Labour Editor, SOJI-EZE FAGBEMI, took on the President of Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT), Comrade Muhammed Nasir Idris, who is also a Deputy President of Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), on the issues affecting the teachers, the new Teacher’s Salary Structure, labour and government crisis over fuel and electricity tariff hike and the general state of the nation. Excerpts.
HOW did you and your members receive the news of the new salary structure for teachers by President Buhari, and how did the teachers take it?
First of all, we have to appreciate God, and we have to appreciate the President of Federal Republic of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari. We have been into this agitation for a very long time. The agitation is almost 27 years old; and no government has listened to us. It was the present administration under the leadership of the President that found it very worthy to listen to the grassroots teachers, that’s the primary and secondary schools. It is now we know that the President loves education. We have put on some demands which the President promised to look into, and fortunately, during the World Teachers Day, the President approved a new salary structure for primary and secondary school teachers; housing for primary and secondary school and even the extension of time of service. We felt cheated when the last administration extended the years of lecturers of polytechnic, university, colleges of education and all other tertiary institutions. So, we said if that will be the case, it must be extended to the primary and secondary school teachers because we are the grassroots teachers. We felt cheated but the President came and healed the wounds. So we commend the President because he did what no government has done, he is a lover of education, lover of teachers.
It is one thing to announce but in Nigeria, implementation is another hurdle. How hopeful are you about the implementation?
The committee for the new salary scale is now in place. The Ministry of Education is involved, the Head of Service is involved and the National Salaries and Wages Commission is also involved. Once the circular comes out, we will send the circular to various state governments and I know that the Federal Government will also send letters to the state governments so that they will comply.
How soon are you looking at for the implementation to commence?
We hope that when the committee finishes its work, hopefully by next year, the teachers will start enjoying their new salary structure; because when you look at it, it hasn’t been long since the committee was inaugurated. So, God willing, they’ll start enjoying that soon. But the housing scheme is not something that will happen immediately. All these housing programmes and schemes, they hardly look at teachers, but this time around, the houses would be built in different local governments and villages, and so, they (teachers) will enjoy the benefits.
You know that your members are very eager especially on the issue of the salary structure; can you be specific by giving a time frame?
We don’t expect the issues to reach the end of first quarter of next year, because we know the kind of people we have in the committee, and NUT is part of the committee. So, we hope they’ll finish the job before the Christmas break so that at the beginning of next year, we’ll start pestering the government to implement the President’s approval.
How hopeful are you about state government implementing the policy?
By the time the committee finishes its work, we will confront the state governments to approve it. This is not the first time we would be confronting them. Everyone knows that school teachers are working and they are always at their duty post. When you check at the local government or state secretariats, you will see that they are not always present at work early, but go to the primary and secondary schools, by 7:00 am, they are already assembled. So, they work very well.
Presently, what are the challenges being faced by teachers at this level?
The state governments don’t employ teachers and that is why you see our classes empty, and teachers are retiring. The job is no longer lucrative. If you ask your pupils what they want to become, out of a class of 30, maybe only three will say they want to become teachers. That is because teaching job is not lucrative.
We are still battling with some states to implement the minimum wage and pay arrears. When I came to office newly, there were states where teachers were paid on percentage, and I said I could not take it. A worker is a worker, whatever other state and local government staff enjoy, a teacher should also enjoy it.
What is the state of teachers’ welfare at present?
Presently, the state of welfare of teachers is not 100 per cent. In Abia State, they didn’t pay teachers’ salaries until we confronted them, and just recently, they were able to pay them three months out of 11 months. They are still owing teachers about seven months salary. We have dispatched a committee to go and get the feedback and we said there’s no way we will continue to allow our teachers to suffer in the hands of Abia State government. So we’ll call on the organs of our union to meet and take decisions on shutting down Abia, because there’s no way our teachers will continue to work and no pay. We have entered into an agreement with them for about four or five times, but when time comes for implementation, they’ll renege.
There was a time the issue of Local Government autonomy pitched the NUT against NULGE, headed by your late friend, Ibraheem Khaleel. But along the line, there arose an issue of a first-line charge to amicably resolve the matter. How are you pursuing this issue of first-line charge to address the problem of teachers salaries?
