Dr Makolo Hassan is the President of the Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions. He talks to ALEXANDER OKERE about the industrial issues that may hinder the successful reopening of tertiary institutions by the Federal Government
The Federal Government recently announced plans to reopen tertiary institutions as part of measures taken to ease the lockdown occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic. Are your members ready to return to work?
The answer is no. This is partly in terms of the absence of proper arrangements for students returning in the face of this COVID-19 pandemic. The answer is also no because there are industrial issues on the ground that have yet to be addressed. So, we have issued a notice to our members that we will commence our strike any day the schools will reopen.
What are the conditions the government has yet to meet to make tertiary institutions safe to reopen?
If we are not going to deceive ourselves, if you want to open all the universities and tertiary institutions, the first thing you should do is to begin to train their health workers. These are the hospitals the students know within the premises of the institutions. So, the workers there must be trained and training goes with providing them with personal protective equipment. Apart from the health centres, we have cleaners who will be dealing directly with the students in their hostels. We have porters; we have security men. What arrangements do we have in place to protect these people?
Students are going to return from different locations. If we have students returning to the University of Abuja, for instance, it therefore means that the workers are at the risk because they will be attending to people from Lagos, Port Harcourt (in Rivers State), Enugu and others, and the likelihood of transmitting this COVID-19 from various locations is very high.
If you even look at the basic things, like having water running effectively in all the campuses, are they guaranteed? It is a problem. Above all, the kind of classrooms we had before COVID-19, which were overcrowded by almost 100 people, are still the same classrooms we have. We have been talking about social distancing. If you are bringing 100 students to occupy the space for 40, how do you observe social distancing? It means you are asking the students to take turns. That is not going to work. About online learning, not all the students have the capacity to be online all the time.
A lot of money has been spent by the Federal Government to address the pandemic…
If you look at the pages of newspapers, you will see that money running into several billions of naira has been spent so far. How much has been sent to tertiary institutions to fund them and prepare them towards receiving students back to the campuses? So, the government has a role to play if, actually, it wants to bring the students back. It’s not just about saying you want to bring them back. What has it been able to do for the university management? Nothing is coming into the coffers of the universities. So, with all these, if the schools reopen, there are going to be new cases, except we believe there is no COVID-19 in the country.
Are you saying the decision by the government to reopen tertiary institutions was poorly thought out?
Yes. If they are saying that schools should reopen without addressing what we are saying, it means it is just political. What has it done? I talked about funding. Has the government invested in schools? I read that the Kaduna State Government said it spent N400,000 to treat a COVID-19 patient. Now, the Federal Government wants to bring several thousands of people back to the campuses. Has it brought even N100m for the schools to use to receive the students? No. Those who believe that we are still living with COVID-19 cannot afford to bring their children into tertiary institutions, with the condition on the ground now, without taking any measure.
Is your union aware of any arrangement by the representatives of the government to visit public tertiary institutions for an assessment before resumption?
We have a COVID-19 committee. How many of the universities has it visited to ascertain the level of preparedness and what they have on the ground? I don’t know. I have not heard of any. Have they been able to go round or do they sit in the comfort of their homes and say, ‘Yes, it is now safe for schools to reopen?’ So, it is very dicey.
NASU said it would begin an industrial action over the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System. What are the challenges faced by your members with the implementation of IPPIS?
For IPPIS that has been introduced into the universities, polytechnics and colleges of education, I think the government is biting more than it can chew.
Why do you think so?
The job will be too much for the government to bring the universities, polytechnics and colleges of education under IPPIS at the same time. It is beyond the capacity of the government. When they came, they demonstrated the capacity to contain these tertiary institutions simultaneously. NASA, Academic Staff Union of Universities and Senior Staff Association of Nigeria Universities were involved in what we call a technical committee to look at the introduction of IPPIS to these institutions vis-à-vis the peculiarities of these institutions.
And the Federal Government brought in a consultant who demonstrated and said there was nothing to worry about with IPPIS. The consultant said instead of destroying, it would bring more joy, and all our peculiarities, including allowances, would be captured. Our members agreed, especially as the government believed that IPPIS would help it fight corruption. NASU, in particular, said if the government believed that IPPIS would help it fight corruption, it would join hands with the government on the condition that it would take care of our peculiarities. Lo and behold, since February, 2020, we have been fighting. When the first payment was done, there were a lot of irregularities. Some people were not paid at all. Some were overpaid. Some were underpaid. Normally, a test-run is done for three months. But when the third month came, nothing changed.
