The national president, National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT), Comrade Ibeji Nwokoma, speaks to SOJI-EZE FAGBEMI on the perennial crises in the university system, government’s divide and rule syndrome and warned that the government may be living in a fool’s paradise if it expects the schools to reopen without addressing the fundamental issues raised by his Union and other non-teaching unions within the system.
President, you and the other university based non-academic unions have been in running battles with the government over some critical issues affecting your members’ welfare and the university system. Can you highlight the issues in contention?
For quite some time, the university sector has been in the news for the wrong reasons. Wrong reasons because the unions have written to the government a number of times on the issues that border on the welfare of our members, and the universities in particular. NAAT, my union, has written to the Federal Government concerning the condition of laboratories in Nigerian universities. During our discussion with the government on November 18, 2020, facilitated by the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment, we made a demand that the government should provide the sum of N100 billion as an intervention fund because all the laboratories are dilapidated. In the last five years, how many pieces of equipment have been sent to universities? The workforce — manpower — how many per cent have been trained to take care of the newly acquired equipment? We also said that the government should make available the sum of N5 billion yearly to ensure that the equipment bought is maintained. The welfare of our members are also in contention. The 2009 agreement that ought to have been renegotiated after three years, till now, has not been renegotiated. Even though the government has set up a committee on renegotiation. That committee, as far as I am concerned, is dormant because they have not even invited us for discussion after the inauguration of the committee.
Again, all sectors have been paid the minimum wage arrears except the university sector and we keep asking, what’s happening? Our members have been demanding for payment of the minimum wage arrears. The Earned Allowance that was negotiated and agreement fully entered into by the government and the union, the arrears have been lingering. Unfortunately, the government has decided to use divide and rule in the university sector to cause problems. Just recently they released N40 billion, all we heard is that they have given ASUU 75 per cent, and the other unions – NAAT, SSANU and NASU 25 per cent, which is very unfortunate and unacceptable to my union.
The schools have been asked to resume now after a very long closure due to the ASUU strike and COVID-19 crisis. What is your position on the resumption?
We want the schools to reopen. We have our own children in public universities. We want them to reopen but the government has to address these fundamental issues before the reopening of schools, otherwise we will be living in fool’s paradise. You want the schools to reopen and you have not addressed some fundamental issues. The COVID-19 is there. For instance, the technologists are the most affected because the academics, on their own, can go and deliver lectures at the lecture theatres but we the technologists that work in the laboratories, we have few equipment and students must come to the laboratories to use the equipment. Invariably, you must spend constant hours with the students in close-contact, and the same equipment you are teaching the students how to use, you are also going to use and the students will also have to use it. So we are saying that the government must also intervene in that area to ensure that even when the schools are reopened, both the staff and the students will be saved. But fundamentally, the government has to address the issue of Earned Allowance already released to ensure that staff are taken care of. This issue must be addressed and addressed adequately.
But the government released N40 billion and it said N30 billion of that should go to ASUU, and N10 billion to the other three university based unions – NAAT, SSANU and NASU. Maybe the government is thinking of your importance. How important are the non-teaching staff in the university system?
The truth of the matter is that ASUU cannot run the university alone. My union, the members of my union, the technologists are critical stakeholders in the university system. The university system, for the knowledge of the general public, is hinged on a tripod — the lecture theatre, the library and the laboratory. These are the people that have constant hours with students. When we were growing up, they would tell you Boyle’s law and all that. The lecturer would go to the classroom and teach the students the theory of Boyle’s law and by the time he finished teaching, the students will now come to the laboratory to know this Boyle’s law practically.
In my university, FUTO, no student can graduate without my inputs. The academic staff will teach them and will have 70 per cent while practical will have 30 per cent. So, I grade the students, I teach them practicals, I demonstrate the use of the equipment and that has to do with 30 per cent. So, that’s how critical our work is. And in this present world, how would a graduate, in the field of sciences and technologies, not make use of his hand? It is the technologists that will help them to know how to use their hand at the end of their graduation.
Before now, NAAT worked together with SSANU and NASU under the Joint Action Committee (JAC). Why is the sudden change and why are you now going alone?