It was already in the constitution amendment passed by the eighth National Assembly, that primary and secondary school salaries should be taken based on first-line charge from the federation account. We were enjoying this thing even during the military, and I don’t see reason even in the democratic government that we can’t enjoy it. But now the local governments are paying. During the campaign and rally by the late Ibrahim Khaleel, initially, we were having problems because we didn’t understand ourselves very well. Then, NLC called a meeting and NLC mediated. We gave our own side of the story, they also stated their own, and we realized that we are not against autonomy and they also said they are not against giving us our salaries as a first-line charge and we harmonised. Then we continued to work together up to the passage of that bill. It was when the thing reached the state assemblies that they killed it. But now that the President has signed the Executive Order, I know by the grace of God we are going to enjoy it.
What will you say about the issue of the standard of education in the country?
Well the issue of the standard of education in Nigeria, you know people are saying that the standard of education is falling. Before, people didn’t talk of the standard of education falling, but now. This is because the teachers that are supposed to be taken care of, they are not. In those days, teachers’ salary was paid as and when due, as well as their allowances. There were training, seminars and other programmes to continuously develop their capacity. But now, those things, you can’t find them. It is very rare in states to find seminars and workshops being conducted for teachers. That is why we said the government should try to establish a body, a body that will take care of these teachers. That is why I say our teachers are suffering, and at the same time they are doing their best to ensure that they impart knowledge in those children. The issue now is that you can see a school, but you don’t see teachers’ quarters anymore, teachers have to travel from villages to the school they teach everyday. No mobility, even the car loans and mobility loan is no more there, and yet people complain that teachers are not doing well. How can you accuse someone you don’t motivate, and how can a teacher do well if he’s not given his entitlements? So, honestly, I don’t look at it in that way. Take care of teachers and you will see the result, but if you don’t take care of teachers, how will you see the result? Teachers are doing their best, even in places where salaries are not paid. So, I don’t follow that school of thought that standards are falling because teachers are not doing their best, teachers are doing their best.
Recently, a Nigerian who studied in our university here in Nigeria was named among those who developed the vaccine for COVID-19. We have many of them like that doing wonders abroad, but yet, Nigerian remains under-developed. What is your position about this and what is the cause?
That is the welfare we are talking about, it is because of welfare. There’s no place like home. If you see our people leaving, our teachers and in all other disciplines are leaving Nigeria because where they are going is far better than here. If you make everything to work in Nigeria, people will not be running away. Before, when things were working you see Indians, British, Ghanians, Philippines, Kenyans, and all others, they were coming to Nigeria because where they were, the Nigerians workers were enjoying more than them and there was better treatment here in Nigeria. So, they came to Nigeria to enjoy what Nigerian workers were benefitting; but now you don’t find them because everybody has gone back to their countries because their countries are doing fine, they pay their workers very well. The man you spoke about did this marvelous job there, he is a global figure now, his name was announced. He is a Nigerian, who graduated from the University of Calabar. If the government was doing what it should in the health sector, just as it was shortly after independence, this man would not have gone to the US. But because the government is not doing well, that is why people are leaving, everybody will go and look for better pay.
You singled out Abia State for action, are there no other states in this category?
As I said, these are the states where we were having problems. Just like I mentioned Abia, Nasarawa is part of them, Kogi is part of them, Adamawa is part of them. Benue is part of them, even though Benue is owing teachers, he implemented the minimum wage. The government has a backlog of salaries it is unable to clear. So, we are taking them one by one, we don’t want to bite more than we can chew. We are taking them one by one so that we will be able to concentrate and get results. What is important is to get results out of the struggle we are doing because if we embark on struggle without result, it doesn’t make sense.
On the recent crisis between government and labour over the increase in the fuel price and electricity tariff, there was a time you declined to attend a meeting with the government. Where are we?