Above all, IPPIS looks like a deliberate attempt to weaken the union because as I speak to you, what most of our branches and the national secretariat get as check-off dues is in a piecemeal fashion. Some have not even accessed them at all, which means that the government is starving the union so that they cannot function. A branch reported that when they were supposed to get about N100,000, what they were given was a little above N200. What kind of system is in place? What are they doing?
So, we think the government is not prepared. The arrears of minimum wage, which others have enjoyed, tertiary institutions have yet to enjoy them. The check-off dues must be paid up to date and the inconsistency in the payment of salary must be resolved. Some workers get paid for one month but can’t find their names on the payroll in the following month; this must be addressed. Also, we have some allowances that we enjoyed before the coming of IPPIS but they have been stopped. These were part of the peculiarities we told them about which they said would not be a problem. The earned allowance is equally there. So, that is why my union is saying that if all these are not addressed, opening the institutions won’t make any difference because it will be as though they have never been opened.
The allowances, which were hitherto enjoyed by our members and have been authoritatively stopped by IPPIS, have to be restored because those allowances were products of the 2009 agreement with the Federal Government. So, an agency of the government cannot come and say we cannot enjoy them. It is an aberration. It is not a matter of insisting on going on strike. We have given directives. It doesn’t make any sense to say you are on strike when the schools are not open and there is lockdown. But if the schools reopen next Monday, our strike will start next Monday.
Proponents of IPPIS say it promotes efficiency, transparency and helps to address the problem of ghost workers, which has plagued the civil service for years. Why is NASU against it?
If they say it guides against having ghost workers in the system, we are not telling them not to do that. Is it because the government wants to guide against having ghost workers in the system that it will not pay those who are working? If you want to block ghost workers and I am working and you have my records but refused to pay me, how do you want me to believe that you don’t have another agenda?
If they don’t have another agenda, they should pay those whose records they have. I know the government has spent billions of naira on the software. If the software is not working, they have a post-installation period stating that the consultant will work with the government until the government is sure it has the capacity and a good number of workers on IPPIS.
Many people may ask why you are alleging that the government wants to use IPPIS to weaken the labour unions if the new system could block financial leakages…
Then why will IPPIS collect check-off dues from workers? You deduct and you don’t remit. What is the excuse? The union (NASU) functions with money. People in branches have to go to meetings, fuel their cars and take care of members who are sick; all these need money. If a branch of the union hasn’t taken check-off dues from February till now, how will it function? I’m not saying that Nigeria’s educational system isn’t ripe for IPPIS. IPPIS lacks the capacity for now.
Now that the government has done the little it has done, NASU and SSANU have gone far in developing software that can help the government in the fight against ghost workers and to promote effective payment of salaries to university workers. By the time that is fully developed, we will hand it over to the government. It would be left for the government to compare what they have spent money on and see what we have been able to do at our level as a union and then we will know the way forward.
The recent leadership crisis at the University of Lagos raised concerns about the inability of the senate and governing councils of public universities to work in harmony. What is your reaction to that?
There are some schools of thought that believe the council did not follow due process and we are in a democracy where, for every step you take, you must follow due process. You cannot put something on nothing and expect it to stand. If due process wasn’t followed, it means the senate was right by saying that all that was done there was null and void. But if due process was followed, I don’t know how the doctors and professors who make up the senate would be myopic enough to say that they are taking sides. We tread on the issue with caution. But due process must be followed in every step we take in our tertiary institutions. However, the scenario at UNILAG might not apply to the others.
Nigerians have continued to decry the continual industrial actions in tertiary institutions that they disrupt the academic calendar and also leave students stranded at home. Is NASU not concerned about these?
Why does the government always wait? It doesn’t do what it is supposed to do until people go on strike. If we have a government that is sensitive to the needs of workers, it might be impossible for the workers to go on strike. If NASU has presented its problems with IPPIS to the government and for several months, nothing is done, what else can we do? If nobody listens and we begin a strike when schools resume, they will say that these people are problematic. Why can’t the government address the issues before the schools reopen? That is the problem we have year in, year out.
Can you paint a picture of what the schools look like since the lockdown began in March 2020?
There are just skeletal services. For those I visited, nothing was happening there. That is why I’m lamenting that if we are not funding schools and we are asking students to come back, I think we are being myopic in our thinking because since the lockdown, internally generated revenue has gone down to zero. So, nothing is happening. There are no new structures in place and the accounts have gone down. It is a pathetic situation. If you even go to some of the schools, things seem not to be working, except for a few administrative members of staff under Level 11 and above that go to the offices. The Academic Staff Union of Universities is on strike so the majority of the workers are still at home.