Home Opinion ASUU: Government can borrow if it must, By Olabisi Deji-Folutile

ASUU: Government can borrow if it must, By Olabisi Deji-Folutile

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In other climes a total shutdown of the public university system in a pre-election year should be a major source of worry to a ruling party that aspires to remain in power. But here, that is far from being the case. Rather, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) has carried on with its campaigns as if nothing is amiss. The party has not only chosen to stay aloof and distant, some of its major actors have compounded the party’s nonchalance by insulting Nigerians’ sensibilities. That is why one of its ministers and indeed the party’s presidential campaign spokesperson for the 2023 general elections, Festus Keyamo, had the audacity to tell us that the President Muhammadu Buhari-led government would not borrow to settle the striking university lecturers. According to him, the lecturers are not the only ones feeding from the federal purse, and so, the nation can’t grind to a halt because of them. He spoke as if the striking lecturers were begging government to give them free money to buy foodstuffs for their storehouses, despite knowing that in the legal profession where he is a top brass, any written agreement is a binding document and therefore sacrosanct. 

Keyamo like many others in government are too distant from reality to know the implication of keeping university students at home for a straight six months in a nine-month academic session.  He is most likely unaware of the number of students that have either been kidnapped or killed in the course of this strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). He is not bothered if the likes of the 500-level student of the Ladoke Akintola University of Technology murdered in a hotel would have been alive today had government shown commitment to an agreement it signed with ASUU in 2009. Apparently, Keyamu is not also aware that over one million students, precisely 1,050,322 who were offered admission to tertiary institutions in Nigeria in 2021 are yet to resume. This represents 71.2 percent of the total admission quota of 1,475,732 for 2021. The Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board says ASUU strike is a major factor for this development as many institutions are yet to commence the 2021 admission despite repeated appeals. 

Meanwhile, qualified candidates for the 2022 admission are eager to resume. The question is:  resume where? What happens to the backlog of 2021 admission. Where is the space to accommodate two sets of admissions- so many questions!  Well since none of the honourable minister’s children is in the shoes of these students and many more who have become the grass in the ongoing fight between the two elephants of ASUU and FG, he may not appreciate the plight of many parents, guardians as well as students at a time like this. Also, if he had an idea of the damage being done to Nigeria’s higher education brand because of the ongoing strike, perhaps he would have been more circumspect in his comment on a national television. 

Like Keyamo, a governor on the platform of APC, David Umahi of Ebonyi State, has also said, it would be unreasonable for the country to borrow N1.1 trillion to meet ASUU’s demand. According to him, a university education is not for everybody, basic education is what every country strives to attain. Agreed, but how is Nigeria faring in the area of basic education despite being compulsory for every Nigerian child by law? How many Nigerian children of school age are in school today? How many public secondary and vocational centres are well equipped with furniture, libraries and internet facilities? 

Nigeria has the highest number of out-of-school children in the world. For every five out-of-school children in the world, one is a Nigerian. As I write, a third of Nigerian children are not in school. Aside the fact that millions of Nigerian children have never set foot in a classroom, many who went to primary schools never completed it and only a few transits from primary school to secondary school.  It is estimated that 35 per cent of Nigerian children who attend primary school don’t go on to attend secondary school. As a matter of fact, half of all Nigerian children did not attend secondary school in 2021. The ones that are in schools are not safe.  In 2021 alone, there were 25 attacks on schools. 1,440 children were abducted, and 16 children killed. In March 2021, no fewer than 618 schools were closed in six northern states (Sokoto, Zamfara, Kano, Katsina, Niger, and Yobe) over the fear of attack and abduction of pupils and members of staff. So, how will Governor Umahi respond to this? 

While the world is concerned about Nigeria’s worrisome statistics across board, our-so-called leaders are busy defending complete rubbish.  International agencies like UNICEF are carrying our problems on their head, thinking of how best to ensure that every child of school age is enrolled in school. But Nigeria is only interested in building fear in the few ones that are in school. In today’s Nigeria, children are afraid of being attacked and kidnapped. Parents are apprehensive of sending their children to school. And now, those who manage to get to the universities are sent back home because of strike. We keep providing all the conditions for a future generation of bandits, kidnappers and criminals. Our leaders are not only destroying the country today; they are also bent on destroying its future. Meanwhile, without shame, they quickly  run to countries where things are working for their health needs, pleasure, education, etc as if those countries are working by magic. 