People are just talking, we didn’t decline meeting with the government. Why I say we didn’t decline is that we have met with them, and while we said we are not going to proceed on our mass action that time is because we gave conditions and the government agreed with the conditions and stepped down the increase. We put a committee in place, worked out the modalities, but the committee has not finished sitting not to even talk of submitting its report, and we have agreed that no increase should take place; if there should be any increase both parties must come and sit down on the table to discuss why they want to do it. This is to come to an acceptable resolution, but we just heard it, after they have gone to increase again. Why should they increase, when we have agreed at the committee that there shouldn’t be an increase. When we got to the meeting, we said this issue of increase is a matter of national importance, bring it, let us discuss it before you bring the issue of palliatives. That was at a point the Minister of Labour said no, we will get to that. He started talking and we said no, we are not students, we are not elected by the Ministry of Labour. The issue is, the position of NLC and TUC says let us discuss. What we expect is for the minister to bring out the issue of recent increase to top the agenda, even if it is number 10, bring it to number one because we want to discuss it. But he said no, and he started talking. We also told them that this increase is a matter of national interest so bring it let us discuss it before we talk of the palliatives, but the minister of labour insisted and said no. So, for us as responsible labour leaders we didn’t have to start exchanging words, we said it is better for us to walk out. It is not a new thing. You walk out if you are not satisfied with what is going on so that you won’t create chaos. So, that is why we walked out. They also brought an invitation the following day that we were going to meet that day in the evening, we said no. We cannot continue to meet in the evening, and we told them that we would no longer be having meetings on Sundays, because when they meet with other unions, they meet in the daylight, in the morning or afternoon. Every time we are having a meeting, you put our meeting on Sunday and by 8:00 p.m. It doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t make meaning. You hold meetings in the morning when the brain is fresh and cool, but after doing hazardous work in the morning to evening, no rest, and you still put the meeting by 8 pm. How do you expect to get the result? You don’t bring this type of sensitive meeting to the night, the other time we closed by 3 am. With that, we didn’t go on strike and you have seen the anger of Nigerians on us, that we have collected money. Who gave us the money? Some of us don’t stay in Abuja, we travel down here from our various states because we don’t work in Abuja. You call us on emergencies, we take flight, some will travel by road over 10-12 hours, just to respect you as government and because it is a national issue, we have no option and have to come and attend the meeting. With that, you don’t see reason, you will just be talking like you are talking to secondary school children.
The present state of the nation, people are suffering. There are continuous increases in various tariffs, fuel price increase, etc. What is your position?
That is not a new thing to every Nigerian. We have a problem with the COVID-19 pandemic, the government is not addressing the issue of security; insecurity is tensed now in the country. In so many states across the federation, we are having this problem of insecurity. It is the responsibility of the government to secure the lives of her citizens and property. Honestly, we have a serious problem in our farms. There is no security and the government has to do everything possible to make sure they secure the lives and properties of the citizens and secure the country. In those days, we sent our military and security forces for peacekeeping in other countries, all those countries are now in peace but Nigeria is in crisis.
Up till now, our government has not been able to address this issue squarely. Therefore, we want to appeal to the government to perform its responsibilities. On the issue of economy, we solely depend on oil and by the time the oil price crash, definitely it will affect the income of the government and the economy. Nigeria has entered a second recession, and the minister was telling us in our meeting that hopefully by the first quarter of next year, Nigeria will come out of it. It is not easy at all, Nigerians are suffering, no employment for the youth and the elderly are not taken care of. Nigeria is a big country with a lot of resources, but the resources have not been channeled in the right directions. That is why we have been having these problems.
Labour was said to have accepted deregulation; why are you agitating about price increase?
Already, they say the oil sector is being deregulated, how can you deregulate in a deregulated sector? If you deregulate, it means you handed everything into market forces to determine. Why should the government then announce an increase in price. There is a mix-up somewhere. When you look at the issue of electricity, they said they sold NEPA for 400 billion, you sold it to companies and private individuals. Why should the government take tax payers money and inject up to N1.4 trillion into a company you have sold. When you sell something, you don’t have business with it. If you have your own share there, you expect your benefit but the government has not gained anything and it continues to inject money into it. Is there light in this country, there is no light. That is what they did in NEPA, and it is also what they want to do in the petroleum sector. Honestly, there is a problem and the government should be able to come out and tell Nigerians why they are increasing fuel price. Before you increase the price, there are critical stakeholders, bring them together and sit down and explain why. But you didn’t consult, you just went ahead. Even our own unions that are working in the oil and gas sector, you did not consult them, you just went ahead and made an announcement.
Nigerians are not happy with labour, because they are suffering and expect labour to fight for them against government policies. But on the other hand, the major responsibility of labour is to its members. How will you reconcile the two ends to change the present perception by Nigerians?
It is not a matter of changing perception. I am a worker but I have relatives and many dependents that are not workers. As labour leaders, we are not only representing the workers, we represent Nigerians. If labour does not come out to talk, who will talk on behalf of those Nigerian masses? Nobody. So, that is why atimes we have to move a little bit right and a little bit left. Everybody in this country knows that things are not moving fine, so, if labour is into a struggle, labour is struggling for all Nigerians. The present government policies affected the workers and it also affected the Nigerian masses, that is why we take it holistically. If it is an issue that affected the workers alone, with the increase in fuel price, they can review and adjust the salary upward; but we asked them, what of other Nigerians? That was why we demanded for a reversal.
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