of Education. Since he got appointed we wrote him, that is the Joint Action Committee (JAC) of NASU and SSANU. We wrote him, congratulating him and because there had been some issues outstanding, we then wrote him also simultaneously as we were writing that letter of congratulations. We wrote another one, to seek appointment with the Minister so that we can sit down and discuss on a whole number of issues. We got reply from the Minister just about two to three weeks before the notice of the NLC strike. As we were preparing for that meeting, we got the notice of the NLC strike and since all of us who were supposed to hold meeting with him are affiliates of the NLC, they told us we can meet them on Monday 28th, September by 2pm. We said no, NLC is going on strike. At our level, we cannot be seen to be holding meeting with government when NLC is going on strike. So, this is where we are, we have done our own best. Of course we have been extremely benevolent with the system, we are not known to be making trouble. I am sure the Minister of Labour knows that NASU, SSANU, and possibly NAT have been very reasonable.
Despite that, Nigerians believe that your unions should have shelved the strike because of the plight of students.
The thing with Nigeria is that, if you want to use Nigeria as basis for anything, you are not going to get anything done. NLC said they wanted to go on strike; they did not go, Nigerians were fighting. So the union has problems that it needs to solve, it declared notice of strike and it’s on the strike, the same Nigerians are complaining. How do we satisfy them?
May be because it affected the students, the younger generations?
No! The truth of the matter is that, the environment, the people working in the system, are they not supposed to be looked after? Are you surprised, even as we are fighting COVID-19, workers in the frontline who are working on this issue of COVID-19, saving our lives were denied even their rights? Look, there is a time you cannot compromise your right, if you surrender your right government will just forget you. And then what is the essence of trade union? I’m telling you that salaries that workers are paid are not paid correctly and they have to survive and you know that the cost of living in Nigeria with COVID-19 has gone haywire and you also know that when things go up in Nigeria they never come down. When the prices of commodities go up in Nigeria they don’t come down. What we are saying is that we are also parents; I have children in the university too. So we know what it is. I think Nigerians should not even be blaming us, Nigerians should blame the government. Government says it wants students to go back to school; go to the schools, the universities and see what government has done there. Even the NCDC protocol for COVID-19 is not in existence in the universities, the place has been overgrown with weeds, everywhere is littered with dirt and you ask people to go in there. Government should also think of pumping money into the system, so that the COVID-19 protocol can be observed. In some areas, water is not flowing; bush has taken over the whole place. You should take time to visit some of the institutions and see what we are talking about. It is not just by making mouth that you want to open schools. I think they should go beyond that.
Governments all over the world are facing serious challenges as a result of COVID-19, economically. With the current situation in the country, do you think going on strike is realistic?
It is more than realistic, going on strike is more than realistic. We are not asking government to do anything new, what we are asking government to do is to make sure that the way our salaries and entitlements have been paid up to January, they should continue that way. After all, this agreement that we had with government was an agreement we entered with government after years of negotiation and all arms of government were present, Finance Ministry, Accountant General Office, Federal Ministry of Education, Federal Ministry of Labour, everybody was present. It is not as if we are asking for something new. If you pay us salaries, even on the government platform used up to the end of January and then you start on IPPIS platform in February, moving from one platform to another; why must you short-change our members? Why? The way IPPIS has been conceived, government has made so much noise that they saved money from IPPIS. You can only save legitimate money; you can’t save money you have been paying to people. If in the process of doing this thing you find ghost workers, fine, but it’s not that. Somebody that has been earning N100, 000, because you moved from one platform to the other you changed his money to N50,000. We are not asking for salary increase, we are not. You reduced our pay, and our entitlements, you don’t give it to us again, then you started deducting the money you were not deducting before and you sat on the money you have deducted which we are supposed to be using. You sat on our own money you have taken, it is very strange.
Specifically, what do you want the government to do now?
Specifically, that government should return the salary of our members to what it used to be before the IPPIS platform commenced. We were on “GIFMIS” (Government Integrated Financial Management Information System) and “GIFMIS” is another platform for payment. All the money that has been deducted should be paid. Third party deductions, they should pay, arrears of our minimum wage, they should pay, our earned allowances, they should pay. We have put those things there, they are not new demands. We are not saying that government should pay us new salary.
So, will you be asking for a reversal to the former platform?
