One is wondering if the private sector Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID) and the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) are the long awaited game changers that can collaboratively intervene to break the lingering and needless cycle of conflict between the Federal Government of Nigeria and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). This cycle of conflict has made strikes by members of ASUU, the defining characteristics of university education in Nigeria. No student for example, will graduate from our public university without complaining that ASUU strikes elongated his or her stay in the university. This is how bad the situation has become for a couple of decades now. The fight by the two elephants (FG & ASUU) has greatly inflicted incalculable damage to the grass (students) that has been serving as the battle ground. This is in addition to the endless woes that most parents have been facing in order to meet the financial needs of training of their children as a result of the socio-economic condition of the country.
Nigeria has been a nation of paradox for too long. Poverty for example has continued to exist in midst of plenty for many decades now. Again, there is a statement that ‘Nigeria has everything and yet lacks everything’. This paradoxical statement was actually made over a decade ago by a white missionary gentleman in the university-town of Nsukka, Enugu State.
There is also this well-known saying that there is ‘water-water everywhere but none to drink’, just like what exists in the Niger Delta region of the country for example, and even in many other parts of the country. The paradox about Nigeria is countless for as Fela Anikulapo Kuti would say, Nigeria is a country where people are ‘suffering and smiling’, perhaps we add, at the same time.
Nigeria’s paradoxical facts exist equally in our higher education sector (particularly in the university sub-sector) whose value and relevance are fast vanishing like the morning mist, in spite of the abundant human resource talents in the system. There was a time when our first generation (and even the second and third generation) universities, were of high quality, and consequently respected by key actors in the international higher education system. But now the story is different as Nigerian universities have become shadow of their past and almost becoming a ‘pariah’ in the global higher education system. There are now strikes in almost every session with no learning taking place in the once highly respected citadel of learning.
It was as a result of the deplorable conditions in the universities that the Federal Government and ASUU entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in 2013 for the implementation of the Needs Assessment Report on the Nigerian Public Universities. This 2013 MOU was a milestone in the series of efforts to revitalise the decaying universities, as it stipulates, among other things, that the Federal Government ‘shall inject N200 billion in 2013, and N220 billion subsequently for 2014-2018. These amounted to a total of N1.3 trillion’. Shockingly, as at June 2017, no amount of money was released for 2014, 2015 and 2016. It was a result of the refusal to honour an agreement such as this that ASUU has been embarking on a cycle of warning and total (cum indefinite) strikes on (nearly) a yearly basis. This has been the plight of our university students.
One may wonder as to why all these lamentations should constitute a headache for CACOVID, even though it has been for a long time the headache of the TETFUND. But let the truth be told, there is no denying the fact that both CACOVID and TETFUND have been at the forefront (and have in fact also carried the burden) of the infrastructural development and hopeful transformation of the universities since after the 1992 Agreement between the Federal Government of Nigeria and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (1992 FG-ASUU Agreement). This Agreement brought into existence the TETFUND which was originally established by Act 17, 2003 as Education Tax Fund (ETF). The tax that was managed by ETF (and now TETFUND) is usually raised from the private sector organisations bulk of whose members constitute also members of today’s CACOVID.
CACOVID, which was a child of circumstance (and perhaps also necessity) arising from the devastating consequences of coronavirus (COVID-19), was established on 26 March 2020 primarily to assist Nigeria government to combat the ravaging virus. CACOVID has since then done tremendously well in executing its self-assigned functions of building isolation centres in all states of the federation, procuring personal protective equipment (PPE), building laboratories and procuring testing facilities, as well as procuring palliatives for the millions of hungry citizens of this country. This column had in the past showcased CACOVID’s impressive and commendable achievements.
The latest of these achievements is the announcement just over a week ago that it was committing over N100 billion to rebuild 44 police stations destroyed by hoodlums in the aftermath of the #EndSARS protest. Part of this money would also be used to procure state-of-the-art equipment to support the modernisation of the police. Secondly, CACOVID announced that it would commit over N150 billion towards “creating a high impact youth development programme that will provide technical and vocational education to over four million Nigerian youths over the next five years”. This is very commendable, and this column celebrates CACOVID to high heaven.
Now it can be seen why we said at the beginning that CACOVID can be a game changer in breaking the cycle of ASUU strikes if it carries out a targeted intervention towards stopping a lingering strike (in addition to the tax its members are paying through the TETFUND). As a rescue mission, such targeted intervention would have helped towards the revitalisation of the universities. The implementation of the 2013 MOU agreement would have been alive over the years. What am I really saying? Think about it, how much was ASUU asking the government as revitalisation grant during this 2020 lingering strike (March to December and still counting?). We heard that the amount was only about half of N220 billion (i.e. N110b) which should have been paid in 2014 if the then Federal Government remained faithful to the agreement. For all these months FG-ASUU drudgery called negotiation, the government could only offer ASUU N75 billion both for Earned Academic Allowance and revitalisation of universities. It regrettably took months before ASUU’s team of negotiators could extract additional (incremental) amount from the government. But CACOVID as a game changer can raise and provide substantial part of the revitalisation fund of less than N1 trillion over the next five years. This proposal is simply not beyond this very generous body.
TETFUND is doing well also despite the fact that a stage a rapacious ambitious politician occupied the big Office and diminished the achievement profile of the agency. Fortunately, TETFUND has bounced back and we now think that it can increase substantially its achievement profile as a game changer in breaking the cycle of ASUU strikes. This can happen if it collaborates with CACOVID and the Federal Government in a deeper way and through serious and meticulous planning to provide the remaining substantial part of the revitalization fund over a period of five year. This is also doable.
In conclusion, it is indeed a shame that a country where billions of money can be raised during emergencies, will allow the future of her greatest assets (our youth and ‘future hope’) to be messed up in the name of struggling over revitalisation funds and all that. ‘Enough is Enough’, as those in the struggle would say. For God’s sake, this perpetual struggle (by three competing unions in the universities) MUST STOP. The society is simply fade up with what is happening in the university system where learning is not seriously taking place any longer due to what has now become ‘regular’ disruptions of academic sessions. If this is not arrested, our ones citadel of learning will soon turn into citadel of darkness and ignorance.
•Prof. Isaac N. Obasi of the University of Abuja, is a Visiting (Adjunct) Research Professor at the Anti-Corruption AcEmail: firstname.lastname@example.org