Lecturers in Southeast Nigeria have demonstrated displease on the neglect of universties in Nigeria through a massive protest yesterday.
For several weeks now, academic activities at state-owned universities in the South-east geo-political zone have been paralysed.
This is due to strike action by lecturers declared in all state owned universities in the zone since July this year.
The strike action called by the lecturers followed the inability of the governments of the zone to implement the re-negotiated agreement the representatives of Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) had with the Federal Government, which took effect in July last year.
The re-negotiated agreement covered conditions of service, funding, autonomy and academic freedom as well as other matters connected with running of the universities.
It was the outcome of a nationwide strike declared by the National Executive Council of ASUU after its meeting held at the Federal University of Technology (FUT), Akure on June 22, 2009 to compel the Federal Government to sign the agreement reached with it after over two years of the re-negotiation of the June 2001 Federal Government-ASUU agreement.
On October 21, 2009 the agreement was signed, leading to the indefinite suspension of the strike.
The agreement entails the UNESCO minimum standard for funding education to the tune of 26 per cent of the yearly budget of both Federal and state governments. Besides, government shall endeavour to progressively increase its budgetary allocation to the sector in accordance with its Vision 20:2020 programme.
Last year, the Federal Government allocated about 13 per cent of the budget to the education sector. Leaders of the group had however, expected an increase of at least about 18 per cent for the sector in this year’s budget.
On conditions of service, the agreement, which was explicit on the fact that the lecturers were not asking for salary increment for the sake of increase, stressed that an increase was needful so as to halt the brain drain that has bedeviled the sector.
The agreement did not give financial autonomy to universities but made certain prescriptions that could enhance administrative autonomy for smooth and effective running of the university from departmental to council levels. It also proposed some amendments in the Act, education and the National Universities Commission (NUC) Act 2004.
The agreement which restated her earlier stand of 1992 on multiplicity of academic standards in Nigeria, stated that Nigerian universities cannot be divided into low and higher standard institutions in the same structure.
Hence it insisted there should be just one system with one minimum standard that would keep the system internationally competitive, stressing that what it had negotiated was a minimum benchmark for the system.
It added: “State governments that cannot fund their universities to meet the benchmark set up in the agreement will find that they cannot survive in the system. The minimum conditions are not just about emoluments; they are standards that must be met in the funding of facilities for teaching and research, funding of post-graduate studies, the upgrading of programmes, remedy of deficiencies in them, and for collaborating with industries in the areas of research and development of technology and staff development.”
It went further to say that though it appeared like it placed much financial burden on state universities, there was a proviso in which they could generate additional revenue, “for the benefit of state governments that believe that all the agreement has for them is the burden of salaries, it must be noted that the agreement contains, in addition to the constitutionally backed assistance, a provision for a new direction of the Education Tax Fund (ETF) intervention in higher education, the access to the Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF), the patronage of university consultancies, the National Research Fund, and duty free importation of education materials.
These shall provide significant sources of funding for state universities.”
However, while the Federal Government and some states in the country have been implementing the agreement since last year, no state university in the South-east zone has. Rather, the governments of the zone have hinged their inability on lean fiscal resources, stressing that they would not be able to meet with the agreement alongside their other responsibilities.
At a meeting on August 22 in Enugu under the aegis of South-east governors Forum, the governors had lamented the strike action by the lecturers saying that the lecturers embarked on the action without considering the “peculiar circumstances of individual states of the zone”.
Governor Peter Obi of Anambra State, who is the chairman of the Forum and who read the statement after the meeting, explained that while reaching the agreement last year, “it was clearly stated that the agreement was not binding on state and private universities and advised the unions to negotiate individually with the respective bodies in the states.”
He said that the governors had therefore, decided “to negotiate individually with the respective state chapters of the Union and on that note, each government will start discussions with the staff and students of the respective institutions, as well as other key stakeholders.”
Justifying the position of the governors, Obi stated that the setting up of state universities was backed by laws made by the state Assembly in each state, stressing that there was a need for each Union to look into the law setting up their own structure before acting.
He called on the striking lecturers to call off their action and resume classes in the interest of the zone.
Last month, the lecturers assembled at the premises of the Enugu State University of Science and Technology (ESUT) to protest the continued alleged disregard by the governments to their strike.
Dressed in academic gowns and chanting anti-government slogans, the placard carrying striking lecturers moved in and around the school premises deploring the development.
Some of the placards read: “Current South-east political leaders lack education, our lecturers are dying of hunger, we call on South-East governors to pay us, no facilities in our universities, south-east governors don’t kill education, South-east governors release 20 per cent of your security votes on education,” among others.
But an attempt to march on the streets of Enugu and to Government House to submit a copy of their grievances to the Governors Forum, through Governor Sullivan Chime was aborted by the Police.
Pleadings by the leaders of the group that they had notified the Police authority about the peaceful protest fell on deaf ears as the Police insisted that it was an unlawful assembly.
Convener of the protest and Coordinator of Calabar Zone of ASUU, Dr. Emmanuel Osodeke said the protest was to call attention to the “conspiracy by governors of the zone to kill education in the south-east from the simple reason that none of them have their children in the state universities in the zone”.
He said it was disheartening to note that the governors could sit at an illegal Forum to decide how to fund education in the zone, when other zones of the country including those that were least in revenue allocation were implementing the re-negotiated agreement.
Osodeke added that most state universities in the zone lacked facilities, stressing that the respective governments have paid deaf ears to the problems facing tertiary institutions of their states.
He gave instance with the Enugu State University, where lecturers had gone on strike the third time this year over welfare, stressing that the school had continued to deteriorate by alleged negligence of government.
For instance, he said it was incredible that the state university with a wage bill of N172 million received only N60 million from the government out of the N2.442 million (2.46 per cent) it received in May 2010”.
He stated that the insensitivity of the governors of the zone to the issue had got to a level where the Imo State governor, Ikedi Ohakim allegedly “ordered the Vice Chancellor of Imo State University to lock up the university gate and bring the keys to government house”.
Osodoke said that failure to implement the agreement would mean loosing the best brains of the state universities to those state universities where the agreement is being implemented as well as to the Federal universities.
A civil rights lawyer, Dr. Ben Nwoye deplored the development, explaining that the governors shutting the doors to negotiation with the striking lecturers would cause further harm on the zone.
He lamented that the South-east which pioneered the founding of the first indigenous university (University of Nigeria, Nsukka) as well as the first state-owned university (Enugu State University) before other parts of the country, is now about the only zone, where not a single state government has given the required attention to the rapidly falling standard of facilities in tertiary educational institutions.
National Publicity Secretary of Conference of Nigeria Political Parties (CNPP), Osita Okechukwu, urged the governors to find amicable resolution of the crisis, stressing that, it was not to their advantage.
Agreeing with CNPP, the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) state chairman, Osmond Ugwu, said with the amount of fees charged by the institutions, which are higher compared with other states of the country, it was deceitful for the governors to come with the claims of paucity of funds.