By Professor H. E Oaikhenan
The ongoing strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), has become as protracted as it has assumed a disturbing dimension. And given the way and manner the unfortunate developments are unfolding, especially considered against the background of the role played by the dramatis personae, especially the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, it has become compelling to posit that the Minister is not only complicit but also deliberately taking steps in ensuring that the issues in the strike action remain unresolved. One of such issues in contention, which was brought in somewhere along the line and which ASUU has consistently maintained is nothing but a distraction is the IPPIS issue. As it has turned out, and rather sadly, what ought to be a footnote in a chapter has been elevated to the status of the chapter itself, assuming that the Minister’s argument that all the issues in contention, with the exception of the IPPIS issue have been resolved, is anything to go by. If true, it raises the fundamental question of how the Minister’s insistence that with the other Unions on campus, and specifically, SSANU and NASU having developed their own payment platform, the University General Peculiar Payroll Payment System (UGPPPS), it is not possible for the government to operate multiple payment platforms in the University system. This position that has been canvassed by the Minister easily brings to the fore a number of questions which serve to reveal what one is constrained to describe as the hypocrisy of the Minister in addressing the protracted strike action. One of such questions borders on whether these other Unions were at any time told to develop an alternative payment platform that captures their peculiarities in the same way ASUU came to an understanding with the Government to develop a platform. A further question that arises borders on the existence or otherwise of peculiarities relating to the job schedule of this category of staff who are in the system to play the supportive role that is need to ensure the smooth flow of academic activities, the raison detre of the University system, given that it is the existence of such peculiarities that may necessitate the development of a separate payment platform.
To make clear the issues, it is important to point out that the category of staff in question that makes up SSANU and NASU includes the registry staff, the electricians, plumbers, the accountants, the cleaners and gardeners, the security men and the secretaries, the drivers and such other categories of staff of the registry and bursary departments as executive and administrative assistants. Having regard to the composition of the category of staff in question, one is tempted to question the validity or otherwise of their claims relating to the peculiarities of their jobs that warrant the development of a separate payment platform which takes these peculiarities into account. Specifically, for example, it becomes important to ask pertinent questions relating to the peculiarities of the job schedule of an accountant in the University system that makes it different from that of an accountant in any other government Ministry, Department or Agency, the peculiarities of the job of a security man or a driver in the university system that make them different from those of their counterparts in any other government’s Ministry, the peculiarities of the jobs of a plumber or an electrician in the University system that makes them different from those of their counterparts in any other government Ministry, Department or Agency, etc. If the answers to the questions are such that the job descriptions of these professionals in the University system are not in any way different from those of their counterparts in any other governments MDAs to warrant developing an alternative payment platform that takes into account such non-existent peculiarities, then it becomes a pointer to and indeed a basis to understand the unhealthy rivalry that exist between these Unions and the academic staff union, which rivalry has, unfortunately, become a serious cog in the wheel of progress of the University system. And given the fact of non-existence of such peculiarities, the usual argument that is advanced by the members of these sister unions in clamouring to enjoy whatever benefit is given to those in academics is after all we all work in the University system. Yet, this puerile argument easily loses sight of the fact of the existence of sharp differences in the job schedule and job description of academics and non-academics, the fact that they all work in the University system after all notwithstanding!
While sadly, the unhealthy rivalry has received, over the years, the tacit support of successive governments, even more unfortunate is the fact that it has received an unprecedented level of support from the present government which came to power on the mantra of change. The position of the Minister of Labour and Employment as can be distilled from his utterances, easily underscore this assertion. Indeed, but for his tacit support, it would have been expected that the Minister would have expressed his reservation about the development of the UGPPPS by the SSANU and NASU, since, from what we know, there was never a time these Unions came to an understanding with government to develop a payment platform that takes the peculiarities of the job schedule of its members into account. Indeed, the Minister’s action is not only mischievous, it smacks of an outright hypocrisy by one who ought to be genuinely concerned about getting the lingering strike action speedily resolved. It is as noteworthy as it is instructive that the fourth Union on campus, the NAAT, the Union whose activities are more closely related to the delivery of academic services than those of SSANU and NASU are not hand-in-gloves with these other Unions in their clamour for and development of an alternative payment platform. That the NAAT members are in charge of the Laboratories underscores the argument that they are more closely aligned to the academic activities in the University system. This easily explains why they play more critical roles in the efforts by the academic staff to deliver on the core mandate of the University system.
Sadly, what manifests by way of the unhealthy rivalry that exist between the duo of SSANU and NASU on the one hand and ASUU on the other, can easily be likened to the proverbial case of the tail wagging the dog. It is the case where those who are supposed to play the supportive role in the system and who, accordingly, ought to be at the rear now not only see themselves as those who should be at the forefront, they actually carry on as such. It must be noted, however, that this unfortunate development and apparent reversal of roles is anything but surprising, given our ways as a people and as a country where we are used to reversing the entire order in our ways of life.