If it is unreasonable to borrow money to meet ASUU demands, is it reasonable for Nigeria to buy N1.4 bn cars for Niger Republic when it claims it lacks the money to fund its universities?  Is it reasonable for an accountant-general of the federation who allegedly stole as much as N109bn to be walking free on the street and still have the temerity to seek a plea bargain?  Is it reasonable for a country that relies on crude as the mainstay of its economy to allow over 400,000 barrels of the product to be stolen on daily basis without anyone being arrested or prosecuted for oil theft? And to think that this is happening in a ministry manned by the President himself since 2015. Is it reasonable for Nigeria to pay a few consultants about $478 million in the midst of an ongoing strike that has paralysed the entire public institutions for nearly six months and still counting? Does the way Nigerian political elite and their allies live portray any form of austere simplicity? 

The truth is Nigerian leaders have grown too comfortable living on the country’s resources that they have lost every sense of empathy. They talk to fellow citizens as if they are talking to their dogs-no iota of respect. No sense of responsibility. They are too full of themselves. I don’t blame them. Nigerians are just too docile.  They take any shit!

Let’s be sincere with ourselves. Nigeria could have prevented this prolonged ASUU strike if it had been seriously committed to developing its higher education to meet global standards which was the reason for the revitalisation fund in the first instance.  Can anybody dispute the fact that Nigerian public universities have degenerated over the years and truly need a major boost?  As far back as 1999, Nobel laureate Professor Wole Soyinka suggested that Nigerian universities should be closed down for a year or two in order to fix the rot in the system. Sadly, 23 years after, the story has gone from bad to worse. 

Let’s dig a little bit into this whole 2009 agreement and revitalisation fund that has become a recurring decimal in each ASUU strike over the years. The Federal Government and ASUU had an agreement on October 21, 2009 that a sum of N1.3 trillion would be injected into the university system for its revitalization to make it globally competitive. The agreement was a product of a seven-month strike at the time. 

But nothing was done until November 1, 2012 when the Federal Ministry of Education set up the Prof. Mahmood Yakubu-led Committee on Needs Assessment of Nigerian Public Universities. The committee was to identify skill and competency gaps in the education sector and provide recommendations on how these gaps could be addressed. In December 2013, government agreed to release the N1.3 trillion intervention funds in six installments over a period of six years starting with N200 billion in 2013 and subsequent payment of N220 billion each in the remaining five years spanning 2014-2018. However, as at the third quarter of 2016, government was  already in arrears of N605 billion. That does not show any high level of commitment on the part of the government.  Basically, government started reneging on the agreement in 2014. What was the Naira/dollar exchange rate at the time?  What was Nigeria’s debt profile then. If the government had consistently implemented the NEEDS assessment and monitored it effectively, Nigerian universities would have improved tremendously and ASUU shouldn’t be on strike 13 years after an agreement was signed. 

Well, it is still better late than never. Government can still work out a way of resuscitating its public institutions.  Only a fool destroys what it has and pays others to get the same thing. As poor as Nigeria is today, it is one of the major countries enriching rich countries like the UK, Canada and the US via education tourism.  The government should take a decision on what it wants to inject into each of its public universities per annum. If it is N1bn, government should ensure that the money is well utilised and accounted for before another money is released. 

It can take a leaf from the way the UBEC funds basic education. No state gets the UBEC counterpart funding unless they provide their own funds as well as proofs of how previously released funds are spent. That way, many states have been unable to access the fund. Government can work out a similar arrangement for the universities. If government wants to borrow money to do this, it can go ahead and do so. After all, the Central Bank of Nigeria has said that debt is part of fiscal responsibility and it is not a crime or a sin to borrow. 

 It is better than borrowing money to pay phantom petroleum subsidies.  Besides, we have been borrowing to do cash transfer to vulnerable households, fund MarketMoni, TraderMoni, and FarmerMoni among others. We have been borrowing money that has been spent on consumptions, we have been borrowing to fund our  leaders’ extravagance and corruption. If this time around, we need to borrow to put our universities in shape, so be it. At least, the debt would be for a regenerative purpose. 

Of course, Nigeria needs a permanent solution to the problem of the funding gap in its universities. The current no-fee policy in federal universities is no longer sustainable!

Olabisi Deji-Folutile (Ph.D.) is editor-in-chief, franktalknow.com and COO, AF24news.com. She is also a member of the Nigerian Guild of Editors. Email: [email protected]

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