Professor Simon Ameh Ejembi is head, Department of Agricultural Extension and Communications, former University of Agriculture, Makurdi (UAM), now Joseph Saawuan Tarka University, Makurdi (JOSTUM), Benue State. He is also chairman, Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), JOSTUM branch.
He claimed in this interview: “Government’s strangulation of the educational sector is suicidal and detrimental to the development of the country.”
Ejembi spoke on other matters too. Excerpts:
What is your assessment of the education sector in 2022?
We cannot isolate 2022 from every other year. If we do, it means the educational sector was not even functional in 2022 given that, the whole of that year, we were on strike due to the government’s failure to take care of the university system.
I need to extrapolate that to every sector of the educational system. You will find out that there is hardly any public school that had done well generally. That is not a good omen for the educational sector.
What is your expectation for the education sector in 2023?
I am a positive man. I believe that every day that is new should be better. But human beings make each day to be better. It is important to note that the educational sector is actually the bedrock of development. The moment that sector is bastardised nobody should expect development in other sectors of the economy.
Nigerians should not expect anybody from any part of the world to develop Nigeria. It has to be us. We must make conscious efforts to develop the sector to know that every other thing is equal.
For this year, it’s my hope that people will sit up and do what is correct for the sector to move on. But if we behave the way we behaved in 2022, we are heading to a decline. We may make progress but negatively.
There is no system that allows for vacuum. In the human system, there’s no country that is completely stable, it’s dynamic and it has to keep moving. My take is that 2023 should be better but we must make efforts to live better. On its own, it cannot be better.
Do you think the allocation of N1.723 trillion to education is enough to solve challenges facing the sector?
As much as I appreciate government for stepping up a little by your own calculation, it’s a step in the right direction. But that is going to be grossly inadequate considering the decay, long decay, in the educational system. But because it’s an improvement from what was allocated for it before, it’s possible for people to say there are conscious efforts now to develop the sector. It’s one thing to allocate, it’s one other thing to release the funds when due.
The human development system is also like the crop that we grow on the farm. Every crop has got its critical stage. That is the stage you ensure that it does not have any strenuous competition from the environment. It’s important for us to release this money to people that will use it early so that whatever we need it for, will be used for it.
How did your members survive the eight-month ASUU strike?
In the last eight months, yes, it has been quite embarrassing. There are several of our basic obligations that we were unable to meet. Some couldn’t pay hospital bills. For some of them, death became an exit.
I wouldn’t believe that you can actually prevent death, no matter how much you’ve got. Luckily for us and unfortunately for them, we didn’t die. They came up with all forms of blackmail to demoralise us.
Yes, because in this budget there was an extra N470 billion that is not part of this 8.2 per cent to take care of our earned allowances, the revitalisation that we are talking about and they are talking about salary increments, I don’t know whether what that translated to.
This is the first time that while we were on strike, the government was compelled to do all this. Within this period, you talked about some members not being able to pay their hospital bills or get their drugs. Things were rough.
Did you lose any members as a result of the strike?
t’s not about the inability to take care of it, it’s because the union was able to mitigate the hardship. For anyone who was down, the union would intervene.
Sure, we lost quite a few members to this struggle but not necessarily because they couldn’t pay the bills. There were lots of psychological effects and people take it differently. But it’s embarrassing for a man, maybe, your son or wife is having some health challenges but you cannot medically attend to it. It’s not something that any responsible man would want but it happened.
The leaders of our union had to go to some schools to be surety for our members. When schools resumed, some people could not pay fees immediately while they sorted it out. In most of these schools today, especially secondary schools, you have to present your teller at the gate before you can move. This was not easy because salaries were not paid for so long.
Would you say ASUU came out of the strike stronger or weaker?
I think that this strike made ASUU stronger than ever before. I will tell you one or two reasons why.
The government tried to balkanise us, to break us into shreds. They went ahead and illegally registered two trade unions serving the same purpose as ASUU. This is against the law. Our law says you cannot go and register another trade union when there is one that is already existing is taking care of those people.
You mean he ought to have resigned?
Yes, he ought to have left, having assessed himself that he is the problem and have failed in his assignment as Minister of Education. But in our part of the world, all that matters is that you are in government, whether you are performing or you are underperforming, you are just in government because you cannot afford to let go the public funds.
With all sense of responsibility, I think we had the worst outing with these two ministers and they are not relenting.
What other benefits did the university system get after the ASUU strike?
After every struggle, no social system will remain the same. No matter how insignificant, they must have made some progress. That is financial. We told them, you put these VCs, send a visitation panel, after every five years. That’s what the law says. After the expiration of the VC’s tenure, send a visitation panel. We had to go on strike for them to send the panel.
Now, when they sent a panel, in this current struggle, it’s part of the struggle to ask them to release the white paper. The white paper is supposed to bring out whatever is agreed on so that we can implement it.
This government is aiding and abetting corruption. We are trying to stand in their way. They are trying to crush us because we can speak out. ASUU has been able to get this government to agree that IPPS is a conduit pipe to the national economy. It was during this strike that we released some of the things that the Accountant General was doing then with pictorial evidence, government wouldn’t agree.
You said IPPS is a conduit pipe, how do you mean?
It means it’s a template to draw public funds into some private pockets.
When we came up with University Transparency Accountability Solution (UTAS), an alternative to IPPS, we told them that if they want to check corruption, take this. It has three levels of control and security checks.
They refused to take it. Today, universities that are supposed to know what they have cannot recruit people. If you want to recruit people, you will have to write to the Head of Service. You will go to the IPPS office to clear from them. f they are clearing it at all, they will clear it under a tone.
Do you agree that incessant strike is responsible for production of half-baked graduates?
Both the half-baked graduates in the quote and the incessant ASUU strike are all symptoms of the problem. The strike we have been going on since 2009 has been one strike, there is no new strike. We would go on strike, they would appeal and appeal. You would hear that the strike was suspended but never called off because the matter has not even been resolved.
So, it is not that we have been going on any incessant strike. The strikes we went on, the issues have never been resolved.
Do we need more universities in the country?
It is part of our problem. We told them that university education is not a constituency project. Some states have three universities and they are not able to pay salaries correctly. They don’t even have permanent sites. It’s part of the struggle and proliferation of universities.
We know this system is angry with ASUU because we dared to say what is wrong. When we give them the analysis, they don’t have any argument or anything to say than to get angry. We have already told them that let’s engage, it’s not a matter of bon-face. They made some gullible Nigerians believe that they are in charge of the resources.
Salaries have been withheld after the strike, what are the expectations of your members now that we are in a new year?
We keep hoping that one day, one angel from somewhere will do the right thing. They don’t have any business owing our salaries now.
The world knows that the work of an academic is on a tripod of teaching, research and extension or community development. During the strike, it’s only one component of that job was not done. We still go to present papers as community service. We go to workshops, and we train people. Very soon they will say they have released the global ranking for universities and our universities are not anywhere.
What’s your advice to government on the growth of education?
I may have to reiterate what we have been telling them before. There is nothing that this government wants to be told that has not been told. Is it by ASUU or by well-meaning Nigerians who have seen the truth?
What we can tell government is that any leader coming into our public office should, first of all, think about the system before they think about themselves. If the system lives, they live, if the system is crushed, they also die.