We have designed our own platform, we are ready to also present it. Don’t forget that ASUU also said they have a platform they have designed. So, if government is ready, it’s now the right of the unions to prepare their platforms. We have our own, they can’t use ASUU platform to pay us.
Can you expatiate more on your platform?
We are going to call the media very shortly to present it to them openly. It’s ready and since we have agreed that we will do a formal launching of the platform, don’t let me let the cat out of the bag right now.
Generally, the economy is in shambles, security is problematic and of recent some people are calling for serious restructuring of the country and the presidency came out to say he cannot be pressurised on that issue?
You see, generally the economy of virtually every country of the world is in trouble because of COVID-19 pandemic. Virtually, all the countries of the world have had to review their annual budgets downward. African countries have had to go borrowing to even be able to service their budgets. So, the pandemic itself is a disaster globally and for our own economy, it is worse because the pandemic itself has negatively affected the money we make from the sales of the crude to the international market. You can also notice that our Naira has become so weak. If we had been selling our crude in the international market at a reasonable amount, the government would have been able to earn more hard currency. You know we sell our oil in dollars, clearly when dollar is scarce to get, it clearly attracts more money. You are aware also that for quite a while the CBN has had to push dollars into the forex market for people to buy, supplying just to bridge the gap of scarcity; and when the CBN itself is confronted with the problem of not having the dollar to push into the forex market, it’s a crisis. So ours can be referred to as a triple tragedy; one, the COVID-19 pandemic, two, the crash in the sales of crude in the international market and thirdly the devaluation of our currency. There is no way that will not affect our economy. And when we talk about diversification of the economy, of course, so many governments have come on board to talk about diversifying from absolute reliance on oil to agric and all the rest of it. This government has tried to a large extent when we talk about diversification. I think the major problem has to do with the waste in government and the problem of corruption. The problem of corruption is still very evident, even in this government despite the energy the government had deployed in to fighting corruption. When you hear about what we heard in NDDC, you hear a situation where a man who used to catch the thieves has now been caught, you read about the probe of Magu and all the rest of it. This does not show that the fight against corruption is succeeding. If you read some of the reports from ICPC about the massive lootings in quite a number of ministries, government ministries and parastatals, it is heartbreaking. I think that the government should focus more. One, all of the money recovered, let us have some level of transparency as to how this money is also being expended. Where is this money? Custom has made so much money, where is the money?
For me, I think one of the major problems we still have has to do with the problem of corruption. If we are able to achieve 50 per cent success in the fight against corruption, quite a lot of money would have been saved, that would have also helped us to grow the economy. Don’t forget also when we talk about COVID-19, that a lot of organisations and individuals have contributed money for fighting this pandemic, you also find out that like what we have seen in other countries, we didn’t feel the impact of palliatives. Quite a number of countries were giving palliatives to their citizens, I didn’t see anyone. I don’t know whether anyone you know benefited from that. It’s even strange when the Presidential Task Force is still saying there’s so much money in the account. Then you ask yourself, is the money supposed to be there? When those who are supposed to even be paid legitimate allowances are not being paid and you are still keeping the money. There are areas where PPEs and all the rest are not available; you are still keeping the money. Most Nigerians, a lot of Nigerians have not seen the palliatives and you are still keeping the money. For me, I think we are only lucky in Nigeria by the nature of our country, the nature of our own people, and by the way God built us. COVID-19 has not succeeded the way people had thought it would have succeeded because by now this is not what we are supposed to be talking about.
I think government has to do lot more than just talking. Government is working but Nigeria is a very big country with a very huge population. Of course, naturally there must be these problems. I think government can do more in terms of how they can generate more resources. Part of the problems is that they are looking for money that is why they said they have deregulated the downstream sector of the economy and they increased the price of PMS. Deregulation cannot just be about increasing the price of PMS. No! It cannot be. Deregulation takes a whole lot of things. I chaired the NLC Committee on Deregulation in 2010 and the report of the committee is still there. I think the government is desperately looking for money because of the situation that we found ourselves. But I think this government can think more deeply and confront the issue of the economy better than it’s being presently confronted. We can do better. Nigerians has a lot of potential in terms of human development and manpower, we are endowed with human and natural resources. I don’t think that we have reached the dead end; our economists and those in government should be able to do better than they are doing now as far as economy is concerned.
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