Indeed, it is this undesirable attitude of reversing the entire order which explains why it is that what is unacceptable everywhere elsewhere in the world is not only a normal thing in our country, it is in fact exulted. Else, how does one explain a situation where the leadership of the country, especially those in the executive and legislative arms of government lives in breathtaking affluence while the vast majority of the citizens live in squalor, humiliating and debilitating poverty, with widespread misery pervading the entire landscape of the country? How, furthermore, can it be explained that the leadership lives off the country in obscene and embarrassing affluence and opulence in a rather carefree manner while the country is increasingly being plunged, in a very speedy way, by the present administration into the shameful club of heavily indebted countries, even when there is next to nothing to show for the offensively high and rising debt profile?
It is the same penchant for reversing the entire order as illustrated in the foregoing, which characterizes every facet of our national life that has played out in most of our Universities in the area of staffing, so much so that contrary to a situation in which for a specified number of academic staff, there ought to be one support staff, what we have in practice today is that for every one academic staff, there several support (non-academic) staff. Indeed, what obtains in most Universities in the country today is that the number of support (non-academic) staff significantly outstrips the number of the academic staff that they are meant to be supporting. In a clear case that serves as a typical illustration of a reversal of the entire order, in a particular University with about 1800 academic staff, there are about 6000 support (non-academic) staff. Given a ratio of one support (non-academic) staff for every three academic staff (a very relaxed ratio considered in light of the actual prescribed ratio of one support staff for a low of 5 and a high of 10 academic staff), the University in question, strictly speaking, should have about 600 support staff. And with the more stringent ratio of one support staff for every five academic staff, the University in question should, strictly speaking, have a complement of about 360 non-academic staff to support the 1800 academic staff. Clearly, therefore, the support staff strength of about 6000 easily and significantly surpasses what ought to be the number of support (non-academic) staff, given the academic staff strength (1800 in all) of the University. And in another University, the number of staff in the Registrar cadre exceeds, significantly, the total number of Professors in that University. These kinds of imbalances characterize the staffing composition of almost all the Universities in the country.
Given the unacceptable high and rising unemployment rate in the country, it can easily be understood that we are not, in this piece, making a case for any form of right-sizing. Far from it! It is, nevertheless, important to take strong note of the implications of the imbalances, ensuring in so doing that the various categories of staff understand the overriding need for them to be conscious of their job description in such a way as not to constitute a cog in the wheel of progress of the Universities. In this connection, it is important to make the membership of each of the Unions to understand where they belong and their role in the scheme of things, in light of their job description, in order not to jeopardize the overall mandate and progress of the University system. True, the University is made of both academic and non-academic staff. But that is where it ends, as the job description of each of the two categories of staff differs significantly. It is this difference in job schedule and description that also explains the very sharp differences in their promotion criteria.
A well-meaning Minister of Labour and Employment ought to emphasise the differences in job description and responsibilities, harping in so doing on the peculiarities, where they exist, of each group as the basis to put the Unions in their separate compartments such that none of them, in an effort to sabotage the genuine aspirations of the other makes unnecessary demands on the government. Such unnecessary demands usually derive from a veiled and unhealthy rivalry, because they are usually made by one Union only because the other Union it sees as its rival has made similar demands. And in so doing, the only argument that is canvassed for making such parallel demands is that we all work in the University system after all, even when the distance between the job descriptions of the members of each of the Unions can be likened to the proverbial distance between the heaven and the earth. This is the explanation for what has turned out to be the endless turn-by-turn demands on the government by the various Unions in the University system and which has resulted in a vicious circle of endless demands and agitations in the system. These agitations and demands, put together, have, unfortunately, rocked the very foundation of the industrial harmony in the system to the overall detriment of the system.
In light of the totality of the foregoing, there is need for the Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator (Dr.) Chris Nwabueze Ngige (a.k.a. the VI boy) to be told in very clear and unmistakable terms that he missed the point when he front-loaded the argument that government cannot operate multiple payment platforms in the University system because SSANU and NASU have presented their own payment platform, the UGPPPS. Our position in this connection takes into cognizance that the UGPPPS has been developed to be parallel to the UTAS, which ASUU developed in response to a mutual agreement with the government. There is need for the Minister to realize that he is simply helping to deepen the crisis in the University system with the position he has taken. Indeed, by helping to nurture the seeds of mistrust between the Unions and thus deepening the crisis in the University system, the Minister of Labour and Employment has, unknowingly, exposed himself as an agent and promoter of crisis in the system.
Yes, it is important to reiterate that he has turned himself into an agent of crisis in the university system in the country. And by so doing, he is, in addition to being too clever by half, disingenuous in his position that the government cannot operate multiple payment platforms in the University system. It is clear to the discerning mind that his position is borne out of his spirited attempt to sabotage the efforts of ASUU by frustrating the deployment of the UTAS, a payment platform that takes into account the widely-accepted peculiar nature of the academic side of the University system, especially as it relates to the academic staff needs of the system.
Professor HE Oaikhenan
University of Benin,
November 19, 2020