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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

BEYOND HEADLINES: ASUU versus ₦683 billion intervention fund

BEYOND HEADLINES: ASUU versus ₦683 billion intervention fund

Prof. Muhammed Sani Ibrahim

Lately, Nigeria’s media space has been buzzing with twisted news of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s approval of a hefty ₦683 billion as the 2024 Intervention Funds for public tertiary institutions.

However, amid the excitement, Nigeria’s political elite, aided by the media, seem to be playing tricks, wrongly implying that ₦1.9 billion is set aside for ASUU in each university.

While praises go to President Tinubu for nearly doubling the 2024 Intervention Fund, a crucial question lingers: What is really covered by this ₦683 billion? A closer scrutiny is essential to avoid misunderstandings of the true purpose and destination of this Intervention Fund.

READ ALSO: SCHOLARLY CURRENTS: Rethinking ASUU’s approach in the government tug of war by Prof. M. S. Ibrahim  

So, why all the drama?

In the recent history of ASUU strikes, their constant requests revolve around seven points, with about five being money matters. These money matters are: revival of tertiary institutions (so called Intervention Fund), increasing budgetary allocation to education to 26% (from primary to tertiary levels), salary adjustment, payment of earned academic allowances of several years still being owed, and payment of withheld salaries.

Sadly, similar to past governments, the present administration is becoming fixated on just one money matter – the Intervention Fund. But why is it becoming more of a pattern to always prioritise these so-called intervention projects? Even the Minister and Minister of State for education seem to be talking more about “infrastructure” than about the quality and quantity of manpower needed to improve the education sector.

It is the same with the Executive Secretary of the government agency that manages the intervention fund, Mr Sonny Echono, whose admonition was featured in Premium Times on 13th January 2023.

READ ALSO: PROF POLITE: A symphony of politeness, calmness and humour

While announcing the President’s approval of the hefty ₦683 billion, Mr Echono “urged heads of institutions to ensure timely payments to CONTRACTORS AND VENDORS (emphasis mine) to enable the proper completion of projects…”.

Contractors and vendors! Why do government officials consistently prioritise the so-called intervention funds and the associated contracts of buildings and vehicles while forcing the diligent workers to survive on a cocktail of unpaid salaries and earned allowances? Why do they ignore the reality that their prioritisation of contracts and vehicles is continually depriving the manpower and damaging the country’s education system?

And, in the midst of this financial paradox, the laboratories and studios for student learning resemble a low-budget horror tale in which students are forced into the lowly realm of “alternative to practical”, a sort of practical exercise without apparatus or specimens. And, strangely, the political elite’s undying love for awarding contracts continues to wax strong.

READ ALSO: Why Nigerian government won’t pay ASUU full arears of salaries — Gbajabiamila

It’s almost like they’re working overtime to create a separate universe of construction marvels, all while expecting poor workers to keep perfecting the art of unpaid academic diligence. Surely, the stark parallel between Nigerian politician’s enthusiasm for ‘infrastructure’ and his indifference to the pressing, unpaid entitlements of the poor workers paint a sorry picture that calls for urgent recalibration of this administration’s priorities.

By the way, where in the world have physical structures form the body and soul of efficient and effective university systems? Is it not common knowledge that a thriving university system is not merely about bricks and mortar but a system of motivated team of human beings?

President Tinubu, a seasoned manager of people, must be well aware that the most important resource of any setting is its manpower. In his 2023 election campaign, he promised to ensure that “our graduates at tertiary level are not only trained for white-collar jobs, but they will be enterprising and innovative.

READ ALSO: ASUU, quackery and the quality to question qualification

As such, he must steer clear of misguided advice on the priorities of Nigeria’s education sector and close the wide gap between the beloved construction wonders and the often-overlooked, unpaid academic dedication.

He must work with the understanding that improving the quality of Nigeria’s tertiary education system centres on a motivated manpower propelling it forward, not just forests of buildings manned by sparse and deprived, unhappy humans. Buildings and vehicles are essential, but not at the expense of workforce needed to run the system effectively.

Yes, Nigerian public university workers are deprived.