The pulling out of NAAT from JAC of NAAT, SSANU and NASU was the decision of our national executive council and that decision is hinged on the fact that during the disbursement of Earned Allowance in the various universities, there were lot of issues that bordered on threat to the lives of my members. The position of my union is that the university based unions signed an agreement with the Federal Government in 2009 and the Earned Allowance is not a bonus, it’s not a bonanza, it is earned and if it is earned, it means it is derived from agreement. So, my union insisted that these allowances to be paid to our members must be on the basis of the 2009 agreement already signed between the Federal Government and the unions. For example, if I am earning occupational hazard allowance, it must have been approved by the 2009 agreement. If you are a member of SSANU and you work in the vice chancellor’s office, for instance, and the agreement does not cover occupational hazard allowance for you, what is the basis for demanding to be paid occupational hazard allowance? That’s the problem we had. When you go to university they will tell you to share it across the board. What is the basis for sharing it across the board? Then it becomes a bonus instead of being based on agreement as earned. So, that is the problem we had and my union said they cannot continue on this if you people cannot respect agreement. So, that was the basis that our men agreed that we must pull out of JAC.
Is there any effort you are making so that NAAT, SSANU and NASU could start working together very soon?
Yes, I’m making efforts towards that. I attended their last meeting and I said we can work collaboratively. But we must also understand that each union also has her own peculiar allowances, by the time we realize that there shouldn’t be any problem.
The Joint Action Committee (JAC) of SAANU and NAAT, have already declared a strike for February 5. Already, they are mobilizing for it, if the government did not answer you and meet your own demand too, is there a possibility of you going on strike?
Why not. On November 18, we signed an MoU with the government, but as we are talking, some of these items have a timeline that is not respected. We agreed with the government that extant circular on CONTISS 14 and 15 of my Union should be released before the end of the year (2020), but that has not been done. We agreed with the government that within two weeks of signing that agreement (MoU) that arrears of minimum wage would be paid; that has not been done. We agreed with the government that in the payment of the Earned Allowances, that the Federal Ministry of Education, NUC, in consultation with the Union shall decide on the sharing formula and that the one that would go to the Union should be clearly defined. Government has jettisoned that, and there is a lot of insincerity on the part of the government. So, as I am talking to you, we just finished our NEC meeting yesterday and our NEC has directed that we call congresses on Wednesday (tomorrow), that all branches across Nigeria should call congresses for a referendum. If they come out with a referendum directing us to go on strike, of course, we are serving them, we will definitely go on strike, and Nigerians should not consider that unpatriotic.
But if you go on strike now, after the children have spent over 10 months at home, don’t you think you will lose the sympathy of Nigerians as they are tired of strikes in the university?
That is why we are pleading that Nigerians should also prevail on the government, that the government should do the right thing, government should not use divide and rule. Where you have four unions in the university, and you are giving one union 75 per cent and giving others 25 per cent. That is using divide and rule. So, Nigerians should please prevail on the government to do the right thing. For instance, if you released N40 billion, you should be able to look at the agreement and share based on the agreement you signed with each union. Moreover, the government has paid ASUU up to 2016, and with the release of N30 billion now, they would have paid them up to 2020. Whereas, my union for instance is still grappling with 2011, the government has not paid us even to 2012. So, where is the fairness, where is the justice, where is the equity? That is our grievance.
But when you are taking your decision, do you consider the interest and plights of the students?
Like I said, I have my children in public universities. We consider the plights of the students but the government also should consider the interest of the workers, should also consider the psychology of the persons working in the university system. Also, it should consider the fact that if you allow some of these things, you become a second class worker in a place where you work.
As a leader, if you want to be sincere, how do you think this issue of persistent strikes and crises in our university system could be finally resolved and in the next five to 10 years, we won’t experience strikes?
My advice is that the government should convene an Education Summit where these issues would be taken care of holistically. The issue of Syllabus, the issue of COVID-19, the issue of welfare of workers, the issue of agreement renegotiated or negotiated. If the government convenes an Education Summit, I think we should be able to take care of all these things holistically. Government, labour, private sector, TETFUND, should all be there and all the critical stakeholders. That is my view.
Your predecessors have done their best, their legacy is the massive structure which is yet to be completed. What is your plan for NAAT and what would you do to be remembered for?
Like you have seen this building, it is unfinished. I want to be remembered as the president who came and completed it. I want to make NAAT relevant in the university sector. I want to be remembered as a president that came and fought for the rights of my members. Like now, our occupational hazard allowance has been removed. This is part of the agreement we negotiated with the Federal Government. It is an occupational hazard, a product of what we suffer in our place of work. IPPIS came and removed it and said we should go and get circular from Salaries and Wages Commission and the commission was part of that agreement. These are unfair treatment that has been meted to our members, and I want to fight for and restore the occupational hazard allowance. I want to ensure that my members benefit from TETFUND sponsorship for technical training, and use of equipment which is done everywhere.
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