GUEST Column by Abubakar A. Bukar
As a caveat, I do not like ASUU strikes. Not for once. Nay, not at all. I bet nobody does. Personally I have severally felt how disruptive, demoralizing, disconcerting, and even disorienting these are particularly to undergraduate students in our public universities. I remember how at the tail of 2011, our hopes were mangled and our calculation asundered as a result of such actions by the Academic Staff Union of Universities. In fact, when the last warning strike was declared before its subsequent transmutation to total and indefinite, my thought quickly went to a couple of friends who were respectively scheduled for MSc viva voce and PhD ‘internal’ defence. I wondered whether it could be, and if it wouldn’t, how that would affect them psychologically; how that would have bearing in their socio-academic interaction with their students subsequently.
Again, many people still wonder whether such pressure have positive impact on students considering, how for example, crumpled the infrastructure remains and crumped the students are in their dormitories; how out of date the facilities in the libraries and laboratories are, ad infinitum. Probably, the crumbs wouldn’t have remained if not for the struggle. Someone mentioned Tetfund projects as glaring dividend. Evident. However, despite allegations of corruption here and there in the Nigerian universities, one feels it is bucking the wrong horse to integrate academics’ payroll into mainstream civil service. It is a wrong decision which ASUU, nay every well-meaning, enlightened Nigerian has to fight tooth and nail to secure the institutions from imminent politicization.
Although the federal government funnels fund for emolument and the smooth running of the universities, the overall operation is vested on the governing councils by law. The Miscellaneous Provisions Act of 2003 amended and referred to as Universities Autonomy Act (2007) as well as the respective universities Establishment Laws empowered governing council thus as a respect to the peculiar tradition of the Ivory Towers especially with regard to freedom and independence which overt centralization as typified by IPPIS would subvert. Commenting on section 2AA & 2AAA of the Miscellaneous Act, P. Ehi Oshio, a professor of law with the NUC, affirms that “the purpose of these provisions is to liberate the Universities from the bureaucracy of the Civil Service and to enable the Council exercise its powers and perform its functions without undue external interference or influence.”
In her latest book, Fighting Corruption is Dangerous, former finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, tells us that IPPIS was introduced during Obasanjo to block financial leakages in the MDAs. Realizing the peculiarities of the universities, Obasanjo didn’t insist on their incorporation. So also Yar’adua and his successor. Cognizant of the extant laws, one wonders why this administration is hell-bent on their inclusion. Is it a diversionary tactic of covering shame after consistently reneging on agreements? Or is it capitalism hitting hard(er)? Isn’t it ironic that a government that is straining itself, through Order no 10, to ensure the independence of state assemblies and judiciary from the clutches of various state governments is hesitant to grand same to universities? Do other agencies like the NNPC and FIRS deserve more freedom in their operation as to be opted out than universities? Does by merely being a revenue generating agency preclude and immune one from inclusion? It just sounds spurious. If the government is suspecting financial malpractices, it should ensure transparency through, as ordained by law, regular visitation and audit, through its anti-corruption agencies and through meaningful collaboration with the academic union in keeping vigilance.
The risk this idea of IPPIS portends is the compromise of academic freedom and autonomy. With their credo of criticality, objectivity, radicalism and universalism, universities everywhere serve as the conscience and torchlight of the society. The academics from the citadel, with their eagle eyes of scrutiny, subject government policies and programmes on any matter to analysis and voice their opinion thus without mincing words, without minding whose ox is gored. Those who habitually do that in public sphere are known as public intellectuals and radicals by their compatriot – celebrities of some sort. Almost every university campus is dotted with such individuals. One wonders what the fate of such would be if their means of livelihood is directly controlled by those who view them as detractors or saboteurs.
Universities are universal cities, ideally, the extraordinary rendezvous of people with “awkward” viewpoints on politics, religion, gender and other sensitive areas in human affairs. That is why today, as always, the whole debate about whether to limit free speech in the United States on account of racism/anti-Semitism gravitates toward university campuses. Despite the abhorrence of such social ills, the onus of redress was never thrown to government because of fear of abuse – they are left freer than the rest of the society. It only takes a click of button from Abuja in the case of IPPIS. Then followed by implausible excuses such as teaching what one is not paid to – reminiscent of Patrick Wilmot’s case.
Someone mentioned ASUU’s penchant for unrealistic demands – referring to the trillion plus as revitalization fund in the 2013 agreement. Well, I said, realize that no a single kobo goes to the union coffer, and as intellectuals and Nigerians, they’ve probably understood through experience, that the FG is akin to a stingy elder brother who if you need 3k from, you will have to put 10k request – perchance you could likely hit the target or thereabout. This sums up what the FG has done in terms of the 200 or so billion allocation seven years after the agreement. After all how much would one say is superfluous as fund for the rejuvenation of the tertiary institutions? Or are they to be left till when they are like our primary and secondary schools? Even when they are such, does one think this government would care? Reflect just on how 111.7 billion was allocated for basic education in the 2020 budget and was latter slashed to 51.1 billion. Reason? Shortfall in oil price and other economic challenged posed by corona virus pandemic. Understandable, isn’t it? But little wonder the allocation for the renovation of the national assemble complex was left intact!
Without much premonition, academics’ cooption into the IPPIS is likely to be a catalyst for localization and trivialization, chaos, corruption and insecurity particularly to the stakeholders as the receiving end. May God save our universities from further alienation from their global peers.
Bukar can be reached via email@example.com