Let me paint a picture of the struggles faced by public university workers using my personal story. My promotion journey resembles a suspense thriller – I was promoted to associate professor in 2017, and my salary arrears are still pending. In 2020, I was promoted to the rank of professor with yet another round of pending salary arrears. It appears university workers’ pay cheques have embarked on indefinite sabbatical. But that’s not all; hard-earned allowances of several years continue to play an endless game of bojuboju. Sadly, this narrative mirrors the experience of every worker in Nigeria’s public tertiary institutions.

READ ALSO: FG moves to undermine ASUU, to unveil rival union, CONUA 

Again and again, why does the approval for building and vehicles seamlessly sail through every time, while the rightful entitlements of workers remain perpetually underway? How does the “intervention” ritual consistently navigate around challenges, overlooking the plight of the workforce in the tertiary institutions?

Surely, this government must not, similar to its predecessors, expect substantial national development without a strategic investment in its most vital resource – the manpower. Surely, President Tinubu must urgently examine his appointees’ priorities, questioning why spending on constructions and automobiles consistently takes precedence over the immediate and essential needs of the manpower that shapes Nigeria’s educational landscape.

Permit me to say the ongoing unchallenged misinformation buttresses my argument in a previous essay about ASUU’s insufficient engagement with the Nigerian public, titled “Rethinking ASUU’s Approach in The Government Tug of War.”

In the essay, I argued that effective communication, idea marketing, and evidence-based problem-solving methods by academics are crucial for positive change in the Nigerian university system but have been noticeably absent. Is ASUU, alongside other academics, steering the current narrative? No! In fact, it seems they are unaware or even helpless against the ongoing propaganda. As it stands, students, parents and other stakeholders are celebrating the ₦683 billion approval, assuming it is earmarked “for ASUU.” Oblivious, many now believe that the government is already meeting ASUU’s financial demands.

From the foregoing, ASUU and its counterparts must do more work to counter the ongoing misinformation of relevant stakeholders of Nigeria’s education system by the politicians. Otherwise, this propaganda will later turn around to haunt ASUU by laying the foundation for a future false narrative that ASUU is difficult to please or ASUU’s appetite for money is insatiable when, on the contrary, no money has been paid out of the workers’ entitlements being owed. ASUU and its counterparts must communicate with, not merely inform, the Nigerian public about the recently approved ₦683 billion being solely for the procurement of physical structures and vehicles, not for salaries and allowances being owed the workers. The unions must emphasise their little or no involvement in spending these intervention funds because, as the legendary Chinua Achebe aptly expressed, until the lion learns to speak, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.

READ ALSO: Tinubu pledges to end ASUU strikes with 25% budgetary allocation to education

In addition, the unions must engage the President to make him fully comprehend the aspects of the education sector being funded by a significant chunk of the earmarked funds. Certainly, he appreciates the distinction between the roles of towering physical structures and hefty contracts and the indispensable roles of manpower in any critical sector. So, it is urgent to make him understand how, against global best practices, sound academic minds are being replaced by forests of buildings and vehicles associated with endless contracts. The loss of these scarce human resources forms for a major portion of the ongoing japa syndrome, a phenomenon the President is pledging to reverse.

Because the academic unions are not the only stakeholders in Nigeria’s education sector, reforming the sector also requires selfless contributions from parents, students, CSOs, NGOs, religious and traditional leaders, media, etc. After all, it takes a village to raise a child, not just daddy and mummy. As such, the current set up that disproportionately overburdens ASUU with the responsibility for a well-functioning education sector will not yield results. Other stakeholders must join to push government agencies to demonstrate sincere commitment to educational development. CSOs should invest in enlightening parents about how perpetually denying lecturers their salaries and hard-earned allowances negatively impacts their children’s education. Also, parents should actively push the government to work with the established fact that educational development goes beyond constructing physical structures and purchasing vehicles. It mandatorily involves prioritising the human resources that shape the entire sector. Nonetheless, ASUU, as a group of intellectuals, must continue to lead by engaging and influencing every stakeholder using approaches that are pragmatic and effective.

Finally, the fourth estate of the realm, the media, must continually critique and influence affairs and opinions concerning tertiary education by enlightening and guiding the political class and the citizenry. Rather than merely circulating news from the politicians, the media should be posing incisive questions. Globally, education sectors thrive on intricate systems of motivated manpower and abundant equipment and supplies, beyond indiscriminate constructions and their associated hefty contracts.

 

Ibrahim is a Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.

 

 

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